Recently I’ve been trying to think about the relation of suffering to reasons with my (smarter, younger, and better looking) colleague Matthew Fulkerson.
We think that one of the things that makes suffering so awful is its peculiar one-sided relation to rationality: suffering provides reasons, but (unlike most of the other internal states that are reasons-providing for us) it is oddly resistant to influence by our other reasons.
Thus, for example, the oral somatosenory pain Agnes feels when she eats a moderately spicy curry gives her a reason to act in certain ways (say, for drinking milk or eating rice). But no matter how many times Agnes (correctly) tells herself that there is no danger from the curry, she can’t rationalize her suffering away by considering such reasons — she can’t convince herself to stop suffering merely by reflecting on her (utterly correct) reasons for believing there is no bodily danger in the offing. Or, again, the social embarrassment and self-consciousness Andrew feels when he is required to give a presentation in his philosophy seminar gives him a reason for acting in certain ways (perhaps for trying to attend to the details of the arguments he’s presenting rather than thinking about his own social situation). But no matter how many times Andrew (correctly) tells himself that he is not in any social danger amongst his supportive seminar co-participants, he can’t rationalize his suffering away by considering such reasons — he can’t convince himself to stop suffering merely by reflecting on his (utterly correct) reasons for believing there is no social danger in the offing.
Moreover, the situation is yet worse in chronic cases of suffering such as those arising from neuropathy. In these cases, suffering has a frustratingly pervasive psychological impact, even though the nerve damage underlying the suffering itself raises few additional health risks. Subjects who suffer this sort of pain know that it is “just” pain, and that it does not pose (in itself) any additional health risks. Such pains do not serve any known protective or informative end, and subjects can be aware of this very fact. And yet, the pains still play a powerful role in motivating and guiding behavior.
While there’s of course much more to say here, one of the reasons we’re inclined to think our explanation of the awfulness of suffering in terms of its peculiar relation to rationality is promising is that it suggests a deep connection between suffering and compulsion. In particular, this explanation offers an intriguing (and otherwise unexpected) theoretical reason for counting instances of psychological compulsions (even when unaccompanied by pain) as, literally, cases of suffering.
For compulsion appears to exhibit the same set of features we just noted. Compulsion can be frustratingly pervasive in its psychological reach, even when there is no known benefit (beyond the satisfaction of the compulsion) to be gained from carrying out compulsive acts. Subjects suffering from compulsion can know that their compulsive acts are “just” compulsive in this sense, can agree that the acts are meaningless, and that their compulsions shouldn’t rationally count as all-things-considered reasons for action. And yet, the compulsions still play a powerful role in motivating and guiding behavior.
While we’re not sure about any of this, we find the capacity of the story to connect suffering and compulsion in this unexpected way intriguing. Are we off our rockers here, or does the claim that suffering and compulsion are united in having such a peculiar relation to rationality ring true?