Our Ambiguous Relation to Suffering

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Pleasure is good, suffering bad. Could any statement be less controversial, or more obvious, than this? In fact, it is so intuitively obvious that it appears as the foundational axiom for religions (Buddhism), moral systems (utilitarianism), and some areas of science (psychology), as well as underwriting the way we interact with and think about other people. But is it possible we are at least partially wrong about this fundamental human preference? In this article, I will explore just this possibility.

A couple of quick notes before we begin. First, in using the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’, I am not referring to moral categories. In my article on the axiological argument (which you can find here if you are interested) I have already argued that pleasure and pain, in themselves, aren’t moral. In this article, I will only be concerned with whether suffering is bad in terms of desirability, or preference; i.e. is suffering bad in the sense that we (as psychologically healthy, ‘normal’ human beings) don’t like it and would avoid it if we could?

Secondly, I am taking the word ‘suffering’ in a fairly broad sense to mean something like ‘hardship’, including physical, emotional, and mental varieties thereof. The suffering I have in mind here includes the kind of suffering that all human life, even exceptionally happy ones, are full of; the death of someone close, a tough break-up, the failure to get that job, fighting with the in-laws, a dispute with a landlord, colleague, or work associate, etc.

In light of these considerations, this article will seek to answer two questions:

  • Is suffering bad, where ‘bad’ means something we would prefer didn’t happen?
  • Would our lives be better without suffering?

Suffering

One might present the case for suffering by first noting how we sometimes actively pursue suffering. The paradigmatic example of this is going to the dentist. We know we will suffer, but we accept this because we also know we are reducing our risk of greater suffering at some point down the road. The argument here is that the suffering we endure now (holding our mouths open for 40 minutes, the injection of anaesthesia, the pain you still feel because the anaesthesia doesn’t numb everything, etc.) is no longer bad when we consider it in the wider context. Indeed, we might even argue it is good inasmuch as it prevents greater pain at a later date.

This argument ultimately fails I think because the suffering we endure in the dentist’s chair isn’t genuinely desirable. It only appears desirable in comparison with the greater suffering it allows us to avoid; that is, it is relatively desirable. Arguing that the visit to the dentist is desirable because of this would be like saying it wasn’t bad that your TV was stolen because if it hadn’t been stolen, two nights later another thief, seeing your 4K UHD TV through the window, would have broken in and stolen both it and your new laptop. The suffering we undergo in the first instance (both in the dentist and the thief cases) is still bad, still undesirable, and if we could avoid it (by perhaps having perfect teeth or an infallible home security system), we would, and we would be better off for it. In general then, suffering that is relatively desirable; i.e. desirable only in relation to avoided future harms, is still bad.

Let’s take another form of suffering. Think about some goal you have accomplished in your life, something of which you are proud. It could be anything; starting your own business, raising children, writing a novel, anything. While I may not know the specific goal you have in mind, I can almost guarantee that a certain amount of suffering went into its realisation. Was that suffering bad?

Let’s say you got a degree part-time while working full-time to support your family. Recall all of the suffering you went through; the late nights writing assignments, the family-time you had to sacrifice, those dense textbooks you slogged through, the times you really didn’t want to study but had a test coming so you forced yourself to, and so on. This is quite a different form of suffering from having someone take a drill to your precious (and sensitive) pearly whites, but in many ways, this kind of pervasive, regular, everyday suffering is much worse. No one gets stomach ulcers or spirals into depression over a root canal.

Surely, this situation isn’t intrinsically different from that of the dentist though. All of the hardships you went through to get your degree were still undesirable. In light of your final achievement, the suffering may have been made worthwhile, but its undesirability hasn’t changed. As with the dentist example, if you could have avoided those hardships and still gotten your degree, you would have.

So, suffering that can be considered relatively desirable (in relation to an avoided future harm) and suffering that has been made worthwhile (in relation to a future benefit) are both purely bad; that is, undesirable.

Good Suffering

I want to drill down on the degree example a little more. We said the suffering there was worthwhile but still undesirable in itself, and pointed out that it would have been preferable if the goal (getting the degree) could have been achieved without the suffering. But is this true? Imagine there are two options before you; you can get your degree by either A) studying hard for 3 to 4 years and then taking a test, or B) taking a pill which will give you all of the knowledge you would have acquired under (A) and then taking the same test. Which would you choose?

Hopefully the way I’ve framed this situation at least made you pause before your eyes lit up and you reached for the pill. There’s no doubt that a pill which could do that (like learning kung fu or how to fly a B212 helicopter through a Matrix-style download) would be awesome and (quite rightly) have us all salivating at the limitless possibilities it would afford, but I think most of us would actually hesitate to take it. Why? Part of what makes your getting the degree meaningful, what makes it an accomplishment in the first place, is that you had to work for it. If you just took a pill, it would no longer count as an accomplishment and you certainly wouldn’t derive any satisfaction from it. In the same way, when I asked you earlier to recount a goal you have accomplished, I am willing to bet not one of you thought, “Well, I successfully broke down that sandwich I had for lunch and used the resulting nutrients to fuel my body.” This is because an accomplishment requires deliberate effort; an investment of time, thought, labour, a sacrifice, etc., and this means that the suffering and the final accomplishment are inseparable. Lose the suffering and the accomplishment disappears with it. If the accomplishment is good (desirable), so is the suffering.

You might still be tempted to argue that the goal is desirable while the suffering we have to endure to achieve that goal is undesirable. We put up with the suffering in order to achieve the goal. In the absence of the goal, the suffering in itself (which is what we are supposed to be discussing), is still undesirable. “Yes, it’s impossible, but if it were possible, it would be better to get the satisfaction, the sense of accomplishment, etc., from realising the goal without the suffering.”

This objection seems to have failed to grasp the point in that it insists on trying to separate the suffering out from the broader goal to consider it on its own; suffering in itself. The problem is that “suffering in itself” is a meaningless abstraction. There just aren’t two things here we can tease apart and examine on their own individual merits. The objection imagines the accomplishment (the desirable) and the suffering (the undesirable) have been lumped together in such a way that the former redeems the latter. This isn’t what we have. The essence of the accomplishment, what makes the accomplishment an accomplishment, is the suffering. The pill thought experiment proves this. Insisting that the suffering is undesirable while the accomplishment is desirable is a failure to recognise that the suffering and the accomplishment are actually one and the same. If the accomplishment is desirable, so is the suffering it is built from.

Suffering in a Life

Let’s say you buy into my thesis that suffering in the service of a goal is desirable inasmuch as the goal itself is desirable. You might still quite correctly point out that much of the suffering any human life inevitably contains is random and nothing to do with accomplishing goals; that troublesome co-worker, the fight you had with your spouse last night, the flat tyre you got on the way to work, that niggling pain in your lower back you have been trying to ignore. None of these can be subsumed by some greater goal.

Or can they?

Just for fun, let’s imagine a life without any of these problems. In fact, let’s go all out and imagine a life completely devoid of suffering, the kind of life some people think they will have, paradoxically, after their life ends. There are no fights, no illnesses or diseases, cars never break down, boyfriends and girlfriends never break up, and teeth never rot. Sounds perfect, right? Actually, if you’ve imagined it correctly, it is perfect. What’s more, we are so averse to suffering, by nature, that our immediate reaction is to think a life devoid of it would be blissful. However, I disagree. I don’t think such a life would amount to a life worth living, and by extension, would constitute a life any of us would actually desire.

There are two reasons I think a life without any suffering would fail as a good life. First, it is hard to see how the joys would be joyful in the absence of any suffering. Obviously, someone who has never suffered can still know what suffering is intellectually, but without having actually experienced suffering, the joys won’t be meaningful. This isn’t immediately obvious, but I believe we see exactly this kind of thing with the spoiled children of rich celebrities. Few of them have lives free of suffering (their tantrums are evidence of this), but they do typically have lives free of money concerns. As a result of this, we don’t see these children failing to understand the concept of money, what it is and how it’s used; but we do see them showing absolutely no understanding of the value of money. Money means nothing to them because they have never experienced its lack.

The second reason is something we have already looked at; accomplishment. I’ve argued that goals and accomplishments have suffering at their core; I now want to extend this insight by claiming that the living of a life contains an implicit goal; namely, to live a good life, or perhaps, since this has nothing to do with morality, it’s more accurate to say, ‘to live well’. Of course, a ‘well-lived’ life will mean different things for different people, but once we realise that living itself comes with this intrinsic goal, that life is, in fact, something we accomplish, we are also forced to accept that suffering is now essential; again, not as something added, but as the essence of the accomplishment of a life lived well.

You might object here that life isn’t an accomplishment; on the contrary, we get it for free, as it were. Now, it’s true that we get biological life for free, but my argument is that every biological (human) life is, at the same time, an attempt to live well, however you define ‘well’. No psychologically healthy, ‘normal’ human being deliberately tries to live a terrible life. No one actively desires to fail in everything they attempt or actually seeks misery. We all want to live well, and living well is something we have to work at, and work for. Note that I am not talking about specific goals within a life here; rather, I mean an overall satisfaction with your life. This may include individual goals but probably isn’t limited to just their sum total. As we noted at the beginning of this section, many of the setbacks or frustrations we encounter in everyday life aren’t bound up with specific goals; rather, they make up the background obstacles we find ourselves having to overcome and/or deal with while we are in the process of achieving specific goals. Successfully navigating these tricky waters of life is something we all try to do.

Another objection you might raise here concerns the amount, and kinds, of suffering in a life. Can all suffering be considered desirable as part of achieving a well-lived life? Natural disasters? Murder? Rape? Can we really group these types of suffering in with ‘everyday’ hardships, like missing the bus or arguing with a co-worker?

I spent a lot of time turning this objection over in my mind. Initially, I thought I had to separate suffering out into two categories; those we need to live a well-lived life and those that are excessive; things like murder and rape being examples of the latter. However, something didn’t quite sit right with me about this. The first problem is that wherever we might decide to draw the line here, it will always be completely arbitrary. Is a marriage break-up acceptable suffering? What if the break-up comes about as a result of one of the spouses cheating on their partner? What about the death of a spouse? And so on. The second problem is, on what grounds do we decide which category a particular form of suffering belongs in? The amount of suffering it causes? So how much is too much? If different people have different ‘suffering thresholds’, is a certain type of suffering acceptable for one person but unacceptable for another?

I came to the conclusion that trying to pick and choose our suffering like this is ultimately a misunderstanding of what suffering is. Suffering isn’t suffering if we go through a list of potential hardships and choose those we deem to be ‘reasonable’. A part of suffering is that it will sometimes be unreasonable, it will sometimes be unfair, sometimes it will hurt a little, sometimes a lot. This is just what it means to have suffering in a life. It is therefore also what it means to have a well-lived life.

I think this objection arises when one focuses too much on the ‘desirable’ part of my claim that suffering is desirable. In saying that suffering is ‘desirable’, the objector thinks about different kinds of suffering and begins to weigh them all. “Wait a minute,” they say, “I guess I can accept this, and maybe that, at a stretch, but that? No way. That’s excessive.” This has made the mistake I pointed out earlier, of reducing suffering in a life, to suffering in itself, the latter of which is a meaningless abstraction. We don’t desire suffering itself; we desire suffering as part of a life because we desire a well-lived life.

So, if we need suffering (which may possibly be ‘excessive’ because this is the nature of suffering in a life) to have a well-lived life, should we then pursue suffering? Should we let the criminals and thugs out of jail to bring as much suffering, or should I say, ‘contribute to as many well-lived lives’, as they can?

No. The reason is the same as that we have just outlined. To court suffering or actively look for it would be masochistic. Rather, we ought to accept suffering when it comes along and deal with it as best we can, disliking it, while at the same time acknowledging that without it, our lives would pretty quickly become boring and meaningless.

This brings us to the reason why I have called this article our ambiguous relation to suffering. We naturally and instinctively dislike suffering. We resist the obstacles that separate us from happiness, and actively avoid suffering in any of its forms wherever possible; yet, we need it to have a life worth living. Moreover, if, in recognising that we need suffering in our lives, we actually embrace it and, on that basis, truly manage to see suffering as something not negative anymore, it will no longer function as the essence of our accomplishments. In other words, our accomplishments would lose all value and meaning as accomplishments (including that of living a well-lived life). It is truly a bizarre irony that we all try to eliminate from our lives one of the very things without which life wouldn’t be worth living in the first place… and doubly ironic that it can’t be any other way.

Buddhism and Christianity

This conversation has clear religious connections, which I want to make explicit here for two religions; Buddhism and Christianity. The very core of Buddhism, articulated in the Four Noble Truths, and realised in enlightenment, concerns the eradication of suffering (the third Noble Truth). Right away, this conflicts with the argument I’ve outlined in this article, in which emptying a life of suffering results in a life not worth living. Buddhism eliminates suffering by eliminating the cause of suffering, which is desire. In the absence of desire; i.e. a desire to accomplish or achieve certain goals (ultimately because everything in our lives is transient and meaningless), suffering or hardship, understood as that which must be overcome in order to realise desired goals, is also naturally eliminated. In a nutshell then, Buddhism seeks to eliminate suffering by eliminating desire. It’s hard to reconcile either of these with my position in this article. I’ve argued we need suffering because we desire to live a well-lived life (and in this sense desire suffering). Obviously, if we eliminate that desire, we also eliminate the suffering, but it’s hard to see how this is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Christianity, on the other hand, has a completely different view on suffering. For Christians, suffering purifies. The suffering of Christ on the cross is precisely what has redeemed us and is what allows us, sinners though we are, entry to heaven. Taken literally this is obviously nonsense, and the idea that suffering purifies is about as far from my position as you can get. However, if we ignore the details and the supernatural trappings, and treat this more as a general metaphor for life which says that suffering is necessary for a well-lived life, ironically (for me, as an avowed atheist and a particularly anti-Christian one at that), Christianity (on this very loose interpretation of doctrine) is closer to my position than Buddhism.

Conclusion

I began this article with two questions, “Is suffering bad, where ‘bad’ means something we would prefer didn’t happen?” and, “Would our lives be better without suffering?” We now have our answers. Yes, suffering is bad. None of us desire suffering and we all strive to avoid it wherever possible. Indeed, we saw it was the undesirability of suffering that makes suffering what it is in the first place. However, suffering is also good in the sense that in desiring to have well-lived (successful, by whatever metric we might use to measure this) lives, we also necessarily, although somewhat indirectly, desire the suffering that makes all accomplishment possible. Thus, our relation to suffering is characterised at its core by ambiguity.

It is this ‘goodness’ of suffering we found in our answer to the first question which also largely answers the second. Given the central role suffering plays in achievement, our lives most definitely wouldn’t be better without suffering. I don’t know how much of a revelation this is, but it might be something worth remembering the next time you find yourself about to tear your hair out because something or other has gone wrong. And while it won’t completely eliminate the suffering (thereby eliminating the achievement along with it), it might just take a little of the sting out of it.

One thought on “Our Ambiguous Relation to Suffering

  1. Pingback: Blindsight (1) – Consciousness as Impediment / Life in a VR Simulation | Absurd Being

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