Sunday, 19 February 2017

Is Suffering Necessary For Moral Development?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Many intellectuals claim that the poverty, insecurity and coercion in the theocratic and socialist regimes is not a bad thing because it enables people to develop proper virtues. They insist that individuals learn how to be moral when they undergo suffering, and that the empty stomachs, concentration camps, torture chambers and firing squads are necessary for creating virtuous men.

Indeed, it is true that even in a dictatorship like the Soviet Union a few people are able to flourish in some areas of their life. For instance, in the Soviet Union where tens of millions of people were incarcerated, brutalized and murdered by the communist government in the infamous Gulag prison camps, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn flourished—in the area of being a thinker and writer.

He survived the Gulag prison camp and went on to write his celebrated history of the Soviet holocaust, The Gulag Archipelago, and many other books. Can the case be made that Solzhenitsyn evolved morally and intellectually due to the years of incarceration, deprivation and torture that he suffered in the Soviet prisons?

In Norms of Liberty, Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl reject the idea that suffering is a necessary condition for the moral development of individuals. Here’s an excerpt:
“It is, of course, possible for coercion to bring some persons to a position where they come to understand the appropriateness of a moral norm that they may not have otherwise seen. In fact, the extreme example of this is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He turned the Gulag into an opportunity for moral development. However, there is no necessary relationship here. What examples like the Gulag reveal is that, if individuals have some control over some areas of their lives, they might be able to integrate their circumstances into their own unique form of flourishing. Yet what this illustrates is the pluralistic character of human flourishing, not the usefulness of coercion in creating moral excellence. Indeed, what coercion often means for countless persons is the loss of their moral compasses and indeed their souls. But numbers do not matter here; what matters here is that coercion bears no necessary, or even probable, connection to moral excellence. If our goal is moral excellence, then there is little to recommend coercion generally applied.”


  1. That rationalization is a stretch. No good comes from evil but good can survive evil.

  2. Solzhenitsyn grew up learning the Christian virtues humility, meekness, servility, submission and thus did not come to value freedom until he was in the Gulag.

    "And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling in terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand? [...] The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin's thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt!

    "If … If … We didn't love freedom enough." -Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (Chapter 1 "Arrest")

    Growing under a proper ethical system where freedom is valued and no such suffering would be required.