Defending the removal of suffering

It is typically the case that more can be said in disagreement than agreement. In the case of Martin Hägglund’s This Life, I think paying attention to those realms of disagreement is particularly helpful, because our deepest disagreements highlight the ways in which I am a Buddhist and he is not, even though there are core elements to his critique of Buddhism that I absolutely share.

As is the case in many extended disagreements, it can be helpful to start with a disagreement over terminology in order to make sure that what follows is clear. In Hägglund’s case, he frames his argument as one for a “secular” view over a “religious” one. I have said a great deal over the years about why I think the concept of “religion” generally obscures more than it clarifies, and there’s no need to repeat those general points here; in the present context, the important thing is that Hägglund falls victim to the same problems others do. In Hägglund’s telling, Martha Nussbaum can count as entirely “secular” despite her self-identification as Jewish, while Spinoza, the Stoics and the Epicureans all count as “religious” – even though many Epicureans explicitly rejected the gods. Such a framing, it seems to me, can only end up as the vast majority of other attempts to demarcate the “religious” from the “non-religious” do: in confusion.

However, though the terms “religious” and “secular” are poorly chosen, the conceptual distinction that Hägglund uses those terms to portray is quite a helpful one. He uses them to mean respectively what I have called ascent and descent, and indeed occasionally uses those words himself (p101, for example). What Hägglund is doing is to advocate descent against ascent, and I think the way in which he does so is helpful.

I find it helpful because in many respects my own project is to develop a synthesis between ascent and descent, between what Hägglund would call the religious and secular. I agree with Hägglund’s critique of some core traditional Buddhist doctrines: especially, I agree with him that to sever all attachments would come far too close to death itself as we normally conceive it. The Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika schools are explicit about claiming that liberation is the absence of consciousness; scarcely better is the kind of Buddhism whose only justification for avoiding suicide (or murder, in Mahāyāna) is the fear of a worse rebirth. To fully free yourself from sorrow is also to “free” yourself from joy; “as long as you are attached to someone or something that you can lose, you are susceptible to suffering.” (Hägglund 44) I stand with Hägglund’s descent on all of this, and I recognize that Śāntideva or Buddhaghosa would very much look askance at me for all of that.

But. That is not the whole story, and cannot be. For the first twenty years of my life, before I found Buddhism, I lived completely in such a life of descent, at least as hostile to “religion” as Hägglund ever was. And it was agony. Without the sense of perspective that my encounters with Buddhism would later bring me, I moved from one disappointment to another, filled with impotent rage at the political world, despondent at my lack of romantic prospects, frustrated over trifles. If my only choice was between the life of a monk and that life, I would likely pick the monkhood. A Buddhist monk’s pure ascent is significantly better than a pure descent that embraces our existing cravings without attention to the ways these trap us in suffering.

Dukkhanirodha, the removal of suffering, is of course a core Buddhist idea: the Third Noble Truth. I have previously expressed my objection to Śāntideva’s view that suffering should be prevented because “no one disputes that!” As with John Stuart Mill on why happiness is desirable, the argument does nothing to establish that happiness or the removal of suffering is the only thing properly desirable. We have goals beyond the removal of suffering and we are right to do so.

None of that is to say, however, that the prevention of suffering is not a human goal, or should not be one. Yet the concern to prevent suffering is one Hägglund seems to dismiss. He affirms that human cares and aims constitutively require the possibility of suffering, and says nothing at all that I can discern about wanting to minimize that suffering. He says little if anything about our drives to be happy, joyous, or contented, to reduce the pain and anguish and frustration that most of us experience on a daily basis. In his view they do not seem to matter.

But they do matter. Here it is possible to make a retort to Hägglund on the grounds of Martha Nussbaum, a thinker with whom he has great sympathies. That is: Nussbaum’s Aristotelian grounds for criticizing revisionist views like Śāntideva’s have to do with our phainomena or endoxa, our “prevalent ordinary beliefs”. Aristotle uses language like “we think”, “we praise”, “nobody would choose” in order to refer us back to the beliefs with which we begin our inquiry. Such claims, Nussbaum says, remind an opponent of the “depth and power” of the beliefs he wants us to shed; “it thus places on him the burden of showing why and for the sake of what these beliefs are to be given up.” (Fragility of Goodness 365-6) And surely, indeed, nobody would choose a life with more suffering over one with less, except in certain cases where some other care or aim happens to outweigh it. Such cases are real – but, it seems to me, they are the exception. We do all have a deep and powerful aim to reduce our suffering. That aim can conflict with our other aims, but those other aims shouldn’t automatically get priority, any more than the aim to reduce suffering itself does.

And it is from that need to reduce suffering that ascent (“religious”) views get a great deal of their power. While it is true that “as long as you are attached to someone or something that you can lose, you are susceptible to suffering”, just saying that is not enough. That suffering is not worth it in every case. Dukkhanirodha remains a cherished goal alongside the others, and it is that for a reason. And so, as the “religious” Stoics would say, we do have reason to keep some distance between ourselves and the external goods we cannot control, to not let ourselves get shaken by the vagaries of fortune.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

4 Replies to “Defending the removal of suffering”

  1. I always enjoy these posts. A small point: I’ve always been a bit confused at the idea you raise in the Nussbaum paragraph. These ‘other values’, apart from avoiding suffering and achieving its positive correlates, have confused me. I think your basic thesis that suffering can and ought to be minimised could be strengthened into the claim that this is the only value. Or is it reductive of me to say any of these values actually end up collapsing into mental states which can be characterised by suffering or its absence?

    • Thank you, Archie. I don’t believe that minimizing suffering is the only value; I do think that’s reductive, as you say. I’ve argued that point elsewhere. I agree with Hägglund that we do and should seek some things, like love and self-expression, irrespective of their contribution to the absence of suffering – or even to happiness, if happiness is understood in the normal way as pleasure or contentment.

  2. This is a wonderful post. Most especially your discussion of the slippery religious/secular categorization. This is a topic in and of itself that we all need to argue more forcefully and more often. Christianity scholars have defined the terms of our field for far too long, and such inappropriate categories distort not only the topics of our study but also the questions that we ask in the first place.

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