A brief history of humans trying to pretend that suffering is actually OK: Analogies between religious theodicy and secular justifications

[Epistemic status: I have no deep background in theology or philosophy of religion, so this isn’t meant to be a very comprehensive or detailed picture, just scratching the surface based on a few papers and lectures. Expect some major oversimplifications and a couple of misunderstandings.]

[TL;DR: Theodicy: do not do the thing.]


Theodicy was originally the religious project to justify, explain, or at least find ways to accept the intuitively unacceptable suffering we paradoxically see in a world supposedly ruled by a benevolent, omnipotent deity. Recently the concept has metaphorically been expanded to also encompass a more general, secular version of itself: the age-old human tradition of seeking meaning in or justifications for suffering in general, not just because these explanations are required by some theistic ontology. There are a lot of similarities in how people try to justify suffering within these two frameworks (though the projects seem to fail for different reasons) and the religious search for a viable theodicy has certainly influenced the justifications we now see even in reasonably secular cultures, but I suppose it’s fair to assume that most of the motivation is rooted in a deeper, more universal need for a coping mechanism, not so much in some lingering influence of specific religious memes.

Theodicy is distinct from defending theism against a fundamental logical incompatibility between God and evil, and much more interesting, especially from a secular point of view. We, too, are beings who to a great extent seem to tolerate evils we could at least potentially eradicate, so I guess in a sense we have almost as much to explain as a hypothetical benevolent, omnipotent deity has. The purpose of this post is to examine typical secular theodicies by comparing them to existing theophilosophical attempts and their critiques (obviously in the light of a secular ontology), because the large body of work surrounding religious theodicy could shed some light on the secular approaches as well.

Importantly, the consensus currently seems to be that no satisfying religious theodicy has actually been found, and that anti-theodicies – various explicit flat-out refusals to explain, justify, or even forgive God, especially prevalent among Jewish theophilosophers post-WWII – are the closest a theist can get to a solution. The project of theodicy itself is often seen as rotten and immoral; many go as far as to assert there can be no morally sufficient reasons for God to permit a world as evil as ours. The Finnish philosopher Sami Pihlström, for instance, argues that morality is more fundamental than metaphysics – no matter how mysterious the ways in which deity so-and-so works, or how feeble our rational capacities, we should have enough confidence in our moral sense to abandon a project this bizarre and instead take suffering and its victims seriously even if we subscribe to theism. And if anti-theodicy is the primary way theists have to deal with suffering, if even a fundamentally incomprehensible, all-powerful entity can’t really save the idea that suffering in itself is ultimately meaningful somehow, what hope can a secular morality have for preserving it?

Secular theodicies: some requirements

Anyone who has ever earnestly advocated the abolition or dramatic reduction of global suffering in almost any social setting has probably met some major resistance and a colourful bunch of common-or-garden theodicies.  Some of them are rooted in low-level misunderstandings, such as the notion that pain as a physiological process is a necessary warning signal (so our current levels of overall suffering are somehow optimal), or that abolishing suffering is necessarily basically equivalent to wireheading, or that prolonged boredom or existential dread isn’t really suffering or will for some other reason be preserved and intensified when the robotic abolitionists get their inhuman project off the ground and nothing will feel meaningful to anyone ever again. But even when people are roughly on the same page regarding these issues, the idea of reducing the biosphere’s overall suffering sounds extremely alarming to many people – probably due to its unintuitiveness and the immensely important role that suffering has historically played in our emotional meaning-making machinery. Dissecting this discomfort is useful both instrumentally and theoretically: in order to effectively advocate reducing suffering we obviously need to understand the counterpoints, and even more importantly, these counterpoints could eventually indicate something we’re currently missing about the functions of suffering.

All in all, though, it seems that comparing all the apparently futile religious theodicies with secular justifications for suffering mostly just reveals how weak the enterprise in general is. If a natural framework could reasonably justify the suffering we see in the world, centuries upon centuries of theodical philosophy would not have been needed in the first place, or they probably would at least have resulted in stronger conclusions than the ones we’re currently stuck with – basically yielded some acceptable general justifications disguised as religious ones. Even more damning than the lack of viable options is the conclusion accepted by many modern theophilosophers that it is immoral and possibly downright bizarre to even try, because the evil in our world is so evidently so bad that no benevolent God could ever be able to justify its existence.

So what would a viable secular theodicy need to explain? Among other criteria, religious theodicies can be classified according to the range of evils they tackle (Trakakis 2008). Why must there be any suffering at all? Why must there be purposeful evil, or naturally occurring accidental suffering? Is the current amount of suffering also necessary or justified? Is there a justification for every single instance of harm? All of these questions can be applied when searching for a secular theodicy as well: any sufficient justification for not reducing suffering will need to respond to these points (except perhaps to the last one, since micromanaging individual instances of suffering isn’t currently feasible for humans, so some collateral damage may be necessary).

Another perspective that usually has to be addressed (again according to Trakakis) concerns the nature of the benefits suffering is supposed to result in. In a theistic ontology, the potential benefits are different than in a secular one, of course, but some relevant principles remain. Suffering should at least be causally or logically connected to the resulting goods: if we want to argue that horrifying pain builds character, we should be fairly confident that it really does so, that similar character-building properties can’t easily be found elsewhere (with less of the, you know, horrifying pain), or better yet, that the suffering is absolutely necessary as a foundation for an ideal character. If this condition is satisfied, we now need to assess whether the benefits gained are somehow greater than the suffering endured: this is a tall order, for imagine the greatness of character that is needed to compensate even for the fairly typical everyday atrocities in history or in the present. Even if you could make this case for some humans, which I don’t think you could tbh, consider the pain felt by animals with no capacity for anything like character-building (if I find fifty righteous fruit flies tho).

The greater good approach

This brings us to the most common approach to theodicy, which probably covers the vast majority of both religious and secular justifications for suffering. The main point is simple: something really is worth all the suffering we endure, and suffering is likely to be the only way for us to achieve it. Candidates for this good include virtue or character, personal growth, close social relations, artistic inspiration, a sense of meaning, and even positive emotions in general – in a secular ontology, people will probably glare at you unless you can give an explanation of what exactly this benefit is and how it’s supposed to be related to suffering and also worth it; in a theistic one, you have the bonus option of just trying to convince us that there surely is such a benefit, it’s just mysterious like that, and also adding something about how souls need to be forged in the crucible of magic suffering in order to become worthy of the heavenly afterlife or something. Neither of these has so far been a satisfactory response to anything but fairly mundane or trivial pains on a scale from stubbed toes to genocide. Pihlström protests against any attempt, religious or otherwise, to justify intense suffering from the outside in this manner: if suffering does indeed result in something sufficiently valuable to make it worthwhile, it should only be up to the victim to decide whether or not it really does – other approaches trivialize the evil and the victim. This makes epistemic sense, as we don’t really have the subjective knowledge to assess the intensity of anyone else’s suffering. If we did, though, and if the benefits were gained by someone else, a utilitarian case could be made for justified suffering even when the victim doesn’t super agree.

Some suffering obviously does lead to good things, even to stuff that’s quite clearly worth it all. Maybe some kind of a contrast between, say, sadness and happiness really does enhance the overall experience. And maybe a genuine chance of failure and disappointment really makes it feel more meaningful to strive for nice things in life. And close and committed social relationships probably do require you feel some distress when you lose a loved one. However, this is entirely consistent with accepting that too much of a bad thing is in fact a very bad thing, and that there are forms of suffering that are entirely unacceptable in relation to the benefits they result in. Many kinds of distress actually make you a worse person: being in pain and stressed out makes it harder to focus on anything except your own personal survival and well-being, often even after the situation improves. Surviving a hardship makes you less empathetic to other people going through it later on, and so on.

There are many ways to assess this approach empirically, which is what any secular morality needs to do of course. Whatever the benefits are, they probably don’t scale ad infinitum with the suffering we experience; otherwise we would find people just advocating MAXIMUM SUFFERING, which maybe we do, I don’t know. This and common decency suggest that the current, horrifying amount of global suffering has not satisfactorily been proven optimal and hence justified, and that even if there are some hardships we need to go through in order to grow as human beings or something, people being brutally murdered or billions of sentient animals dying of thirst and infections everywhere all the time are not necessary properties of a world even if we also want it to have grown human beings. Also, the fact is that any benefit brought by distress can only be determined afterwards. People avoid intense pain, and wholeheartedly approve of others avoiding intense pain, even when the post hoc narrative just sometimes is that it was all worth it in the end. This looks a lot like the benefits of non-trivial suffering are mostly accidental, a net negative, and suffering isn’t a reliable way to gain anything valuable at all (with some specific, typically low-intensity exceptions – in which the suffering usually is more of a byproduct than the actual cause of the benefit). The dramatic ways in which the victims differ throughout the biosphere further reduce the odds that current suffering levels are fine: it seems extremely implausible that there is some suffering-benefit tradeoff that applies to every animal taxon, or otherwise renders all of the suffering we know about somehow acceptable.

The agency/free will approach

Another common approach is based on agency or free will: religious theodicies of this type either tend to claim that it’s logically impossible to be sentient or good without the possibility of evil (i.e. wanting to harm others), which doesn’t fly for multiple reasons this margin is too narrow to contain, or that good can only be meaningful if it’s a genuine choice, or that free will is otherwise more important than other beings not suffering (again for soul-forging purposes probably or because people need to make an active choice to remain close to God or something). Typically this also vaguely implies that God isn’t the direct source of the evil we see, and hence not really responsible for it: suffering only exists because humans misuse their agency.

From a secular point of view, I’m not sure what to make of it – I don’t think people place a lot of value on folks in general being able to kill each other and just not choosing to do so. I guess people do see value in freely choosing to be good when it’s just about them, but as evidenced by the self-centered nature of this judgment, this has more to do with virtue signalling and moral competition than with freedom-to-cause-or-not-cause-harm as a value. I also don’t think this applies to many major forms of harm; I, for one, have never congratulated myself for not severely beating people up in the subway, or for not having any desire to do so.

The secular version of this theodicy is sort of a subtype of the greater good approach above. So what goods would we lose if, starting tomorrow morning, people were unable to significantly harm each other for no good reason? I’m not even sure this would reduce our overall autonomy. In a sense, a great deal of violence is already rooted in impaired agency – people rarely choose to lead a life of, say, gang violence or war, as long as there are reasonable and realistic alternatives (building a life of order out of such chaos is extremely difficult but people still tend to prefer to attempt this when given a chance, whereas choosing a life of absolute chaos when living comfortably is extremely easy, yet few people choose to do so). Of course, there are disagreements about what kinds of suffering you are justified to cause as a necessity to preserve e.g. your social autonomy, but again, the evil or suffering itself isn’t needed for you to be autonomous. (The concept of autonomy and genuine agency in a social environment running on human brains is, in any case, probably too muddled to provide anything useful here.)

Another shortcoming of this approach is that a lot of suffering is still caused by diseases and natural disasters; so maybe you inexplicably want people to be able to maim each other at will (though they should still be stopped, and also they belong in prison afterwards, let’s not be unreasonable here), but there’s tons of suffering besides human evil. This is also a counterargument to Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense.

But autonomy is often evoked as a justification for suffering in the other direction as well: since people tend to place some value on their past suffering, and a lot of it has very genuinely been valuable to them, someone wanting to reduce or abolish suffering threatens many of the things they currently find meaningful, or the struggles and choices they made to be able to get through it. I don’t see why this isn’t a reasonable justification for some hardships and pains: again, if there are painful things people generally are glad to go through, or if there is an apparent relationship between these things and positive outcomes later on, maybe these forms of suffering shouldn’t be eradicated; but maybe an alternative should still be offered for people who would rather choose not to go through them, you know, because of the autonomy stuff and all. Also, this is again not a plausible argument for intense suffering, or credible in the presence of burning children, as rabbi Greenberg more eloquently put it. Also also, animal suffering is not properly justified by this theodicy any better than by the more general greater good approach above: even Darwin lamented the suffering of wild animals and found it irreconcilable with the concept of a benevolent God, and didn’t seem to glorify the freedom of wild creatures in the midst of it all.

The “Best of all possible worlds” approach

This theodicy is also pretty well-known, presented by Leibniz in the 1700’s, and it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin – out of all possible universes, God chose the one with the best conditions and actualized it and since he is obviously good and reasonable, everything’s basically fine by definition. Moving on without comment, a common secular analogy is rooted in the powerlessness of mankind: if there is no God, there’s also no way for anyone to directly make things better without the possibility of everything backfiring horribly. There may be terrible things going on in the world, but there’s no way we can help it – this is the best we can do.

The solution here, it seems to me, is to tirelessly gather more information and power, not shrug and turn your back to a world full of unimaginable distress you could at least help alleviate. I know, I know, there are massive coordination problems we haven’t really solved and fixing even most of the ways in which the world is bad currently looks like an intractable project, but at the same time everything is making some sort of progress and there are people doing a lot of good with whatever they’ve got and the change is slow but we’re making the intractable very tractable in surprising ways all the time. This entire theodicy is a lazy excuse mostly and y’all know it.

Minor theodicies, other directions, and conclusions

There are a lot of approaches in religious theodicy that aren’t really transferrable to a secular framework, such as all the Original Sin stuff and the related karmic explanations, all of which mainly try to shift the responsibility on us mortals – uninteresting now that we already accept it. There are also some justifications that are mostly just seen in secular contexts, such as wanting our experiences to be authentic or real in some usually poorly defined but intuitively natural sense, and thus wanting to retain distress almost as a terminal value because it’s part of the authentic human or animal #lifestyle. This is horrible and fundamentally incoherent with everything but I get it, there’s a chance that while carelessly getting rid of some traditional human stuff you throw away something valuable as well. None of these seem to fare better than the ones described above when asked to respond to all of the reasonable requirements.

What I’m interested in right now is suffering as a social motivator, though. As mentioned above, it’s plausible that the implicit fear of intense social distress is such a major part of human social dynamics that abolishing it or allowing it to become voluntary would change the way we have to approach human relationships and require us to strengthen other sources of emotional commitment. There are close social bonds without super notable suffering even when the bond eventually breaks, but at the same time, the most distressing events of a typical first world life are social losses of different kinds, and this might be something people will generally want to retain for complicated sentimental and social reasons. Again, this is not going to lead to a satisfying theodicy even if we only wanted a narrow, anthropocentric one, but I think the relationship between suffering and social bonds is worth investigating before the hypothetical future where abolitionism or dramatic reduction of suffering becomes feasible.

Anyway, I realize that most of the rejections above are based on pretty intuitive moral judgments about what an acceptable justification should look like, and some people will obviously find them more persuasive than I do. I would kind of like to do more research on the subject and write up a more rigorous analysis of it, though probably focusing on the secular justifications to an even greater extent, since a deeper understanding of the religious approaches doesn’t seem very useful after this point. But it seems like the reasons people so strongly oppose reducing suffering aren’t very well understood right now: many of the individual arguments are trivially kind of weak, but the discomfort remains. Clarifying this issue and some related concepts could be really useful in understanding human values.


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