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This may hurt a little.

Any man, no matter who, will respond to a recording of his own voice with “Wait, I really sound like that?” That’s what I felt last week as I heard a smart young student speak in praise of suffering at an ISI lecture, for the slightly embarrassing reason that I’m someone whose advocacy of suffering borders on self-parody, which has made me accustomed to being the most pro-suffering person in any room that doesn’t also include a Fight Club. It was jarring not to be.

The lecturer’s main thesis was that classical liberalism makes people happier, and the questioner wondered whether a soft and peaceful universe is really preferable to a volatile and heroic one. I’m sure there was more going on the questioner’s mind than this, but a casual listener could have walked away thinking that opposition to bourgeois contentment rests on the idea that tragedy is so much more colorful . It got me wondering: Is that what most people hear when I talk up the virtues of suffering? Do they imagine that I would say to a starving man, “Yes, but doesn’t poverty make our universe more interesting?” If so, I should clarify what it really means to believe, contra Will Wilkinson , that suffering has virtues that happiness can’t get at, because that ain’t it.

For the record, I think the Tocqueville point is mostly valid: “well-meaning matieralism” does yield a world “which will not corrupt the soul but noiselessly unbend its springs of action.” But that’s not why I think it’s important to have a theological understanding of suffering floating around our political vocabulary. There’s really only one defensible reason why I care (“the will to badass” being an indefensible reason), which is that I think the redemptive power of suffering is a fact about the world; it’s just true . (If you need selling on that, this post probably won’t do it, but if you just need to concept clarified, I’ll point to A Clockwork Orange . A utilitarian who wants to have a problem with Skinnerian reconditioning of criminals doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and the difference between rehabilitation and redemption has a lot to do with why.)

Consider the American love affair with the virtues of hard work, self-discipline, and thrift. You can blame the Calvinists or blame the Puritans for our weird ideas about the redeeming value of a life spent in labor and self-denial, but it only goes to show that, even in a country as enthusiastic about material happiness as this one, a deep respect—even desire—for suffering comes out in unexpected ways. The liberal instinct that the biggest victim has the highest moral ground is another example of the same thing.

I promised policy implications, so here are a few, beginning with the least concrete. C S. Lewis gave a lecture called “Learning in War-Time,” from which I take the following paragraph (feel free skip it if you’ve read La Peste and already know that all time is plague time):

. . . war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice . . . We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.
Eric Cohen adds:

We should still laugh, still marry, still light Sabbath candles—if laugh less loudly, marry more urgently, rest less easily.
Lately it has been the left complaining about the right’s abuse of “crisis” and “wartime” as convenient excuses for exceptional measures, but the same logic applies with tables turned. Liberals respond to Burkean caution with what they imagine to be a trump card: “Yes, but people are suffering! ” As if that weren’t always the case. Wartime is no excuse to abandon moral considerations, and human suffering isn’t an excuse to abandon prudential ones. All time is plague time , and we should thank our lucky stars that human suffering doesn’t necessarily imply urgency. Urgency makes people dumb.

The debate over universal health care is prepping for a comeback, which makes the first week of November a good time to point out that, while I consider government-provided healthcare insupportable in any case, it’s especially insupportable when animated by the conviction that, if we can eliminate suffering and forestall death, we always should . Again I link to In Whose Image Shall We Die? , and add this for an epigraph: “A thirty-billion-dollar artificial heart in every pot!”

My take on disability policy deserves its own post (besides this one , I mean), but step one has to be to drive a stake through the heart of social construction theory, i.e. that disability is only a hassle to the extent that society fails to accommodate it. It’s reasonable to define the deaf as a linguistic minority, or to call your warm-hearted nephew with mild Downs “just differently abled,” but what of those whose disability is less cute and quirky? We shouldn’t try to erase disability by making it just another kind of diversity; we should accept that disability means defect and defect means suffering, and then go from there. (That wasn’t half as concrete as I’d like; I’ll give the Community Choice Act its own post one of these days. In the meantime, I’ve written on this subject at greater length here and here .)

I should admit that my own enthusiasm for pain-as-character-building comes from a certain kind of Nietzschean Christianity: Either suffering makes a man stronger, in which case he’s a hero (“the will to badass” again), or it makes him weaker, in which case he’s participating in the sufferings of Christ. Other conservatives tacitly endorse suffering for its own sake by rejecting certain ways of alleviating pain as “therapeutic.” However, you don’t have to love Nietzsche, Christ, or even Philip Rieff to notice that it’s politically and culturally important for Americans to be able to say something about pain more complicated than “We’d rather not, thanks.”

I’ll close with Crispin Sartwell’s Grand Unified Theory of virtue, which I have tried to learn, love, and live:

For Aristotle, the goal in question is human happiness over a lifetime; for Mill, who believes an account of virtue can be compatible with his utilitarianism, the goal is the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people and, for MacIntyre, goals are more local and time bound, articulated within social practices . . . [M]y view divorces virtues from goals altogether. Virtues may in a given situation be destructive of one’s happiness and the happiness of others, and they may contribute to the destruction of the very social practices in which they arise and are expressed.
Everybody knows that the worst way to achieve happiness is to chase it; we should consider the possibility that the best way to achieve happiness is to flee it.

P. S. If you haven’t read Dr. Lawler’s entry in C11’s symposium on happiness, hop to it.

More on: Philip Rieff, Theory

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