Thursday, December 8, 2011

Adam Smith And Suffering

FLG just read this post over at Anti-Climacus, which references a post by Steven L. Taylor and also one by Todd Seavey detailing how Helen Rittelmeyer is Maleficent, the mistress of all evil.  Anyway, here's Anti-Climacus :
Back when postmodern conservatism was a thing, the one part with which I was most uncomfortable concerned the relative disinterest in the suffering of others (or, the alternative, that suffering was beautiful and thus ennobling). The impulse to not give a fig about others is strong, and abetted by the notion that people receive approximately what they deserve in life.* In my experience it usually takes the form of dropping a premise from an otherwise valid argument: "the world is such that people often have to suffer" "suffering is bad" "good things can often come out of suffering," in which the middle premise is referred to in a cursory way or dropped, with the end result being the belief that suffering is somehow inherently virtuous, a test of God that you're meant to pass. But in purely theological terms, suffering is bad: better to have lived in a world without it, and one does well to remember that there will be no suffering after judgment. The Christian who can't tell the difference between a blow and a caress is in a bad way.

FLG immediately thought, not of theology, but of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the beginning of which argues that sympathy is the basis of morality. FLG thought of it because it combines the topic of suffering with FLG's favorite - time horizons.

We can only imagine what others are feeling...

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.

Those suffering expect imagination in proportion to what they are feeling...

if you have either no fellow-feeling for the misfortunes I have met with, or none that bears any proportion to the grief which distracts me; or if you have either no indignation at the injuries I have suffered, or none that bears any proportion to the resentment which transports me, we can no longer converse upon these subjects. We become intolerable to one another. I can neither support your company, nor you mine. You are confounded at my violence and passion, and I am enraged at your cold insensibility and want of feeling.

Yet, a bystander cannot really imagine it in that proportion, but the function of society doesn't require such a high bar as imagining with the suffering with the same urgency as the sufferer themselves is feeling...

the emotions of the spectator will still be very apt to fall short of the violence of what is felt by the sufferer. Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another, that degree of passion which naturally animates the person principally concerned. That imaginary change of situation, upon which their sympathy is founded, is but momentary. The thought of their own safety, the thought that they themselves are not really the sufferers, continually intrudes itself upon them; and though it does not hinder them from conceiving a passion somewhat analogous to what is felt by the sufferer, hinders them from conceiving any thing that approaches to the same degree of violence. The person principally concerned is sensible of this, and at the same time passionately desires a more complete sympathy. He longs for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own. To see the emotions of their hearts, in every respect, beat time to his own, in the violent and disagreeable passions, constitutes his sole consolation. But he can only hope to obtain this by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him. He must flatten, if I may be allowed to say so, the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him. What they feel, will, indeed, always be, in some respects, different from what he feels, and compassion can never be exactly the same with original sorrow; because the secret consciousness that the change of situations, from which the sympathetic sentiment arises, is but imaginary, not only lowers it in degree, but, in some measure, varies it in kind, and gives it a quite different modification. These two sentiments, however, may, it is evident, have such a correspondence with one another, as is sufficient for the harmony of society. Though they will never be unisons, they may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required.

But, and here's where the time horizons come into play, it's not the immediate pain that actually causes the most suffering, but the imagination that creates fear and anxiety of remembered pain...

Nothing is so soon forgot as pain. The moment it is gone the whole agony of it is over, and the thought of it can no longer give us any sort of disturbance. We ourselves cannot then enter into the anxiety and anguish which we had before conceived. An unguarded word from a friend will occasion a more durable uneasiness. The agony which this creates is by no means over with the word. What at first disturbs us is not the object of the senses, but the idea of the imagination. As it is an idea, therefore, which occasions our uneasiness, till time and other accidents have in some measure effaced it from our memory, the imagination continues to fret and rankle within, from the thought of it.

Perhaps the most striking example is a mother and baby...

What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder; and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regard to the future, it is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will, in vain, attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.

The baby, without a concept of past or future, lives only in the present. So, as soon as the pain is relieved, all is well. The mother, who remembers prior pain and worries of pain in the future, actually suffers more.

So, what's FLG's point here?

The basis of human morality, at least in Smith's conception here, is sympathy. Sympathy is ultimately a product of the imagination. Imagination requires similar sensory experience to draw from, and the imagination, mental suffering, is in some ways both less intense and worse than the physical.

Looking at the immediate effects of suffering, therefore, leads to one conclusion only - suffering is bad. However, if we look at the potential effects of suffering over the longer-term, then perhaps there are ennobling aspects. For example, isn't the suffering of the Depression often cited as a key contributing factor to the formation of the Greatest Generation?

Therefore, on one hand, FLG agrees with Anti-Climacus that the Your Privilege Is Showing (YPIS) aspect of Taylor's attack on Santorum isn't all that interesting. It's not particularly relevant whether Santorum is presently and immediately suffering, but whether he has sufficient experience to imagine it and consequently sympathize.

On the other hand, FLG has some questions on Anti-Climacus' point here, "But in purely theological terms, suffering is bad: better to have lived in a world without it, and one does well to remember that there will be no suffering after judgment."

Was Jesus' suffering bad? Noble? Both?  If it is noble, then why?  Because he was suffering for others, for some purpose, rather than due to the whims of Fate?
Does time even exist after judgment?* If time doesn't exist, then can we even suffer? Isn't suffering inherently temporal?

* FLG knows this is his little pet proclivity, so he's stretching this here.
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