The Service Paradox
© 5 Dec 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Is true service possible? Can widespread lasting happiness exist?


In my observation, happiness of the deep and lasting kind comes in at most three ways:

There are probably other ways I have not considered. I welcome suggestions in the comments.

The first of these (attaining understanding) I suspect is a proxy and not an end in itself. Although my experience does suggest that learning truth is valuable, scripture (e.g., James 2:19) and intuition (qui bono?) both suggest it is not sufficient. The second (overcoming flaws) is removing an impediment rather than adding happiness as witnessed by the fact that attaining and then removing a flaw is at best a happiness-neutral (and I suspect usually a happiness-negative) process. That leaves just one: serving.

The best service to give—at some level, the only service that can honestly be called service—is to help others obtain happiness. Which means helping them either remove an impediment to happiness (e.g., poverty, illness, self doubt, etc) or helping them obtain one of the kinds of deep and lasting happiness mentioned above.

As long as there is no dearth of broken, sad people Clearly there is no lack of these, nor is there likely to be one anytime soon, but this is a philosophical post so we can overlook trifling matters like reality. the removing of impediments and aiding others in conquering themselves can suffice to keep everyone happy. But that leads to a very strange situation where one might say “‍I am glad there’s a lot of sad people I could just as easily say ‘‍sad people, people who don’t understand things, and people who have personal flaws‍’: the argument holds the same. But I’ll just say sad to be succinct in writing. out there so that I can be happy.‍” In opposition to that statement let me merely say, without supporting argument, that it seems repugnant to me. It is an attitude antithetical to happiness itself.

I can serve the not-sad, however, by helping them serve others. If the service I am giving them is assisting them in helping others serve others, and so on, it may seem like we need no sadness at all… except that “‍service all the way down‍” is a paradox in its own right. You have to have some non-service-assisting service somewhere or the whole thing couldn’t get started. We might be able to reduce it to “‍I sure am glad there is someone somewhere who is sad in some way so that everyone else can be happy‍” but that’s really no better.

What if one person volunteers to be sad so the rest of us can serve them? But what does that even mean? Wouldn’t their sadness be a service to us, and thus not sadness? Or are they lying to us, pretending to need help so we can think we are serving? But in that case we are suggesting that dishonesty is essential to the whole shebang; what happens once everyone realizes it’s a lie, all join in as volunteer targets of service, and then there’s no one left to lie to?

To my uncertain knowledge, only one religious or philosophical teaching has a way out of this conundrum. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints teaches the principle of eternal increase. Broadly generalizing…and completely ignoring the proper course of adding citations, this principle says that there are always more children to be born. We serve by removing negatives from the lives of those who are here and then we add in more people to the mix who, being yet young, need our help as well. All of this is an eternal systemWe are God’s children, etc.. and even adding people to the mix is a service because unborn children are extant nonetheless, just waiting for someone to do them the service of giving them form.

Now, the fact that Mormon theology lacks this particular paradox is not reason to convert any more than one should become an atheist just because one finds the idea living forever unpleasant or start worshiping Odin if one happens to like the idea of an afterlife of never-ending warfare. Either a religion is true or it isn’t; that it is tidy or would be nice if it were true doesn’t figure in to it. But I do find it interesting that the religion that I believe is true for independent reasons quite nicely also lacks this particular philosophical difficulty.

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