Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Suffering doesn't even rank"

The other day, I read an interesting Facebook post by a Catholic writer saying that suffering may be bad, but it's not the worst thing ever. It's not even in the top ten.

I had a knee-jerk reaction against this, because so much of my own experience of Catholicism involved either ignoring suffering or seeking it out. I would suffer a headache rather than take ibuprofen, partly "for souls" but also partly because it seemed superficial to care about whether my head hurt. Because in the broad scheme of things, if it wasn't going to keep me or anyone else out of heaven, what does it matter?

Now some of that is just toxic Regnum Christi stuff. Like how they didn't help the poor because converting people has a bigger eternal effect for your efforts. It was so efficient it was inhuman. I don't want to paint all of Catholicism with that brush, because often Catholics care a great deal about preventing suffering, for instance in ministries to the poor.

But here was a Catholic saying the same thing, so I know it's certainly an idea that's out there. So I asked, well, what's on the top ten list then? What's immoral, if not causing suffering for other people?

Her answer was a personalist one: sin is treating people like things. I don't, per se, disagree; Granny Weatherwax says the same in the Discworld books, which are basically my scriptures. But it's just kind of vague. What specific things do humans deserve that things do not?

Right now a guy is working on my car. I paid him to do it. Am I using him like a thing, because I really only want car work out of him and not a relationship? Does it count as treating him like a person because I'm paying him? Because he has the freedom to turn me away? Because I exchanged some friendly banter when I came in? Saying "treat him like a person" doesn't guide me very much.

As I've said before, I have three moral values: life, liberty, and happiness. So it would be a sin to kill someone, to violate their free choice in some way, or to cause them suffering. I like this rubric because it is a lot more clear, as a guide, than treating people like people.

My friend argued that this doesn't cover all the things that are morally wrong. What about statutory rape? The child may consent to it and enjoy it! My feeling is that we ban it because it is very likely that in these cases consent is not truly free (since the child is accustomed to obeying adults) and because in many cases, suffering happens later, when the relationship becomes abusive or when it ends and the child finds they were scarred by it in some way. It's not because there is an objective reality, apart from the victim's agency and happiness, which makes statutory rape wrong. Age is a number - but we set that number at a level we hope will prevent suffering and manipulation.

Of course, I realized after awhile that we weren't really talking about examples like that. Hanging over everyone's head right now is the question of abortion. I like to sidestep that question by talking about birth control - like, if we all agree that women should have agency over their own bodies AND fetuses should not be killed, then naturally we'll want birth control to be widely available, because it will serve both of these ends. It's only when denying women reproductive agency is a more important goal than saving babies that anybody would oppose birth control. (Unless you think birth control causes abortion, but I've addressed that elsewhere.) But this conversation can be had if we stick to moral goods that are clearly defined like life, liberty, and freedom from suffering. We can ask how to preserve as many as possible of these goods for both women and the unborn.

When you instead talk about "treating people like things," it becomes very unclear. Is demanding a woman become or stay pregnant when she doesn't want to, treating her like an incubator? Or does her decision to freely take a pill and then engage in sex turn her into a sex doll? Which actions are worthy of a human and which aren't? This rubric brings us no closer to an answer.

It seems to me that demanding a person follow an abstract set of rules, like "the natural law," even at the cost of their happiness, free will, or even life, is the real objectification. We treat a person like an abstraction, an idealized human who ought to work the same as any other human. If x is good, it should be good for everyone! So we can safely ignore your expressed wishes and the real life results, so that our theological framework isn't threatened.

Treating a person like a person means acknowledging that avoiding suffering is a legitimate goal they may have, and that they have a right to take it into account even if you don't think it's all that important. It also means they may have goals which are more important to them than avoiding suffering, and because they're not an animal or a child, they get to make that judgment for themselves. Whether their higher goal is having a child or writing a book or proving string theory, we can't override that because we think we know what's best. We may think having a baby may make them happier than proving string theory, but we can't override their wishes. Or we may think they shouldn't have a baby because they're too poor or too disabled, that it won't make them happy. But if they want to, they can. That's treating people like people.

So, I think I can get behind "don't treat people like things," but for me that expands past not treating them like tools or robots. We also shouldn't treat them like theological abstractions. Or like children in a world where we're the real adults, better equipped to say what's best for them than we do. I think the best way to do that is to drill down more specifically on what rights a person has.


ficino4ml said...

"It seems to me that demanding a person follow an abstract set of rules, like "the natural law," even at the cost of their happiness, free will, or even life, is the real objectification... So we can safely ignore your expressed wishes and the real life results, so that our theological framework isn't threatened."

I think the above expresses a big part of the problem in natural law ethics and their application.

Sheila said...

It's why I abandoned deontology. I realized it automatically requires prioritizing the moral law itself over human persons. Therefore it is better to preserve the moral law than to save a life.

I read the whole thread you sent me over to read (and dropped a couple comments, though honestly there wasn't much to add by the time I got there) and it was so obvious there. In the case of ectopic pregnancy, the same people who would say that it was entirely worth the loss of a mother's life to avoid breaking the moral law, would *not* claim they were doing it to save the baby. The baby dies either way, the important thing is that we don't break the moral law.

Whereas I would say, save all the people you can, because people are moral ends. Whether the embryo dies naturally or by tube removal or by misoprostol makes no difference to the embryo - therefore the decision is not being made out of love or concern for the embryo. It's something else, namely prioritizing the theological framework.

For my next trick, if I get a chance, I should write about the annoying tendency of Catholics to think legislating natural law theory isn't an establishment of religion because it's "rational."

ficino4ml said...

Agreed all the way down.

As to your last sentence, I am eager to see what you write. Dennis Bonnette insists that his stance on abortion (and against contraception etc.) is a stance he has reached, and is defending, from pure reason, not "qua" teaching of the Church.

I've been reading Sextus Empiricus' Outlines of Pyrrhonism in Greek every morning. What a contrast between the mentality of a Pyrrhonian skeptic and that of a Thomist!

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm baffled by the author's opinion that suffering isn't even in the top ten. Was he just being glib or has he actually made a top ten list of things that he has judged to be worse than suffering?

If I were into this kind of list, suffering would definitely make my top ten. Heck, I can guarantee that it's in my top three. (What wouldn't make it at all? Death.) I would, however, qualify that as "pointless suffering" (for lack of a better term). When you believe that you can unite your suffering to Christ's and use it to save souls, then you at least have some consolation. Now, I'm sure that a lot of faithful Catholics who are suffering and offering it up would also jump at the chance to have an easier time of it. And I think that people who would impose suffering quotas are even worse than those people I mentioned in another comment who want to impose helping quotas. But there's a great difference between thinking your suffering is meaningless in and of itself and believing your suffering can be part of a greater order.

Sheila said...

Right? I asked her what did count in the top ten but she accused me of looking for a "gotcha." No, I actually wanted to know! Unfortunately we never got far enough. It's possible she realized that maybe top ten was an overstatement.

I definitely agreed with her that sometimes we might prefer suffering because we have some greater end. But that doesn't make suffering unimportant - it just means that the other thing is that much bigger.

I'd argue you don't think death is a big deal because you don't believe in death at all. You believe in a transition to eternal life. Nothing bad about that. But on the other hand, you probably would save somebody's life if you could. So I'm guessing it isn't actually *nothing* to you either - it's going to cause grief to the living, and so on.

Philip Rand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheila said...

If you have a point to make, you forgot to include it.

Children can make some judgments for themselves, but not others. I believe in letting my children make what decisions they are competent to, but I also had one child get a sliver in his toe the other day and try to convince me it didn't need the tweezers, and I didn't let him make that judgment because he had no concept of how bad it could get. So I dug it out and gave him a treat.

You non-consensually treat an adult that way, and you may go to prison.

Philip Rand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheila said...

Every child fears getting slivers out because it hurts. If you hung around this blog much, you'd know I'm not punitive and my kids aren't at all afraid of me.

This is your warning. Either stop just flinging accusations, or leave.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'd probably be less likely to save people if I thought life completely stopped at death. Because then what would the point be? I'd just be prolonging the inevitable.

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