Why suffering is bad

“I’m not going to spend time working out why suffering is bad.

It just is.

I’d rather spend my time trying to end it.”

She spoke very fast.  When words surge as fast as that, they are following a well-worn route. She’d had this line of thought before.  But her eyes shone as though she were surprised by what she’d said.

She could probably see that I wasn’t comfortable.  I wasn’t.  Why?  It’s not as though I’m in favour of thinking about whether suffering is bad instead of ending it.  I want to end suffering too, insofar as I can.

I was braced for a tirade against the profligacy and indulgence of moral philosophy.  I’m temperamentally disinclined to sit comfortably through those.  I like moral philosophy.

In fact, she didn’t complain about ivory towers, hair-splitting, out-of-touch professors, outmoded moral concepts (virtue?), or unrealistic thought-experiments.

What she said is that she didn’t want to waste time.  Life is too short.  Understanding why suffering is wrong wouldn’t change her actions or her convictions, so what would be the point?  It would just delay her.

I stood there wondering how to respond, casting about for examples of when understanding why something was wrong changed my subsequent course of action or what I believed.  I had none.

It dawned on me that she’d caught me in a pragmatist’s snare: she had boxed me in to thinking that I had to find an example of a time when moral philosophy had been useful.

She might as well have said that she wasn’t going to waste time thinking about mathematics, fine art, or jurisprudence, not when there was suffering to fought.  What is especially morally wonton about moral philosophy?  It shares the virtues and vices of any other rarefied intellectual pursuit.

A less-than-full-blooded defence, to say the least.

There is a lingering oddity in saying that moral philosophy has no likely moral outcome, and no special connection to moral improvement.

So what does one say about the utility of moral philosophy to the committed activist?

It was momentarily tempting to point out that if moral philosophy is not morally useful, then having meta-philosophical thoughts about the inutility of moral philosophy must be doubly wasteful.  But I loathe ad hominem tricks, and the temptation passed.

There was, though, a germ in that ad hominem point, namely, that moral philosophy is often unavoidable.  Just as she, despite her pragmatic outlook, found that she was drawn into what was, for her presumably, a time-wasting articulation of her outlook, so too are we often inescapably drawn into moral philosophy.  Complex circumstances demand that we weigh and evaluate what counts as appropriate reasons for our actions and beliefs.

This makes wandering into the foothills of moral philosophy inevitable…

…irrespective of whether such explorations are actually useful.  If so, better to do it with a map of where previous explorers have been.

Even if that’s right, it isn’t enough.  For one thing, there may well be moral crusaders who never question or deviate from their course, despite the complexities and vicissitudes of life.  For them, perhaps moral philosophy would be a waste of time.

And it’s not altogether clear why we shouldn’t aspire to be moral crusaders.

The last line of defence is an ancient one, perhaps too old now to hold up.  It is this: that what we take to be suffering may be a symptom of something else, or even – an illusion.  Don’t you think we had better make sure our sense of ‘suffering’ is the right one, the better to spend our scant resources?


1.  The notion that we do not come by our moral convictions as a result of intellectual effort is a striking feature of William James’ The Will to Believe:

Here in this room, we all of us believe in molecules and the conservation of energy, in democracy and necessary progress, in Protestant Christianity, and the duty of fighting for the immortal Monroe, all for no reasons worthy of the name.

2. Stoics are notorious for claiming that conventional notions of pleasure and suffering are misguided.  Suffering is, really, an illusion.  For example:

Yes, death and life, fame and ignominy, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, – all these come to good and bad alike, but they are not in themselves either right or wrong: neither then are they inherent good or evil   – Marcus Aurelius

3. A radical modern proponent of the view that there is something wrong with our conventional moral norms is Herbert Marcuse:

The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a “biological” need in the sense just defined.

Irrespective of whether he is right that we have internalised consumerism, the important point for this discussion is his concern that our intuitive moral norms may be untrustworthy; invisibly dominated by socio-economic forces.   

If so, then the corrective is to regularly examine the sense of ‘suffering’ we apply in our activism.  In other words, do some moral philosophy.