Morality Evolves, Thank Goodness! Or, ‘Survival of the Moral-est’

What is a moral community? To whom do we owe love, respect, allegiance, and caring, and why? What does it mean to be ‘good’?

As communications technology progresses at an exponential rate, we’re all coming into closer and more constant contact with people from all over the world. One result of this: some clashes between people of disparate cultures and belief systems seem particularly violent and extreme, but such partisan violence is commonplace throughout history. Yet we’re also cooperating as a worldwide community as never before, adapting practices and beliefs, with an increase in tolerance and mutual respect between people who might have had trouble finding enough common ground for fruitful interaction in times past. Since we can now see the faces, hear the voices, and observe the lives of people far away as if they’re next door, we identify with them more, perceive them no longer as abstractions but as people like ourselves, and come to care for them nearly as much, and sometimes just as much, as people that just so happen to live their whole lives geographically near to us. Conquest, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, holy war: all of these violate moral beliefs now common throughout the world. We seem, as a whole, to be enlarging our moral communities.

So what binds these moral communities, and where so the morals by which they live come from?

As a direct result of this new virtual cosmopolitanism (in a sociological rather than a philosophical sense), many are now convinced that morality is relative to cultures and belief systems. All ethic and cultural peoples have moral systems, and while most contain a few common prohibitions and values (child murder is wrong, health is good), all vary on at least some points, and some widely (women should / should make important decisions independent of men; sexual liberty is / is not good).

While the relativistic view of morality is understandable and generally comes from a generous spirit of tolerance, I believe this theory is, for one thing, ultimately of little use in solving the problem of how the worldwide community is to live together. If morality is entirely relevant to belief system, for example, how can we be justified in claiming that a man does wrong when he kills his wife accused of adultery, if his belief system teaches that this is right? How can we be justified in claiming that a trader in finance does wrong when she gambles her clients’ life savings away, when the business culture she works in operates on the premise that this is the right way to do business? A moral theory which explains the nature and workings of human morality  needs to demonstrate that it works, that it offers compelling answers and workable solutions to such challenges, in order to qualify as a candidate for a true theory. If the global human community wants some firm moral grounds on which to promote human flourishing, we need to look elsewhere than moral relativism.

Most importantly, the current evidence from the findings of clinical psychology and other disciplines that study human behavior just don’t appear to support the theory of moral relativism.

Thomas Aquinas

Another moral theory is moral realism, which many believe is the only acceptable alternative to moral relativism. Mores (moral conventions or laws), according to the moral realist, need to be fixed, immutable, and eternal in order to be true or binding. A highly influential, widely accepted version of this view was thoroughly described and explained by theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, which in turn is an interpretation of Aristotle, the great philosopher and logician of 4th century Greece. Aquinas argues that morality is built-in to reality and can be discovered in the “natural law”. Natural law is the totality of the observed, predictable workings of the universe: just as the law of gravity is an unchanging feature of the universe, so is the moral law, and to discover either, we need only carefully observe the world without and within us. To put Aquinas’ view most succinctly: we can derive the ‘ought’ directly from the ‘is’. This is a compelling theory, in my view, reassuring in its promise to deliver concrete and universal results.

David Hume

Yet David Hume, the great Scottish skeptic philosopher, famously overturned this view in the 18th century, pointing out that there is no direct logical connection between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. To say something is the case is not the same as saying it should be the case.

One example that illustrates why I think Hume is right is the set of complex issues regarding human reproduction. As Aquinas, modern evolutionary biologists, and indeed most of us, would agree: human beings, and indeed all living creatures, generally have strong instincts to mate, and the biological equipment which most individuals have makes it so that the result of frequent mating is the production of offspring. You could even say that we mate because we are equipped to make offspring, both physically and instinctively.

Here’s the presumed logical connection between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ in this case: Aquinas (and many modern evolutionary biologists) would say that because human beings generally reproduce, one of the main, if not the primary, purposes of the human race and therefore, all individual human beings, is to reproduce. Since we’re generally equipped to make offspring, both physically and instinctively, individual human beings should have sex only to reproduce.

‘But wait a minute!’ one might say, with Humean skepticism. The scientific evidence reveals to us that at least half, and probably more, of all offspring who are conceived are naturally aborted by the mother’s body well before birth, sometimes because of genetic defects, the current state of health of the mother, or some other reason. And that’s just before birth. In some places in the world today, and especially in Hume’s day, a very large proportion of all children born die before the age of five because they have no access to effective treatments for most diseases. If you put that number together with still births and natural abortions, you end up with a very, very large number of unsuccessful reproductions, a majority, in fact.

So if you try to derive the ‘is’ from the ‘ought’ in the case of human reproduction, you can just as well end up, logically, with the weird result that since attempts to successfully create offspring are usually unsuccessful, well, then, human beings ought not to reproduce! Most would find this conclusion not only weird but unacceptable, I think for the very good reason that people generally place a high value on continuing the human species and on the individual’s right to decide whether or not to have children.

Now, to be fair to Aquinas, it’s still the case that, despite so many failed instances of reproduction, the human race generally is successful at reproduction. Added to that, say some evolutionary biologists, the fact that all living beings evolved some sort of  reproductive capacity, it’s still the case that every being that has a choice should try to reproduce, whether or not individuals fail. But how if you belong to a species where reproduction is so successful that if everyone reproduces, the species as a whole is threatened from overcrowding? Or, as it is in the case of a highly social species such as humans, the young do very well in a community where there’s plenty of individuals around who don’t have offspring of their own? In fact, the human species (unusually) far outlive their mating years, and biologists believes it’s a survival mechanism for children to also have grandparents to help rear them. Aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends fulfill the same roles in society, as auxiliary parents and as overall contributors to the flourishing of the human race as a whole.

Perhaps Aquinas was only partially mistaken, and instead should have said that we should place a high moral value on the reproductive function of the human species as a whole: maybe having children is one among many virtuous choices we can make. He did allow that some instances of refraining from procreation are good (he was a celibate monk, after all!) but he also used procreative instinct arguments to say that any and all sex acts that don’t involve reproductive intent are immoral This, to me, represents an attempt to derive a universal moral law, then apply it to get a predetermined result: people who don’t fulfill their ‘procreative purpose’ when they do have sex do wrong, and people who don’t fulfill their ‘procreative purpose’ when they don’t have sex do right. (Hmmm… did he accidentally end up a moral relativist here, in this matter at least?)

http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021519,00.htmlThis is only one of countless examples where we find that morally committed, good people disagree on the fundamentals of what constitutes goodness and virtue. We find that this disagreement is among individuals and communities not only across space, but also across time. A classic example of this in Middle Eastern and Western cultures is the contrast between the moral precepts of the Old and the New Testaments, and also between the morals in the whole Bible compared to the morals of today. According to the New Testament, after all, it was still acceptable to own slaves and prevent women from speaking in church, which would be morally impermissible according to the mores of  most societies and religions today.

It could be that the moral relativist and the moral realist theories are both implausible. Maybe morality is not relative nor immutable: maybe it evolves. Maybe you can say something is true about morality just as you can say something is true about the human species itself: although the human race is neither immutable or eternal, it still evolved. Yet human beings all descend from a common ancestry and are identifiable in that they share in a distinctive spectrum of traits, so the criteria for being human is not relativistic either.

I think that human sexuality, in fact, also provides an excellent example of not only how a species, but how morality itself, evolves.

Originally, for human beings as for most other creatures, sex evolved for the purposes of reproduction, but over time, as our brains got bigger and our behavioral, emotional, and cultural capacities became more and more complex, sexuality began to be expressed for other purposes as well. As our ancestors became more social and formed larger and larger supportive groups, the young were better protected and better fed and therefore, were more likely to survive. The pressure for individuals to reproduce as often as possible was greatly reduced. Human beings (like our large-brained and social cousins the bonobos and dolphins) also began to enjoy sex for its own sake and re-purposed it: using sex to court potential mates, express friendship love, and dominance, use it for recreation, politics, and so forth. Some of these purposes of sexual expression have, over time, come to be recognized as beneficial, some have not, and some are still debated.

Just as sexuality evolved, so have the moral precepts surrounding sexuality. With the exception of certain

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Warren Cup

groups who seek enforce a traditional sexual moral code (usually for religious reasons), over the centuries and millennium sexuality has been appreciated as a much more rich and complex domain of human social relations. As we look back in history, a favored few in society have enjoyed a more liberal set of sexual mores (Greek and Roman elite males enjoyed gay sex without fear, and European nobility and royalty not only regularly enjoyed the company of paramours, they were expected to), but as societies became more democratic and open, these liberal moral codes were extended to the general public. Overall, people are now more prone to judge the morality of sexual behavior according to principles of consent, honesty, reciprocity, and respect, rather than a traditional list of prohibitions.

Here’s a story of how the larger evolution of morality could have happened:

In prehistoric times, human social groups were very small, since survival depended both on strong social cohesion to feed and protect everyone, especially the young, and on not exhausting natural resources. Over time, as the body of human knowledge increased and new technologies were created and perfected, human societies grew to include larger numbers of people. So new adaptations, institutions, and practices arose to create and cement human solidarity in these new larger groups who were less homogenous, even though many general characteristics still tended to remain the same (skin tone, hair color, bodily morphology, etc).These adaptations, institutions, and practices included languages, epic stories, religions, national and ethnic identity, cultural practices, political affiliations, and so on. All of these were constantly being invented, were growing, changing… evolving. And as we’ve already seen, the size of our social groups are growing as rapidly as the communicative capacities of technology. To a cosmopolitan (in the philosophical sense this time), it’s likely only a matter of time before the human race will and should consider itself one large community, with a commitment to upholding basic shared moral principles, though particular or localized secondary moral systems could add their own restrictions or requirements.

Morality is not immune to evolution, and I think doesn’t need to be in order to be capable of being understood in terms of true and false. Again, many things change over time, often drastically, and still can be correctly or incorrectly described and referred to. Not only do I think that morality evolves, I’m also glad that it does, comparing some ancient moral codes to some modern ones. Again, we can look to the Bible for examples of this: consider the ancient Biblical endorsements of slavery and genocide, and compare that with their modern near-total rejection. And the Old Testament notion that women and children were chattel that could be killed for any number of transgressions fills most people today with righteous horror.

These and other changes in moral convictions could be entirely attributed to conditioning, of course. Yet, such conditioning that informs the behavior of most individuals can, perhaps, constitute a form of social evolutionary pressure over time. Whatever the precise mechanism(s), when I consider what history and archaeology tells us about moral attitudes over time, and when I put that together with the fact that human beings evolved from small-brained, non-moral creatures, it seems that morality must have evolved too.

For an organism to evolve, it must be a dynamic system, composed of multiple parts that can be added, subtracted, or changed. If morality evolves, it appears that it likewise can’t be reducible to a single foundational principle. If it’s a traditional monist system, there’s no room or impetus for change, since there’s only one, continuous element or substance that determines the nature of the subject at hand. It’s partly for this reason, and partly based on other evidence (such as how human actually make moral decisions), that I suspect that human morality is actually a pluralist system. Our moral judgments result from balancing various norms against one another, combining, elevating, or rejecting one or more depending on the situation at hand. For example, most cultures place a high moral value on personal integrity, reciprocity, mercy, punishing the guilty, love, protecting the innocent and vulnerable, and more, and consider at least a few of these while making each moral judgment. There are many that I just don’t think are reducible to a more basic principle or value.

So where do these moral values come from? How do we justify judgments based on them? How do we

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Code of Hammurabi

know how, when, and to whom to apply them?

Morality not only appears to be based on more than one value or principle, it also involves more than one type of mental processes or cognitive tools. Daniel Kahneman provides one account: a fast, instinctive, emotional process, and a slower, reflective one; Daniel Dennett provides a related explanation of the human mind, originally less capable, enhanced by a ‘toolkit for thinking’. We can apply such a tiered or multilevel system to this story of moral evolution. One is instinctive or more basic, where morality appears to originate. The social instincts, such as empathy and cooperation in humans and other intelligent social creatures, belong to the set variously described as Kahneman’s ‘system one’, or as Hume’s ‘passions’.  The slower ‘system two’, Aristotle and Kant’s ‘reason’, is the part of us that self-consciously reflects on our own emotions and thoughts. So far as we know, only human beings engage in this sort of multi-level mental activity. What the research of social psychologists as Jonathon Haidt reveal is that most of us, most of the time, make our moral judgments quickly and emotionally, and only justify ourselves afterwards, selecting those arguments that best support our own case and neglecting other concerns. This evidence favors Hume’s theory of ‘passion’-centric morality over Kant’s almost wholly rationalistic theory. Yet, we do apply rationality to create, universalize, and enforce a more consistent, regularized moral system on communities, to the benefit of most.

So the basic, foundational instincts that fostered increased cooperation and a drive toward reciprocity were, over time, bolstered by conscious reflection and perfected, enforced, and made more sophisticated through culture. Sounds to me a little bit like the selective, ‘ramping-up’ natural process of evolution by natural selection!

The evolution of morality can be illustrated by analogizing our moral instincts as the genetic mutations, and the use of our slower reasoning process as the selective pressure that allows the instincts to be enacted, or overrides them in order to create a system that best leads to our flourishing. Consider racism and ethnic hatred, instincts that, even today, seem unhappily all too pervasive. The instinct to bigotry might still be a part of our ‘moral DNA’, so to speak, arising as they probably did in the aforementioned circumstance of reinforcing solidarity in small communities struggling to survive. But over time, as we’ve seen race and ethnic hatred lead to suffering and mass slaughter that need not have occurred, the selective pressure of reason, aware of the lessons of history, overrides these ancient instincts and motivates us to value the widely beneficial attitudes of empathy, tolerance, and a sense of shared dignity instead. We used our reason first to regularize moral instincts into rules that apply to the community at large instead of just to the beneficently inclined. Then, we used our technology to widen the spheres of our moral communities, and these spheres are widening as moral communities absorb into ever larger ones.

Over time, we have developed a concept of goodness as that which fosters human flourishing, those instincts, guided and perfected by a natural-selection-like process and by reason, that inspire nurturing and just behavior on the largest scale possible. We can credit goodness, that expanded, instinct-derived and rationally-perfected sense of justice, reciprocity, and beneficence, as the driver of the human race’s ever more cosmopolitan sense of morality.

Believing in a ‘Grand Plan’ to Comfort Oneself

When facing the news of yet another disaster taking place in the world (a devastating earthquake, a genocide, an epidemic, the murder of schoolchildren, wrongdoers escaping justice, and so forth), who hasn’t heard a thought of this sort follow the initial horrified reaction: ‘Well, we must remember that in the end, it’s all a part of the Grand Design / God’s Plan / The Will of God…’ and so on and so forth. It’s pretty much always implied, and often said, that this means we must resign ourselves, on some level at least, to the situation. And everyone who expresses this sort of explanation seems to find it comforting.

I know I’m not the only one who finds this tendency disturbing, I can’t be the only one who’s discomfited at the idea that so many people think there must be some sort of justification, a ‘grand plan’ that makes all the suffering and death that occur in the world okay, just so they can feel better about it and move on. When someone who’s suffered such a blow themselves, the death of friends or family, the loss of their own health, the destruction of their community, I understand needing an immediate source of comfort to get through the worst of it as they try to carry on living, faced with such burdens. But for others who make such comments, I must ask: is it really a good thing to comfort yourself in this way?

I’ve never found this sort of thing helpful or good. Putting aside the weird idea of ‘choosing to believe’ something (this doesn’t square with my notion of belief as a spontaneous reaction to personal observation, or to an argument, or to scientific evidence, not something I can just adopt like a new style of dress), the very idea of trying to comfort myself in this way seems pretty selfish. I don’t want to feel better about the fact that there’s suffering in the world. I don’t want to think that death and disease and pain have some sort of ultimate moral justification. I want to feel awful about suffering because I want to keep that fire lit under me to spur me to do something about it, even if I can only help in small ways. I want to always feel that I and the rest of humanity can and should do as much about relieving suffering and correcting injustices as we can, because we’ve decided those things are bad. Trying to justify the wrongs in the world as a necessary part of ‘something greater’ can end up sabotaging the best in ourselves, the empathy and righteous anger that we need to drive us to make the world a better place.

That ‘Grand Plan / God’s Will’ excuse, in the end, sounds to me like a trite phrase, a Hallmark-card-worthy empty sentiment, a platitude, little more than a thumb to suck.

Anxiety and Depression: An Experiential Account

Anxiety and depression have been recurring themes throughout my life, ravaging my emotional life now and again and causing me quite a bit of trouble when they do. It’s often called ‘Mixed anxiety-depressive disorder‘ when people are generally prone to suffer from both at once, and is actually quite common, about 8 in a 1,000 people. There’s still some debate among professionals as to whether this tendency should have its own diagnostic category, or whether these are really two separate health problems people just often have together for other reasons. Anyway, the clinical distinctions not really what I’m interested in today, though I’m very grateful to professionals who have helped me get through it in the past. I’ve been diagnosed with this and one or the other separately at different times (more often anxiety), and the descriptions and risk factors are present: a family history of anxiety, depression, and other mental issues, substance abuse, lack of socialization in youth, emotional and behavioral characteristics, and so forth. But I don’t think of myself as a broken person, or as having a ‘condition’, or as a victim, or anything like that, because I’m really a very lucky person who has lots of joy, and love, and beauty in my life. I’m also a very optimistic and happy person generally, often goofily so, who loves life. I just think of myself as having certain darker tendencies that I need to deal as they arise, placing myself in a more nurturing and peaceful environment as my emotional state requires.

Its prevalence in my life has been lessened significantly for many years now, since I’ve been in a loving, stable, supportive relationship with one who has a most beautifully healthy and balanced mind. (Such a ray of sunshine and constant comfort to me!) I’ve also learned many tools over the years to keep it at bay, instilling habits and practicing behaviors that keep me from falling back into that anxious state. I recently listened to a talk by Temple Grandin describing how important it is for people with emotional and other issues to diligently practice good, learned social behaviors, and I was struck by how well her recommendations for some autistic people fit with the set of practices I’ve developed for getting through an episode and staving off another one. Like many on the autism spectrum, anxious-depressive people can suffer from debilitating social awkwardness that makes it difficult to conduct one’s public life successfully. However, anxiety-depression is not a constant state like autism or some other emotional disorders: rather, it’s more like a recurring medical condition which requires diligent care and healthy practices to lessen the frequency and impact of flare-ups. Since I hadn’t dealt with a major anxious-depressive episode in such a long time, I had forgotten to be diligent with my good habits, and some stressful circumstances combined in such a way as to kick off a new round. Anyway, it’s been gradually coming on for months, and within the last month or so, I’ve experienced the worst of this particular episode. It really does derail one’s life in so many ways, causing one to miss opportunities and lose jobs, relationships, a sense of purpose, and hope, and so much time and energy that could be spent productively or simply enjoying life is wasted on the enormous effort of just trying to get by and not screw up another day.

This time around, though, I want to openly, publicly describe what it’s like to experience anxiety-depression while I’m actually going through it. Once I’ve gotten through an episode, I’ve always avoided thinking about it at all. It’s just too easy to slip back in again if I dwell on it, and I want to avoid the whole thing like the plague because it’s really, really awful. So I’m not writing about it to be depressing, I assure you, I wouldn’t ever try to spread that feeling to anyone! And this is not a complaint, either: again, my life is full of beauty and joy and love, and I know I’m one of the fortunate ones of the earth, living without real poverty, disease, or oppression, and living with the most beautiful man I’ve ever known. But I thought an account of the experience might be of interest to three groups of people. First, to those who have friends who suddenly seem distant or ‘weird’ and they’re at a loss to understand why (perhaps some of my friends feel this way about me!). Second, to the medical professional or researcher who just might stumble on this account and value these tidbits of information, who knows? But this is mostly written for others like me who have their own struggles with anxiety-depression, because they (perhaps you, dear reader!) know the loneliness that accompanies this state, a really crushing, deep loneliness, and maybe you’ll read this and feel as if you have an ally and companion.

When I first recognized I was not just ‘in a mood’ that day, but had slipped back into an anxious-depressive state, it was because I realized I’ve been, gradually, avoiding more and more people and events. ‘Avoiding’ becomes a habit, a way of life, when you’re anxious and depressed, because like so many times before, I find that my emotions, normally so useful and meaningful, have gathered into one large, undifferentiated, super-sensitive mass in the center of myself, easily wounded, flinching at the merest touch.

So dramatic outbursts, quarrels, and gossip of friends, family, and co-workers, which I normally might find amusing or interesting, whose jokes and teasing I normally find funny or silly, whose clique-ish behavior I normally view as a natural expression of the clannishness of human nature, whose criticisms I would take in stride and learn from, are all transformed into sources of pain. The rational, friendly, easygoing side of myself recognizes, as always, that these traits and behaviors are interesting and often delightful foibles of human nature. But in my anxious state they’re alienating, and appear to be destructive attacks, indicative of the darker side of human beings who seek to exclude and tear each other down. Social events are often, therefore, overwhelming, protracted exercises in excruciating awkwardness. In the very worst episodes in the past, I’d want to avoid almost everyone, even strangers, since they’d inevitably bring up a painful subject, or I’d feel them look at me oddly, or even worse, they’d ask me what’s wrong; it was just too painfully tedious, embarrassing, and confusing for me to explain. But this time around, I mostly just feel the need to avoid everyone except strangers and the nearest, dearest, and gentlest people I know. The presence of the near, dear, and gentle are comforting, and strangers are company with whom I can remain delightfully anonymous. Even as the anxious-depressive state subsides, I still, as always, remain cautious for awhile with relationships and other situations in my life, until the episode is a distant memory and I feel my robust self again.

But this avoidance is never because I want to separate myself from people, it’s precisely the opposite: I long for companionship and a sense of belonging all the more as the sense of alienation grows. All that avoiding leads to such a deep sense of loneliness, that the divide between myself and everything else feels like I’ve been physically ripped apart from the world I need. The ache is physical, sometimes just as a tightness in my chest or like muscles straining around and behind my eyes and throat, sometimes involving my whole body. Other times (thankfully, not so much this time around!) my heart skips or beats out of rhythm, accompanied by a strange hot wave that flows out to my hands and feet, and a sudden wave of dizziness that lasts from a few seconds to a several minutes at a time. These opposing needs, to avoid pain and to grasp for human connection, is extremely confusing, and leads to an awful, awful self-consciousness. I’ve always had a shy side to my personality, but is blown up into a such a all-pervasive self-consciousness that I feel immensely awkward most of the time. I mean, how can you talk or act naturally when you want to flee, and cry, and embrace, and explode, or some combination of these, all at the same time whenever you’re with people?

This leads to the incredibly odd, frightening, awful sense of being separated my own personality.

It’s not as if I feel like I’m totally disassociated from myself, or that I have a split personality, or anything like that. It’s just that the parts of myself that I know and like and love best, the personality that I identify with, is not accessible, or is just not coordinating at all with my anxious self. My emotions so askew that I don’t and can’t react in a natural way. So conversations feel forced, and because the ordinary emotional responses that prompts human interactions are working together, I often can’t think of a single thing to say besides trite commonplaces, and the awkwardness builds up to unbearable levels. I’m a person who’s no good at small talk anyway, preferring more direct and in-depth conversation, and not particularly big on pop culture either, so I don’t have the these handy discursive tools to hide my confusion behind. (I guess I could ‘fake it’ and, weekly, try to memorize examples of pop culture to talk about, but I’m not so good at this sort if dissembling either, dammit.) My usual, easygoing self finds it easy to ask questions about what my companion of the moment is up to, what they care about and what it’s like, and what experiences we share. But my anxious self freezes and can’t readily formulate questions, because the flurry of conflicting emotional responses leads to such confusion that organized thought becomes almost impossible. So I flee and hide, or I blurt out a long enough series of commonplaces that the mere appearance of conversation gradually assuages the awkwardness, or, if I’m really lucky, the other person just wants to talk to a good listener.

Because I don’t feel the ordinary sense of connectedness to other people at these times, I lose my sense of belonging to a community. I get the feeling, even, that I have no place in the world, that I’m not needed by anyone, that talents that I once thought I had don’t exist, or that they don’t have any value for anyone else. So in this anxious-depressive state I feel adrift, with no sense of purpose, and I start to spin my wheels. Making decisions is nearly impossible when every effort feels pointless, futile, when I’m certain that there isn’t a thing I can do that’s meaningful to anyone. This general feeling of being disconnected from people as well as from my own personality and sense of purpose also leads to a general spacey-ness. It becomes very difficult to pay attention to people when they’re talking, or to stick with a task and finish it, or to even to take in and understand an idea or system of much complexity. Concentration becomes a matter of will, but much of the time, the will to concentrate is just not there because being present in the moment is scary. Any given moment is just too full of people and circumstances likely to trigger more pain. And so, I am ashamed to say, I become selfish and withdrawn, and I hate it. All I really want, at these times, is to find the will and the strength to be happy, busy, and engaged with the rest of the world once again.

So that’s what it feels like to be in the throes of anxiety-depression. I suspect this all sounds very dark, and it does feel that way. But as I write this, and even in my worst moments, I recognize that what I experience at these times is only what the world is like in my own mind at the moment, and not what it’s like ‘out there’.

And even when all else appears dark, it’s also part of my personality that I love the feeling of being alive! Not just the joy of experiencing the rest of the world, but the actual feeling of seeing with my eyes, of moving my limbs, of the sensation of something touching my skin, of the life in my body, and I retain this feeling even when I’m at my most depressed. In this way, among others, I am incredibly lucky. I also feel that having these experiences gives me an understanding and strong empathy for people who have a hard time in the world. I feel the deepest sympathy for those who are depressed, like me, but don’t have this visceral love of life to sustain them through the worst times. I also sympathize with socially awkward and disconnected people of all sorts, who are sometimes shunned or even mocked by emotionally healthy, balanced people who just can’t understand (lucky them!) the actual experience of how hard it really is to be unable to connect to others.

Just the act of writing this down is such a relief! I hope this has been a help and not a burden to you, dear reader, and I thank you for making it all the way through such a somber account. It helps me feel a sense of control over my own mind, which is almost inaccessible to me when I’m anxious and depressed, and helps me to distance myself from those dark feelings that surround and choke me at these times. And if you, like me, are burdened with anxiety and depression sometimes, I hope, once again, that reading this makes you feel that you’ve found a friend.

The Fetishization of Suffering

In the art on the walls of my childhood home, the theme of suffering was pervasive: crosses with sculptures of hanging, tortured Christs, Marys with torn and bleeding hearts, saints in various imploring poses, as if pleading for relief from the awful plight of living in this world. Suffering also popped up regularly as key to understanding reality. Why do the good and the innocent suffer as well as the wicked? Well, the wicked suffer because they are being punished, of course, but the good and the innocent suffer because they are loved, because it provides a God-given opportunity to conquer it and become even better in the conquering. So to better our characters, us kids were required to endure some sort of self-inflicted suffering from time to time, however mild: to give up candy during Lent, or or to spend an uncomfortably long time on our knees reciting rosaries. This view of suffering was held by many cultures throughout history (remember the Spartans?), and became common in modern Western societies through Christian influence. Suffering, regarded as both the indicator of and the creator of goodness in the world, and eventually became something to be desired and admired for its own sake. It became fetishized. As I grew and began to puzzle over the matter, this glorification of suffering seemed more and more strange, especially as I observed that, while suffering appears to strengthen and nobilify some, many more people tend to be broken down by it, especially if it’s pervasive in their lives, and rendered more desperate, less empathetic, less hopeful, less dignified, more scarred. I began to wonder if, on the whole, it’s a mistake to fetishize suffering.

So why do so many people so often glorify such a seemingly nasty thing as suffering? Well, for one thing, a beloved philosophy professor of mine pointed out once, there’s a distinct difference between suffering of the constructive sort and suffering of the destructive sort. There should be separate terms for different sorts of suffering as there is in ancient Greek. If there was a separate discussion concerning each kind, many of my objections to the fetishization of suffering should be rendered moot. Examples of constructive sorts of suffering is the burning sensation felt in hard exercise and the healing of wounds, the squirming mental misery of trying to finish a paper or book on time and still do quality work, or the tearing pain of bittersweet grief at the loss of a dearly loved one. Destructive suffering, such as the despair of watching children suffer from illness or starvation, the maddening confusion of feeling one’s mental acuity and individuality eroded by Alzheimer’s disease, or the disgust of watching others ruin their own and other’s lives through crime, political machinations, or thoughtlessness, is not so self-evidently beneficial, to say the least. But I don’t remember  this distinction being made clear to me at any point. Any sort of suffering can be explained away as destructive or constructive as conceived in the mysterious, unknowable mind of the creator, for example. This treatment is especially convenient in attempts to resolve the infamous ‘problem of evil’. But for those not satisfied with the ‘mysterian’ explanation and really want to understand the matter, the problem remains: how does one justify the fetishization of suffering via a reliable method of distinguishing between its destructive and constructive forms? 
 
Perhaps the distinction between these forms of suffering exists but is just too hard for individuals to distinguish most of the time because the emotions get in the way. It’s hard to recognize suffering as constructive when you feel compassion for other sufferers, or you feel discouragement or weariness in the face of your own. Or, even more encouragingly for proponents of this view, one type of suffering can be transformed into the other based on the attitude of the sufferer. There is some truth to be found in this characterization of certain experiences of suffering. There does seem to be sorts of suffering that’s unavoidable and necessary given the current state of evolution (or of a fixed human nature, for those who don’t believe in evolution, *sigh*): the helpful warning that pain provides, or the fear of death, strangers, or inexplicable noises that aids in self preservation. But upon reflection, the category of suffering of the entirely beneficial sort is really not very large compared to suffering of the harmful sort or suffering that seems to be some mixture of the two. The pain of exercise and of mental exertion seems to deter far too many people from consistent rigorous physical and intellectual exercise (I’m certainly among these!); the pain of grief leads far too many to resort to such comforting tactics as justifying the injustices of the world with flimsy excuses or to believing in flimsy or patently false metaphysical claims, or to vengeance; and so on. When I consider various sorts of suffering, I’m hard put to find any that most of the time and for most people, the result of experience it is entirely beneficial in the long run.

Perhaps the difference between constructive and destructive suffering is a matter of degree and duration, then, rather than of kind. The kind of suffering experienced in sport or in military training and combat, for example, are experienced in limited blocks of time and have a foreseeable end, allowing hope and the expectation of a better time to come mitigate the potential bad effects of suffering and strengthen the good effects. But this answer isn’t entirely satisfactory either. While it can seem true in some circumstances, it’s not for many others. People can become obsessed with and addicted to suffering, for one thing, as in the case of  over-zealous religious who become sado-masochistically addicted to corporal punishment (sadistic ruler-wielding teaching nuns of yore, anyone?) Or, suffering can burrow deep into a person’s psyche and undermine their entire personality, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by veterans and victims of  sustained bullying. It appears, then, it’s not the degree or duration of the suffering that makes it constructive or destructive: rather, it’s more feasible that the constructiveness or destructiveness is a feature of the effects on the sufferer, not of the suffering itself.
 
I think one of the most important reasons that more kinds of suffering is destructive than not it that it tends to  draw people into themselves and away from others. For example, I’ve noticed this in some athletes: as the pain of exertion accompanies the achievement of higher levels of physical fitness, the pain becomes an addiction, an obsession, and the greater the to suffering, the greater the tendency to self-absorption. This may be an explanation for the behavior of athletes who self-destruct with steroids. I’ve also noticed this, as aforementioned, in some whose religious beliefs hold say that suffering is necessary for redemption, and so attempts to avoid it, for oneself or for others, is fruitless or even evil. Martyrdom is, then, a virtuous state of mind and even the ultimate goal. Yet, I think this tendency to lose oneself in these forms of self-absorption, of attitudes of martyrdom and addiction to suffering, can be antithetical to human flourishing, because human beings are intensely social creatures. Now, it’s true that human beings also have an individualistic side. So some level of self-absorption, some level of obsessive and addictive behavior, is not necessarily negative to the human personality taken as a whole, and when balanced against other personalty traits, can be part of an interesting and dynamic personality. They can even be more sensitive and empathetic. This goes for many creative people, political people, and other idealists. (As a working artist and daydreamer myself, and an enthusiastic fan of the arts, I’m intimately familiar with self-absorption: a certain level of it is necessary for the visions to arise, the ideas to take shape, and the drive to realize them.) It’s also a defining characteristic of “drama queens”, who can be exciting people at some level. But, there’s a real danger that this addiction to suffering, when it starts to dominate, can undermine the social instincts and emotions of a healthy personality. Consider highly neurotic people, for example, whose internal suffering can become so all-absorbing that, after a while, they reach a point where they can’t see much else in the world besides it. Also, consider the aforementioned ‘drama queens’ who sometimes become so addicted to conflict and the suffering that accompanies, it that they end up needing to create conflict and ‘drama’ where none exists. In a very real sense, very neurotic people and other suffering addicts can separate themselves from society, since they eventually find it difficult to identify closely with others, and in fact, end up imposing their need for suffering on others.

So it seems to me that, in the end, the healthiest attitude to have toward suffering is that it’s an evil to be mitigated and avoided if possible, and if neither is possible, it’s the ability to endure it and triumph over it that’s desirable, not the suffering itself. It’s true that suffering accompanies and is even an integral element to many worthy endeavors, such as athletic training, and humanitarian efforts that involve placing oneself in the same horrific surroundings as the sufferers. But it’s best seen as a tool and a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s just too easy to allow the high that sometimes accompanies it to become an addiction that can lead from obsession and self-absorption to alienation from others, and, far worse, to a complacent attitude towards the suffering other people. Human beings are most generous, most expansive, most supportive, when free from suffering because they are happy, they are unburdened with personal cares and so are able to look outside of themselves and possess the energy to give of themselves to others. By contrast, people who have a more sacrificial, suffering-infused world outlook don’t, in the end, do so well when it comes to helping others, even if the feeling of sacrificing oneself makes it seem more difficult and therefore more virtuous than helping out of an easy-going feeling of well-being. (Daniel Gilbert’s work provides an excellent explanation of the current research on emotion and how it effects human behavior). The habit of viewing suffering as an evil and not a good does far more, overall, to help human beings flourish as the social creatures we are, In the end, I do think it’s a mistake to fetishize suffering.