On the Quantity of Suffering

A common theme throughout the history of philosophical pessimism is the argument  that the aggregate suffering experienced by man in the world exceeds his aggregate feelings of pleasure and joy.

Even taking pleasure/joy as a negative, insofar as it may be construed as the absence of pain, rather than a positive or affirmative affective state constituted with its own independent qualities — there seems an intuitive basis for affirming this observation. For, in its most basic form, this line of pessimistic argument is entirely empirical and descriptive. In other words, it is not concerned with making evaluative judgments  about the world. Rather, it’s a claim that has become so obvious and self-evidence that it takes the form of a modern-day truism.  Of the over seven billion people in the world, how many lives are touched with disease, squalor, war, natural disaster or any other form of catastrophe known to man?

The argument that existence is indelibly marked with more suffering is a baseline for pessimistic thought; however, it is not altogether that convincing or sophisticated. Even the optimist may concede that, as it is, suffering outweighs pleasure. In fact, it may even be said that this realization is the grounding upon which the prophets of progress build their visions of hope and human betterment for the future.

Further, the inherently reverse-utilitarian reasoning behind this argument simply cannot account for the experiences and subjective accounts of the individual Self thrust into existence. For, what matters most to me as an individual Self is my unique experience in-the-world; what does it mean for me, as a temporal and finite being in my facticity, my coping, and my projection, that aggregated suffering exceeds pleasure?

Another limitation of the suffering-exceeds-pleasure argument is its failure to account for the possibility that,  some individuals, though always constituting a minority, may experience far more pleasure in their individual lives than suffering; in fact, what about the potential that this minority’s experience of pleasure, if it could be individually quantified or measured on some scale, could (though quantitatively inferior to the suffering of the world) nevertheless qualitatively exceed suffering?

This latter point is the true defect, or rather, insufficiency of the argument. Thus, what’s needed is a thorough investigation of the phenomena of suffering itself.  Only a phenomenological account of the experience of suffering can get to the bottom of this matter.  In particular — we must separate and provide an account for both ontological and ontic suffering.





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