Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why Suffering is a Bad Thing

If you know me really well in person you probably know that the suffering of conscious beings is the criterion I take most seriously in determining the moral worth of an action. I am a consequentialist in the way that I think people need to think out the types of consequences that will stem from a particular action before they decide to carry it out. I think it’s probable that a large portion of people would agree with me, at least in a broad sense, that suffering is a bad thing that needs to be avoided. However, what about suffering is it that makes it worthy of being prevented?

This question led me to start thinking about how I would describe suffering to a being that is incapable of feeling emotions or bodily pleasure and pain, and hopefully that would give me some sort of insight in to what exactly is bad about suffering. All I could really think of was try to convey the concepts of good and bad and somehow relay it to sensations, otherwise all I could really think to do is describe analogous feelings: agony, horror, distress, fear, etc. (which I think is a testament to David Hume’s Dependency Thesis), but using feelings to describe feelings wouldn't really do any good to a being that can't feel anything. After this I realized the idea that trying to convey this idea to being like that is ridiculous for a couple of reasons: one, a being like that could never survive natural selection because it wouldn’t have anything driving them to survive (our reasons for not wanting to die are almost entirely, if not entirely, emotional), and for two, they would have nothing to say on the matter of morality, because they probably wouldn’t need it. They may have things that would threaten their existence, but they have no experiences otherwise to attempt to stay away from because there is no reason to.

I’d probably need to think about it more, but given this information, I think it’s quite possible that suffering is a bad thing for merely subjective, self-evident reasons (though suffering to a large degree is a mental cue that something that could end/seriously impair your existence is happening to you, but I think the sensation alone is enough to avoid it). This is not to say that it should have less consideration with respect to morality, and it doesn’t mean that ethics then just becomes a free-for-all and we can do whatever we feel like. What it is though, is a matter of acknowledging that that is indeed the reason, and perhaps the only reason. I think it’s probably “just obvious” to people that they’d rather enjoy themselves than experience pain (though to some people experiencing pain is enjoying themselves, but I won’t get in to that). The types of experiences that are coupled with suffering are inseparable from our concepts of “terrible” and, really “avoid at almost all costs”. We know internally that those experiences are the kind which we wish not to have and thus create dread within us (which is really to say “to think about suffering is to suffer somewhat itself), and since we have this knowledge already in us, at some point, usually early in our lives, we can recognize that it is just as bad to cause that sort of experience within another person.

Note: The suffering I’m talking about in this post is suffering inflicted by one agent to another, intentionally, and without a reason by which it was necessary. Some suffering is necessary to lead to good consequences, or to learn some life lessons, but these are rare instances. What I'm referring to is the malicious, certainly gratuitous type of suffering that can be avoided.

Additionally, there is non-agent-caused suffering (people starving in third world countries), that most people, while not intentionally inflicting it upon other people, passively allow it exist, even in spite of knowledge of its existence. This, I think, can and should be included in the type of suffering that people are in some sense responsible for, because they could certainly help end it, at not much cost to themselves. I have post relevant to this that you can find here.

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