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The Paradox of Suffering

Laurence Mordekhai Thomas is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Department of Political Science of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

The most astounding case of goodwill in modern history comes not from a people who had suffered greatly, but from a people who had not suffered much injustice at all, namely the people of Le Chambon. As we all know, the citizens of this city put their very lives on the in order to save thousands of Jews from the Nazis.
By contrast, many who know horrendous injustice first-hand have been not been much motivated to help others. For instance, we do not find comparatively more altruism among Blacks and Jews than we find among others, although both groups have much to say about the suffering of their people. Likewise, although Arab Muslims claim to be the victim of enormous discrimination nowadays both in Europe and the United States, we do not find that altruism looms large in their lives, either.
Together, these considerations leave us with what can only be called a paradox, namely that many individuals who have been most willing to sacrifice much in order to alleviate the unjust suffering of others have not much suffered at all, whereas many who have suffered enormous injustices often do very little to help others who have suffered. One would have thought that things would be the other way around. But they are not. And the question that forcefully presents itself is : Why do we have this paradox ?
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not claiming that in general people who have not suffered great injustice are motivated to help others. I am merely pointing out that some of the people who have been most motivated to help others have not suffered much injustice at all ; whereas among the many who have suffered grave injustices strikingly few are motivated to help others who are suffering.
One explanation for this paradox of suffering, as I shall call it, is that many people who have suffered greatly immediately see themselves as having an excuse to ignore the suffering of others. Indeed, many are more interested in magnifying their suffering vis-à-vis the suffering of others than being moved to help others.
When a person has suffered enormous injustice, it is obvious that she has a reason to feel hurt and scarred. It is also understandably important to a person who has suffered that others do not fail to see her or his suffering. What happens, unfortunately, is what I shall refer to as the transformation of identity to that of the self-of-victimhood. The point of others seeing that we have suffered some grave set of injustices often becomes more important than the suffering itself. So, for example, present-day Blacks in the United States will often talk about slavery as if they themselves had experienced slavery—and not just that many are ancestors of slaves. Similarly, many Jews are quick to see a parallel to the Holocaust. There is clearly a continuum here ; and it is simply a mistake to see any and every form of antisemitism as being parallel to the Holocaust.
What is more, the self-of-victimhood is generally seen by those so configured as an ever-present excusing condition for not helping others : “I have so much trouble dealing with my own pain of injustice that I do not have time to be concerned with the injustice of others”. Being a victim of injustice is typically seen by victims as one of the best excuses ever for wallowing in self-interest.
The quite understandable view that an egregious wrongdoing should never be forgotten becomes an excuse not to see the suffering of others. It is a most interesting moral truth that we can overstep the moral mark in attending too much to our own moral pain. There is a very thin, but yet very important line, between remembering our moral pain and, in effect, sanctifying it. Many cross that line.
Notice, by contrast, that those who have not suffered much injustice are not in the position to go on and on about their moral pain. This is part of the reason why some of the most astounding instances of saving others from egregious wrongdoing, as with the people of Le Chambon, have come from those who were not in any way victims. But if we look at many of those who participate in charity work, we will find that so very many of them have lived rather fortunate lives.
To be sure, there are the fortunate who become greedy and self-centered. And there are the fortunate who are ever mindful of their good fortunate and who, on that account alone, think of others.
The fundamentally profound and painful point here is that owing to the self-identity of victimhood being a victim of egregious wrongdoing is not a gateway or fundamental stepping stone to being concerned about the injustice of others. This has to be right when one thinks about. Given all the wrongdoing so many claim to have suffered : if being a victim of unjust suffering generally occasioned moral decency towards others, then the world would already be approaching some form of moral perfection. Clearly it is not. And that fact is very revealing about what we as human beings are like.
We can put the disconcerting point as follows : Imagine that we have two groups of 50 people each : group A and group B. The members of group A have not known injustice and have been raised rather decently ; whereas nearly all the members of group B have known considerable injustice. Well, the history of human beings suggest that we are more likely to get a member of group A making a grave sacrifice in order to vanquish a gross injustice in the world than we are to get a member of group B doing so. Rather, the members of group B are much likely to go on and on and on about their suffering even though they could make substantial difference for the better in the lives of others.
Thus, it is more true than we might ever have supposed that it is moral decency that begets moral decency and it is evil begets evil. Contrary, to what any of us might have “naturally” supposed being a victim of grave injustice is rarely the extraordinary catalyst for fighting against injustice. And while so many of us would like to believe that it is : the proof that it is not is the very world around us. So many have been wronged ; and so many who have been wronged are indifferent to the wrong done to others. That is the Paradox of Suffering.

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