Virtue versus Suffering

The primary contention of my new book on suffering is that eliminating suffering would actually be a bad thing because one would simultaneously eliminate virtue. We cannot be virtuous in a world devoid of any challenges, hardship, suffering, inconvenience and the like.

I thought it might be helpful to illustrate what I have in mind with a chart. Did I mention that I’m an engineer…

I theorize that there is a relationship between virtue and “hardship” or “suffering” as shown in the chart below.


Just to be perfectly clear, I totally made this chart up. This did not come from any kind of official source or scientific investigation. This represents my theory; take it with a grain of salt.

In a world with too much suffering (right side) people’s opportunity for virtue disappears. For example, if everybody were a damsel in distress there would be no knights in shining armour left to save them. It’s not too hard to see that in nations where the basics of life crumble for a variety of reasons (economic collapse, war, genocide, etc) that humanity quickly descends into chaos. Virtue is a lot harder to come by.

That part makes sense, but what about the other side? I wonder how many people have considered the downside of eliminating suffering (left side of the chart). If everybody was a damsel in distress there would be no knights in shining armour, but conversely, if there were no damsels in distress – no fire-breathing dragons to be slayed – then there would be no need for knights in shining armour. If we swing too far to the left on the chart virtue also disappears, for lack of opportunity.

I’ve mentioned the website Heterodox Academy frequently lately because I am so enthralled with what they are doing. Jonathan Haidt (one of the key figures at that website) did a remarkable talk on the difference between coddling people and strengthening people. The underlying theme of the talk, as described in the article, is that people are “anti-fragile.” What does he mean by that? Consider three responses to stress:

  1. Fragile – break under stress. This would be like an egg.
  2. Resilient – holds under stress. This might be like a steel beam.
  3. Anti-Fragile – actually gets stronger under stress. This is where people fit in.

As Dr. Haidt elaborates, we actually do a disservice to our young people if we make life too easy for them. It is through challenges that our character grows. Because we have raised a generation of people under the philosophy of minimizing challenges and stress, we are now seeing the results of that; their anti-fragile potential has not been tapped into.

And if you poke around at Heterdox Academy for any length of time you’ll see what that looks like. Colleges in the USA are seeing more and more young people who have never been forced to seriously deal with competing ideas. They have been coddled, not strengthened to use Haidt’s language. Rather than allowing their anti-fragile nature to be pushed and stretched so that they become better people, many young people have been insulated and protected so much that their lack of virtue – of character, honour and basic decency toward others – is embarrassingly obvious. What does that look like? This article at Heterodox Academy gives some real-life examples.

They curse professors and spit on visiting speakers at Yale. They shut down newspapers at Wesleyan. They torment a dean who was trying to help them at Claremont McKenna. They threaten and torment fellow students at Dartmouth. And in all cases, they demand that adults in power DO SOMETHING to punish those whose words and views offend them.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is just one small glimpse into what a world without challenges and stress – a world devoid of suffering – looks like. And if that doesn’t concern you, maybe you should read my book for a more thorough consideration of just how bad things could get in such a hypothetical world.

If people don’t have to deal with real problems, they just end up creating “first world problems…”