I wrote a series of posts on happiness and suffering (Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV), which (aside from being graced with a very, VERY tortured, extended “bread” metaphor) had the (ahem) “rhetorical flair” of being addressed to my friend Gary, who claims to be in favor of suffering.

In response, Gary made some interesting points.

He criticized the western, liberal assumption that suffering must necessarily be eliminated, explaining that suffering is a fact of life and that its elimination is an exercise in futility.

I have two responses. One: the inevitability of something does not imply anything about its desirability or value. As I’ve said before, make an anti-altruism argument if you think altruism is futile, but the substantive pro-suffering stuff doesn’t follow from it. Two: I agree that there are limits to our ability to eradicate all human suffering. But I absolutely reject the claim that the effort to mitigate it – even significantly mitigate it – is futile. The history of human progress doesn’t bear it out. [I know this view of human “progress” is not without controversy, especially among contemporary “progressives” (I note the etymological irony, but for clarity’s sake let’s call them “leftists” for now). Anyway, since I am trying to refute a decidedly un-leftist (i.e., anti-philanthropic) position, I will excuse myself from defending against controversies about whether scientific and economic progress mitigates suffering on balance. Suffice it to say that I think – with appropriate fallibilistic temperance – that it does.]

This brings me to Gary’s second criticism of the liberal philanthropic impulse: that it leads to committing efforts that are disproportional to results. This is essentially an economic point. It’s about balancing costs (however those are measured) with benefits (however those are measured). You’ll be happy to note, Gary, that we do have some common ground. I too, would caution against taking on misguided burdens for pointless, Sisyphean projects (for example, see my comments against the auto industry bailout). I just don’t see any conflict in applying prudence to “suffering-mitigation” in the same way we expect to apply it in every other human endeavor.

Underlying your concern (and I am basing this on our conversations as much as what I’ve gleaned from your brief reply to my voluminous blogging!) is the belief that the philanthropic impulse alarms people into acting impetuously rather than rationally. This would be news to the thousands of organizations (some of whom I’ve worked for) who have lifted community after community out of destitution and squalor by working strategically to help them acquire the tools to live better and fight those who would rather not let them.

You know, we do lots of things that require judiciousness under pressure (emergency response, military tactics, space shuttle maneuvers. . .); understanding the urgency of the moment doesn’t have to translate into recklessness. There is NO reason that even a very strong desire to ease suffering must be coextensive with a reckless sense of alarm about it. In fact, I contend that relentless suffering itself, rather than the will to alleviate it, is far more likely to engender the kind of habitual, crippling fear that makes people do irrational and panicky things.

Now, about the observation that I “tacitly claimed a superior moral authority for people who have suffered”: I admit I would accord some deference to “people who have suffered” but wouldn’t go so far as to confer on them a “moral authority” in a broader sense.

But before I fully address that point, let me restate my reason for raising the personal experience issue. People who face great adversity generally try to overcome it and almost invariably prefer not to have it. People who do not face it – including some who, like you, ascribe value to it – also generally prefer not to have it (as is clear from their behavior). This speaks volumes about whether suffering is sincerely perceived as “good” by anybody. This is what I was getting at with the comparison.

That said, I do think that “people who have suffered” are due some deference. All that does is honors their humanity and their valiant struggle against adversity; it doesn’t honor adversity itself. Having sympathy – even respect – for those who suffer is consistent with the view that suffering is “bad.” Smugly expounding on the value of suffering, while avoiding it yourself because you can, seems more like eloquent callousness than a genuine respect for suffering.

I have acknowledged (within my “it’s not binary” comment) that adversity can produce some insights that complacence simply can not (although, again, I think thoughtful grappling with adversity by a highly gifted mind is more legitimately credited for it than adversity itself). In any case, like I said in the same post, the chances of deriving extraordinary moral growth from adversity are small compared to the probability of being crushed by it.

Last but not least: Calvinism, really? Who woulda thunk it — but it makes perfect sense! [It also makes me want to dig for some sort of bread-body-of-christ-suffering connection, but even I know when to stop!]