Friday, November 11, 2016

Does suffering matter or do people matter?

Been thinking about this a lot recently. I'm not sure if this is just a confusion of words or a legitimate metaphysical problem.

Typically a utilitarian (or anyone for that matter) would argue that suffering is important. But perhaps we ask him why suffering is important. And they respond that suffering is important because people are important, i.e. suffering is bad for someone.

Say we ask him what makes people important. He would respond by saying people matter because they can suffer.

But this has gone full circle: suffering matters because people matter, and people matter because suffering matters.

So which comes first, people or suffering? When we talk of suffering, we are referring to a negative valenced emotional state of a sentient organism, or a kind of condition of an organism.

But surely someone would be a bit insulted if they were told that it is not them that is being valued but the experience itself that is being valued, as if suffering has been abstracted from the experiencer. But the only reason I can see as to why the experiencer themselves would be important is because they can suffer. It's the same circle.

Perhaps a way out would be to identify persons with their experiences in a bundle theory of sorts. So when we say we find suffering important, it means that we find a negative valenced experience, necessarily paired to a self-model, to be important. Like they cannot be separated, a person just is their emotional vista. Suffering is always suffering of a person; it is their suffering. Thus the feeling of ownership of a negative experience is bad.

Give me your thoughts.


  1. In replying to the objection to utilitarianism that happiness is unattainable, Mill remarks as follows:

    "Everyone who has a moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable; and unless a person, through bad laws, or subjection to the will of others, is denied the liberty to use the sources of happiness within his reach, he will not fail to find this enviable existence, if he escape the positive evils of life, the great sources of physical and mental suffering — such as indigence, disease, and the unkindness, worthlessness, or premature loss of objects of affection. The main stress of the problem lies, therefore, in the context with these calamities, from which it is a rare good fortune to escape. Yet, most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits. Poverty, in any sense implying suffering, may be completely extinguished by the wisdom of society, combined with the good sense and providence of individuals. Even that most intractable of enemies, disease, may be indefinitely reduced in dimensions by good physical and moral education, and proper control of noxious influences. As for the vicissitudes of fortune, and other disappointments connected with worldly circumstances, these are principally the effect either of gross imprudence, of ill-regulated desires, or of bad or imperfect social institutions. All the grand sources, in short, of human suffering are in a great degree, many of them almost entirely, conquerable by human care and effort"


    Nietzsche, I believe, would have concurred with Mill on this point.

    How do you see it?

    What would David Benatar say about this?

    1. I mean this is off-topic but whatever. I would say that there is no guarantee that we will triumph over the great "evils" of today and achieve something like David Peirce's hedonic imperative. It's all very pipe-dream like. In any case, I think it is more important to focus on the here-and-now rather than the then-and-there. Removing suffering RIGHT NOW is more important than promoting pleasure centuries away, because the suffering of the present is actually known to exist. It is bad and ought to be removed, while the pleasure in the future is unknown. We have to clean the mess up before we start even considering making actually good things.

      I don't know if Nietzsche would have concurred with Mill, considering Nietzsche was critical of certain forms of utilitarianism.

      I regards to David Benatar, I don't know, go ask him.

  2. Suffering of sentients beings matter. Why do sentient beings matter? Because you have empathy. Empathy means that by knowing that pain is bad for you, then you also want to avoid it to your peers.