Considering that the primary drive which motivates human behaviour is the ubiquitous drive to reproduce; does happiness to a significant extent depend upon how physically attractive you are? From personal experience it seems like this is indeed the case; but how can we make sense of a world in which the ultimate goal of life (happiness) can be dependent upon such a superficial thing as physical attractiveness?

I'm not sure that the goal of procreation trumps all others for human beings, so I can't accept your premise here. But I'm afraid that the world is in fact such that there are certain things that are beyond our powers that have an enormous impact on our "quality of life." I understand that it grinds against our need to feel in control, but I think a person who lives in abject poverty and can do next to nothing to help his or her family and friends, is more poorly positioned to lead a full life, than someone born in better circumstances. And if having friends is an important element of a good life, and I think it is , then being good looking is probably an asset. Of course, a person who relied on this quality too much might not develop sufficient depth to develop powerful relations but that is another issue.

Perhaps someone will be able to settle this argument between me and my friend once and for all. Whenever I whine about some unfortunate happening or circumstance in my life, my friend will remind me that I'm better off than, say, poor starving children in Ethiopia. However, I think this is a faulty apples vs. oranges comparison. If I were to compare myself to others, shouldn't I compare myself among those who are in similar circumstances? That is, if I were to draw valid comparisons between myself and others, wouldn't it make more sense to compare across socioeconomic strata, rather than to compare myself to someone who is clearly more unfortunate or more successful simply because they were born in extraordinary circumstances different from my own? (Essentially, what my friend is trying to tell me is to not take things for granted. But I find that to be empty advice, especially since I don't think that it's a valid comparison and therefore not a valid argument.) Thanks for your time! --MJ

I think you are right to take issue with your friend. On his or her account, the only person in the world who can legitimately complain is the person who is worst off in the world. Of course, we should be grateful for many things in life - but life is also filled with a great deal of sadness and pain - and we would be better off if we could share our pain and sorrow together rather than to have to listen to the blather that "it could be worse." And it will be worse someday. The fifth acts is almost always bloody and degrading.

Is it possible to quantify suffering philosophically? It's a foregone conclusion that pain has long been measured for actuarial purposes (with proportionate dollar amounts tagged to various injuries) so that an insurer can say, "the loss of vision is worth more than the loss of a pinkie," but can this be sustained philosophically? In other words, can one definitively answer the old parlour game question that usually comes down to, "Which you you rather experience? A long minor pain or a short major pain?" without resorting to the cop-out that "each individual suffers uniquely"?

I can't think of any uniquely philosophical answer to this one. Does it follow from the fact that 9999 people out 10000 would prefer to lose a pinkie rather than their eye sight imply that there is more pain in the latter than in the former? But then what would we say to that one person who wanted to hold on to her pinkie? That she was wrong to choose her finger over her sight. That she made a misjudgment about pain? I don't think so. There does seem to be something intrinsically subjective about these judgments. Might we be able to make them inter-subjective? Not sure. I know that there are people in psycho-physics working on scaling issues. Linda Bartoshuk is doing some brilliant research in this area. There is a profile of her work in the June 18 issue of Science.

I am sixty and I find myself becoming removed from my life (my very nice life, I might add). I watch, rather than participate. Everything I read about, see, or experience is similar to that which I have read about, seen or experienced before. I've been down that road before, I know where it goes, it's hard to stay engaged. It's hard to care. I know that in the broadest view everything turns out fine- all good things end and all bad things end. I am not unhappy at all. Am I just old?

Thanks for your very well put and honest sigh of a reflection. It does sound as though you are bored and detached. You say that it is hard to care - which is right to suggest that caring is an activity-- not a feeling that washes over. Could you make stronger efforts to care, to get involved? I've often found that Pascal was right - going through the motions can lead to authentic feelings. I'm in the same time territory and sometimes I think that there is nothing to look forward to - nothing good at least - just losing people I feel as though I can't live without, the body breaking down, not being taken seriously, the nursing home. I think it is a scary period. Not that this makes any difference, but it has also struck me how much being in the present, in America at least, depends upon having a future, a dream. It is as though for us, no tomorrow means no today. Sad. And at a certain point our future does in fact become pretty narrow and, well, terrifying. I just try to care - to be as kind as...