Hold Still, Let Me Alleviate You

Because the question is, what good is sympathy and alleviating suffering if there is no suffering? What is the point of them? There is no point. They’re not needed. They’re not even virtues. The notion is absurd. Suppose a friend bounces up to you, full of bliss and happiness, to tell you some good news. Is it a good thing to clutch her hand damply and say how sorry you are? Is it a good thing to push her down and force morphine down her throat? No. Your sympathy and alleviation aren’t needed or wanted. (Sympathy in the sense of fellow-feeling is probably welcome, but that’s not what Swinburne means here.) And if your friend is never suffering and in pain, they never will be. They’re not needed unless we are in fact suffering and in pain; so why would they be good in and of themselves? They wouldn’t. But Swinburne seems to be assuming they would. Why? Why does he assume that? Other than, of course, sheer desperation to come up with some reason that pain and illness are good things.

And why on earth would it be a good thing that suffering ‘provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of suffering’? Why is that opportunity good or desirable if suffering doesn’t exist? It isn’t. Society could go off and think about other things, ponder other choices, seize different opporunities to choose what to invest in. So why does Swinburne say it that way, as if it’s somehow inherently good for society to have an opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for suffering? Why does he think so back to front? ‘It is good for society to choose whether or not to spend money on cures for suffering, therefore, it is good that people should suffer.’ If he thinks that’s right, does he think war is good because it gives military surgeons lots of practice? If he thinks that, does he then think that the more injuries there are, the better? If he thinks that, then is he depressed on days when the newspapers are slightly less full of injuries? Is he pleased when there are earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes? Surely the logic of his peculiar argument entails that he must be. If suffering is good so that people can be sympathetic and society can make budget decisions, then the more of it there is, the better, right? Because the more suffering there is, the more chances to be sympathetic there are, so it must be a case of the more the better. So we’re all being negligent and cruel if we fail to hurt each other at every opportunity? Is that right?

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