Monday, 30 August 2010


After our last session of café-philo in the V&A, I went for a tour of the Museum. Loitering in the Italian court for hours lost in thought. The topic of the day was still lingering in my mind: Is it justifiable to alleviate one’s perception of “suffering” by breaking one’s moral principles or values?

1. What is suffering?
Bound slave
I stopped in front of the statue of a bound slave by Michelangelo, the master of profound empathy for human suffering. The bound slave’s anguished facial expression and contorted torso struck a deep cord in my mind: “Man was born free. But everywhere, I see him in chains.” We suffer because we can never find the ultimate freedom that we desire. A few steps away, I saw the statue of a dying slave. The serene calm expression of the dying slave contrasts sharply with the pained grimace of the rebelling slave. Is death the ultimate alleviation of our suffering? I had that impression that the notion of “suffering” is an exclusive concept in Catholicism. Catholic art views human suffering as a redemption of our sins. Take the image of the Crucifixion of the Christ for example: a manifestation of a martyr who endured excruciating physical sufferings for his spiritual belief, preaching his flock to sacrifice their earthly pleasure for a happy after-life in Heaven, to avoid punishment in Hell.
Dying slave

Religion is a spiritual refuge for sufferers.  Religion is the Opium of the masses, the Prozac for the poor, the Soma for the Epsilon. It is interesting to know how the Oriental Buddhist view differs from the Occidental Christian view on the way of alleviation of sufferings. (I hope Peter can elaborate on this point.)

2. What are the causes of suffering?

Is physical suffering caused by poverty and illness mainly in the “Third World” given their deprived economic situation? Whereas mental suffering, depression and suicide a particular phenomenon of the post-industrial Revolution West, judging by the statistics of Prozac usage? asks Grace.

Not true, replies Christian.  Depression as a mental suffering was recorded long before Industrial Revolution in classical time as “melancholia,” a manifestation of one of the four "humours" in human body: black bile. (three other "humours" with corresponding temperaments: blood - sanguine, yellow bile - choleric, phlegm - phlegmatic). According to some 17th century writer, Melancholia is mainly caused by an unfulfilled desire, in other words, a longing for something lacking, it could be the lack of money, or lack of good health, or lack of love...

Depression has now been classified by medical profession as a physical “illness”, in other words, it is no longer a “mental suffering.” It is now in the same category as flu, headache, stomachache, toothache, gum infection, gastroenteritis, or any other infections which can be cured by popping a few antibiotics and Paracetamol.

3. To what extent can one alleviate one’s perception of “suffering”?

Gerry is more interested in finding answers to moral dilemmas in specific social context. Can one go against one’s moral principle even break the law in order to alleviate one’s suffering?

Christine thinks that those who had broken their moral principles to relieve their temporary suffering often live to regret their action afterwards. She offered an interesting example to illustrate her point: A group of air-crash survivors in the snow-bound mountains of Andes, owing to a moment of insanity triggered by starvation, succumbed to cannibalism to relieve their hunger pain. At the time, it seemed to them justifiable to eat another fellow human in order to save their own lives. Years later when they reflected on that episode, they could not resolve to ease their conscience and they lived the rest of their life in remorse.

Gerry’s question is more specific: Is it justifiable for an illegal immigrant, a penniless single mother with two starving children, to resort to prostitution? Is it lawful for a battered wife to kill her abusive husband in order to end her misery?

There is a distinction between a person who harms or destroys him/herself in order to alleviate his/her suffering, and a person who seeks to blame others for his own suffering, and tried to alleviate his pain at the expenses of others, says Malcolm.

Christine, full of anecdotes, picks out another example: the current NHS system offering to pay for Obesity sufferers to have elective operations such as liposuction and stomach binding at the expenses of other seriously ill patients who urgently needed life-saving operations. That is an example of transferring one’s own suffering to others.

The final question is: does prostitution actually alleviate or aggravate the suffering of the woman (or the man)? This is an entirely different kettle of fish. One can write a whole book on the subject: the battle of the sexes.

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