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The nature of human suffering

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Jennifer F. of "Et tu?" has started a new series called "Half Baked Thought Thursday," which in effect consists of a weekly thought experiment for her readers. For the inaugural post of the series, she wrote:

What about fearing other people's suffering (or potential suffering) on their behalf -- how can we be deeply compassionate and helpful without falling into the dangerous "your life isn't worth living" territory?

I see two motives for the desire to prevent the suffering of others: the belief that suffering is an affront to the dignity of the human person, and the belief that suffering is evil. Superficially, they don't sound very different, but there is actually all the difference in the world.

If suffering is evil, then suffering should be avoided at all costs. If another person is suffering, then ending that suffering is the highest priority. Healing is the best option, but if that is not possible, other options should be considered -- drugging the sufferer into oblivion, drastic permanent treatments, even euthanasia. The trouble with this view is that it is unbalanced; if suffering is evil, then all other possibilities -- even killing! -- are on the table.

If suffering is an affront to human dignity, then it is only one entry on a list of affronts. The list includes mutilation, murder, and sedation. The list can be ranked in order of offensiveness, with murder at the top; the other items on the list can be balanced against each other for each individual case. For an epileptic not responding to medication, perhaps "mutilation" by brain surgery is less offensive to human dignity than the suffering caused by the seizures. For a person in chronic pain, perhaps drug sedation is less of an affront than the suffering caused by constant agony.

In either case, a spiritual view of suffering allows good to be drawn from the evil. A person may even volunteer to suffer or accept involuntary suffering heroically in order to accomplish that good. Christ certainly did. But it should not be forgotten that suffering is still an objectively bad thing.

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