Can One Person's Suffering Be Another Person's Happiness

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The novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky draws two impossible scenarios that together highlight the everyday reality of the potential conflicts between one's own happiness and the happiness of others. First imagine a world that is a utopia except that it is built upon the suffering of a single child. Then imagine a person who is willing to sacrifice the rest of the world in order to secure his own well-being. The question, one we face on a daily basis whether we contemplate it or not, is how we experience and value our own happiness in relation to the happiness of others.

Dostoevsky indicates, through the tone of these passages, that any person willing to sacrifice others for his own benefit must be in the wrong--be it everyone in the world sacrificing one person, or one person sacrificing everyone else in the world. But more importantly, Dostoevsky implies that something must be wrong with any person who could accept such a sacrifice—it’s not so much a matter of moral judgment against the people who could accept that a child be tortured for their sake, or against the Underground Man for choosing his own peace of mind over the welfare of the rest of the world. Dostoevsky clearly disapproves of these acts, but the novels from which these passages are taken invite us to pity these people and to try to understand how they came to be so cruel, and therein lies Dostoevsky’s deeper meaning. How, indeed, could anyone “accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child” and how could the Underground Man stomach his cup of tea bought at such a dear price?

A critical element that would make this cruelty possible for some people but impossible for others is whether one could actually be happy under such circumstances. As the character Ivan wonders, having accepted such a sacrifice, how could anyone “remain forever happy?” In order to enjoy the benefits, one would have to block out, or somehow defuse, the knowledge of the suffering child--her tears...
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