Is there any normative ethical claim that says that one should reduce suffering of others? Is there a strong claim, that suffering and pain can be considered bad and must therefore be avoided?
Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones
If someone is suffering, and I have the power to reduce that suffering, and no worse consequences would follow if I reduced that person’s suffering, and the person in question doesn’t deserve to suffer as punishment for some heinous crime — ought I to attempt to reduce the suffering? Is that a moral law or axiom?
Intuition suggests that it might be. It is hard to justify allowing avoidable undeserved suffering. On the other hand, doesn’t that assume that ‘suffering’ is always bad? That’s the assumption I would question. Let’s say you are studying hard for the exam, and the effort is really killing you. For your own good, I want you to suffer. You have been far too easy on yourself in the past, and this is your big test, your opportunity to step up to the mark. I wouldn’t want to take that away from you!
The example I have given against the normative view that one ought always to strive to reduce the suffering of others is consistent with saying that, other things being equal, suffering and pain are intrinsically undesirable things that we have a possibly defeasible reason to avoid. But is even that true?
It seems obvious. But like good philosophical questions, the more you think about it the more you wonder. Why are suffering and pain intrinsically bad? What is ‘painful’ about pain? Couldn’t you learn to enjoy pain, love it? Would it still be pain, or would it become a pleasurable sensation?
It’s a fallacy to argue that if you enjoy pain, then the ‘pain’, for you, becomes pleasurable. Not at all. If you’re a masochist, then you want the pain to be painful (for whatever psychological reasons, say, your needing to ‘act out’ some punishment that you imagine you deserve).
Similarly with other forms of suffering. Maybe the only time you really feel alive — really connected to the world around you — is when you are suffering. The more you suffer, the truer your vision of reality becomes. That’s why fakirs and mystics proverbially go out into the desert to starve and dehydrate themselves to the point of death.