Alleviation of suffering is the essence of human purpose, and for some it is the source of greatest meaning in their lives. Suffering is severe distress that damages one’s body, mind or interpersonal relationships and also damages one’s self-identify.
If you sit down and try to identify the major sources of extreme suffering in the world, probably this is something like what you will come up with: war and armed conflict, human slavery, refugees, racism, poverty, hunger, illness, gender violence, and other human rights violations. These implicitly refer to the present time. If we expand this to the future, they would include such things as global warming.
Global Social Sectors of Suffering-alleviation
Suffering may be felt individually but its alleviation is social and requires not only social cooperation but social institutions that work together effectively. Most suffering-alleviation that transpires collectively occurs within one of these four social sectors: the humanitarian sector, the social policy sector, the caregiving/health sector, and the spiritual sector. This pattern arises from the social institutions that have been constructed within each sector to facilitate coordinated and individual behavior to reduce suffering.
Each of the four sectors provides a unique frame with which to view the world. The types of alleviation strategies within each sector emerged from a review of the literature on social action.
The Humanitarian Sector. This sector consists of organizations committed to humanitarian action because they champion charitable causes such as disaster relief, socio-economic development, and various human rights issues. They also meet unmet needs such as food, water, and healthcare. This sector has organized itself mainly around INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organizations), but some governmental agencies play a big role as well. The United Nations is the biggest and most comprehensive institution within this sector. Here are selected strategies used within this sector to alleviate suffering.
Human rights work
Philanthropy & Charity
The Social Policy Sector. This sector consists of government agencies and nonprofit organizations relevant to social policy, including social welfare, crime, and justice work; safety and security; education, labor, pensions, women’s health and child benefits. Alleviation strategies within this sector include:
Food security programs
The Caregiving/Health Sector. The caregiving/health sector encompasses both institutionalized healthcare practice (Farmer 2013) and informal caregiving, which consists of both situations of care and caring. Here are some types of alleviation actions:
Altruism & compassion
Healthcare (also in other sectors)
Reduction of vulnerabilities
Research & evaluation
The Spiritual Sector. In the United States, and probably in most other nations, much of the writing on suffering and its alleviation has a spiritual flavor. In the USA, the literature often takes a Christian or Buddhist perspective. However, many authors and leaders in this sector attempt to avoid taking only one point of view. Here are some types of alleviation actions:
Meaning education & therapy
Philanthropy (also in humanitarian sector)
Volunteering (see humanitarian sector)
Estimating the Amount of Extreme Suffering Globally
Identifying and defining these four social sectors helps to evaluate different strategies for suffering-alleviation that may overlap sector boundaries. For example, healthcare as a strategy for suffering relief can be found not only in the Caregiving/Health sector but in the Humanitarian and Social Policy sectors.
None-the-less, as can be seen in the following table, it may be useful to clarify the principal sector that addresses any given type of extreme suffering. This table lists nine different sources of extreme suffering and gives estimate of the total people affected. The total people affected by these sources of suffering is estimated as 1.847 Billion or 25% of the world population. (These global estimates of total people suffering by source were obtained from UN and other INGOs.)
The finding that nearly 2B (billion) out of the world population of 7.5B are experiencing extreme suffering may seem like an over-estimation, but in fact, it is probably a serious under-estimation. The estimation does not include the prevalence of sexual violence. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in 2016 that 42% of all women in the world had experienced either violence from a sexual partner or non-partner during their lifetime. Since we do not have a way of delimiting that exposure to a recent period of time (e.g., last year), that source of suffering was left out of our estimates. There are other human rights violations such as torture and imprisonment that were left out of these estimates as well because of lack of data.
The Future Time Frame
Commitment to alleviate suffering, whether on moral grounds or otherwise, logically applies to not only the present time but to the future as well. This implicit understanding applies to future generations—which are rarely mentioned in any policy documents. As soon as we move to future tense, the scope of suffering-alleviation becomes prevention of suffering.
Avoidable versus Unavoidable Suffering
An important distinction in the analysis of future suffering is whether or not the tragedy or the suffering in the future is avoidable in the present. Such analysis should be required in order to assess the risks going forward. Avoidability is not just a matter of time frame. The issue comes up any time that conditions are produced by a combination of natural systems and human actions.
Likewise, in healthcare some suffering results from incompetency and failure to prepare for contingencies. Clearly in such instances, suffering is avoidable. The moral obligation to alleviate suffering in such instances is clearly obvious.
Prevention versus Alleviation of Suffering
Any project to alleviate suffering can be grounded in one or more time frames: past, present, or future. Humanitarian relief is delivered in the present for disasters rooted in the past. International development projects build capacities and prevention mechanisms in the present that will function as resiliencies in the future.
Climate mitigation advocacy and suffering-prevention better prepare us for both the present and the future. Increasingly the present is filled with victims of chaos that had been predicted for the future. We have often failed at suffering prevention from climate-produced catastrophes such as disasters.
We need attentiveness to the present in order to anticipate future needs. Specifically, we seek to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable populations such as the poor and the disabled in order to address the injustices of existing policies and practices of relevant institutions. The poor and neglected tend to be those who suffer the most. Giving them our greatest attention at this point in history will benefit them in the future.
An undercurrent here has been that victims of climate disasters should not be viewed just as unlucky people, but as likely victims of inaction and failure to sacrifice for the well-being of present or future generations.
Meaning and the Alleviation of Suffering
Frankl, a pioneer in the meaning of suffering, views each person’s mission as finding and following one’s own meaning in life. According to Erickson (2006) the essential meaning of suffering is that it generates a capacity for compassion and love. Thus, not only does the act of alleviating suffering go together with meaningful purpose, it brings or produces the meaning.
Mayerfeld (2005) throughout his book on suffering and moral responsibility makes a strong case for the position that suffering explicitly creates moral obligations to alleviate it. In Mayeroff’s (1971) view, caring relationships mutually imply obligations to relieve the suffering of each other.
At the larger institutional levels of the humanitarian and social policy sectors lie many types of suffering-alleviation activities by which societies try to neutralize the rough edges of suffering and prevent further avoidable suffering. The most important aspect of this conclusion is that these sectors offer opportunities for individuals to be involved in setting the agendas as well as relieving the harm.
The caregiving and spiritual sectors are organized for individual participation directly in suffering-alleviation. Thus, societies offer us a huge array of options for us to be involved in suffering reduction. While any individual is free to opt out of engaging in suffering-alleviation, our analysis reveals that worldwide many different organizations, programs and individual participants take a great deal of shared responsibility for relieving our own suffering as well that of others.
Anderson, R. E. (Ed.) (2017). Alleviating World Suffering: The Challenge of Negative Quality of Life. NY: Springer.
Anderson, R. E. (Ed.) (2015). World Suffering and the quality of life. NY: Springer.
Eriksson, K. (2006). The Suffering Human Being. Chicago: Nordic Studies Press.
Estes, R. J. (Ed.) (2007). Advancing quality of life in a turbulent world. New York: Springer.
Farmer, P. (2013). To repair the world. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, Beacon Press. (Originally published in 1959.)
Mayerfeld, J. (2005). Suffering and moral responsibility. NY: Oxford University Press.
Mayeroff, M. (1971) On Caring. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Singer, P. (2016). Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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