I sometimes find myself asking this question—often just of myself. Sometimes, of course, I have no idea what the answer is. Feelings, and their causes, can be mysterious.
But sometimes the answer is not mysterious. Sometimes the answer seems to me to be something that makes sense: something legitimate that should have hurt my feelings. Sometimes, however, I find myself thinking that the answer is something that doesn’t make much sense: something illegitimate that shouldn’t have hurt my feelings. In these times, I would say that my hurt feelings are irrational.
Since Aristotle, we humans have thought of ourselves as rational animals. But this doesn’t mean that everything about humans is rational. My eyes are hazel, but this isn’t rational or irrational. My eye color is just not the sort of thing I could have any reasons for; instead, it’s just part of the way I am. So what kind of things can we have reasons for?
Philosophers have traditionally focused on two kinds of rationality: epistemic rationality and practical rationality. Epistemic rationality is concerned with beliefs and judgments. The guiding idea is that you have—and should have—reasons for the things that you believe and the judgments that you make. Practical rationality is concerned with your actions or, since your actions can sometimes involve more than just you, your intentions to act. The guiding idea is that you have—and should have—reasons for the things that you do, or at least the things that you intend to do. It’s your beliefs (or judgments) and actions (or intentions to act) that make you a rational creature.
At least some of our emotions seem to have reasons at least some of the time. If I snub you at the party, that gives you a reason to be angry with me—whether it actually causes you to get angry or not. While we probably wouldn’t think you were irrational for not feeling angry, there are some cases of emotion that do seem irrational. Sometimes, for instance, people seem to get angry for no good reason. If you get angry with your significant other solely for smiling at a co-worker, we might—even you might—think that your anger is irrational. We can understand the cause, but we don’t think that it’s a good reason to get angry.
Most philosophers have thought that if emotions really can be rational or irrational as these sorts of cases suggest, then that tells us that emotions are more than just feelings, because feelings never have reasons. It might otherwise have been tempting to think of emotions as feelings: after all, emotions do seem to feel like something. But if emotions have reasons, if they can be rational or irrational, they must involve something more than just feelings: they must also involve beliefs, appraisals, or evaluations. It is these beliefs, appraisals, and evaluations that have reasons—not the way the emotion feels.
So despite philosophers’ recent attention to the emotions, the philosophical orthodoxy remains that, though emotions may be, feelings are never rational or irrational. Feelings are, in this way, thought to be like eye color. Your feelings have causes, and they are part of who you are, but they aren’t part of your rational nature.
Thinking about suffering, however, seems to challenge this orthodoxy.
Sometimes, it seems to me, people have good reasons to suffer—good reasons to feel bad. If, for instance, your beloved significant-other dies, then it seems to me that you have good reason to suffer. You don’t just have reason to believe certain things about the situation (though you do) or to appraise and evaluate the situation in certain ways (though you do); you actually have reason to suffer.
Other times, it seems to me, people lack good reasons to suffer—they lack any good reason to feel bad. If you are the overly jealous partner, you feel bad for no good reason. In such cases, you don’t just have reason to believe certain things about the situation (though you do) or to appraise and evaluate the situation in certain ways (though you do); you actually lack any reason to suffer.
I think we often evaluate ourselves, and each other, in just this way. If we’re kind, we do it gently.
I won’t try to persuade you that this is the case—that my feelings of suffering are more like my beliefs than my hazel eyes—but I do want to persuade you that it’s worth thinking about. Here are two reasons.
First, if suffering is the sort of thing that we can have good reasons to feel, then it seems that suffering is the sort of thing that it can be good for us to feel. That is to say, if suffering is sometimes a rational response to a situation, then it may sometimes be inappropriate to cause it to cease. If that’s right, then sometimes instead of doing everything we can to rid ourselves of suffering, we should let it hurt. Sometimes, perhaps, it is good for us to feel grief, guilt, anger, or pain.
On the other hand, if suffering is the sort of thing that is reason-responsive, then it may be that suffering is more susceptible to reason-giving than we realized. It may be that, on more occasions than we think, the most efficient way to ease our pain is not to take a pill, but to have a think. To ask ourselves: why does this hurt? Sometimes, perhaps, discovering that our jealousy, guilt, anger, or pain is irrational, can help us eradicate it.
Besides offering a few examples, I haven’t offered any clear idea of when we should and should not suffer. That’s because I don’t know.
Moreover, I think we should be careful in offering answers. Judging that someone’s suffering is irrational—including our own—can be harmful. However, I am suggesting that it may also sometimes be harmful to suffer when we shouldn’t and not to suffer when we should.
So, when should it hurt?
Though I don’t know the answer, I think the question is worth asking.