DARK MATTERS: Pessimsim and the Problem of Suffering

Mara Van Der Lugt

ISBN 978-0-691-20662-2  Princeton  £28

Reviewed by Alan Dent


Van Der Lugt examines the work of seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers who addressed the ďproblem of evilĒ and the poles of ďoptimismĒ and ďpessimismĒ, the latter terms used in their philosophical sense. Interestingly, pessimism was coined in response to Leibnitz and optimism to Voltaireís satire on his ideas. Some of the philosophers she treats are slightly less well-known; Bayle for example, who is deemed to have had a significant influence on Hume among others. Malebranche, Maupertuis and La Mettrie too. Malbranche (1638-1715) responded to the question of theodicy (why did God create a world where evil is possible?) with the view that though God could have made a perfect world, it would have entailed greater intricacy and what he wanted was to balance an overarching perfection with laws which are simple and universally applicable. Maupertuis (1698-1759) contributed to science in including a visit to Lapland to work out geodesic measurements. He also prefigured evolution, to a degree, and employed the term ďfitnessĒ for an animalís chances of survival. His ideas regarding Van Der Lugtís area of study were to do with hedonistic calculus: is it possible to find accurate mathematical measures of the comparative weights of good and evil. La Mettrie (1709-1751) was a materialist who saw human capacities as attributes of organised matter. He conceived of us as machines and believed animals displayed a proto-morality. His hedonism led to his death from over-eating.  

Van Der Lugt goes into much detail, repeats herself a bit and having explored the various contributions to the question of pessimism versus optimism, offers her own thoughts as a conclusion. Her notion is that pessimism, in the sense that we accept that life has a fair degree of pain and difficulty, can help us towards sympathy, compassion, tolerance. Pessimism, in the philosophical sense, isnít thoroughly negative. 

The central question, theodicy, dissolves if you donít believe in god. Most of the thinkers she deals with took a deity for granted, as was common in their time. Perhaps we should expect philosophers to be less inclined to accept what is current. However, if god doesnít exist, there is no need to puzzle over why he put evil into the mix. Accepting that there is no intelligent design casts the question is a completely different light.  

None of the people whose work is referred to provides a clear definition of either good or evil. Some think there is physical evil and moral evil. Physical evil might, for example, be toothache. Maybe we need to define evil more tightly. Toothache is excruciating, but it isnít evil. Itís just the way the world is. Sexual abuse of children is evil. A decent definition of evil might be to know something is wrong and to do it anyway. But what do we mean by ďwrongĒ? If I hit you over the head with an iron bar and steal your purse, thatís wrong. If I find your purse, look inside and see your address and return it to you, thatís right. How do we know? Experience tells us. We are moral like we are linguistic. Just as we learn to speak effortlessly, so we  distinguish good from evil actions. Itís wired in. Of course, there are cultural differences, but you wonít find a culture anywhere which doesnít set fairly narrow limits. Is there a culture we know of where murder is approved? The differences tend to be of degree rather than kind. The important point is there is no culture we know of where there is no morality. As Thoreau put it: ďOur lives are startlingly moral.Ē 

The question is, if I hit you with an iron bar to get your money, do I know Iím doing wrong? Almost certainly, but my desire for money is stronger than my capacity for restraint ( more or less a truism about the people who run our economy). Did Hitler know he was doing wrong when he sent people to the gas chambers? This is more complex. He was complying with Europeís programme of imperialist expansion which was justified on the grounds that the white races were superior. He sent Jews, the disabled, Romanies etc to the gas chambers, but he treated British prisoners of war relatively well. No British servicemen or women went to Auschwitz. He had come to believe it was right, or at least acceptable, to exterminate the lesser races. He was far from alone. Was this simply wrong thinking or a form of psychopathology? Why not both? Maybe our ideas can drive us mad. Itís often said Hitler was a criminal lunatic, but most people in Europe in the 1930s agreed with him that there were higher and lower races and the latter were expendable. A few decades earlier, Keir Hardie said he didnít go so far as thinking all races equal. Maybe Hitler would never have mugged old ladies on the street, even Jewesses, but with the power of the State at his disposal and an ideology of racial superiority abroad, he could believe he was doing good. Europe was superior. Wiping out those who got in the way was right.  

All the same, the definition above holds in that he obviously thought sending British soldiers to the gas chambers was wrong, if only tactically. He found a justification for what he knew contained a portion of evil. Maybe Peter Sutcliffe did too when he smashed womenís skulls with a hammer. Clearly, his thinking was disordered, but I doubt he would have considered it legitimate for someone to do the same to his wife or mother, which implies some residual sense of wrongness.  

Is it better not to be, or never to have been ? David Benatar, author of Better Never To Have Been apparently thinks so. Itís a question only the individual can answer. Running through the book is another question: given the chance to live your life again, would you? Some of the chosen thinkers assume most people wouldnít. That may be to do with their epoch. Most people lived tough lives in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and even the philosophers didnít have things easy. Democracy and hot running water can make a big difference. My guess is if people in the UK today were offered the same three score years and ten, most would accept. Thereís plenty thatís bad, but most people can get on with a relatively pleasant life and the real fulfilments, like parenting are unmissable.  

These thinkers were of their time. We have intellectual advantages they couldnít have dreamt of. Itís much easier for us to see that if evil werenít possible, good wouldnít be either. We have evolved with a capacity for choice. How could we have evolved to do only good? That would mean we had no choice, in which case there would be no good. Good is, precisely, the choice to do good. Without the choosing there is just something like bacteria crowding to the side of the Petrie dish when the anti-bacterial agent is added, but even that looks like a very, very crude kind of choice. The silly, fantasy thinking which says, ďOh, wouldnít it be nice if racism were impossibleĒ is a rejection of reality: itís only because it is possible we can choose to reject it. Rousseau is wrong. Man isnít born free. We have evolved with a moral sense which requires us to make choices every minute. There never was an innocent state of nature. We have always (since we gained language and abstract thought) been a problem to ourselves.  

The question of happiness arises in much of the thought discussed. By its nature, happiness is subjective, though itís almost certainly possible to be objective about the conditions which promote it, and once again, we donít need philosophy, experience is good enough. Ask anyone if sleeping on the streets, going hungry, being lonely, suffering prejudice and similar deprivations would make them happy and it would be unlikely youíd get many affirmative answers. Ask them if a pleasant, warm house, a stable family, friends and social acceptance would and the result would probably be equally predictable. We know from experience what makes us happy because, once again, weíre wired for it. Prisons are nasty places because we know what hurts people and we think punishing them is justified (which is how we create old lags). No one needed philosophers to tell them how to build Wormwood Scrubs.  

Hume, who has a chapter here, is featured because of his arguments which favour pessimism; but Humeís greatest contribution is recognising the limits of philosophy, or indeed human cognition. The power of philosophy is to make us attend to facts, evidence, logic and basic moral principles. Will that make us happy? Not necessarily or consistently, but it will save us from the despair which comes from a regime of lies, deceit, injustice and moral corruption. Philosophy, like all knowledge, has limits, and they are pretty narrow. There are questions itís interesting or even useful to examine, like why we enjoy having friends; but you canít get beyond the fact that we do. Like we have arms and legs. Itís part of our biological endowment. Philosophyís task is to help us understand what that endowment is so we donít try to live against it. Humeís insistence on limits adds to that effort.  

The problem of suffering, in the sense of evil, is a matter of relationships. Suffering back ache is wearying and depressing, but it isnít usually the result of evil. Thereís no evil in the fact that natural selection cobbled together the spine from the materials around under environmental pressure. Shakespeare is right: ďThereís no fault in nature but the mindĒ. Evil, like language, is exclusively human. No animal can produce an invalid sentence because they canít produce sentences. Nor can any animal commit a moral fault because they donít have morality. We, on the other hand, produce sentences as easily as breathing and we make moral choices in the same way. Cancer is a horrible disease but it isnít evil. Selling people cigarettes when you know they provoke cancer is. Itís a choice, and to put your own gain before someone elseís well-being is morally despicable (even though itís what our economy is based on). Evil is a relationship and so is the suffering which flows from it. Is there anything which makes us suffer like cruel treatment?  

The value of this book is partly that its detail brings into focus the work of some of the most important thinkers of the era it covers. Itís important to site their work in its time. The economic, social, intellectual, emotional, religious and artistic context made a big difference. Van Der Lugtís study also raises the questions we should all be thinking about. We are better placed to deal with them then Bayle, Voltaire etc. They may have had genius but we have the work of geniuses they never knew. Van Der Lugt is a fine scholar. Her research is extraordinary and there is much even those familiar with the territory will learn. Her style is slightly headlong and sheís an academic not a writer. She isnít Jane Austen or James Joyce, but this is a reference book of great worth. Its title belies its pleasures. It will cheer you up.