“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.” - Viktor Frankl
In a recent post, I wrote about how philosophy can be dangerous, how we must consider the practical applications of ideas before we claim them in order to see how they translate into reality. In the article, I spoke about the Nazi ideals of anti-semitism, eugenics, and nationalism; however, there are more modern examples that must also be addressed.
One such idea is materialism. Materialism is the idea that matter is all that exists in the world. There is no soul, no spiritual realm, nothing besides that which is empirical. In this way, a person is merely a body, and there is no outside reason to live any specific lifestyle. There are only the goals that each person comes up with, goals which are determined by his or her own DNA. This cosmological idea gives way to utilitarianism. If we believe that we are merely matter, then our bodies become our number one priorities, as that is all we are. Further, our goals in life are centered around our bodies. Most people believe that happiness is the number one goal in life. But if we claim that our bodies are all that we are, then we must insist that life is all about making our bodies happy. In this way, morality becomes rooted in the idea of physical pleasure, because that is what makes the body happy. Utilitarianism is the idea that one must bring about the greatest amount of good for the most people and refrain from evil. When we incorporate materialism, this idea means that the good is merely pleasure and therefore pain must be evil. If we believe that pain is evil, then we are unable to tolerate it, and become unwilling to cope with even the slightest discomfort. In this way, denying one’s self becomes abhorrent. The person seeks pleasure and cannot tolerate pain or discomfort, because there is no reason to do so. Because of this idea, some have come to believe that death, the extermination of all physical feeling, would be preferable to suffering.
If we believe that we are nothing more than matter, then the malfunctioning of that matter gives us the “right” to dispose of it. Abortion, or the removal of a fertilized fetus from the uterus, is just such an expulsion of matter. No longer is the thriving mass of life considered intrinsically valuable; it is merely inconvenient. One argument for abortion is that the fetus in question may not have a family that would be able to take care of the baby, and that he or she would be put in a foster care system, which is undoubtedly a difficult life. In this way, pro-abortion advocates claim that it is better for the baby to not survive in the first place, in order to avoid a life of pain and suffering. They see no value in a life that has not been able to encounter the world outside the womb.
A second practical application of materialism and utilitarianism is euthanasia. When a person’s body breaks down, they suffer. This suffering can vary greatly, but there are times when a person experiences pain with little or no relief. There are those who claim that such persons should be put out of their misery, that they should either be injected with something that kills them or deprived of that which gives them life. In this way, the evil of suffering can be avoided.
A third extreme example that flows from these philosophies is suicide. It seems as though suicide is on the rise. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is a leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 34. It is second only to unintentional injury. But suicide is completely preventable. It occurs because of emotional and psychological turmoil. But if we truly believe in materialism and utilitarianism, then we must believe that what was done was right. The person ended his or her suffering.
But something is wrong here. The end of suffering does not seem good enough to deprive someone of life. Even in our most miserable moments, we still live. In fact, we can find solace in that fact. Life itself is a gift, not a burden. As Pope John Paul II states in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, “Life is entrusted to man as a treasure which must not be squandered, as a talent which must be used well.”(1) We did not just happen to come into existence, we were given it. Our being is unique, irreplaceable, and unrepeatable. Never has there been, nor is there now, nor will there ever be again, a person who is you. This “selfhood of the human person” (2) is what gives rise to intrinsic value of life. It proclaims that every person matters even, and perhaps most especially, when they suffer. Yes, pain and suffering are difficult to cope with, but when one finds meaning in suffering, then there is hope. Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, phrased the idea in this way:
"The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not."(3)
Spoken by a prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl’s statement carries serious weight. Frankl was in the midst of one of the most heinous environments known to man. Death camps were designed to break people mentally and physically, and yet, Frankl insists that we are to find meaning in our suffering. If this man could find hope despite intense suffering, how can we cringe from our own troubles? We must find meaning in our suffering, and in this way, uphold not only the intrinsic value of life, but the unique dignity of every human being.
- Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae
- Dr. John Crosby, Selfhood of the Human Person
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning