The moral significance of suffering

A naturalistic worldview has no place for objective moral value, yet most naturalists express optimism concerning the prospects for a naturalistic morality. The basis for this optimism is human beings' shared capacity to recognize and respond to the suffering of our fellow creatures, both human and non-human. Louise Antony, for example, in a recent post in the NY Times, claims that atheists "find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others." Later on she has harsh words for those who think that "another being's pain is not in itself a reason to give aid." I recall Peter Singer giving a similar account during a debate with Dinesh D'Souza.

It is undeniably true that human beings and other sentient creatures suffer. It is also undeniably true that (many) human beings in (some) situations feel some measure of empathy for the suffering of others, and are often moved to act upon that feeling. But this is merely a descriptive observation. What is lacking in the naturalistic ethical account is the moral significance of suffering and our response to it. How exactly does the capacity to suffer confer moral worth on sentient beings, such that being in pain is a sufficient reason to extend aid? Given that we often feel empathy when faced with the suffering of others, what is the objective grounding of this feeling? I recoil at the sight and smell of Brussels sprouts, but I know that there is no objective basis for my dislike: some people like Brussels sprouts, some people don't, and that's all there is to it. But our response to the suffering of others must go deeper than that if we are to have genuine morality. The only possible rational validation for our feelings of empathy is the realization that the suffering creature has genuine moral worth, which must be based on more than simply its capacity to suffer, and be aware of that suffering. Without an account of moral value, we may still feel empathy for the suffering of others and act upon it, but those feelings and actions will have no more significance than my aversion to Brussels sprouts. We would also be faced with the chilling realization that, since not all human beings respond with empathy to sentient suffering, we could never be in a position to denounce the lack of empathy, any more than we could denounce an aversion to Brussels sprouts.


Also it survival of the fittest is the the primary motivator for the advancement of living organisms, (And I do not know how one could avoid this from a purely naturalistic perspective)it would tend to oppose this empathy for the suffering. Unless there is something to counterbalance this, (which there is not from a naturalistic viewpoint), I do not see how one could advocate this counterproductive impulse as a basis for anything.
What's really odd to me is that most of these guys who try to ground moral axioms in naturalistic outlooks usually contradict in three ways:

(1) they usually admire Hume who said you can't get an ought form an is. yet that's just what they do ("becuase our genes make us do X then X is moral" = ought from is).

(2) Being science guys most of them admire Popper who said that science can prove anything it can only disprove things. yet they base a positive morality on the ability of scinece to make postiive factual statements.

(3) when they argue with me they usually say "why do axioms need grounding?" then they turn and try to give them grounding in science and naturalistism.
Anonymous said…
Evolution can select for empathy and ethical behavior and it's perhaps an oversimplification to state that survival of the fittest automatically rules out such feelings and behavior.

While the biggest, strongest brute might have little reason to cooperate with or care about others because he or she can simply overpower them, the rest of a given population could happen upon the discovery that by cooperating with and caring about each other they can improve their individual chances for survival and might even thrive. This would increase the number of empathic cooperators in the population, and, while brutes would likely continue to survive, they could easily become a minority.

Under those circumstances, nature would have selected for that quality in individuals that makes them empathic and cooperative. In other words, nature selects for civility, cooperation and empathy because it's a better survival strategy than every man and woman for thenselves.

True, that doesn directly address the issue of "moral significance" as raised in the post, but I think the naturalist argument would go something like this: The concept of moral significance is grafted onto behaviors already naturally selected for after the fact as a means of reinforcing that behavior within a given population.
But if evolution selected for empathy and cooperation, would that not pretty much end evolution? If there is no competition how do you select for new traits? If the strong help the weak to survive would that not prevent any selection of favorable adaptions since the unfavorable traits would be preserved in the population?
Anonymous said…
I'm not 100% sure I'm following you right now, but it sounds to me like you're suggesting evolution is a zero sum game-- that whether a trait is adaptive or not dooms it to extinction or unrivaled supremacy. The fact that cooperation and empathy are adaptive doesn't mean total individual selfishness disappears or even that these traits can't appear in the same person (or communities, nations et cetera) to varying degrees in different circumstances.

Some sociopaths WILL get by, but the fact that it's such a rare trait relative to the world population suggests that's it's not quite as adaptive as more community oriented, cooperative traits.

So competition still exists, even among rival tribes or nations that, within themselves, may be highly cooperative while still exhibiting individuals or pockets of individuals who do not cooperate.

Again, to be sure, this theory would account for why you see altruistic behavior in otherwise self interested organisms-- because sometimes it's a more adaptive strategy. The rule of law is, for example, a more adaptive strategy for more self interested individuals than perhaps total anarchy. Society evolves-- culture and community become part of the environment that naturally selects.

While I concede this doesn't address the "moral significance" point raised in the original post, I think it does suggest why that doesn't seem like a problem to some naturalists, because they believe that morality is a concept culturally grafted onto these already selected traits and behaviors to reinforce them.
Anonymous said…
When I say "more self interested individuals" above, I mean a greater quantity or self interested individuals and not individuals with more self interest.
Billie said…
"It is undeniably true that human beings and other sentient creatures suffer."

I am not sure that this is an undeniable truth. William Lane Craig in his 2011 debate with Stephen Laws in London offered that there is at least some research/opinion that indicates animals may not in fact suffer. For more information on this his Reasonable Faith website has a posting where this topic is explored. See

Reasonable Faith Question 113

The boil down of the discussion Craig introduced is that the perception of pain (and suffering) is centered in the pre-frontal cortex, which arrived late in mammals.
having traits that match moral values does not crate ethics. That's the trying to make an ought form an is. see? just becuase we have a trait that in itself don't make it ethics.

we have traits for sleeping, why isn't staying awake late unethical or immoral?
For something to be the basis of a moral code, it does have to have significance, but beyond that it has to be the overriding basis of behavior. Cooperation that is done incidentally, when it happens to be convenient, cannot be the basis of anything. The whole point of a moral code is to prescript how an individual should behave if they do not want to behave that way.
Anonymous said…
Bear in mind I'm not trying to convince anyone of the naturalist position here so much as I'm trying to get you to at least understand it.

The point is that, from the naturalist perspective, the traits don't "match" moral values, as if moral values existed independently in some supernatural sphere.

For the naturalist, all that exists are the behaviors, and, so the naturalist argument goes, the ones that increase the likelihood of survival for the most human beings are pro-social ones. Having identified those behaviors and predispositions, we codify them and call them "ethical" or "moral."

The argument continues that ideas such as religion, the afterlife, final judgement or reincarnation are simply cultural expressions of these human judgements that reinforce the likelihood of individual humans continuing to engage in those behaviors and practices more consistently. That's how and why they "prescript how an individual should behave if they don't want to behave that way."

If you are correct, then whether or not the consequences for the afterlife are true or not would be irrelevant to whether or not someone behaved ethically, because they only thing that would matter is the BELIEF that those consequences were true and certain.

This might beg the question "Why would someone who doesn't believe those consequences are true and certain behave as if they did?" The answer would be that they behave that way because they possess a naturally selected predisposition to do so perhaps genetically and almost surely culturally or sociologically as well.

The bottom line is that not every believer is a saint and not every atheist is a Hitler, Stalin or a John Wayne Gacey, so, clearly, one would have to admit to at least the possibility that there exists some determinant that causes people to behave ethically as opposed to unethically and accounts for and justifies ethical their behavior other than some supernatural cause.

Surely that's at least a plausible and possible option, no?
Anonymous said…
Incidentally, and in all fairness, I admit that it is likewise at least plausible and possible that there is a supernatural cause.

I just don't know and can't state for certain.

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