First of all, I recognize completely how ironic it is that I ask you this a few months after I asked you about the risk that the world might be destroyed. That said…

There seems to be an idea among right-wingers that usually doesn’t get stated directly, probably because it is so unattractive, but that seems to play an important role in the attitudes of many of them. It’s the idea that life needs to suck, at least to some extent, in order to motivate people to achieve things. 

Now, what if that idea is true? It won’t help much to point out that those on the Right who hold that idea are often hypocrites who don’t want their own lives to suck – after all, the statement “murder is bad” is true even if it is said by a murderer.

It does seem to be true, after all, that in wealthy countries with halfway functioning social safety nets, the really unpleasant jobs are usually done by recent migrants from poorer countries without functioning social safety nets. You yourself have pointed out that historically many sons of kings were pretty worthless. And on a personal note, I was raised in the late 20th century in one of the world’s wealthier countries, and I could never imagine myself doing the regular work of, for instance, an average present day Chinese factory worker. 

Saying that similar complaints were heard in earlier times won’t help much, either – as the above examples show, arguably those “warnings” have “come true”. So, what would happen if all countries in the world ended up relatively wealthy? Where would the migrants to do the really unpleasant jobs come from, then?

—Raphael

First, you’re not the only one to have believed that conservatives want the world to suck. George Lakoff covers this in depth in Moral Politics. Describing the conservative worldview: “The world is a dangerous place. Survival is a major concern and there are dangers and evils lurking everywhere, especially in the human soul.” Strict moral discipline (he continues) is required to survive, and harsh punishment is valuable. Without struggle, “there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person.” (His book was from 1996; here’s his more up-to-date thoughts on the election.)

Now, this is essentially a millennia-old response to the problem of evil. I discussed it in the context of the Incatena here, stating it as a problem for the social planner and for God. To put it as convincingly as possible: people who get all what they want and more get spoiled. They may be vaguely benevolent, but have little empathy and no idea of sacrifice or heroism. Those who have overcome suffering are not only stronger but have a better moral character. We might well worry if everyone could live like the children of the super-rich, they would be either weak nothings (Wells’s Eloi) or hedonistic simpletons (Huxley’s Brave New World).

There is, by the way, a left-wing version of this view. The communists, especially the ones who actually organized factory labor or peasants, liked to paint the socialists and democrats as soft and weak, and turned “bourgeois” into  slur. This was taken to an extreme by Maoism, which was forged in the ordeal of the Long March, and cheerfully sent millions of students to labor in the fields. (There’s also a much weaker, but much more widespread,  view that people should live in rural communes or something.)

You’re right that it’s not a complete answer to say that those who advocate this worldview don’t want it for themselves or their children. But it is a partial answer. This worldview is congenial to the powerful— it justifies permanent injustice and absolves them of any need to ameliorate it. That’s a strong reason to distrust it.

Not coincidentally, the suffering-is-good view primarily targets the poor, women, and religious or sexual minorities.  If suffering is good, shouldn’t its advocates want it to be equally distributed? And if suffering produces good moral character, isn’t it curious that the advocates believe that they, the non-suffering, are the moral ones? Shouldn’t those who suffer the most be the most moral?

But we can also attack the claim directly. Suffering doesn’t build character.  Suffering just makes people miserable. When we don’t have an ideology that makes us sympathize with the oppressors, we see this clearly: Mao, for instance, twice destroyed the prosperity of his own revolution, killed millions of people, and wasted the lives of an entire generation.

Plus, though it’s an old moral lesson that hedonism is bad for you, it’s an even older and more basic moral lesson that participating in injustice is wrong. Even if it’s morally uplifting to get robbed, that hardly means that a moral person should be a robber. The world is a dangerous place, but a policy of adding to its dangers doesn’t make someone a moral paragon, but a sociopath.

It’s hard to deny that life for most people, not just in the global North, is better than it was a thousand years ago. Premodern agricultural kingdoms really did suck for 90% of the population. Even the strictest conservative doesn’t exactly want to bring back slavery, trial by ordeal, the Black Plague, nomad invasions, foot-binding, and the constant warfare and cruelty favored by kings. (If you’re dealing with a Christian conservative, ask them if they think Jesus should have left the world in paganism.)

But if you’ve conceded that some suffering should be eliminated, you can hardly object to removing more suffering, except by offering a further and better argument. If ending slavery was good, why not eliminate racism too? In practical terms the argument is really not “all suffering is good”, but “the suffering that generally existed in my childhood is the right amount of suffering”.  That could be the case, but such amazing temporal coincidences are not very convincing.

Also, whether or not suffering has good moral effects, we’re not really not on the verge of a great suffering shortage. There’s still plenty to go around. The 21st century is going to be challenging, not least because there is, oh, the prospect of total ecological collapse. So there is really no need to increase local suffering by, say, removing everyone’s health insurance.

But there is a conworlding exercise here, and I’ll take the bait and consider it. If we could solve our ecological problems and the right wing totally imploded, we could create a world that is both prosperous and egalitarian. Should we worry about people becoming spoiled?

As Lakoff would say, this is in part a framing problem. If we’re creating an ideal society, of course we don’t want “spoiled” people. As progressives, we want people to be nurturing and empathetic instead. If they’re not, we didn’t design very well. But it begs the question to suggest that the design solution is “more suffering”. Suffering isn’t the best way of producing empathy anyway; better to model it and teach it directly.

A deeper answer: as people move up Maslow’s hierarchy of need, they develop new and different concerns and disputes. Are Germans of 2016 “more spoiled” than those of 1016? They’re far richer, but surely we couldn’t say that they’re all spoiled like rich children. If anything, a certain level of material ease facilitates spirituality: you can read, meditate, study, give to the poor. In most religious traditions, a simple lifestyle is a virtue— but being born to it is generally not enough. Being a wandering monk is a choice and meritorious; being a wandering beggar is generally neither.

We can call the average German of 2016 “rich” compared to the one from 1016, but that hardly means that she thinks or acts like a rich man of 1016. If our civilization survives until 3016 and attains a general prosperity, the people of 3016 will be “rich” by our standards, but not by their own, and there’s no particular reason to assume that they will act like today’s rich people (or their spoiled children).

As for unpleasant jobs, I don’t see that as an unsolvable problem. In general, tedious jobs are also the ripest for automation. In advanced countries 99% of people don’t work in the fields. But those who really like that kind of lifestyle can take it.

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