“Suffering is not really bad!”

I’m sure the 1.5 million children who will die of starvation this year look forward to all the wisdom they’ve accumulated.

Benatar’s Asymmetry is one of the strongest arguments for antinatalism, and it is grounded on the psychological concepts of pleasure and suffering or pain. So there is some grounds for attacking it on a subjectivist basis. So you get people who say things like:

“Suffering is not really bad, that’s just a matter of outlook.”

There are two aspects to this proposition, an objective and a subjective aspect. Subjectively, it may be true that some instances of suffering serves some emotional purpose, and may not seem bad. But when we speak of suffering or pain being bad within the context of the Asymmetry, we mean that it is objectively undesirable for the organism. A large proportion of organisms, including humans, naturally seek to escape pain because they have been equipped with nociceptors which make them aware of damaging stimuli.

First, take an extreme example like becoming a quadriplegic. One may argue that this horrifying experience leads us to learn something about ourselves or to live a better life (by whatever criterion one has decided to judge a “better life”). But whether that’s true or not, it is objectively true that the person would have been better off not losing their legs, because no one (as far as I know) desires to lose their legs, let alone to go through the suffering entailed by losing one’s legs (in a car accident, from flesh-eating bacteria, or whatever other cause).

The subjective rationalization is brought in after the fact to justify the fact that the victim’s happiness eventually tends back towards its baseline value. I imagine the implicit logic is something like this:

1. Objectively, my life should be terrible.
2. But I feel perfectly fine.
3. Therefore, there must be some reason why my life is not actually terrible.

Now, I am aware that there are quadriplegic people who suicide themselves, but there are also perfectly healthy people who suicide themselves. I don’t think suicide is often related to physical suffering.

I know how natalists think, and no doubt they’ll accuse me of devaluing the lives of quadriplegics. But I don’t think that saying someone was dealt a bad hand means that they are devalued. I believe that bad things happen to people regardless of the value of their lives, and indeed that at least some bad things happen to everyone, although some get a lot more than others. Suffering does not serve some design or greater purpose; it generally either just happens or is the result of injustice.

We have a long tradition of thinking otherwise. Christianity has long taught that suffering serves God’s plan. The quintessential example of this belief is the story of Job, where God and Satan bet over the loyalty of a man by killing his entire family and destroy all his possessions. The lesson of the story is given by God itself, who gives a long speech that can basically be summarized as: “I’m the ALMIGHTY GOD, motherfucker, so you shut the hell up.”

But it must be that there is some purpose for suffering, because otherwise the Problem of Evil remains unresolved and God must be seen as a cruel overlord (which it actually is). In present time, a lot of Christians believe that suffering serves a purpose of punishment for sin and discipline of the sinful… when it happens to someone else. When it happens to a loved one, the best thing a Christian can say about fatal instances of suffering is that God wanted to “bring them back home,” but other instances are supposed to teach us some lesson about faith or hope.

Related to this is the Christian belief that one person being saved when a hundred died in a horrible tragedy is “a miracle.” People’s horrible suffering glorifies God, because God is a tyrant and, like all tyrants, God’s power is demonstrated by how much others suffer for it.

Nowadays we turn to positive thinking and the New Age to tell us what to think. There we get told that “everything happens for a reason” and that the world is fundamentally just because bad things only happen to bad or misguided people. This of course is usually implied because otherwise proponents would be accused of unusual cruelty, but the implication is clear enough.

So it seems that the proposition that suffering is not bad can only be made by blaming the victim in some way. How could it be otherwise? If suffering is not bad, then no one can be a victim, so people who see themselves as victims must be simply misguided. Furthermore, if the world is just, it must be the case that anyone who suffers deserved it, either due to a past life, a lack of faith, or being insufficiently “evolved.”

There is no evidence that there is any truth to these views. As I’ve already posited, suffering has no greater purpose beyond that imposed by humans. Therefore we don’t have any possible counterpoint to the objective fact that suffering is bad.

Even if there was such a greater purpose, it would not erase the existence of suffering, nor would it turn that suffering itself into a good thing, or even a not bad thing. Suppose that we take a mild example, such as going to the dentist. This entails a certain amount of discomfort and pain. The end result, the second-order good, of this process is clean teeth, which is clearly desirable. But obviously it is not the suffering that we seek; if we had the choice, I think we’d all rather have the clean teeth without the pain! The pain itself is bad regardless of the second-order good.

This reasoning applies to all examples of second-order goods: we suffer through the pain in order to reap the results. In most cases these supposed second-order goods are really rationalizations, such as the claim that suffering “builds character” or “makes us glad to be alive.” I don’t think anyone would willingly undergo suffering for such nebulous and dubious gains. Rather, they are rationalizations people make up after the fact, when no obvious benefit is forthcoming.

And then there is the case of overwhelming, fatal suffering. People die of illness every day, and there’s no possible benefit to those people who die. People may argue, as they are wont to do, that the death still benefits others; apart from being offensive, such reasoning also does not demonstrate that suffering is not bad, merely that it is supposed to be not bad for someone else than the victim. So what? That’s like saying that the violent gang-rape of one woman is not bad because it might inspire other women to be more careful. Utilitarianism is an arbitrary and unjustified standard, and whether the sum of pleasure is greater than the sum of suffering is of no importance.

The Asymmetry compares a state with person X with a state without person X. In the former, pleasure is good, while suffering is bad; in the latter, no one is deprived of the now absent pleasure, while no one suffers the now absent suffering.

What changes if we assume that pain is not bad, or even good? Nothing. Even if we assume that pain is good, the state without person X is still one where no one is deprived of the now absent (good) pain. At best, if all pain is good, we would end up in a neutral situation. But it’s obvious that at least some pain cannot be good, as I’ve already pointed out, so we can never get into this situation in the first place.

9 thoughts on ““Suffering is not really bad!”

  1. Michael January 10, 2014 at 09:37

    Another good post. OT: I don’t have your email so please check your Yuku PM
    I need to convert some pictures. It’s AN related.

  2. Rodrigo February 16, 2014 at 09:51

    Suffering is really bad. It is a fact. No discussion. Live and let die.

    • Francois Tremblay February 16, 2014 at 17:37

      I agree, but unfortunately some people just want to disagree on anything.

  3. JJ March 16, 2014 at 20:20

    Great article. Such a simple concept, but, for some reason, it’s difficult for most people to wrap their heads around.

  4. fitftw April 4, 2014 at 09:51

    If suffering were not bad, wouldn’t we strive to induce suffering on ourselves and each other as much and as often as possible?

  5. Go wwith the Flau-bert May 6, 2014 at 14:18

    This is the one that really sticks in my craw, because all the internet tough guys , out to prove their maturity and level-headedness by bashing ANs (I have seen AN described as a ‘grade-school philosophy’, which is certainly not how Solon presented it to King Midas, you know, before the invention of grade school?) always pile on this one. ‘Oh you’re just assuming suffering is negative’. granted that nothing can be known with certainty, has there ever been a safer assumption? I mean, who died and made you calvin’s dad? Going fishing, eating tapioca, his homework, that’s all calvin’s dad ever said. Well, character crumbles, and is ensconced in/ engrossed by trifles and futility. I can not line it out like you though. You need a disqus account, and a few templates of breeder bingos and their follies. Now just get out there and post on blogs.

    Luckily, this topic is getting ‘airplay’, in an uptick I think since 2011, but the discussion is at such a low level! I think you need to check these breeders and their intellectual arrogance (as if! We;ve been doing this since we were small furry mammals!) and legalism. they split hairs, begrudge every concession, try to make you out to be petulant to the point of imbecility, played out like ‘shouldn’t you be over this by now’ etc and when you try to call them out for using simple cognitive dissonance and other such protective measures, they just double down (because you could have NEVER come across their devastating counter-arguments before, huh?). But with you, you are eloquent, got it down pat, are nobody’s doormat, I’m sure you could make them reconsider with a few well-placed comments out there.

    IN fact, I’ve more or less stopped visiting with this blog because I agree with everything. Every nuance. You’e preaching to the choir, anoyone inclined to agree with you, will agree with you. Some ppl need this argument PUSHED on them. They are good at conception, bad with concepts.

    • Francois Tremblay May 6, 2014 at 22:18

      Aw, keep reading my blog anyway, I’m sure you’ll find something to disagree with eventually. Everyone does. :)

  6. […] to them in their lives, get over it” macho boasting (I have discussed other rationalizations here), which does nothing to address the argument I’ve presented and is therefore irrelevant. But […]

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