Is Sadness Ever Good?

/ 24 January 2013

As an assignment for my Philosophy of Human Nature course we were to do what Socrates was ultimately executed for: Go to someone and just ask them a philosophical question and see where the conversation goes. The assignment sheet listed a number of possible questions, but I came up with a different one: Is sadness ever good?

I figured that I’d ask the question to a neighbor or friend of mine at some point, but actually first got the chance to ask my mom (Mary Hess) over FaceTime when she called me one evening. I decided to ask my mom mostly because it ended up convenient and I was curious what she’d answer with. Her initial response was that if you’re sad that means you care about something, so in that sense sadness is definitely something that can be good. This is something I agreed with her on. That answer led me to ponder where happiness fits into such a definition. We came to the conclusion that it all comes together in part by exploring one situation that can be both sad and happy simultaneously. Everyone will be sad when someone they knew dies, but if the person who died lived a good and full life then in a way it is also happy. They are in a better place and weren’t torn from this Earth prematurely. That situation further called a deeper layer of inquiry into question: What is good and bad, happy and sad? But neither of us really had the time (or energy as it was 10 pm by then) to discuss the topic further. Thus I decided I’d try and ask someone else that question on a later day.

That Friday evening (of the first week of classes this semester) my dad (Eric Celeste) called me on FaceTime to ask how the first week had gone. As I had yet to ask anyone here the question my mom and I ended with I posed it to him. His initial response was that in German (that side of my family, as many of you know, is from Austria and I’ve spent huge portions of time, including months at a time, in Vienna and know German though not fluently quite well) there is actually a word that describes the sad-happy emotion: schadenfreude. That made me wonder if German-speaking cultures understood this emotion more than us. After Eric pointed out that many emotions exist that the English language simply has no words for it made me wonder if we just don’t perceive some emotions that we don’t yet have names for. He then posited that really happiness and sadness both are and aren’t different. The line between these is quite fuzzy, something that I tend to agree with. Eric pointed out that the word “should” is a cue he has for this line. Not “should” as a question but rather “should” as a declared statement. The question isn’t a problem, but the declared statement is. He further said that “good” and “bad” are judgements to make individually. These judgements can change from moment to moment as they are very slippery things. There are few things that are universally declared “good” or “bad”. We came to the conclusion that things make you “happy” or “sad” can be different individual to individual, but are generally universal emotions. These are states of being instead of judgements. As further evidence of this my dad mentioned a study he’d heard about that concluded that if you smile more you will be happier. Thus emotions can be affected by you doing certain external things. We realized that the real trick is how to convince yourself that you’re happy in certain situations. In a physical way “happy” and “sad” are always present while “good” and “bad” are never present. But, as “good” and “bad” show, stuff can be legitimate even if it isn’t present. Though “good” and “bad” are personal society forces us to agree to reasons for what is “good” and what is “bad”. Morality and ethics come in here. We must keep in mind that what seemed “bad” at one point may now be “good” and vice-versa. So, one question that arises is are “good” and “bad” even useful human concepts? Another question that arose at this point was this: Do you change “sad” and “happy” or does the world around you change them? We discussed that while you can teach “good” and “bad” (and parents do that until their children are grown-up and even beyond) you really can’t teach “happy” and “sad”. So, what are the implications of this when, as is all but likely in a few decades, artificial intelligence is living among us as (we can only hope) an equal? I feel as if this question will be pondered by me in this course later on when we watch and discuss Bicentennial Man. We also discussed for quite some time the implications of this regarding how we’ll govern ourselves and the new tools that are still emerging such as the web, advanced technology, our impacts on the environment, etc. You also tend to discuss what will by implied from our actions a few centuries down the road when they look at what we did as either “good” or “bad” or somewhere between. In the end we finished our discussion with the few questions listed a few sentences back after over an hour of contemplating these questions.

In these discussions it became quite clear the immense depth any seemingly simple question might have (and how the opposite ends up true when asking questions to a robot). Philosophical questions are positive mysteries (see post from January 18th) that anyone you ask who has the time for discussion will be drawn into discussing with you. People are drawn to these questions precisely because they can always be clarified and expanded. As my discussions showed, I started with what I imagined would be a question with at least one simple answer even though deeper discussion is possible. That question only led to a few deeper questions that I went and discussed with another person. That trend seems as if it could go on eternally as we’ll always find further questions to discuss. Philosophical inquiry is an important tool we humans use to put meaning to some of the deepest questions we have. We can’t have finite answers for everything, so we all embrace philosophical (and theological) inquiry as the time allows us as our way of coping with what can’t have empirical answers.

It is my hope that as desired anyone who reads this post contributes their own responses to any or all of the questions posed herein as a way of continuing this discussion beyond the scope of the course for which it was initially assigned.