The Primacy of Suffering

Allow yourself to entertain the following
hypothetical scenario. Imagine two people, both strangers to you. The first one is simply doing everyday activities. This person is neither suffering nor joyful. We can say that this person is in a neutral
mental state. This person is fine. The second person is suffering. This person experiences an unmistakably negative
state. You are faced with a choice. You have two alternatives. And you have to act. If you could
aid the suffering person so that she will get well and will find herself in a neutral
state, or cheer the person who’s neither suffering
nor joyful so that he’ll be happy What is your intuition you should do? What do you think is the best action? What’s the best move? Intuition forces the answer on us. It’s better to alleviate suffering. The better move is to aid the suffering person,
to help the one in need. Reduction or elimination of suffering is the
primary concern. What could be the reasons for this strong
intuition? Let’s examine pleasure and suffering a bit
closer. We tend to move towards pleasure. When it comes to suffering, we tend to move
away from it. It’s trivially true that we desire things
that bring us pleasure. It’s trivially true that we are averse to
the things that bring us pain. We see the target of desire as something to
move towards. We see the source of suffering as something
to get away from. We approach the things we deem desirable. We avoid the things we deem harmful. We come towards the target of our desire,
towards pleasure. It’s usually the case that the source of
pain finds us. When we reach the target, this movement – both
physical movement as well as the mental feeling of wanting to achieve the goal – stops. When we’re in the grip of the source of
suffering, this movement – both physical backing away as well as the mental feeling
of avoidance – is stronger. Satisfaction is stationary – we move no
longer. Suffering is movement still – we want to
escape. When we achieve the goal we are content. When we are in the hold of what’s causing
us suffering we are distressed. This is the case for all people, for all animals,
for all sentient beings, creatures capable of feeling pleasure and pain. Moreover, pleasure is much more in our hands. We are responsible for getting it. It is we who have to move from a neutral state
towards joy. In many cases, we are responsible for our
pleasure. If we don’t act to achieve our goals, it’s
on us. It would be absurd to expect other people
to somehow push us to realize our goals. Further, suffering is usually not of our doing. Bad things happen to us. The circumstances are most often not of our
making. We aren’t responsible for many horrible
things that hurt us. We realize this, and that is why we are inclined
to help those who are agonizing. Pleasure is not a state that demands action. Suffering, on the other hand, is characterized
by an inherent need for immediate escape. This is why we recognize that it is much more
important to aid those in need, to reduce the suffering, and better yet – to prevent
suffering in the first place. Further still, this is why we have no moral
obligation to bring about additional happiness, and – on the other hand – we don’t have
the right to, unjustly, bring about suffering. Suffering is the primary moral value.


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