The Fear of Suffering is Driving Us Crazy
The primary purpose of society shifted in recent decades from protecting innocent human life to eliminating suffering. That may seem like a small change in emphasis. But our suffering phobia has triggered a harmful societal neurosis that has both subverted human exceptionalism and undermined societal common sense.
Let’s start with the transgender moral panic. In the name of eliminating suffering in children with gender dysphoria, “do no harm” medical ethics have been cast aside to the detriment of the very patients in need of care. Cases in point: The Biden administration and the American Pediatric Association—among others—insist that children identifying as the sex they were not born should receive drastic interventions such as hormones and puberty blocking and “top surgeries”—i.e., mastectomies in girls ages 12 to 17. Occasionally, gender dysphoric children are even subjected to “bottom” surgeries, genital mutilations that result in a lifetime of sterility and sexual dysfunction. California has been so corrupted by this ideology that it passed a law making itself a gender-affirming sanctuary state.
Gender-affirming care warriors justify such drastic action as a means of eliminating emotional suffering in children and preventing youth suicide. But the evidence for that claim is weak—at best—and ignores the “de-transition” phenomenon in which young people realize they are indeed the sex they were born, with some lamenting that adults didn’t protect them in their time of confusion. Meanwhile, countries such as the UK, France, Sweden, and Finland have pulled back from promoting the gender-affirming approach because—as the UK’s National Health Service put it—gender confusion in minors is often “transitory,” proof of substantial medical benefit for such interventions is slight, and the potential for harm to children pronounced. But rather than grapple with different opinions, our top medical journals publish article after article pretending that the controversy doesn’t exist.
Now, let’s look at euthanasia. Euthanasia/assisted suicide laws aim to eliminate suffering by eliminating the sufferer. We are told that assisted suicide is restricted to cases in which nothing else can be done to alleviate suffering and that strict guidelines protect against abuse. But that’s just sales puffery. Indeed, in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada, euthanasia consciousness has been so popularly embraced that doctor-facilitated death is available legally not only to the dying, but also, to the disabled, the elderly, and in the first two countries, the mentally ill. (Canada was scheduled to allow euthanasia to be administered to the mentally ill in March, but that plan is now on hold.)
Meanwhile, all three countries permit organ harvesting to be conjoined with euthanasia, a policy so extreme that in Ontario, Canada, the organ donation organization will contact a person approved for a lethal jab to ask for their organs. In U.S. states where assisted suicide is legal, things haven’t yet gone so far. But lethal prescriptions may be available by video conference, and Oregon just eliminated its residency requirements thereby allowing the state to become a location for suicide tourism.
And we mustn’t forget abortion absolutism. To prevent suffering in women who don’t want to be pregnant, some states have passed laws allowing abortion up to the moment of birth. Of course, that means there’s one category of humans in such jurisdictions—unborn children who, science has shown, can feel pain later in gestation—whose suffering matters not a whit.
How crazy does the desire to eliminate suffering become? This crazy. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement wants to see us go the way of the dinosaurs. One big-brained professor wrote in the Journal of Medical Ethics blog that wiping out humanity is preferable to keeping on because it would prevent intense suffering of billions not yet born. “The extent of suffering” they would feel, he wrote “may provide a pro tanto reason to prevent them from existing.” Good grief.
The drive to eliminate suffering isn’t limited to the human realm. A paper was just published claiming that insects should be protected by welfare laws. “If insects feel pain,” the authors worry, “insect farming and pest control would cause mass suffering.” Oh, no!
We see the same approach to animal rights—which must be distinguished from animal welfare. Animal rights is an ideology that claims humans and animals are morally equal because both can suffer. Hence, that which is done to animals should be judged as if the same actions were done to people.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) went so far, several years ago, to compare eating meat to—literally—The Holocaust, arguing, “Like the Jews murdered in concentration camps, animals are terrorized when they are housed in huge filthy warehouses and rounded up for shipment to slaughter. The leather sofa and handbag are the moral equivalent of the lampshades made from the skins of people killed in the death camps.”
Meanwhile, some are claiming that humans must prevent plant suffering. A professor writing in the New York Times, for example, claimed that peas are people too, writing, “When it comes to a plant, it turns out to be not only a what but also a who—an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good,” meaning we can’t “justify the cultivation of peas and other annual plants.” The nature rights movement goes even further—declaring that geographical features such as rivers, glaciers, and other aspects of nature are entitled to human-type rights.
Enough. Suffering is an inescapable reality. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to human or animal misery. And, we certainly have a positive duty to mitigate suffering whenever we reasonably can—the basis for many charitable and beneficent actions such as medical charities, organizations feeding the hungry, and the proliferation of humane societies.
But eliminating suffering is impossible. Not only is the goal Utopian, but it leads to ever-more-extreme distortions of decency and a collapse of public policy rationality—which ironically, can cause the very “evil” that suffering abolitionists yearn so desperately to prevent.