Is Human Suffering Bad For Humanity?

I think if you ask most people, regardless of their race, religion, sex, gender, orientation, socioeconomic status, nationality, etc. that if they could wave a magic wand and make the world such that everyone had food, clothes, medicine, a loving family, and a sense of well-being at the expense of nobody else, they would do so without a second thought. Why wouldn’t you? Who wouldn’t want to end suffering and create happiness? One of the biggest reasons some people have for doubting their religion is the problem of evil – if there is a benevolent god, then why does suffering exist? Why do bad things happen to otherwise good (or at least, innocent) people?

Well, I’m here to make the case that maybe human suffering makes humanity as a whole better. This isn’t a political or religious statement, nor do I even endorse the idea that suffering is good, but I’d like to propose sort of a thought experiment. So humor me, if you will.

People who suffer offer an artistic perspective we would never have without suffering.

It’s somewhat of a truism that artists are often people who have endured hardship. The experience of hardship is often what gives them material for their art. People who are able to focus their pain into something productive create some of the greatest works of art. Kurt Godel may have suffered from delusions. Michelangelo may have been autistic.  Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo produced art based on the struggle of Mexicans (and themselves). The people who created blues and jazz struggled with slavery and racism. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Robin Williams, Mitch Hedberg and the list goes on. The idea being, if these people didn’t suffer, would they have created the diversity, novelty, and quality of art that they had? If everyone in the world grew up with all of their needs fulfilled, a loving family, and an accepting society, would they have made the impact that they had? Is it necessary for people to suffer in order to gain some insight or ability to create amazing art? Or could someone have done this without having the experiences they did?

Helping those who suffer makes people with the means to help better humans.

One of the tenets of many religions is helping the poor. The bible says “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” One of the Five Pillars of Islam is “Giving Zakat” which is giving to the poor. Many other religious have ideas like this. These are considered not only moral acts, but virtuous acts. Doing this makes you a good person and can earn you a place in God’s grace. But what happens if there is no poor to help? What happens if nobody is wanting and everybody is equal? Is there any theology that tackles the idea of the end of suffering? What happens when there is something akin to heaven on earth? How will the meek inherit the earth if there is no more meek? Is it good to have the less fortunate around so that the more fortunate can become moral by helping them?
The poor don’t know that their function in life is to exercise our generosity.” -Jean-Paul Sartre

Combating suffering brings us great technological advances.

The mother of invention is necessity. Many of our modern technologies have come about because someone realized there was a problem, and then invented a solution. Scientific advances are often made in attempts to solve a problem – an enormous majority of biochemistry and cell biology research is funded by grants awarded to cancer research. How many advances might we have made if cancer wasn’t a problem that needed fixing? How much would we understand about bacteria if we didn’t have the problem of antibiotic resistance and vaccinations? How much would we know about the brain if there weren’t such thing as mental illness? And maybe mental illness even creates scientific, mathematical, and engineering insights we wouldn’t have otherwise? How much technology has been produced by places like DARPA in order to keep a wartime advantage? Would NASA have come about if it wasn’t for the Cold War?

These questions can be strange to ask, but it’s difficult to deny that much of the art, science, technology, and even morality that we enjoy and take pride in has been a result of suffering of one kind or another. Would it be worth it to eradicate all suffering if it were to reduce artistic output, slow progress, and take away something meaningful from many people?