Fear of Suffering

Fear of Suffering January 16, 2024


Behind many of our most contentious issues today is an extreme, pathological fear of suffering.

I owe that epiphany to National Review‘s Wesley J. Smith, who writes,

The fear of suffering (or deprivation of personal desires) is causing untold moral harm in the West — from ever-expanding euthanasia laws to the march of increasingly radical reproductive technologies, to transitioning children with gender dysphoria with harmful puberty blockers and mastectomies on teenage girls, to transhumanistic advocacy that threatens to unleash new eugenics, etc.

I would add the demand for abortion, our dependency on technology to make our lives easier, the dumbing down of our schools, the divorce rate, and the world’s unhinged response to COVID.  We cannot handle suffering in any way, ours or someone else’s, and we will do anything–break up our marriage, abort our offspring,  let our children be mutilated, shut down the economy, kill the sick–to avoid it.

But some people are going further, thinking that the inevitability of suffering at some level means that life is not worth living at all.  Now some are taking this mindset to its logical conclusion.

Smith cites the Finnish bioethicist Matti Häyry, who has published an article entitled Confessions of an Antinatalist in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics.  As an “antinatalist”–that is, someone opposed to having children–Häyry repeats the reasoning given by many non-philosopher couples for why they do not want to have children.  Namely, that they might suffer.  He writes,

I would be pleased to see no one to have children, because that would be a rational thing to do. Reproduction carries risks to the possible future individuals. All lives are occasionally miserable, some lives are predominantly miserable, and individuals may think, justifiably, that their lives have no meaning. My reason suggests that it would be unwise and unkind to bring new people into existence and thereby expose them to these risks.

He does not stop there.  He also advocates human extinction.  Humans suffer.  Therefore, letting human beings go extinct–which, of course, would happen if no one had children anymore–would be a way of eliminating suffering.

He does not stop there.  He also advocates letting animals go extinct.  That way they will not suffer.  He specifically refers to farm animals, which would have to go extinct if human beings no longer ate them or went extinct themselves.  He writes,

I am an anti-pronatalist, or strict antinatalist and I support stopping human reproduction and animal production, including but not limited to factory farming. I would be pleased to see no more suffering-prone beings created by people. Voluntary human extinction and factory animal extinction would follow from these and I would have no qualms about them. If homo sapiens can find the kindness and the courage to break the cycle of sentience that currently holds the species in its grip, excellent. And even barring that, or if a palatably phased human demise takes its time, liberating factory animals from their suffering would be a welcome advance action.

So he would be glad to have farm animals go extinct before human beings do.  He goes on to make an exception for wild animals, but, as Smith points out, “Animals in the wild suffer far more than most humans and many domesticated animals–’red in tooth and claw,’ and all that — so why not eliminate all organisms capable of feeling pain if the point is to end the evil of suffering?”

Actually, Häyry hints at that conclusion when he expresses the hope that human beings would “find the kindness and the courage to break the cycle of sentience.”  “Sentient” beings are those that are capable of sensing or feeling, referring on some level to the entire animal kingdom.  Eliminate all sentient life and you’ve eliminated suffering.  There is no suffering on the surface of the moon.

While there is a moral obligation to alleviate suffering, it does not “alleviate” suffering to get rid of the sufferer.  The moral obligation is to help the sufferer.  Not to eliminate an abstraction at the expense of the sufferer.

By Häyry’s logic, we should fight poverty by exterminating poor people.  Putting ourselves out of our misery with the co-ordinated use of nuclear weapons would be a way to achieve world peace.

Today’s phobia against suffering is in stark contrast to previous generations, which on the whole suffered much more than we do, especially in the days before modern medicine.  They didn’t like to suffer any more than we do, but when you read the writings of those times, there is usually not nearly so much angst over it.  Rather, they endured it with a far greater level of courage, fortitude, and–crucially, in what is most missing today–faith.


Photo:  Lunar Surface, Apollo 11 via Picryl, Public Domain



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