Human Suffering: Moral Resources In Short Supply

At least in my college and graduate studies, it was clear that one of the main goals of a liberal arts education was to train students to concern themselves with the suffering of others. I had always been sensitive to the suffering of those around me, but my coursework aimed to widen the horizons of my sympathy beyond my family, friends, coworkers, classmates, like-minded thinkers, and neighbors. In addition to studying political theory supporting this sentiment, we read ethnography, watched foreign films, studied abroad, and corresponded with students around the globe. We familiarized ourselves with people quite different from ourselves; learning about our commonalities as well as our vast differences. In my philosophy and political science classes we spoke a lot about utopia. We were meant to choose between various visions of an ideal future — a future where human suffering was largely mitigated — presumably in part due to a widening in the scope of people’s sympathies. Where we often focus our moral efforts on lessening the suffering of ourselves, those close to us, and our extended communities, some day we might all care for one another as a global community, the rhetoric seemed to extol. While this program has its positive contributions in battling the myopia and selfishness of many a college freshman, in the end I find it quite misleading. 

The world is chock-full of human suffering. This realization is one of the uncomfortable upshots of such an education in sympathy-expansion. Liberal arts educations are good at raising awareness of suffering, getting students to be more sympathetic to it, and encouraging us to do something about it. But what I often find lacking is a responsible discussion about how much we can and should do. Philosophers like Peter Singer teach us that we should have equal concern for the suffering of everyone on the planet. And since most people will not extend their sympathies this far, Singer continues, it’s our job as moral folks to make up for their shortfall as best we can. To me, this seems far too strenuous, and a recipe for inevitable short-coming and guilt. This might not bother Singer, but it bothers me. There will always be more suffering to battle, and there are only so many hours in the day for us moral champions to fight. Philosophers such as John Lachs are quick to point out that the world supplies us with infinite opportunities for moral intervention but only finite resources with which to help (time, influence, and sympathy itself are in short supply). Surely we shouldn’t lay awake each night feeling guilty that we could have done more. We can always do more. But should we? 

When have we done enough?, is the question I am posing here. As a pragmatist I don’t believe there are any ultimate answers to this question. There are no instructions about proper levels of moral commitment imparted to us by God, Nature, Reason or any other ultimately authoritative source. The truth about what we should do exists only insofar as we come to some agreement about it. Most pragmatists consider themselves meliorist [that is, people who work to make the world a better place] but that’s because the culture of pragmatists happened to develop that way. There’s nothing about philosophical pragmatism that necessarily commits one to humanitarianism over complacency. Just as nothing in philosophy can tell us when we’ve donated enough, helped enough, volunteered enough, or given enough. Philosophies that don’t provide such final answers about moral issues are often criticized, as are most "post-modern” strains of ethical thought, as being deeply troubling. And in comparison to being provided with an ethical roadmap from the Divine, they are. But that’s where we’re at. For centuries we’ve searched high and low for universal moral standards and ultimate ethical criterion, and we’ve come up short. Experience confirms that the world’s inhabitants value a plurality of goods — universal moral criterion just won’t do. 

So what, if anything, the concerned may ask, is the thoughtful person's motivation for remaining committed to the reduction of suffering as opposed to receding into his or her own selfish desires? Isn’t it a slippery slope from acknowledging the insurmountability of human suffering to doing whatever we want without boundary or concern for others? It’s possible, but I highly doubt it. Our moral habits and values are far too deeply entrenched for us to shed them even once persuaded by a post modern ethic like pragmatism. That being said, identifying with the moral sentiment I’m endorsing may help you rest better at night knowing that the suffering of the world doesn’t rest so squarely on your shoulders. And I find that valuable. 

It's not reasonable to ask us to care for all the worlds' inhabitants as if they were our kin. And it's completely reasonable to feel a stronger intuitive moral pull toward those closest to us. Seeing as the resources of time, influence, and sympathy are in such short supply, there's no shame in spending the lot your moral efforts on those closest to you; despite the incalculable amount of human suffering in this world. I do believe that there are benefits to expanding student's sympathies, but there can also be benefits to constricting them. When our sympathies are focused, we can better serve a relatively small group of people within our sphere of influence. What's a shame is when those with more focused moral agendas are made to feel ethically inadequate for not addressing the world's farther reaching problems.