The problem of disparate suffering

“The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not.” – C.S. Lewis

As long as theism has existed, the problem of suffering has been at the forefront of the argument over the existence of an infinite-personal deity. There has been much said about it, and I do not feel that I can do any justice to the defense of the problem of evil (POE) from theodicies or otherwise (although I do enjoy reading David Wood’s thoughts on the subject).

There is, however, another aspect of this struggle that I feel is greatly overlooked, to the detriment of the debate. I have entitled this the problem of disparate suffering.

Before I begin, I would like to clarify some terms. First, I am distinguishing between the problem of evil and arguments from evil (following Wood’s lead here), the former being the acknowledgment that evil exists and that it poses a conundrum that needs to be addressed and the latter using the acknowledgment of the problem as an evidence against the existence of God. I have no intent on discussing the problem of disparate suffering as a defeater to belief in God’s existence, but I think the problem is there and greatly underappreciated for its part in the overall problem of evil/suffering.

I first began to ponder this question several months ago when I encountered the Lewis quote given at the beginning of this entry, and I was absolutely blown away by its force. I have continued to consider its importance, although I am now convinced that its weight is primarily emotional, not logical.

Ultimately, one of the biggest dilemmas of humanity is the human condition, which presents a number of different lesser problems (the efficacy of human noetic devices and the place of humanity in the universe, for a few). Suffering seems to be a fairly universal part of this condition as well, but it varies in degree. This is expressed in a number of ways: some people have more wealth than others (or conversely, some people have little or nothing while others have more than they need [or perhaps deserve]), some have more health problems than others, some experience more personal grief than others (such as loved ones dying or catastrophic events occurring in their lives). This leads to a disparity that is inherently a part of the problem of suffering – some people suffer more than others, and some people barely suffer at all.

I alluded to a word a moment ago that I think is the crux of the whole matter: desert. [That is, what one deserves or merits, not the arid region or the course following dinner.] When we consider suffering at all, we think of what suffering a person deserves; this is more true, I think, with disparate suffering because even those who maintain that suffering is a necessary part of life (perhaps even when gratuitious) would hopefully agree that human suffering should be fairly distributed, with not too many receiving the majority of the pain dispensed in the sum of the universe and not too many receiving too little. That is, however, the situation.

So we are left to wonder why suffering is not evenly distributed even within relatively reasonable limits among humans and why some good people do not suffer. I ask myself this question often.

This is a subject I will likely revisit on a later occasion, since it fascinates and intrigues how to justify the fact that I should suffer more than I do. I encourage anyone who reads this to give it some thought.


11 Responses to The problem of disparate suffering

  1. Anda Marceni says:

    Humanity has become a species that seems to place more belief in dividing ideas such as suffering and discrimination than building a cultural mindset of unity. The cause of much suffering is nothing more than the mindsets of those who are enduring the suffering. Often, it comes from nowhere else. Religion, and in particular Abrahamic relgion, is the major driving force in this phenomena.

  2. Brody says:

    I highly disagree; in this context, the talk of disparity is one of justice and desert, which is by its nature uniting (since it assumes to a degree that humans are equal). I also think to say that suffering is in the mind of “those who are enduring the suffering” is perhaps a bit patronizing for those individuals. Not to mention (getting into the theological aspect) that at very least Judaism and Christianity both have narratives or moral guidance that promote the idea that suffering can be a very positive thing: Job’s narrative, despite its low points, is ultimately about faithfulness and trust in God’s providence even in trouble, and the apostle Paul is fairly clear in Romans 5 about suffering being a step in character development.

    Thanks for your feedback, though; I hope you’ll read my future writings on the subject as well.

  3. Anda Marceni says:

    I enjoy some disagreement and debate, just not divisiveness. We’re here for unity. I appreciate your reasoning, but I cannot adopt it as I’m of a different spiritual mindset; hence our views are not able to reconcile. This isn’t a bad thing. It makes for good intellectual debate.

    As to patronizing those individuals, I depends on the kind of suffering they are enduring. There’s suffering that could be prevented by the individual because they have either caused it, or have put themselves in a situation that causes suffering. There’s also suffering that could not have been prevented, the fruit of a corrupt and divided culture. It would be unfair and perhaps insulting to say that the latter is a product of one’s mindset, but I refer to the former, who put themselves in the way of suffering.

    It is the latter form of suffering that develops character: fighting against something, rather than bringing suffering down on oneself.

  4. Brody says:

    I suppose that’s fair enough, and I should really mention that when I talk about suffering here, I am generally talking about inexplicable suffering that occurs as part of the human condition. One cannot help their socioeconomic status (sometimes caused by racial or other aspects, sometimes by just being born in the wrong place at the wrong time) or diseases they either were born with or developed by no fault of their own. This is the sort of suffering that I think really calls for discussion; moral evil is another story altogether, although one could certainly argue that it affects the overall problem of suffering/evil because of the extrapolation from immoral creation to the purpose of the Creator.

    But really, we may not be too far apart in our opinions of some of the “suffering” that goes on; much of it is unnecessary in that humans have the capacity to prevent by exercising a little thoughtful consideration and willpower.

  5. Anda Marceni says:

    Most definitely. May I assume that by ‘suffering that occurs as part of the human condition’ you may refer to a nature of yearning and emotional pain that comes from being a human, spiritually stark naked and vulnerable?

  6. Brody says:

    I haven’t the time at the moment to go into great details as to what I mean precisely, but what I’m talking about is more along the lines of tangible suffering, like the sort of things one deals with when they contract HIV at birth or are born with severe physical deformities. I would include in this the emotional suffering, like losing one’s parents during childhood. In other words, I am going after the strongest forms of suffering that one can conjure up from having lived on this planet, the ones that evoke strong emotions and compassion for others.

  7. john says:

    I have reviewed the comments, and I must admit that I completely understand what Brody is attempting to elucidate. “Unnecessary suffering” can be phrased as “Unnecessary Evils.” The PoE addresses the logical contradiction between three premises 1. God is omnipotent 2. God is omni-benevolent 3. Evil exist — we all can agree that to hold true one of the previous premises we must deny the other.
    Many philosophers and theologians have attempted to resolve and remedy this contradiction. Philosophers such as: Plantiga and his ingenious work on free will, William Leibniz, and St. Thomas Aquinas, have all attempted to thwart this vexing argument against the existence of God. I feel that plantiga and Leibniz have provided an almost 100% sound argument for the existence of moral evils and God.
    Notwithstanding the previous, they have not been able to adequately address the idea of natural evils — “unnecessary evil” and the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God. Unless I am wrong, I feel this is where Brody’s stance is -Unnecessary suffering/evil.
    I don’t feel that Augustinianism is the answer to the POE and “Unnecessary Evils”– to merely say that we humans are experiencing suffering and that suffering is an illusion created by ourselves because of weakness is very under supported and doesn’t account for observed events of suffering on things/creatures beside humans, inanimate objects, or nature as a whole.
    The idea of natural evil, and unnecessary evils are what have helped the problem of evil remain on its feet.

  8. Brody says:

    Thanks for the comments, John. You have described something very much like the problem as I have envisioned it here, and I suppose I could also express my concerns as primarily natural evils rather than moral evils (or some other category, as Anda has given a description of something for which “evil” seems too strong but which is a personal facet rather than a natural one).

    I have also opted to use “suffering” rather than “evil” for similar reasons; I want to underscore the emotional aspect of this problem, the helplessness and disconnection that many people feel when confronting this dilemma. In future entries, I hope to flesh this out a bit more and identify more of the specific problem of why we find this idea so disquieting.

  9. john says:

    That is a very unique outlook, and I must admit that the POE / and most arguments from evil are very pessimistic (on the atheist side). However, “suffering” is something that we cannot deny, especially, in terms of natural suffering which would have to entail all sicknesses, and natural disnatures.
    It is truly an almost totally vexing problem, one must ask: How can we ameliorate or satisfy the logical contradiction that remains standing?
    What would you propose?
    Thank you,

  10. Brody says:

    That is certainly a question that needs to be asked and one not easily answered. I’ll return to that question after some more thought.

  11. john says:

    I have posted some intresting thoughts about the problem of evil on my blog if you get a chance you should take a look, brody.

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