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Nicolas Delon (New College of Florida), "Strangers to ourselves: A Nietzschean challenge to the badness of suffering"
Inquiry (forthcoming, published online 2022)
Nietzsche was no stranger to pain. He started suffering from migraine as a child. Recurrent episodes plagued his life. He was later afflicted by depression and died from pneumonia in 1900 at age 55 after a decade of profound dementia following a stroke. Most of his productive life coincided with migraine attacks that increased in frequency, severity, and length, leaving him incapable of working more than a few hours per day, sometimes disabling him for days in a row. And yet he wrote:
The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? (Beyond Good and Evil, §225)
Nietzsche could not have exempted himself when he wrote these words in 1886. In the same book, he mocked utilitarians like Bentham and John Stuart Mill for “striving for English happiness, I mean comfort and fashion” under the guise of virtue (§228). In the same aphorism I just quoted, he also wrote:
Hedonism, pessimism, utilitarianism, eudaemonism: these are all ways of thinking that measure the value of things according to pleasure and pain, which is to say according to incidental states and trivialities. … You want, if possible … to abolish suffering. And us? – it looks as though we would prefer it to be heightened and made even worse than it has ever been! Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal (§225).
How could someone so familiar with intense suffering elevate it as a crucial ingredient of greatness and the good life? Why want more, not less, of a bad thing? Was Nietzsche simply rationalizing his own experience with pain and disappointment? The late Derek Parfit, in On What Matters, thought Nietzsche could not have meant those words seriously. At most, Nietzsche must have meant that suffering was often instrumentally good. If he did mean those words seriously, we should not take them seriously. I have tremendous respect for Parfit’s work, but I think he misunderstood Nietzsche. As for exegesis, I walk in the footsteps of two prominent Nietzsche scholars, Christopher Janaway and Andrew Huddleston, and dig deeper here (pardon my French, literally). But I also make a positive case for Nietzsche’s view.
Here's a widespread idea: pain sucks. In and of itself, it is bad. Sure, it’s sometimes necessary—instrumentally—for goods we have reason to pursue—pleasure, health, freedom, love. Get your jab, you say, knowing I’ll cry in abject pain at the CVS. One more run of the same route in the sweltering Florida heat, I think, with sore legs and a weary mind, as I train for my next race. No pain, no gain. Beyond its causal contribution to good stuff, pain is bad. And we philosophers mean really bad—intrinsically and objectively so. And because it sucks in this technical sense, it seems we have moral reason to prevent, reduce, relieve, and refrain from inflicting it, other things being equal, which they rarely are outside of thought experiments. And it’s not just physical pains, headaches, and stubbed toes, mild, stabbing, throbbing, chronic, or acute pains. Psychic suffering, sadness, fear, anxiety, loneliness, depression, and so on, also hurt.
Sometimes, though, we seem to enjoy the pains for themselves. Deep tissue massage, hot peppers, horror movies, the doom and gloom of your favorite emo band, the burn of a hard workout, tattoo needles, BDSM, the pangs of grief, angry protest at injustice, you name it—for some reason, philosophers haven’t seemed too concerned by the innumerable examples of unpleasant, hurtful experiences that we desire for their own sake. No, we don’t always turn them into pleasant experiences. Many of those are pursued not in spite but because of their unpleasant character. Or so I argue we may have reason to—if we take Nietzsche seriously.
In his recent book, The Sweet Spot, psychologist Paul Bloom argues that suffering is an essential ingredient of many pleasures but also of meaning in life, something worth wanting. Bloom does not go as far as to claim, like Nietzsche, that we need more suffering, or that it would have been worse for the sufferer to not suffer (say, for Victor Frankl, the author of Yes to Life and Man’s Search for Meaning, not to spend years of horror in a Nazi concentration camp). Bloom is rather interested in explaining why it is that we seem to value many forms of suffering. But in doing so he agrees with Nietzsche that, as a psychological thesis, hedonism is false: we do not only pursue what brings us pleasure or subjective happiness. Hedonism has trouble explaining why people have children (turns out they don’t make us happier) or run marathons (turns out all 26.2 miles on pavement hurts). Human beings are also motivated by the search for meaning. Indeed, Nietzsche thought that our curse was not suffering but its lack of meaning. Meaningless suffering—the loss of a child, chronic illness, debilitating pain or injury—no one in their right mind would desire or welcome such things. Yet many of us are forced to embrace them to give our lives meaning. If meaning is part of a good life, and suffering is constitutive of meaning, then suffering is constitutive of a good life—a deceptively simple argument.
Nietzsche deplores meaningless suffering because, coopted by the “ascetic ideal”, it tends to lead to nihilism—the curse of our age, for Nietzsche.
[Man] suffered from the problem of his meaning. … that the answer was missing to the scream of his question: ‘to what end suffering?’ … The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering itself, was the curse that thus far lay stretched out over humanity—and the ascetic ideal offered it a meaning! (Genealogy of Morals, III, §28)
Saying ‘Yes’ to everything, for Nietzsche, cannot mean resignation in the face of meaningless suffering. Quite the opposite: it means affirming suffering to transform it into something meaningful—whether it be a work of art, a political project, or a life well lived. When properly incorporated, suffering can contribute to the “whole inner sequence and interconnection that spells misfortune for me or for you!”, from which an individual draws strength and self-understanding (Gay Science, §338).
To be clear, when I dispute the badness of suffering, I’m not talking about the good feelings that accompany righteous anger, the orgasm of the masochist, the bliss triggered by the hottest dish. These present interesting puzzles but are ultimately no objection to the general thought that pain sucks. These experiences would suck were it not for the higher-order pleasure they allow. They put us on the right track, though. For I suspect it is possible to desire them for their own sake rather than for the pleasure they might allow. I’m presumably not alone in at least sometimes seeking suffering in a difficult run, knowing all too well that pleasure has no chance of offsetting pain. That strenuous run up the mountain is overwhelmingly painful yet it’s glorious. I would never trade it for a more pleasant substitute. A good performance will make me proud or happy. But they don’t have to. The point is this: my seeking out the experience is not conditional on the expectation of future or higher-order pleasant experiences. As rare as they may be, there are cases of suffering that we desire and affirm in spite of everything. Nietzsche’s view is that some lives and some products of human culture are better rather than worse for the suffering they involve. In a nutshell, the suffering is not justified by the outcome; the outcome is made good (at least in part) by the suffering.
I hear your resistance to the call of pain, discipline, and hurt. You think: “But I just know pain is bad!” How do we know this fact, if we do? The answer, it seems, always ends up appealing to introspection. My paper is an attempt to undermine this strategy. You don’t actually know that pain is bad—for you, for me, for anyone, or from the point of view of the universe.
More specifically, I argue that whether an instance of suffering is bad does not strictly depend on its intrinsic features. It is, in part, up to us how good or bad suffering can be. (I’m not saying it’s easy!) In doing so, I also rebut the appeal to the badness of suffering in arguments for moral realism. Moral realists sometimes illustrate the existence of mind-independent evaluative and normative facts by appealing to the supposedly intrinsic badness of pain and irreducibly normative reasons to prevent it. With Nietzsche on my side, I develop a debunking strategy to undercut the appeal. Whether or not the debunking is sufficient reason to reject moral realism is a question for another day. It does, however, cast doubt on Parfit’s argument for convergence, or the two-fold idea that moral progress is real, both as a historical fact and in philosophy, and that the prominent moral theories (utilitarianism, Kantianism, and contractualism) will eventually converge on basic normative truths, chief among them the “double badness of suffering”: “All suffering is in itself both bad for the sufferer and impersonally bad.” (On What Matters, vol. II, p. 569)
The starting point of the paper is this confrontation between Nietzsche and Parfit. But it seeks to achieve two further things. One is offering a coherent statement of Nietzsche’s view of the value of suffering, which I argue is captured narratively: An episode of suffering is valuable when, and insofar as, it can be incorporated into an aesthetically compelling sequence of achievement that required overcoming resistance. Another is deploying a broadly Nietzschean debunking strategy against what I call Realism about the Value of Suffering, or the thesis that the value of suffering is independent of our attitudes toward it. The strategy is genealogical in two senses: diachronic and synchronic. I look at Nietzsche’s views on consciousness and self-knowledge, as well as contemporary empirical moral psychology and cognitive science, to argue that our attitudes to suffering are best explained by factors irrelevant to the truth of our judgments about the badness of suffering. Our attitudes evolve through time but are also sensitive to distorting psychological and environmental factors that cast doubt on the reliability of the introspective route we use to conclude that pain is bad.
So yes, pain typically sucks. I often have headaches. I’m clumsy in the kitchen and will often cut myself with sharp knives. I hate needles. I can’t watch horror movies. I can’t imagine calling customer service ever being even remotely meaningful in any shape or form. But I’m glad for a lot of the suffering I’ve had to go through in my life. It makes it more interesting, richer, more beautiful, more meaningful—simply more worth living. Might I be wrong about this? Sure, I’ve just argued introspection is unreliable! But that’s the point: there is no objective fact of the matter. It is ultimately up to you what you make of the horrors and tragedies of life. Nietzsche’s master project was a reevaluation of values. No one ought to think it’s a worthwhile project, but if you think it might be, then give suffering a chance.
Bloom, Paul. The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. HarperCollins. 2021
Delon, Nicolas. “Le problème de la souffrance chez Nietzsche et Parfit.” Klêsis 43: 156–186. 2019
Huddleston, Andrew. “Nietzsche and the Hope of Normative Convergence.” In Does Anything Really Matter? Essays on Parfit on Objectivity, edited by Peter Singer, 169–194. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2017
Janaway, Christopher. “Attitudes to Suffering: Parfit and Nietzsche.” Inquiry 20: 66–95. 2016
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. M. Clark and A. J. Swensen, trans. 1998. Indianapolis: Hackett
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. J. Norman, trans. 2002. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. J. Nauckhoff and A. del Caro, trans. 2001. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Parfit, Derek. On What Matters, 2 volumes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011
Parfit, Derek. On What Matters, vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2017
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