What I Learned About Disability and Infanticide from Peter Singer, by Katie Booth

Illustration from A System of Midwifery, Including the Diseases of Pregnancy and the Puerperal State, 1875 by Leishman & Parry, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps best-known for his book Animal Liberation (1975), began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option (in consultation with doctors) to euthanise infants with disabilities. He mostly, but not exclusively, discussed severe forms of disabilities such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer explains that the value of a life should be based on traits such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. ‘Defective infants lack these characteristics,’ he wrote. ‘Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’

The thought of killing disabled babies is especially dangerous because the concept of disability often functions as a mere cloak, thrown over much uglier hatreds. In ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ (2001), the historian Douglas Baynton points out that African-American enslavement was justified through disability models: there was a supposition that African Americans suffered from a number of medical conditions that were understood to make them unable to care for themselves. Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder justified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the current edition, the DSM-5, still considers transgender people disabled.

Singer generally frames severe physical disabilities through a medical lens. His ideas chafe against models of the disabled as a minority group. To Singer, severe disability is more a problem to be solved than a difference to be embraced and accommodated.

For years, I thought Singer was morally bankrupt. I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness, and though deafness is far from the type of disability that Singer was focusing on (with some arguing that it’s not a disability at all), I still recognised an idea that the disability community has faced for centuries: that people with disabilities are fundamentally less entitled to their rights – even their lives. Singer’s ideas stood in opposition to my core belief that the disabled body is created largely through a lack of accommodation, and that people with disabilities are different perhaps, but not less.

While most of Singer’s other writings seemed so thoughtful, so compassionate, his writings on disabled children seemed to be approaching the slippery slope toward ethnocide – the intentional and systematic destruction of cultures, like the Deaf culture that my own family embraced. I had never been able to shake what he was saying about the disabled – and I wanted to know more: what he thought today; if his ideas had ever shifted; and, mostly, how he could believe so strongly in something that seemed so out of sync with his reverence for life.

This past winter, I reached out to Singer to learn more.

I was nervous to talk with him, even over the blurry, jumpy distance of Skype, but I had no reason to be. Though his ideas felt abrasive, even violent, to me, he took opposition with thoughtful consideration. And as we talked, I began to wonder if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities.

Singer resists the idea that disability is mere difference; there is suffering involved, he says, and not only of the social variety. ‘I don’t think the idea that it’s better to be able rather than disabled is in itself a prejudice,’ he told me. ‘To see that as akin to racism or sexism is a mistake.’ He argues that if it weren’t preferable to be able-bodied, we wouldn’t have a problem with pregnant women taking drugs or drinking heavily, that avoiding disability would have to also be seen as prejudicial. It isn’t, and Singer maintains that it shouldn’t be.

Instead, Singer maintains that disability, unlike race or gender, comes with intrinsic suffering – sometimes great enough that it is more compassionate to end the lives of infants than to force them to live in pain. Over the years since he first began discussing this proposal, Singer has had to contend with studies showing that quality-of-life assessments of people with disabilities are not that different from those of able-bodied people – a fact that could grossly undermine his argument of alleviating suffering. While he has found those studies compelling, he maintains that it’s not fair to allow them to speak for those too severely disabled to respond to such a survey. (In general, he doesn’t buy the idea that people with vastly different disabilities ought to be speaking to each other’s experiences.)

Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.

Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.

Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Katie Booth is a freelance writer and a 2017-18 John W Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress. She has written for the Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, The Fourth River and Vela. Her first book, The Performance of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to Cure Deafness, will be published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Washington, DC. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

How Schopenhauer’s Thought Can Illuminate a Midlife Crisis, by Kieran Setiya

Arthur Schopenhauer, portrait by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl 1815, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Despite reflecting on the good life for more than 2,500 years, philosophers have not had much to say about middle age. For me, approaching 40 was a time of stereotypical crisis. Having jumped the hurdles of the academic career track, I knew I was lucky to be a tenured professor of philosophy. Yet stepping back from the busyness of life, the rush of things to do, I found myself wondering, what now? I felt a sense of repetition and futility, of projects completed just to be replaced by more. I would finish this article, teach this class, and then I would do it all again. It was not that everything seemed worthless. Even at my lowest ebb, I didn’t feel there was no point in what I was doing. Yet somehow the succession of activities, each one rational in itself, fell short.

I am not alone. Perhaps you have felt, too, an emptiness in the pursuit of worthy goals. This is one form of midlife crisis, at once familiar and philosophically puzzling. The paradox is that success can seem like failure. Like any paradox, it calls for philosophical treatment. What is the emptiness of the midlife crisis if not the unqualified emptiness in which one sees no value in anything? What was wrong with my life?

In search of an answer, I turned to the 19th-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is notorious for preaching the futility of desire. That getting what you want could fail to make you happy would not have surprised him at all. On the other hand, not having it is just as bad. For Schopenhauer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you get what you want, your pursuit is over. You are aimless, flooded with a ‘fearful emptiness and boredom’, as he put it in The World as Will and Representation (1818). Life needs direction: desires, projects, goals that are so far unachieved. And yet this, too, is fatal. Because wanting what you do not have is suffering. In staving off the void by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. Life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents’.

Schopenhauer’s picture of human life might seem unduly bleak. Often enough, midlife brings with it failure or success in cherished projects: you have the job you worked for many years to get, the partner you hoped to meet, the family you meant to start – or else you don’t. Either way, you look for new directions. But the answer to achieving your goals, or giving them up, feels obvious: you simply make new ones. Nor is the pursuit of what you want pure agony. Revamping your ambitions can be fun.

Still, I think there is something right in Schopenhauer’s dismal conception of our relationship with our ends, and that it can illuminate the darkness of midlife. Taking up new projects, after all, simply obscures the problem. When you aim at a future goal, satisfaction is deferred: success has yet to come. But the moment you succeed, your achievement is in the past. Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.

Hence one common figure of the midlife crisis: the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life. When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.

The question is what to do about this. For Schopenhauer, there is no way out: what I am calling a midlife crisis is simply the human condition. But Schopenhauer was wrong. In order to see his mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t.

Adapting terminology from linguistics, we can say that ‘telic’ activities – from ‘telos’, the Greek work for purpose – are ones that aim at terminal states of completion and exhaustion. You teach a class, get married, start a family, earn a raise. Not all activities are like this, however. Others are ‘atelic’: there is no point of termination at which they aim, or final state in which they have been achieved and there is no more to do. Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.

If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfilment is always in the future or the past.

We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process. It is no accident that the young and the old are generally more satisfied with life than those in middle age. Young adults have not embarked on life-defining projects; the aged have such accomplishments behind them. That makes it more natural for them to live in the present: to find value in atelic activities that are not exhausted by engagement or deferred to the future, but realised here and now. It is hard to resist the tyranny of projects in midlife, to find a balance between the telic and atelic. But if we hope to overcome the midlife crisis, to escape the gloom of emptiness and self-defeat, that is what we have to do.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book is Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017). He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Compassion, Emptiness, and the Heart Sutra, by Ryan V. Stewart

d1185-guanyin252c2bthe2bchinese2bexpression2bof2bavalokiteshvara252c2bnorthern2bsung2bdynasty252c2bchina252c2bc-2b1025252c2bwood252c2bhonolulu2bacademy2bof2barts252c2bpublic2b1One of the chief concerns of philosophy, since time immemorial, has been to properly address the question, “How do I live?” Namely, “How do I live well?” Naturally—for as long as our species has had the wherewithal to question its purpose and condition, the problem of ethics has found itself at the frontiers of human thought. Many moral philosophies have since rushed into that wide gulf between knowledge and truth, systems of understanding and action which attempt to conquer our ethical indecisiveness and color in a void where so much uncertainty exists.

Many traditions prescribe the ideal, virtuous, or noble life. From the ancient, academic, or political—e.g. Epicureanism, utilitarianism, humanism, or libertarianism—to the more mystical or overtly religious—e.g. Jainism, Christianity, or Taoism—many are concerned with how one acts (or can act), or at least how one views oneself in relation to others and to the world at large.

The Buddhist religion—though some prefer to see it as a philosophy—is one such tradition. An ancient and diverse faith, Buddhism is perhaps best known for its thorough and egalitarian moral philosophy. And while it is indeed diverse (containing a huge number of schools, most with their own interpretive methods and styles of meditation and ritual practice), compassion (or karuna) is treated as an important trait of an enlightened being, and a cornerstone of Buddhist thought, in all sects. Thus, throughout the various iterations of Buddhism—from the forest-monk Theravada of Thailand to the Zen habits of Japan—one finds a remarkably consistent system of normative ethics, and a conceptual framework for promoting the wellbeing of all sentient creatures.

That all being said, the ontological concepts which necessitate Buddhist compassion are perhaps most concisely expressed by the Mahayana (“great vehicle”) tradition—one of two or three major branches into which Buddhism is often divided. Buddhism maintains a unique connection between metaphysics and ethics, and the deeply profound philosophies of many Mahayana thinkers, and those presented in a number of the Mahayana sutras (Buddhist sacred texts), can be seen as an attempt to navigate and define that sort of connection.

Where does one begin in exploring such a notion? The corpus of Buddhist literature is impossibly vast, and anyone could spend a lifetime pondering so many mystical works and their commentaries. I would argue, however, that in order to form at least a basic understanding of the Mahayana ethical-metaphysical relationship, we need look no further than the ancient and seminal Heart Sutra.

Written as a dialogue and teaching, the Heart Sutra is a brief monologue on the part of a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who has postponed his or her salvation in order to remain in the world and aid sentient beings) by the name of Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara (known as Guanyin in China and Chenrezig in Tibet—the latter where the Dalai Lama is considered his living manifestation), whose name roughly translates to “the lord who looks down,”—that is, he looks down upon the world of the unenlightened with charity and love—is a bodhisattva representing perfect compassion. Befitting this disposition, the Avalokiteshvara of the Heart Sutra provides a mortal monk, Sariputra, with a profound teaching, a parcel of great wisdom intended to eradicate the suffering of sentient beings. Avalokiteshvara’s great revelation is that all phenomena are, in fact, “empty.” (Red Pine, p. 3.)

To clarify, the bodhisattva is saying that everything in the world lacks an inherent “self,” or essence. This concept finds its origin in the oldest, pre-Mahayana forms of Buddhism, and the Buddha himself noted that “no-self” is, along with impermanence (anicca) and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), one of three “marks” which constitute the nature of reality. Anatta, for the historical Buddha, and for the older Theravada school, mostly implies that nothing in the world can be said to be one’s “self,” (atman), and thus identifying anything as representing the essence of oneself—a “self” made up only of non-self parts (cf. Hume’s “bundle theory”)—is delusory. The self-concept, for the Buddha, is an illusion of essence which binds human beings to false worldviews and causes them to misrepresent reality, thus barring them from enlightenment.

The falseness of self-hood forms a bedrock of Buddhist philosophy. In the “emptiness” (sunyata) of the Mahayana, however, we find anatta further developed. (Nagao, pp. 173-174.) We owe this development chiefly to Nagarjuna, a first-century Buddhist philosopher who founded the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, and developed the philosophies (one most notably being sunyata) inherent in the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras. In his text, Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna famously states, to this effect, “All is possible when emptiness is possible. Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.” Thus emptiness, in this sense, is not mere nothingness, but an open space in which all potential exists. Hence one cannot truly differentiate being and nonbeing, total emptiness and total “allness,” infinite nothing and infinite something. One implies, or necessitates, the other. In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara explains this to Sariputra when he says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.” For the Mahayana school, emptiness is not merely the surrogate for essence, and a blank space where one imagines the self, but the numinous nature of all things.

Now, this emptiness implies another notion (this one common to Buddhism on the whole), “dependent origination.” (Pratityasamutpada.) According to this doctrine, all phenomena exist dependently, depending upon one another in order to maintain their existence. (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.p.) Thus, there is no free, permanent, inherent, and individual existence for any beings or objects. Their causes and conditions are inextricably linked to the unending web of phenomena arising and passing away in the universe. One thing cannot be said to be truly separate from anything else when it exists, in time and space, alongside all else, and when it requires for its existence the (falsely!) extraneous forces of nature, matter, and energy. Thomas J. McFarlane, writing in his 1995 essay “The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy,” sums this up nicely when he states, “According to Madhyamika, the root of all suffering lies in… the error of mistaking the relative for the absolute, the conditioned for the unconditioned. We take imagined separation as real, supposed division as given.”

An easier, less flowery way to illustrate these three ideas—no-self, emptiness, and dependent origination—in tandem may be to imagine something made up of familiar parts: A tree, for instance. We all know that trees are made of a variety of components—trunk, roots, branches, leaves. Where, then, lies the “treeness” of the tree, in the tree? Is the tree its roots? Is the tree its leaves? No? Why not? One may say, “‘tree’ is the name we give to the sum of the parts of the tree,” but then, of course, “tree” is reduced to a mere name and concept, not a thing-in-itself. Whatever can be called a “tree” is ultimately made up of non-tree parts, and thus there is no “treeness” at all. Similarly, the self, though imagined as one’s essence or “soul,” can be divided into mental phenomena and parts of the body. (All of which are subject to constant change, hence anicca.) There is no “selfness” for this self, only the experience of a very familiar concept by the same name. Thus Avalokiteshvara tells Sariputra, “Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form. The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness.”

We now have a grasp on no-self (anatta), and can see how easily it translates to no-essence-anywhere-at-all (sunyata) by analyzing everything down into its (non-) fundamental components, components which themselves are also made up of other components, and so on and so forth. One can continue dividing things and concepts forever, down to an infinitesimal. (Granted, this is a conceptual exercise, and the author omits any claims about concrete physics for lack of sincere knowledge of the subject. Regardless of Planck lengths and fundamental particles, confer “infinite divisibility.”)

But how does emptiness translate into connection, into pratityasamutpada? Let us continue with the metaphor of the tree, and observe how the tree is not only constructed of non-tree parts, but dependent on the conditions of the world at large for those very constructs: A tree, like all lifeforms, requires a number of inputs from its surrounding environment in order to survive and thrive. Water, soil, and sunlight most readily come to mind. Water, for instance, rains down from clouds, which themselves are formed from atmospheric water vapor. Soil is produced over many years by the degradation of organic matter, and organic matter is contained by other lifeforms, which exist by dint of their evolutionary ancestors. Sunlight reaches the Earth from the Sun, which itself was formed billions of years ago from sparse bits of matter produced in the Big Bang.

What sort of philosophical quandary do we run into here, then? For our purposes it is best to put the question this way: “At what point is the tree no longer itself?” That is to say, “At what point is any “one” thing separable from the causes and conditions that give rise to it, or the causes and conditions that it gives rise to?”

If we take this notion—this pratityasamutpada—to its logical conclusion, we come to recognize that we are, in order to exist, dependent upon components and conditions outside of ourselves; that everything, in fact, is; that the entire universe is one integrated system, and in some sense an entity-unto-itself.

One response to such a situation—and an understandable one, at that—may be that of deep compassion: the fact that we are dependent upon all else, and all else upon us, in some sense (and albeit in a small way), gives us reason to care for the world (and other beings especially) as if the welfare of other things and beings was the same as ours… as if we have no “self” apart from that of the world at large, the welfare of which—from crabs to carpenters—is our concern as beings endowed with the capacity for both suffering and empathy. No doubt, it’s this very suffering which binds us to one another. We, knowing our own pain, can experience it vicariously, through others. Philosophers as diverse as Marcus Aurelius, Hume, and Schopenhauer understood the universality of pain and empathy, and thus their importance in morality.

The Buddha, of course, realized the same. And while you may not find a be-all-end-all answer to the big ethical problems in one particular system, opting instead (as many do) for an eclectic approach to moral philosophy, you have to admit that Buddhism provides one of the most intricate (and practical) answers to our moral quandaries.

As long as human beings have questioned the nature of their freedom and manners of life and livelihood, philosophy has helped fill the void inherent in the realms of “good” and “evil” and everything in between. Buddhism presents us with one particularly bright light, helping to illuminate the murky and ever-indefinite realm of philosophical inquiry.

About the author ~ Ryan V. Stewart is a writer and student from Connecticut. He has been actively writing since 2006, and blogs about everything from mysticism and philosophy to environmental issues, the arts, and personal peeves at The Grand Tangent. He’s interested in the intersection of mysticism, comparative religion, and philosophical analysis (among other things). 

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Red Pine, trans. The Heart Sutra. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. Print.

Nagao, Gajin. Mādhyamika and Yogācāra: A Study of Mahāyāna Philosophies. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications, 1992. Print.

“Paticca-samuppada.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Ed. Anonymous. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. .

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.