Suffering and Moral Responsibility

Suffering and Moral Responsibility

Suffering and Moral Responsibility

Suffering and Moral Responsibility


In this original study, Jamie Mayerfeld undertakes a careful inquiry into the meaning and moral significance of suffering. Understanding suffering in hedonistic terms as an affliction of feeling, he addresses difficulties associated with its identification and measurement. He then turns to an examination of the duty to relieve suffering: its content, its weight relative to other moral considerations, and the role it should play in our lives. L Among the claims defended in the book are that suffering needs to be distinguished from both physical pain and the frustration of desire, that interpersonal comparisons of the intensity of happiness and suffering are possible, that several psychological processes hinder our awareness of other people's suffering, and that the prevention of suffering should often be pursued indirectly. Mayerfeld concludes his discussion by arguing that the reduction of suffering is morally more important thanthe promotion of happiness, and that most of us greatly underestimate the force of the duty to prevent suffering. L As the first systematic book-length inquiry into the moral significance of suffering, Suffering and Moral Responsibility makes an important contribution to moral philosophy and political theory, and will interest specialists in each of these areas.


The world knows an immense amount of suffering, much of it humanly inflicted and much of it humanly preventable. My book seeks to shed light on the moral dimensions of this fact. Ultimately, it aims to clarify the nature of the duty to relieve suffering, and to encourage reflection on the kinds of changes that would be necessary to bring our lives into adequate compliance with this duty.

I have brooded on these matters for a long time. From an early age I enjoyed many wide-ranging and eye-opening conversations with Morris Jackson, who greeted my views with good-natured skepticism and subjected them to steady critique. My parents, with whom I began to share my thoughts around the same time, reacted with something closer to alarm. I have learned much from their protests, and I owe more than I can say to their unceasing love, encouragement, and support. To them and to Morris, I dedicate this book.

I thank the professors at Oberlin College who introduced me to moral and political philosophy. In my sophomore year, I wrote on my own initiative what I fancied to be a definitive discussion of the duty to relieve suffering. Norman Care read it, gave me detailed comments, and suggested that I might benefit from actually studying philosophy. His course on “Philosophy and Values” was a revelation. I also learned from the superlative teaching of Alfred MacKay, who wisely devoted a course to Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics, and Harlan Wilson, who did his best to teach me some political theory.

This work first took shape as a doctoral dissertation in politics at Princeton University. I owe an enormous debt to my advisors, Alan Ryan and George Kateb, for expert guidance at the start, middle, and end of the dissertation project. Both were sympathetic to the undertaking, but warned me to abandon some of my more foolish ideas. I heeded their advice in some instances, and may come to regret that . . .

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