Work in Progress

Politics and Suffering (Draft, May 2021)


The liberalism of fear … does not, to be sure, offer a summum bonum toward which all

political agents should strive, but it certainly does begin with a summum malum,

which all of us know and would avoid if we only could. The evil is cruelty and the fear

it inspires, and the very fear of fear itself. (Judith Shklar)


Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens.

But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my

heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a

burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a

mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I

too suffer. (Bertrand Russell)


Some texts in political philosophy are inspiring and uplifting. They celebrate what human society can be at its best, what humans can be at their best. Such texts are about liberty, about community, about solidarity, about reasonableness, about non-domination, about rational communal deliberation. Such texts have a role to play, I’m sure, and when they are read in this spirit – as inspiring visions of what at our best we can be – may be harmless, and perhaps even insightful. But those writing such texts, it has always seemed to me, “dwell on the sunny side of the street”: Their writing is disconnected from so much that is going on in people’s lives, so much that is being caused by – or at the very least not prevented by – politics. And while lofty criteria for, e.g., the legitimacy of states are interesting in their own right, in the real world it has always seemed to me wiser to settle for states and governments that cause a little less serious suffering, and – if we’re lucky – that prevent some more serious suffering (let me flag here the legitimacy issue. It is going to emerge – in the last section of the paper – as an especially significant implication of my arguments here). The task of this paper is to defend the centrality of such suffering to politics, and to pursue some of the implications of this centrality.

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