This article is part of an ongoing series of articles describing objections that may be raised against my original article “Evil and suffering in a morally good world.” The idea that evil and suffering might not only serve a greater good, but may in fact be the only logically possible means of bringing about human flourishing (as opposed to mere physical survival and pleasure) is obviously the kind of proposal that is likely to be met with some resistance. And so in this article I want to consider the uneven distribution of evil and suffering and the unfair distribution of evil and suffering. Some places and people have it worse than others, what are we to make of that?
Suffering should be evenly distributed
It would make more sense, would it not, if the suffering in the world were more equally distributed? Why is there more suffering in less developed nations than in more developed nations, for instance? Why do some parts of the world seem prone to natural disasters and other parts seem relatively safe? Couldn’t God have spread the suffering around a little better; a little less “lumpy?” If suffering is a logically necessary ingredient for authentic heroism we should expect it everywhere in roughly equivalent proportions.
While part of the disparity of suffering is human caused, like when warlords hoard all the food for themselves during a famine and refuse to share with the starving masses, the lack of equality in other forms of suffering has nothing to do with human choice. No mountain village, for instance, will ever experience a tsunami. Siberia has never suffered under a tropical storm or a hurricane. Some diseases are quite localized.
When considering this objection my first observation would be to point out that any given form of suffering may not be perfectly uniformly distributed, but suffering on the whole seems to be sufficiently evenly distributed. We will all face it some day. Siberia may never have endured a hurricane like a Caribbean island, but it should also be pointed out that the Caribbean islands have never endured a Siberian winter. Though some diseases may be relatively localized to one area, other diseases may be more localized to another area. Diseases, overall, plague the entire planet; nobody is safe. Frankly, it would be difficult to find any place on earth that is absolutely devoid of any natural disasters, diseases or hardships of any kinds. There may be substantially more hardships in some places and less in others but one way or another we are all faced with these challenges in life.
One needs to consider what life would be like if suffering were perfectly evenly distributed. If hurricanes struck everywhere and every disease was perfectly randomly distributed across the planet, would that be better? Not really. We suffer in the present world and we would still suffer in that hypothetical world. The challenge that suffering presents to humanity, and the resultant opportunities for heroism that suffering entails, would still be perfectly accessible to all humans, just as they are now. How is that an improvement on the current state of affairs?
Furthermore, the inequality in the distribution of suffering as it exists in our present world does offer various other opportunities for heroism that would be lost if all hardships were perfectly evenly distributed. For instance, the doctor who gives up the familiarity of his home town and relocates his family to another part of the world in order to battle a disease that only exists in that part of the world exhibits a depth of character that exceeds another doctor who battles only those diseases that are in his own back yard. Both doctors are obviously heroic, but the doctor who chooses to fight remote diseases exhibits a different form (or magnitude) of heroism. Such exceptional displays of self-sacrifice would be impossible if suffering were perfectly uniformly distributed across the globe because every disease would be in every doctor’s back yard.
Not only does the uneven distribution of certain forms of suffering provide the opportunity for novel forms of heroism, in some cases it makes heroism possible at all. To dovetail off of an idea that I introduced in a previous article (colossal suffering for everybody) consider how psychotic dictators have made a real mess of some of the worst nations in the world. Through their abysmal “leadership,” industry is made substantially more difficult. Is it any surprise that such nations are not at the leading edge of scientific and medical research? However, when the actions of the dictator make the advances in scientific and medical research necessary for the benefit of their own nation, who do they call? Naturally they have to talk to other nations without dictators. But, to get back to our point about an equal distribution of suffering, if every nation were governed by psychotic dictators then no nation would have the scientific / medical research to help any other nation, let alone the citizens within their own borders. It is the imperfect distribution of certain forms of evil and suffering that makes it possible for humans to heroically respond to instances of evil and suffering that they are not personally enduring. We need nations without dictators if there is going to be the infrastructure necessary to help those nations with dictators.
In other words, often humanity can respond to horrors in one place, time and people group precisely because those in another place, time and people group are not experiencing those horrors. The somewhat uneven distribution of certain kinds of evil and suffering makes certain kinds of heroism possible in the first place.
Suffering should be fairly distributed
It is one thing to claim that suffering should be evenly distributed and another thing to claim that suffering should be fairly distributed. In other words, those who deserve to suffer ought to suffer, but not the rest of us. Interestingly, one cannot really ask for both. If somebody says they think suffering should be perfectly evenly distributed and they think suffering should be perfectly fairly distributed, point out that those two requests actually run counter to each other. Unless they believe every human being is morally equivalent (Hitler was on par with Martin Luther King Jr.) then a “fair” distribution of suffering would be anything but equal!
I digress. Any kind of “character dependent” distribution of suffering would undermine the fundamental purpose of heroism. One necessary condition to being a real hero is to respond to a situation in the morally right way with no regard to any personal benefits. If, on the other hand, it was well-known that those who “live right” are supernaturally protected from a wide array of hardships, then people’s motivation for heroism would be selfish, not selfless. Suppose, for instance, that scientists discovered that as long as a person is a registered and active volunteer firefighter, that person would never contract cancer. If no volunteer firefighter ever got cancer, the very next day there would be a line-up of volunteers eager to sign up at the fire station; the line would extend around the block! What would motivate the new volunteers? Heroism? Absolutely not! Self-interest and self-preservation would be the underlying motives. Faux heroism would rule the day if suffering were only experienced by those who deserved it.
Even Christian theology is nuanced enough to account for this; Salvation for the next life is not dependent on our works and good behavior in this life, it is understood to be an unmerited gift. If it were based on our “good lives” then the New Earth would be packed full of frauds. Authentic heroism is never motivated by self-interest.
There is another aspect of Christian theology that comes to mind on this subject and that is Jesus’ comment that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) Perhaps those who wish that suffering would only befall those who deserved it might consider carefully just who it is who gets to decide which humans deserve suffering and which do not. There is no wisdom in the human who appeals to the justice of God; there is great wisdom in appealing to his mercy.
Furthermore, if suffering only struck those who deserved it, why should I help them? Our moral intuitions would kick in and we would more readily ignore the suffering of others; they had it coming! [I recently blogged about how Yogic religions actually perpetuate suffering precisely because those who suffer “had it coming.” This illustrates my point.] The entire motivation for heroism in the face of suffering is precisely that this person does not deserve to suffer, or at least they do not deserve it any more than any other person (to follow the Christian paradigm). That inherent lack of “justice” is precisely the thing that we are being called to correct through our heroic actions. We already know that God will balance the scales of justice one day, the really interesting question is whether or not you and I are going to do anything about it today.
[An obvious exception to all this would be situations were a person’s suffering is self-inflicted. One has little pity for the man who stuffs his face with Twinkies and never lifts a finger, then complains to God when he has heart problems and dies in his 50’s because he’s 200lb overweight. Obviously we should still help the man, but we intuitively realize that blaming God in such circumstances is a rather laughable charge.]
What about the youth? Surely they do not deserve to suffer. That is certainly an interesting idea but let me ask this, what should the cut off age be? 7? 12? 18? Whatever the age is, can we even begin to fathom the horror that would be associated with growing up? If diseases, disfigurements, natural disasters, accidents and so on would never strike anybody under the age of 18 – if the youth were truly invincible – how terrifying would life be for all the 17 year olds? Would a person’s 18th birthday be a time of celebration or a time to hide in the basement and not come out? Indeed, such “special treatment” would introduce a whole new level of psychological terror for those just prior to the arbitrary cut off age. The likelihood is still there that they would end up facing life’s hardships just like the rest of us; they would merely postpone it. So they still suffer, just like in this world, but now there is the added influence of immense psychological trauma when they reach the age of “maturity.”
There would also be an added problematic dimension to a world like that. Part of the purpose of getting bumps and bruises as children is to prepare us for the world around us. If the first 18 years of our lives we never got sick, never broke a bone and could not possibly die then we would acquire 18 years of invincibility-induced bad habits that would put us at extra risk when we passed that particular milestone. This, it seems to me, would greatly increase the likelihood of suffering and death among 18 year olds as they emerged from their arbitrary protective “bubble” and came face-to-face with reality.
I fail to see how that is an improvement. The loss of infants and children is tragic, absolutely, but they are human just like the rest of us. The loss of any human is tragic; let’s not start playing favorites.
I argued that suffering must be sufficiently evenly distributed in order to provide everybody the opportunity for heroism (either through personal suffering or to intervene in the suffering of others) and I also argued that it must be more or less random to ensure that one’s motives for heroism are pure; they are truly heroic. Young, old, innocent, guilty, male, female, black, white; we all suffer in various ways and it has nothing at all to do with what we have done or not done in this life. It is not warranted suffering.
Thus we find that suffering needs to be sufficiently evenly distributed, but there are benefits to a less-than-perfectly-even distribution of suffering. We also find that suffering should be “no respecter of persons,” it could happen to anybody at any time. It seems to me that such an equation is necessary to maximize the possibility of human flourishing vis-à-vis heroism.
Not surprisingly, this is more or less what our world looks like. Since this world provides the opportunity to maximize our heroism the question that needs asking, as always in this series, is “what are you going to do about it?” Is your “hero within” going to emerge into the world and make a real difference?