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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 must be “unrequited.” For if one were not numb to it, the knowledge of that suffering would interfere with one’s own happiness. A person who could not help but feel the suffering of others as real and significant would never accept such stark sacrifices for his own happiness–in fact would not be able to be happy anyway, under such conditions. For a person who feels the suffering of others as at least partly his own suffering, there could be no simple conflict between his own happiness and the happiness of others.
But whether one condones it or not, the fact is that many of us have benefited in some significant way from the unwilling sacrifices of others. Consider, for example, how a society that became wealthy through exploitations such as slavery or the plunder of war would pass on untold advantages to its descendants. These advantages include not only material wealth, but also less tangible goods such as education, or even psychological benefits such as self-confidence. Or consider a man or woman who is pressured by their spouse or parents into giving up their dream job in order to be able to support the family at a higher standard of living.
From individual, personal acts of selfishness to political injustices on a social scale, we may be entangled in some way or other with unfairly gained rewards. Though these benefits may not have been sought by us, and we may have had no direct role in the sacrifices that brought them about, still it seems incumbent on us to consider Dostoevsky’s poignant question—how much should we feel the pain of others, particularly those whose suffering somehow became our advantage?