Saturday, 9 January 2010

Sustainable Suffering

"The delight which a man has in hoping for and looking forward to some special satisfaction is a part of the real pleasure attaching to it enjoyed in advance. This is afterwards deducted; for the more we look forward to anything, the less satisfaction we find in it when it comes."
Reading Schopenhauer and thinking about his ideas on suffering has led me to consider the extent to which suffering is based on a drive to do as much as possible whilst "suffering" as little as possible. By this I mean that our "nature" is to exist and propagate ourselves as efficiently as is possible vis-à-vis suffering. Suffering is a limiting factor, without which, there would be no means of averting an unstoppable procreation and consumption.
"But misfortune has its uses... if the lives of men were relieved of all need, hardship and adversity; if everything they took in hand were successful, they would be so swollen with arrogance that, though they might not burst, they would present the spectacle of unbridled folly—nay, they would go mad...
If the world were a paradise of luxury and ease, a land flowing with milk and honey, where every Jack obtained his Jill at once and without any difficulty, men would either die of boredom or hang themselves; or there would be wars, massacres, and murders; so that in the end mankind would inflict more suffering on itself than it has now to accept at the hands of Nature."
"In his powers of reflection, memory and foresight, man possesses, as it were, a machine for condensing and storing up his pleasures and his sorrows."
This is why we can "choose" suicide because (notwithstanding the fear of death - whether instinctive or otherwise) we are able to reflect upon our current circumstances and make a considered decision about the relative merits of curtailing current (and presumably unbearable) suffering or enduring suffering offset by the promise of future pleasures. Animals, of course, don't have this choice and this is an important point because, considering the human capacity for immense suffering and the conscious contemplation of it, we need the most formidable disincentives to counteract the logical conclusion that life isn't worth living at all.

But what does this mean as regards the "alleviation of suffering"? If we alleviate suffering in one quarter are we not simply creating the conditions for suffering in another? For example, if we alleviate the suffering of an animal experiencing pain, do we not then encourage the potential for this animal to live longer, to consume more and to perpetuate itself and thereby create a increasing demand on limited resources? So whilst the negative effect might not be immediately encountered, it will nonetheless, be exacted at a later date and probably to a greater degree, if not on that particular animal, then another. This reminds me of the second law of thermodynamics, of which, as biological thermodynamicist Donald Haynie has said:
"Any theory claiming to describe how organisms originate and continue to exist by natural causes must be compatible with the first and second laws of thermodynamics."
This law states that the entropy (disorder) of a closed system will increase over time until an energy equilibrium is reached (ie: all the energy is used up OR until there is a equilibrium between energy available and energy consumed). But this shouldn't lead us to the conclusion that to alleviate suffering is a pointless task. Speculating about some future increase in suffering is simply that: speculation - any amount of which shouldn't give us licence to renounce our responsibility to make the present as devoid of suffering as possible, whilst propagating a minimum of future suffering. This is surely what "sustainability" is all about: creating a balance between the resources available to us and our consumption of them such that we can endure.
The strange but deeply affirming thing about Schopenhauer was that despite his devastatingly pessimistic views, he was able to rise above these miseries and indicate a way forward:
“In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another… and it reminds us of that which is after all the most necessary thing in life—the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor, of which everyone stands in need, and which, therefore, every man owes to his fellow.”


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