The idea that suffering is valuable, that enduring pain is both inherently virtuous and conducive to the development of virtue is one of the very oldest ideas. It is, among other things, one of the central teachings of the Christian religion, which instructs its adherents to bear wrongs lightly because in suffering they unite themselves with the crucified God. It is a hallmark of classical Stoicism, of Buddhism, and hundreds of other significant traditions and thinkers. It is also totally at odds with everything that people in the neoliberal late-capitalist West have been told their entire lives. There is no ill, from a sprained ankle that can be put under an MRI to a terminal disease that can be ended by clinically supervised suicide, that should and cannot be done away with by spending money. Suffering does not belong to the natural order, and society’s most fundamental task is its elimination.
This is not a new idea either, but it is one that has never had more cultural currency than it enjoys at present, when it is the closest thing we have to a baseline political consensus. Politicians across the spectrum propose different answers — lower taxes, universal pre-K, the Freedom Dividend, allowing people to buy unpasteurized milk at their local supermarket — but the question is always the same.
Williamson wants us to consider the possibility that because the question — this one and virtually all the other ones too — is wrong, all the answers to them are bound to be at best inadequate and at worst evil.