This article traces the history of the concept of suffering in order to understand how beliefs about suffering and the pain of suffering affected society and shaped the meaning of suffering. We end with a review of the meaning of suffering in the present day, when the role of suffering has been reformulated because of new events, risks, threats, and implications.

Hieroglyphics, Ancient Civilization & the History of Suffering

The picture in the upper left shows several symbols and their meanings from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in about 700 BCE. Two drawings, the vulture and the viper, were hieroglyphic symbols of suffering. One was a drawing of a deadly viper, whose poison caused suffering and sometimes death. The other drawing symbolized a huge bird that feeds on animal remains left by predators. These symbols convey that suffering can be deadly, which leaves behind great hurt, and which we label as grief, loss and sorrow. What is implied is these early formulations of suffering is that life begins and ends in suffering.

Suffering as Knowledge

As language developed, the concept of suffering evolved to support more elaborate and complex conceptions of suffering. Ancient societies such as the ancient Greeks had similar mythologies to explain the origin and consequences of suffering and death. It is especially intriguing that one of the first ideas about the meaning of suffering was the Early Greek notion of suffering as the origin of knowledge. The Garden of Eden story of the origin of human life and sin supports this extreme position that suffering is the origin of knowledge. The mythology supporting the notion of suffering as knowledge tended to highlight carnal knowledge to illustrate how knowledge is not necessarily a desirable good.

Additional discussion of the history of suffering will be structured in terms of the evolution of different perspectives on suffering and its role in human life and human society. The perspectives include 1) suffering as punishment, 2) suffering as reward, 3) suffering as craving, and 4) suffering as the gateway to happiness.

Suffering as Punishment

The first perspective, suffering as punishment, was predominant from the earliest historical periods down through the Middle Ages. During both the era of animist religions and the early era of organized religions (including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), pain and suffering were attributed to higher powers (Bowker 1970; Dormandy 2006; Kruse & Bastida 2009). God or the gods were thought to determine when, where, how, and what suffering was distributed among human beings. Punishment was doled out as an indication of super-natural displeasure with humans’ attitudes and behaviors. ‘Suffer’ once implied the long-suffering or patience—necessary to cope with the severe and sometimes arbitrary suffering of everyday life. By aligning their behavior with what they saw as the will of God or the gods, people believed that they were maximizing their relief from suffering. There will still be many people today who frame suffering primarily as punishment.

Also from the same traditions came the story of Job in the Old Testament. Job effectively was a victim of torture for the purpose of establishing that suffering is possible without the need to punish for sinful behavior. The main point of the story of Job’s intense suffering was that he benefited from some of it, not just in terms of redemption, but from greater empathy and understanding of others.

Suffering as Craving

Early Hinduism and later Buddhism claimed that suffering arose from Samsara, the human life cycle, and that suffering followed failure to follow the path to enlightenment. Buddhism directly teaches that ‘Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional,’ and ‘the origin of suffering is craving.’ Craving is interpreted by some as egocentric habits of mind (Targ and Hurtak 2006). The Buddha warned that all pleasurable sensations lead to craving and craving can take root (Dalai Lama 2011; Dalai Lama and Goleman 2003). Attaching to that craving causes suffering (as with addiction). Thus, the Buddha advocated the Middle Path, which avoids the extremes of a life of unrestrained pleasure-seeking and a life of extreme denial and suffering (Nikaya 1971). Buddhist practice consists of learning to live without specific pleasures by engaging in mindfulness and loving kindness for all living beings. Mindfulness is a meditative practice intended to keep the mind from its tendency to cling to emotions such as anger and hatred and to entertain thoughts of retribution and self-pity (Siegel 2010). As a Buddhist takes up this life of mindfulness and contemplative practice, cravings are less able to take root (Bernhard 2010).

The perspective for suffering as craving remains a popular attitude toward suffering in both Eastern as well as Western cultures. Equivalent notions of ‘addiction as suffering’ and ‘unrestrained pleasure’ as suffering are common in most religious traditions.

The following quote is attributed to Socrates: “If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever” (Millman 2006). Millman gives this notion a western psychological slant with “Pain is objective and physical; suffering is our psychological resistance to such events” (2006). As noted by Hurst (2011), Merton (1961) taught “contemplation as a way of living in awareness, allowing us to integrate suffering into life.” Aristotle advocated a middle way between excess and asceticism, not unlike Buddha’s middle path (Shields 2012).

In more recent times, the theme of suffering as knowledge is linked to the perceived benefits of suffering. Suffering is one of the few routes to maturity and wisdom. McGonigal (2016) and others claim that stress and modest suffering offer major pathways to personal understanding, growth, and resilience. Thus, what originally was a state of mind to be avoided, eventually became a state of mind and experience to be sought after and appreciated.

Another metaphor for this process is uniting with a greater universal consciousness. Other religions try to define rules or standards for people to balance pleasure with indulgence such that addictive craving is avoidable. Few are effective, though, because anger, greed, over-indulgence, and other types of suffering that result from craving are commonplace, if not rampant, in most societies (Pruett 1987). For Buddha, the path to happiness started from an understanding of the root causes of suffering.

 Suffering as Reward

The second perspective, suffering as reward, first emerged from the punishment perspective. Although suffering was interpreted as a sign of displeasure from the supernatural, it was also seen as a reward. A divine power indicated which behaviors were off-limits. This meant you could avoid future suffering by avoiding the behavior that brought on your suffering. Some religious groups have even presumed that, because we can learn from suffering, it is a desirable, laudable condition that should be exalted (Ashwell 2011; Beke 2011; Ghadinian 2012).

In the 13th century, groups of Roman Catholics, known as the Flagellants, took this practice to its extreme ends, marching through the streets whipping themselves. After several deaths, the Church officially withdrew its approval of these events (Bean 2000). Still, some contemporary religions will celebrate holy days devoted to suffering.

Adherents, too, believe that withstanding pain is a holy act, so using medications or other sources of relief is less desirable than fully experiencing suffering. Author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1955) said, “We must see suffering not as a destructive power but as a transcendent gift from the Divine.”

Ironically, we could even see the exalting of suffering in the 2012 presidential campaign in the United States. During a Republican primary forum, four candidates took turns telling their story of extreme suffering and how it had made them a better Christian and closer to God. One candidate even said, “Suffering… is not a bad thing, it is an essential thing in life” (Jacoby 2011). Unfortunately, this belief in suffering as a good leads many to take a stand against government funding for the poor and others who suffer the most.

New institutions in western legal systems also indirectly support the perspective that suffering is a reward. In the United States, tort cases in which people seek compensation for pain and suffering tend to result in considerable economic payoff (Rodgers 1993). Conventional norms in the legal and insurance systems for different types of suffering even provide guidelines for the economic payment due families for the death of a family member. Logically, the idea is that victims did not bring their suffering upon themselves, and so someone responsible should bear the ‘punishment’ in the form of a financial payment or other settlement.


Suffering as the Gateway to Happiness
In Hindu, suffering or dukkha, means the physical, mental and emotional instability and afflictions that arise from the dualities and modifications of the mind and body. These modifications manifest variously in human life as pain and suffering, attraction and aversion, union and separation, desires, passions, emotions, aging, sickness, death, rebirth, etc.

According to Hinduism, suffering is an inescapable and integral part of life. The purpose of religious practice in various schools of Hinduism is to resolve human suffering that arises from samsara, which in a specific sense means the cycle of births and deaths and in a general sense, transient life. As long as we are caught in the phenomenal world of transient objects and appearances, we become attached to them and have no escape from suffering.

All of us experience profound levels of suffering in our lives.  It’s eventual alleviation creates the possibilities for happiness. The founder of the Bahai Faith said, “Suffering is the gateway to happiness.” Research in the psychology of resilience supports the conclusion that a modest level of suffering inoculates us from succumbing to suffering. This would be a panacea were it not for the fact that the mechanism does not work for cases of extreme suffering.

Relief of Suffering as Human Purpose

The principle purpose of many (if not most) humans is self-promotion. They hope to obtain (or maintain) comfort, power, popularity, and wealth. Some, though, are driven primarily by a feeling of moral responsibility for others’ wellbeing (Kleinman and van der Geest 2009; Mayerfeld 2005; Tronto 1993; Williams 2008). The most common literary symbol of such a commitment to others is the Christian Good Samaritan—people with humanitarian commitments to helping others, no matter their race or stature, are sometimes called good Samaritans. A similar sentiment motivates a recent campaign to get hundreds of thousands of people (regardless of faith) to commit themselves to the Charter for Compassion (Armstrong 2011).

For those whose purpose is love, compassion, or helping others, suffering provides a basis by which to prioritize limited time and attention (Johnson & Schollar-Jaquish 2007). Helping those who suffer more is generally seen as more fulfilling. Further, since the traditional definition of compassion is a desire to relieve another’s suffering, this work becomes the yardstick by which to measure an authentic life; suffering is an indirect source of meaning in the Samaritan’s life. Contributing to humanity in this sense could mean helping a few close friends or all seven billion people alive today.

The mission to relieve suffering does not require one-to-one contact. It can be accomplished by providing time and resources to global relief organizations. By giving to varied causes or helping a variety of different types of people in need, you increase the likelihood that your pro-social actions will have benefited a person or several people. While positive feedback is not mandatory for gaining purpose and satisfaction from compassionate actions, it does help prop up and support the energy put into reducing the suffering of others.


Relief of Social Suffering as Progress in Quality of Life

The process of meaningful relief of others’ suffering, as discussed in the preceding section, applies to this perspective as well. When you are relieving another’s suffering, you are also improving their quality of life. This perspective is uniquely justified by its emphasis on quality of life as a concrete human need and its emphasis on social suffering as a qualitatively different type of suffering.

Several decades ago, anthropologists and sociologists began to explore the meaning of suffering and the structural forces of society compounding suffering’s damage on the world. Many of these scholars came to label their focus as social suffering. This was a much-needed development because most scholars were treating suffering as only a product of the individual rather than the social, and as idiosyncratic rather than structural.

As a common phrase, ‘quality of life’ (QOL) goes back only a few decades. However, in the twenty-first century, the concept has become rather popular, especially within research on health and economics (Land et al. 2012; Mukkerjee 1989). There is even a professional group called the International Society for Quality of Life Studies, and it publishes several journals with ‘quality of life’ in their titles. Many national and international policy reports also use the phrase, sometimes equating it with general well-being and/or happiness (Jordan 2012). The governments of several nations are now using the concept in attempting to construct new measures of national or human progress.

Relief of Suffering as Progress in Human Rights

Recently, I discovered the concept of suffering serves as a “missing link between human rights and global goals.” What I mean by that is this. The UN Global Goals, which are a mere re-statement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, are associated closely with human rights as officially declared in one of the official declarations of human rights. This relationship between suffering, goals and human rights is illustrated in the Table within the article on this website called “Setting Priorities…”

Intense human suffering that violates specific human rights provides a more compelling rationale for the human right than does the traditional ‘natural rights’ argument. Human rights are legitimated by their intimate link to suffering within this framework. Because of this intimate association between human rights and suffering, relief of extreme global suffering has moral priority over enhancing the general well-being of the population. This is particularly important because the core Global Goals define priority purposes and meaning for the planet.

These conclusions may seem to veer away from the goals of scholarship toward that of policy, but a better way to view it is that the field of QOL has more to contribute to policy than it now delivers. And principles of the moral order of both local communities and the global society need to be incorporated into both scholarship and practice in QOL.

Living beings everywhere desire above all else to find personal meaning and happiness and to be free from suffering. Yet, because we do not have a deep understanding of the nature of these states, our grasping for happiness only seems to lead us into more suffering.” This is a rephrasing of Ancient Buddhist wisdom.

Human rights norms are primarily focused on preventing the worst forms of human suffering. According to bioethicist Andorno (2013), preventing extreme human suffering has moral priority over the promotion of the maximum well-being for a given population. This might change if the concept of well-being evolved more toward social caring and personal meaning.


Deep understanding of suffering remains elusive, but even concepts like happiness and well-being suffer from imprecision. Our principal goal is to not only to build a scholarship of human suffering, but we seek to identify what will be required to alleviate various types and quantities of suffering. Ultimately, we need to know much more about how to reduce suffering and to increase well-being such that decision makers can allocate resources that create better societies. Policy makers need not only evaluation data, but they need to know the moral implications of different strategies.

The concept of suffering has its weakness as does the concept of well-being. Societal betterment requires relief and reduction of extreme suffering from any source or cause. The conceptual weakness of this argument is that there is no obvious distinction between modest or major suffering and extreme suffering.

Most use of the word suffering references milder forms of suffering. But it is extreme suffering that implicitly calls for attention and amelioration. Unfortunately, little work has been done on distinguishing those two types of suffering.  This dichotomy is critical to answering two questions: 1) When does suffering benefit us by building resilience? 2) When is suffering alleviation more important than the well-being of the general population? The best answers to question 2 are when suffering is extreme or when well-being is low. Thus, progress in measurement is important to the future of both suffering and well-being as theoretical constructs.

Progress in the concept of suffering since ancient times has been possible as mythologies and ignorance are being replaced by advancing knowledge, especially with regard to resilience. In addition, due to the increasing role of human rights in promoting better quality of life, the value of human rights has become move obvious. This is particularly true with respect to our understanding in the modern era of the true nature of suffering.


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South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011, but within the year, armed conflict began between warring clans and ethnic groups, who are affiliated with different presidential candidates. The conflict has been brutal with armies on both sides of the conflict committing genocide-like slaughter.

Not surprisingly, 3.6 million out of a population of 11 million have fled their homes and live in camps within the country and in adjacent countries, especially Ethiopia and Uganda. Notably, 60% of the refugees are children.

Over 5 million require aid to survive and most of those people are hungry from lack of food. Due to economic collapse and three years of poor agricultural conditions and drought, large areas of South Sudan now experience severe famine. One hundred thousand of these people live on the verge of starvation.

Because the humanitarian situation in South Sudan has been deteriorating rapidly, the UN and the NGO’s like Mercy Corps and MSF who are cooperating with the UN have not been able to raise funding for relief, much less developmental assistance.

On top of funding issues are the many threats to humanitarian aid workers. NGOs over the past two years reported a monthly average of 60 to 100 incidents where humanitarian aid transporters were attacked, and in some cases, robbed and killed, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. According to UN officials, the President of South Sudan himself ordered that the humanitarian food deliveries be blocked.

According to the Human Development Report, 2016, by the UN Development Program, South Sudan suffers from severe poverty, specific it indicates that 70% of the population lives in “severe multidimensional poverty.” Only one other country in the world, Niger, had higher poverty levels.

Extreme poverty is defined by UNICEF and many other organizations as a person living on less than $1.00 a day. Adding to that criterion, a state of starvation or lack of sanitary water, the state of severe poverty worldwide totals over 2 billion, which is about one fourth of the world population. The remaining part of this article discusses how different moral frameworks apply to South Sudan’s extreme poverty and suffering. Here is the orienting question that guides the discussion

What approach to moral motivations and incentives has the greatest chance of implementing major reduction in poverty and its associated suffering in South Sudan and other similar places around the world?

Moral philosophies or approaches each define specific bases for moral decision-making. Eight such moral philosophies, which are summarized in the appendix, illustrate the differences in suffering-alleviation decisions based upon each approach. These moral philosophies are virtue ethics, care ethics, social justice, negative utilitarianism, consequentialism, rights-based approaches, deontology, and relativism. They each represent different perspectives on moral purposes and strategies

Virtues ethics and the perceived duties of deontology help solve the challenge of world poverty through such attributes as altruism and generosity. Built into the requirements and expectations of many religions and cultures is the obligation to give alms to the poor. From early eras through medieval times, Christianity tended to define wealth as evidence of evil hoarding. Some denominations still ask their members to give at least 10% of their income to the church, which in turns assists the poor. However, in recent decades many Christians have adopted “prosperity theology,” which views wealth as a gift from God that one can hoard and enjoy without sharing it with others. This pathway toward greed may have been an outcome of the adoption of market economies, which legitimizes hording of wealth in order to succeed in the pursuit of economic growth.

The social justice movement emerged from the cultural and political neglect of virtues and the gross inequality that emerged from the victory of greed over the common good within the rush to capitalism. The rise of moral overtones of social justice gave new life to ethical priorities and helped boost the civil rights movement and the politics of the welfare state. But the strength of the social justice ethic seems to be weakening perhaps because so many contemporary social issues have been associated with social justice.

The weakening of social justice as the basis of the ethical argument that wealth should be shared may have been the result of the decline of support for civil society and the notion of the common good, all of which were seriously undermined by the rise of self-centeredness as a virtue rather than a vice.

Out of the negative utilitarianism philosophy has risen a logic that supports the generosity of ethical persons who help impoverished people that need help to survive. The logic is based upon the priority of the moral requirement to alleviate severe suffering. While many poor people report in surveys that their satisfaction with life is relatively high, they likely also suffer from short life spans, frequent illness, insecurity, and other things that degrade the quality of life.

Care ethics would seem to be relatively unimportant to the well-being of the poor, but research has found that low income persons are more likely to donate a proportionately higher amount to those who need help than the wealthy donate. The ability of the poor to empathize with other poor people may be the secret to their tendency to be more generous than the wealthy. However, the essential factor behind this phenomenon may be that the poor can more easily build relationships with other poor than with rich people. Some of these relationships could be the kind of human contact that reinforces care ethics and desires to help others.

Consequentialism applies to the poverty problem in that it emphasizes that no matter what activities or programs are employed to reduce poverty, the nature of the outcomes is what matters. The principal criterion for success is effectiveness of the intervention in reducing poverty in both the short and long run.

A human rights-based approach makes sense to those who consider human rights to be critically important. Not only do some rights lack consensus, but many people are not aware of the existence of these human rights. The official human rights within the category of political and civil rights specify rights to food and shelter and freedom from slavery. Among the social and economic rights is an official right to an adequate standard of living. Thus, officially declared human rights address poverty but by themselves they do not make the strongest argument for reducing it.

Finally, moral relativism advocates the moral supremacy of the individual or culture. Thus, no one person or culture is morally right. While this implies that people should be accepting of individual moral claims, the lack of a solid foundation for any given moral position is not only an oxymoron, but it takes away the responsibility of those leaders in South Sudan who perpetuate the suffering of the people so that only a few people benefit.

Looking at these moral foundations as a whole, the most immediately compelling may be negative utilitarianism because it designates attacking poverty-based suffering directly. However, many people have never been educated about this ethical principle. An appropriate approach in ethics education would be to emphasize both negative utilitarianism and consequentialism, which focuses us on ensuring that the interventions and development projects produce effective outcomes for both poverty and suffering reduction.

Prevention of Future Suffering

Commitment to alleviate poverty-based 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 shifts to prevention 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 hurricanes, floods and fires.

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.


After exploring moral obligations to help alleviate the suffering of impoverished people, we return to the question of what policies should be used in addressing the poverty of a particular country like South Sudan, which suffers not just from ordinary poverty but droughts and famines produced in part by global warming and by the combination of civil war and failure to respect humanness and the rule of law. Given the hostility that both sides of the civil war in South Sudan toward outsiders including humanitarian agencies, effective interventions to reduce poverty will require not only building new security forces but sending programs and people that are willing to learn local languages and culture and help the local people build their own institutions that reduce poverty, end needless conflict, and prevent major suffering.

Appendix A. Moral Philosophies in the Relief of Suffering

Moral philosophies specify the elements of moral decision-making. Eight such moral philosophies illustrate differences in suffering-alleviation decisions based upon each approach. These moral philosophies are virtue ethics, care ethics, social justice, negative utilitarianism, consequentialism, rights-based approaches, deontology, and relativism. They each represent a different perspective on moral purposes and strategies emphasizing virtues, care, justice, severe suffering, outcomes, human rights, duties and self-interest respectfully. These eight foundations of moral rhetoric use differing logical bases for action. In any given situation where suffering alleviation is considered, one or more moral arguments may apply

Virtue Ethics. In virtue ethics, virtues and vices form the basis for individual decision-making. This means that judgments regarding good and evil are the product of character, that is, dispositions toward acting virtuously and avoiding negative traits or vices.

Care Ethics. Care ethics arise from feelings of empathy and compassion and fosters interdependence among human beings and relationships in the pursuit of morality. Most care theorists argue that care ethics rests on a foundation of relationships (Held 2006).

Social Justice. This moral philosophy pioneered by Aristotle was re-examined and greatly elaborated in the last Century by John Rawls (1971). This approach to morality also has been referred to as justice, fairness and the common good approach to morality. This family of theories presumes that morality should be based upon contributions toward the good of all in a community or society. Institutions work together to achieve social justice in society.

Negative Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism promotes the well-being of the largest number of people possible. This form of utilitarianism was introduced by Karl Popper (1959) with the premise that reducing suffering has a far greater value than boosting happiness. Extreme suffering such as suffering from torture is often used as an example by proponents of negative utilitarianism. Few intuitively believe that boosting the happiness of a lot of people has a higher moral priority than the elimination of torture for even a small number of people, much less a large number of victims.

 Consequentialism. This family of theories focuses primarily on future outcomes. This approach to moral decision-making begins with the premise that actions are morally right, if and only if, the acts maximize desired outcomes, e.g., the total good minus the total bad. The approach applies to programs for “poverty reduction,” especially when the long-term results show major decline in poverty.

Rights-Based Approaches. While Rights-Based Approaches (RBA) to human suffering may not be considered philosophies, they advance our understanding of how best to frame the moral implications of different types of suffering. This approach shows how such challenges as disease often are the product of social and economic contexts rather than of natural or biological sources. Within the human rights rubric, suffering justifies the rights and arises from discrimination, poverty and other social or structural problems.

Deontology. This normative ethical position argues that moral decisions should be made on the basis of intentions or motives. Kant (1780) introduced the concept of duties and obligations based on social rules to, among other things, relieve suffering. Actions seen as obligations would typically be based upon perceptions of duty. Singer pioneered the idea that duties exists to alleviate suffering. However, with the exception of Buddhism, most religions do not explicitly define such a duty. The first ethical philosophy that children learn is deontological because they are taught to follow the rules defined by their parent(s).

Moral Relativism. This moral philosophy posits the absence of any absolute moral principles that apply to everyone. Instead, the assumption is that the best approach is to examine the desires and values of each individual and each culture as separate moral authorities each having their own moral framework. Thus, relativism is the opposite of universalism, and in many ways less compelling and socially useful.


Donald Trump is the first President to use Twitter to regularly communicate with his public. As of late 2019 he has released over 40,000 tweet messages.

Fortunately, Brendan Brown built and maintains a searchable Trump Twitter Archive ( available for anyone to use. The Trump Twitter Archive contains 40,000+ tweets from Mr. Trump from May, 2009 through 2019. Each tweet’s entry has a date and the full text of the tweet.

I spent a few hours searching and recording word counts for 50 words in this 9-year Trump database. Half the search words were negative and half positive, which makes it possible to answer the question of the degree of negative or positive slant over time in Trump’s tweet messages. My goal was not only to assess the degree of Trump’s negativity or positivity, but to determine to what extent he used words also used to describe humane or inhumane values.

Figure 1 below gives the number of times each positive word appeared in Trump’s 33,300 tweets. The most commonly use positive words were ‘trust’ with 46 uses and ‘community’ with 40. The phrase ‘human rights’ was only mentioned 3 times, as was the ‘charity’. Perhaps most telling was that the word kind appeared only 23 times, and the words ‘caring’ and ‘charity’ were used only 3 times each. Note that “Other” includes the words spiritual, altruism, caregiving, charity, empathy and reconciliation.

Fig. 1. Top Positive Words in Trump’s Tweets

The significance of the omission of many of these words from Trump’s Tweet vocabulary is that they are the words that many of the words people use to describe the foundation of their moral values and the essence of their purpose in life. His tweet vocabulary is consistent with an undeveloped morality.

Figure 2 shows the number of times Trump’s tweets used each of the negative search words. The most mentioned words in this subset were ‘bad’ and ‘badly’ with 552 tweets and ‘hate’ at 306 tweets. Other negative words popular with Trump include ‘sad,’ ‘crooked,’ and ‘anger.’

Fig. 2. Top Negative Words in Trump’s Tweets

Essentially all American presidents up to now have been defenders of human virtues and humanitarian values. President Trump, however, avoids words that express these values. Thus, less than one tenth of 1% of all his words tweeted reflect concern for human virtues, human dignity or moral values. These words I labeled as positive, whereas words that reflect meanness, cruelty, or hatred, I labeled as negative.

Comparing the volume of negative with positive words in tweets, this word counting shows that Trump used a negative word in his tweets for every positive word used. In other words, Trump used negative words 12 times as often as positive words.

Even more significant than this negativity ratio in Trump’s tweets over a nine year period, is his heavy use of words that express anger, humiliation and hatred, namely ‘hate,’ ‘crooked, ‘dumb,’ and ‘anger.’ Yet, words that both humanists and Christians consider the essential of their life’s meaning, rarely if ever get mentioned in the Trump tweets. Why does Trump not ever use words like caregiving, charity, empathy and reconciliation? It is because the essence of his meaning in life is self-aggrandizement and bullying or hurting people in his pathway.

This raises the question of the purpose of Trump’s tweets. Brendan Brown of the Trump Twitter Archive categorized the 2,500 tweets released by him during the campaign and his first 437 days of his presidency. Here are the dominant themes he identified:

  1. Mainstream Media Disdain as ‘fake news’
  2. Opponents as ‘laughing stock’
  3. Who gets the highest TV ratings?
  4. Blame Obama
  5. My (Trump’s) accomplishments
  6. Global warming as hoax
  7. I (Trump) alone can solve issue X
  8. Superlatives about himself

This thematic analysis of Trump’s tweets during the past year and 2.5 months reveals that not only is Trump using his tweets to express anger and hate. Also, dominate in this tweets are the themes of self-marketing. It would seem that he feels insecure about himself and thus needs to invest much of his time in marketing his own reputation.

Not only is Trump’s rhetoric consistent with goals of humiliation of all competitors and ‘chest-beating’ to promote his own status, but to threaten democratic institutions, especially the free press and to shift public opinion toward white nationalism. These are the things that make Donald Trump’s life meaningful, not the Christian values of kindness, generosity, honesty and forgive


Society’s institutions to address major world suffering can be divided into four social sectors: humanitarian, social policy, informal caregiving, and the spiritual. Each social sector has suffering-alleviation strategies applicable to that social sphere. Even though estimation of the magnitude of world suffering remains rather primitive, it still reveals an enormous amount of suffering globally. The accounting of suffering also includes future suffering tied to present choices. The framework identifies various types of global suffering, each one tied to a global goal that has already been identified as a human right. Intense human suffering that violates a specific human right provides a more compelling rationale for the human right than does the traditional ‘natural rights’ argument. Human rights are legitimated by their intimate link to suffering within this framework. Relief of extreme global suffering has moral priority over enhancing the general well-being of the population. Finally, selected Global Goals define priority purposes and meaning for the planet. Suffering thus becomes the missing link between human rights and global goals.

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 include such things as global warming.

The framework proposed here reveals the intimate, powerful link between suffering and associated human rights. Suffering that violates a specific human right legitimized the human right and the declaration of the human right makes the suffering more serious.

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: Disaster relief, Family planning, Heroic rescuing, Philanthropy, and Reconciliation programs.

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: Civil society, Development, Housing, Emissions control, Food security programs, Poverty reduction, Reducing inequality and Violence reduction.

The Caregiving 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, Caregiver development, Family planning, Palliative care, Resilience training, and Research.

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: Empathy, Forgiveness, Selfless courage, and Social responsibility.

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 Table 1, 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 Future Suffering

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.

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 is needed 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.

Role of Moral Philosophy in the Relief of Suffering

Moral philosophies specify the elements of moral decision-making. Five such moral philosophies illustrate differences in suffering-alleviation decisions based upon each approach. These moral philosophies are virtue ethics, social justice, preference utilitarianism, consequentialism, and rights-based approaches. They each represent a different perspective on moral strategies emphasizing virtues, justice, stakeholders, outcomes and human rights respectfully.

Virtue Ethics. In the virtue ethics morality framework, virtues stem from the character of the individual decision-maker. This means that judgments regarding good and evil are the product of character traits. For example, empathy and forgiveness were identified above as strategies consistent with the Spiritual Sector. The outcome of these strategies in any given decision will be determined by associated character traits or virtues. Reinforcing these virtues is possible by examining their relevance to deeply-held, personal values such as such as compassion and kind-heartedness. It should be noted that the Eudemonic approach to well-being is historically linked to virtue ethics. Eudemonic happiness is a virtue in this perspective.

Social Justice. This moral philosophy pioneered by Aristotle was re-examined and greatly elaborated in the last Century by John Rawls (1971). Social justice describes movement towards a socially just world. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality, and is defined in terms of how human rights permeated peoples’ lives throughout society. In a simple form, it constitutes fairness. Institutions work together to achieve social justice in society. The expected realization is that all members of a society have basic human rights and equal access to the benefits of their society.

Preference Utilitarianism. A moral philosophy promoted by Peter Singer defines right actions as those that fulfill the interests of all stakeholders on relevant issues. For example, Singer argues that abortion is morally right if it furthers the desires of all persons affected by the choice to terminate a pregnancy. This type of thinking has been articulated extensively in Singer’s writings on effective altruism. This approach to suffering reduction also applies to suffering-alleviation challenges like “palliative care” and “resilience training.

Consequentialism. The moral philosophy of consequentialism focuses primarily on future outcomes. This approach to moral decision-making begins with the premise that actions are morally right, if and only if, the acts maximize desired outcomes, e.g., the total good minus the total bad. The approach applies to programs for “poverty reduction,” especially when the long-term results show major decline in poverty.

Rights-Based Approaches. While Rights-Based Approaches (RBA) to the moral foundations of human suffering are generally not considered philosophies, they advance our understanding of how best to frame the moral implications of different types of suffering. A Rights Based Approach has been used by Yamin (2008) to show how it clarifies the need to view health as the product of social and economic contexts rather than as a consequence of natural or biological sources. Within this approach, suffering due to health issues also arises from healthcare techniques and preconditions such as discrimination and poverty.

Summary. Different approaches to ethics can be selected to better address the types of suffering that deserve to be alleviated. Table 2 illustrates some examples to illustrate how different ethical approaches best address particular types of suffering. The table shows that suffering related to the so called “spiritual sector” and “caregiving” sectors is more likely to benefit from a virtue ethics approach. Suffering in the social policy sector is best addressed by focusing upon the outcomes of any given suffering challenge. Even though one can identify the best ethical approach for a given suffering challenge, some types of suffering benefit from two or even all three types of ethical analysis.

Human Rights and Global Goals

Karl Popper concluded that “Human suffering makes a direct moral appeal for help,” but does not call for increasing the happiness of those already doing well. From a moral perspective, well-being and suffering are not just ‘two sides of the same coin.’ Human rights are much more concerned with avoiding the terrible than with achieving the best.

The moral imperative to alleviate suffering is the heart of every serious human rights policy. Together the human rights statement and the identification of suffering define Global Goals (GG) and give them status as moral imperatives. This does not mean that suffering-alleviation is the only goal or function of human rights.

Human rights are primarily focused on preventing the worst forms of suffering like cruelty. Other violations cause less suffering, but should not be forgotten. According to Andrew Fagan, “the ethical imperative of human suffering” provides a foundation for the formulation of human rights. This is especially true for the subset of human rights referred to as ‘economic, social and cultural rights.’ But it is also true of those rights designated as ‘civil and political rights’ as well.

Roberto Andorno and Christiana Baffone build a case for human rights being the primary intersection between human dignity and human vulnerability. If a vulnerability such as racist discrimination undermines the normative value of human dignity, the victims deserve the protection against suffering that a human rights principle can offer.

Under the auspices of the United Nations and hundreds of other organizations, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) were formulated. In 2015, these were revised under a more elaborate set of goals called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Now some organizations refer to these goals as Global Goals (GG), of which there are 17.

Table 3 lists a few of these goals in the right-hand column with the other column identifying an associated state of suffering and/or dysfunction. Note that the goal statements also serve to identify a human right, which have an implicit moral purpose. For example, the first two rows of Table 3 list Ecosystem & Life Destruction and Negative Health are instances of severe suffering. The first undercuts the goal of ecosystem (including human life) integrity (GG 11), and the second violates the human right of healthcare for all (GG 3).

Meaning and the Alleviation of Suffering

The Global Goals (GG), as defined by the United Nations and its project on Sustainable Development Goals, can be associated with one or more human rights declarations. The Global Goals define a set of global purposes or meanings for global society. Likewise, these Global Goals are candidates for the goals of any society, community or individual. As the goals are candidates for the purposes of any of these entities, they help define their meaning-based purposes.

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.

These perspectives demonstrate how the alleviation of suffering can provide meaning and purpose for individuals as well as for communities, societies and the world. The more that Global Goals define the desired meaning and purpose for global society, the more suffering and its relief becomes the core meaning globally. The rationale for this conclusion is that any human right or global goal is relevant to global society because as a human right it becomes more pertinent to the global society to the extent that suffering associated with any given human right is intense or severe.

The first Global Goal listed in Table 3, Ecosystem Integrity, would probably be considered the goal with the most important and meaningful world purpose because it encompasses both human and planetary life. The remaining Global Goals listed in Table 3 represent meaningful purposes but they lack consensus on their relative priority. And the table lists only a small subset of the Global Goals.

The Future of Suffering and Human Rights

The above argument for human rights bequeathing prioritization to an associated type of suffering provides a foundation for a theory of suffering, which can be pursued at a later time.

One implication of this framework is that if an instance of suffering is extreme and causes severe pain, then reduction of this suffering has a higher priority than promoting the maximum wellbeing or happiness of the majority of people. Andorno and Baffone concluded that the relief of the most severe forms of suffering has moral priority over the promotion of the general well-being of the population.

Douzinas (2000) evaluated the rejection of human rights around the world and concluded that the future of human rights may be dismal. That may be true, especially for civil and political rights but social and economic rights may have a brighter future. At least this is what is suggested by Joseph (2007). Additionally, human rights are strengthened by the associated suffering produced by the rights violation.


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 and severe pain 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.

Because human rights and human suffering remain so intimately intertwined, world suffering-alleviation can serve as a more compelling global goal than even poverty, inequality and hunger. The latter global goals are in a sense already integrated into the rubric of world suffering because they are known causes of suffering. Furthermore, if the suffering at hand is sufficiently severe, it has priority over the general well-being of the population.

The framework proposed here reveals the intimate, powerful link between suffering and associated human rights. Suffering that violates a specific human right legitimized the human right and the declaration of the human right makes the suffering more serious. Suffering thus becomes the missing link between human rights and global goals.


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.

Andorno, R. & Baffone, C. (2014). Human Rights and the Moral Obligation to Alleviate Suffering. Pp. 182-200 in Green, R. & Palpant, N. (eds.). Suffering and Bioethics. NYC: Oxford University Press.

Douzinas, C. (2000). The End of Human Rights: Critical Thought at the Turn of the Century. NYC: Hart Publishing.

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.

Fagan, A. (2008). Back to Basics: Human Rights and the Suffering Imperative. Essex Human Rights Review. Vol. 5, No. 1, Pp 1-6.

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.)

Joseph, P. (2017). The New Human Rights Movement: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc..

Mayerfeld, J. (2005). Suffering and moral responsibility. NY: Oxford University Press.

Mayeroff, M. (1971) On Caring. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Popper, K. (1950). The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. NYC: Oxford.

Singer, P. (2016). Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yamin, A. E. (2008). Will we take suffering seriously? Reflections on what applying a human rights framework to health means. Health and Human Rights. 10(1) pp. 45-58.










From the time of his election in 2013, Pope Francis stood out as a spiritual leader who put service to the poor and eradication of injustice at the forefront of his mission. A year before his visit to the Mexico-USA border in 2015, he decried the tragic neglect of the 50,000 unaccompanied minors who cross the border to the US each year. He called for an immediate humanitarian response, but his plea was largely in vain.

His plea included humanitarian aid to communities in Mexico and Central America that are trapped by vicious cycles of violence and poverty. And he urged humanitarian relief efforts on the US side of the border. Finally, he urged new forms of legal and secure migration be adopted by the United States.

Given these remarks, Pope Francis would be greatly pained by the harsh and inhumane treatment of many undocumented workers and their families today in the era of the Trump administration.

Catholic groups such as Catholic Charities, are already playing an active role in the effort to provide care and shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children on the border. However, many are reportedly already overwhelmed by the sheer number of children.


Pope Francis’s TED Talk

On April 25, 2017, Pope Francis made history with the first ever Vatican TED talk. This marks a new era for Vatican communication in its attempt to reach younger people, particularly the young leaders of the high technology industry. Pope Francis could have said anything he wanted, e.g. urging relief for the refugee crisis around the world, one might expect him to address that and to encourage greater commitment to humanitarian aid and innovation.

Instead of pushing for humanitarianism or helping the poor, he emphasized the inter-connectedness of human-kind and the need for greater solidarity. After warning of the dangers of power, his main message was a call for a “revolution of tenderness.” As noted in the New Yorker, he elaborated upon this message by saying that tenderness is not weakness, but a path toward solidarity and humility.

Listening carefully to his words,’ his main concern appears to be powerful individuals that fail to understand that with this power comes social responsibilities. He clearly stated that those with power must be humble and tender toward not only other people but the environment as well. He pleaded with his audience of technocrats not to forget the marginalized. He also called for more equality and social inclusion and said that if “you don’t do these things; your power will ruin you.”

Even though an anonymous source said the Vatican had been working on this speech for a year, one cannot help but guess that Pope Francis feels deeply worried about the militaristic threats between the United States and North Korea. He also, from previous remarks, feels deeply about the rising popularity in the Western World of political parties that take tough stands against accepting refugees.

Not only is there a rise in popularity globally of racist and anti-immigrant attitudes, but support is growing for inhumane policies that produce even greater inequality, hardship and suffering.

Upon further reflection, I believe that Pope Francis is so concerned about the many signs of a darkening world, that he felt it would be more important to point out the creeping darkness of contemporary history and its threat to the survival of humanity. That is consistent with his warning about power and the powerful. Given the potential for evil that comes when the powerful lack humanity, he warns us that tenderness, equality, and solidarity must prevail.


Pope Francis Seeks to End Violence

While one could be concerned that Pope Francis had decided to place less priority upon humanitarianism, I believe his new language and themes in the TED talk respond to a declining use of the humanitarianism terminology globally. This shift in the language of humanitarianism may be a widespread capitulation to egoism and narcissism. But it may also reflect greater use of terminology such as ‘service to others,’ compassion, and caring.

Pope Francis during his recent speeches in Cairo said, “The future does have a name and its name is hope.” In his address to Christian, Coptic, and Muslim clerics he called for them to “say a clear and firm no to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion.” If religious leaders and their congregations followed this admonition, terrorism could die out in a generation or two.

Rather than say that we should make our nations great again, his central message to the world was that “We all need each other.”

Pope Francis Slams Trump’s Alliance with Putin

After the Trump/Putin meeting in Hamburg at the G20 summit on July 7, 2017, President Trump said his first meeting with Mr Putin was “tremendous.” However, Pope Francis described it as dangerous, much like alliances between China and North Korea. He said: “In the minds and hearts of government leaders… and in all political measures, there is a need to give absolute priority to the poor, refugees, the suffering, evacuees and the excluded.” Pope Francis stressed the greatest danger concerns immigration, with “the poor, the weak, the excluded and the marginalised” juxtaposed with “those who… fear the invasion of migrants,” according to the Italian daily la Republica.

Sadly, Pope Francis is one of the few global voices publicly pushing an agenda of action for the well-being of the poor and suffering around the world.


The United Nations High Commission Refugees (UNHCR), in partnership with Google launched a website called Searching for Syria. ( Its purpose is to educate people about Syria using website design or social media. The website is a photographic marvel. I urge you to spend a few minutes reviewing what they have done. The life-like photos of such tragic scenes give one a jolt because of their realism.  They also remind us that a number of social and communication critics have pointed out that images of suffering often exploit those trapped in suffering and unfairly stereotype them (Chouliaraki 2013; Sontag 2003). The website aims to answer questions like what Syria was like before the war, why the war broke out, and whether or not there is anything that people can do to help Syrian refugees. It is important for the world to gain an understanding about situations as they are developing, and the reasons behind them. Much more can often be achieved if people are fully educated on events as they are happening. Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated that “The website, Searching for Syria, aims to dispel myths and misconceptions about Syrian refugees and provides an entirely fresh look at the biggest humanitarian tragedy of today.” The chart below shows the flow of refugees from an origin (left) to a destination (right) country with the size of the horizontal bars representing the size of the refugee migration. Syria is on top, followed by Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. The primary host countries for Syrian refugees are in order Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Jordan. King Abdullah II of Jordan has said the number of refugees coming into Jordan equates to one fifth of their population. Syria has the largest refugee crisis in the world. More than half of the 22 Million Syrians have been forced from their homes. Most seek refuge within Syria, if they can. They make up the second largest internally displaced population in the world. Around 5 million Syrians have become refugees (see chart), and a half million Syrian people have been killed since 2011.


As described in one of my earlier posts, at the beginning of 2017 over 65 million people around the world had been forced to flee their homes to escape danger, and find safety. There are now more people displaced by conflict or persecution than any time since World War II. Women and children make up over two-thirds of all Syrian refugees. Nine in ten Syrian refugees live in cities, not camps. The majority have resettled in urban areas within their host country. But city life poses different challenges; many struggle to find work, pay rent or send their kids to school. One in four schools in Syria have been damaged, destroyed or used for shelter, and 24.5 million years of education have been lost.

Other Human Rights Crises in Syria

Intensification of the Syrian War has led to many dire humanitarian crises, with millions of people living in besieged areas and denied life-saving assistance and humanitarian aid, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, an independent Syrian research organization. More than 117,000 have been detained or disappeared since 2011, the vast majority by government forces. Syrian and Russian airstrikes continue to target, or indiscriminately strike civilian areas, including homes, markets, schools, and hospitals, using wide-area explosives, barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and flammable incendiary weapons. In a report issued on August 24, 2016, a UN-appointed investigation attributed two chemical weapon attacks earlier in 2016 to the Syrian government and one to ISIS, which is already under UN sanctions. Human Rights Watch ( documented several attacks on homes, medical facilities, markets, and schools that appeared to be targeted, including a major airstrike by the Syrian-Russian coalition that hit the al-Quds Hospital killing 58 civilians and patients. In August 2016 alone, there were several attacks on health facilities including in Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, and Homs. Over half of Syria’s hospitals are no longer functioning. The siege of civilian areas by government and pro-government forces and by armed opposition groups and blocking of humanitarian aid continues. The Syrian government continued requiring aid agencies to go through a bureaucratic approval system to obtain permits before accessing these areas. The UN secretary-general said that even in areas where aid was allowed in, the Syrian government has removed life-saving items from convoys. According to the UN, in one month, the government prevented 80,000 medical treatment items, including diarrhea kits, emergency health kits, antibiotics, and other medicines, from going into besieged areas. Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, torture, and forced disappearances by government forces continue to be widespread and systematic in Syria, and take place within a climate of impunity. How can so many people around the world ignore the grave humane crises emerging from the Syrian War? The people of Syria deserve our help.

The Trump-Putin Cease-Fire

On July 7, 2017, in a 2-hour meeting between President’s Putin and Trump, a rough deal for a ceasefire in southwestern Syria was worked out. It was set to be put in place two days later, on July 9. While this appears to be major progress toward reducing the killings and ultimately ending the war, it could easily be short-lived and known as the fifth failed ceasefire agreement. From a humanitarian point of view, the biggest concern is the history of disdain for human rights by the main players in this agreement. Putin’s has a long history of promoting world disorder and neglecting freedom and respect for human life. And Trump has not uttered the words “human rights” or “suffering” in his first six months as President of the USA. In addition, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has a lot to gain from the ceasefire, assuming he can now divert military resources to other parts of the country.Bashar al-Assad’s record has been to not only dismiss humanitarian concerns, but he repeatedly bombed hospitals and convoys carrying humanitarian supplies to civilians in Syria. Peace and peace accords are wonderful, but if they are achieved without commitment to preserving human dignity, respect and freedom, the ceasefire agreements have little hope of long-term peace.


Chouliaraki, L. (2013). The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Picador.

The Pew Research Survey of American adults in June 2017 discovered a disturbing trend: most (58%) of the Republicans gave a negative view of higher education (“colleges and universities.”) In stark contrast, only 19% the Democrats agreed with the negative answer to this survey question: “Do you believe that colleges and university have a negative or positive effect on the way things are going in the country?” Incidentally, the survey included “leaners” (those saying they lean toward Republicans or toward Democrats) in each political group. The survey of 2,504 adults was conducted during the second week in June 2017.

The truly disturbing aspect of this trend is that the sharp rise in negative attitudes toward higher education began in late 2015 at the beginning of the presidential campaign, when only 35% of American Republicans believed higher education played a negative role in society. A year later in the middle of the campaign that percentage had swelled to 46% before climbing to 58% in June 2017. Meanwhile the negative opinions of the Democrats and those leaning Democratic remained not only very low and very flat at about 21%.

Less surprising was a rise in negative attitudes toward the “national news media” during that same period. In 2015, 67% of Republicans viewed the media as negative and that jumped to 85% by 2017. Again, the Democrats view of the news media was pretty flat, though higher than views on higher education, with 51% giving negative views in 2015 and 46% in 2017.


These trends suggest that part of the explanation for Republican’s negativity toward higher education resulted from their negative views of the media, but a lot more was going on. During the past two years, politically conservative groups and media outlets were pushing anti-intellectualism, government hatred, and attacking the culture of higher education.

Examples of this concerted attack on higher education includes the backlash against Hillary Clinton’s proposal to offer free college expenses for the very low income and to revitalize Pell grants, for which Donald Trump proposed heavy cuts.

Meanwhile, Breitbart News attacked higher education for such things as blocking anti-Trump skywriting campaigns during college football games. Also, publishing negative articles about higher education was the politically conservative website, Intellectual Takeout. This website states its mission as promotion of “rational discourse,” but a close examination of its overall content reveals that its discourse is one-sided and often prejudiced toward everything but mainstream political conservatism.

After the campaign, students protested Kellyanne Conway speaking events on college campuses. In response Fox News and other conservative media outlets broadcast a loud protest campaign against higher education and their student cultures for inconsistent standards on free speech.

Perhaps the greatest force against in the past two years has been the rhetoric of Donald Trump combined with his role model symbolizing the uselessness of lacking skills for reading, serious writing, and careful policy analysis. His racist/populist messages conveyed a disdain for intellectual accumulation of scientific knowledge and research-based facts. His underlying message continues to be that fact and fact-finding matter little compared to power and the accumulation of economic wealth.

Echoing President Trump’s disdain for academics was Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association CEO and President, when he said “Academic elites, political elites and media elites. These are America’s greatest domestic threats.”

Other trends in the United States that contributed to this pseudo-ideology are: the current decline in college enrollments across America; a large drop in the number of graduate students due to the inability of many foreign students to obtain student visas; and the growing popularity of creationism and rejection of global warming.

As documented by Richard Hofstadter in his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, America has seen rises and falls in anti-elitism, anti-reason and anti-science in the national culture. These escapes into irresponsibility have been driven by the false premise that democracy makes up for ignorance. Isaac Asimov once said: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States winding its way through our political and cultural life.”

World Suffering and the Decline of Higher Education

The contemporary popularity of nationalism and populism in Western Europe as well as other parts of the world makes it difficult for the United States to remain insulated from the cult of ignorance.

The primary causes of global suffering include famine, war, meanness, and hatred. In addition, global warming is rapidly becoming the chief source of world suffering, with potential to destroy billions of people. The alleviation of suffering demands wisdom, knowledge and intellectual commitment and imagination.  If we allow higher education to erode, we risk rapid failure of other critical social institutions around the world. Suffering-alleviation challenges in our near future will require problem-solvers loaded with wisdom and knowledge. Their ability to resolve these world challenges will be available only if we preserve and strengthen institutions of higher learning.


The parable of the Good Samaritan as told by Jesus Christ in the New Testament (Luke 10:25-37) has become a litmus test of sorts for humanitarianism. The Good Samaritan serves as a metaphor for the responsibility and duty of compassionate persons to care for others that need serious help. If you adopt the altruistic approach of the ‘Good Samaritan,’ you are enacting the teaching of Jesus to “love your enemies.” You are also implicitly defending humanitarianism.

This Good Samaritan story implicitly outlines one of four common definitions of humanitarianism, the informal type. This informal definition covers anyone or any action seeking to improve the well-being of others in need.

A second major definition of humanitarianism equates it with philanthropy. Specifically, it encompasses large-scale donations of money or resources to meet basic human needs more effectively.

The third definition of humanitarian action and humanitarianism consists of providing aid for relief in disaster or crisis situations, particularly earthquakes, famines, hurricanes, and armed conflicts.

A fourth definition lumps development aid with humanitarian relief. Development aid covers a very broad spectrum including different types of government and private assistance to help developing countries with their financial, social, political and environmental improvement. Unfortunately, so many definitions of humanitarianism make discourse on humanitarian topics more difficult.

Using the fourth definition of humanitarianism, Development aid in 2013 totaled $161B, which may seem like a large amount, however, quite often it does not get used to meet high priority development needs. In fact, over the past few years less and less of this aid flows to countries with the greatest development needs.

Although humanitarian relief (definition three) has evolved into a large industry-like institution, the thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved spent only $22B in 2013. That amount has been increasing rapidly since then.

While lack of adequate funding curtails the effectiveness of both relief and development work around the world, coordination problems also get in the way. And some of the challenge is the lack of precise terms to discuss the issues. These challenges were behind the planning of an international conference called the World Humanitarian Summit.


World Humanitarian Summit (WHS)

After its success with international climate change agreements, the United Nations decided to hold a World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) to try to attain inter-nation agreements and to make progress in increasing the effectiveness of humanitarian relief and development.

The UN held the WHS in Istanbul, Turkey May 23-24, 2016 under the leadership of the Office of Secretary-General and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). World leaders were expected to come to the summit and announce the actions they would take to end the suffering of millions of women, men and children affected by armed conflicts and disasters.

Only 55 Heads of State and Government attended. However, 9000 people attended representing 173 countries. Attendees included hundreds of private sector representatives, and thousands of others from governmental and civil society organizations.

World Summit Milestones and Disappointments

The 2016 World Summit produced several important outcomes. First, participants agreed to direct 25 percent of humanitarian funding “as directly as possible” to local and national agencies. Several additional agreements were established to pass international NGO funding on to national organizations, thus beginning to shift control of most aid projects from the global north to the global south, which means greater local control.

Secondly, agreements were reached to spend more funding on relief-related education. In addition, consensus was reached on attempting to avoid discrimination against people with disabilities in humanitarian aid work.

The World Summit also produced disappointments, which highlight major challenges for the future. One major disappointment was the nearly total absence of world leaders at the Summit. This meant that little progress could be made toward ending conflicts, especially armed conflicts, that create humanitarian crises. This curtailed many new agreements on additional and innovative funding mechanisms.

Secondly, the Summit failed to make much progress in getting agreement to find funding sources to help host countries process and resettle refugees. The same was true for funding of housing and support for internally displaced people.

Thirdly, some NGOs, most notably Doctors without Borders (MSF), strongly lobbied for greater protection of civilians in war situations. Their call for enforcement of International Humanitarian Law, as well as norms among nations, seemed to fall on deaf ears. Bombings of Syrian civilians and their hospitals illustrate the desperate need for progress in that region.


Sacrificing Humanitarian Aid for Order & Security

The Good Samaritan message still receives lip service from pulpits and humanist leaders around the world. However, from the time of Jesus to now, the message has been subversive, threatening the social order. Social convention throughout history has defined relief to undesirable racial groups or low status persons such as slaves as inappropriate, disgraceful or even illegal.

Selectivity in humanitarian aid has sharply worsened in the age of terrorism. According to sociologist Tugba Basaran, the immigrant policies of Western nations have been shaped by a wide range of laws and actions against terrorism. Many of these laws make it illegal to come to the aid of a undocumented immigrant. Thus, humanitarian aid as modeled after the Good Samaritan has been replaced largely by fear-based security laws and policy. As stated by Bararan, “the humanitarian subject is reconfigured from the victim to the suspect-victim.” This evolution in perspectives has led to extremely harsh laws and policies that prohibit refugees from entering many countries.


Does Terrorism Justify Discrimination?

Terrorism has been used across the globe as the chief justification for sacrificing freedoms, curtailing immigration, and taking actions that build hatred and fear. However, these responses to terrorism do not appear to be justified.

A March 2017 article at, using the Start Global Terrorism Database, concluded that the number of acts of terrorism in the USA and the number of immigrants (Muslim and otherwise) involved in these have both been declining in recent years. Keep in mind that Donald Trump in the past year has claimed many times that “the US has failed to keep its citizens safe from terrorism.” His executive orders attempting to ban Muslim immigrants have been founded on totally erroneous assumptions.


The Future

With worries about security overshadowing humanitarian actions by individuals, organizations and societies, the future looks extremely bleak for those in need of relief. Any transitions toward greater equality around the world also seem farfetched.

Yet, giving up on attempts to bring back humanitarian objectives and actions would produce the worst possible outcomes. Political and social resistance seems essential to avert global disaster.

In addition, the future depends upon progress in informal humanitarianism, as given in the first definition of humanitarism above. While actions by the UN, NGOs and national governments all can make a huge difference, such actions are not likely unless individuals remain focused upon personal humanitarianism. In other words, the future depends on goals of cooperating with and helping others.

An example of promoting personal humanitarianism can be found in the book by Frank LaFasto and Larson on ‘humanitarian leaders.’ Their book builds upon interviews of 31 persons around the world that founded organizations or built projects to achieve humanitarian goals. The authors concluded that the overall profile emerging from these humanitarians reveals gratified helpers who have discovered how to imagine and move humanity toward a better future. Indirectly, their innovations and dedication offer a model of a more just society.

Finally, not only did they discover ways to hold back antihumanitarian forces such as inequality, racism and hatred, but the humanitarian leaders discovered greater meaning in their lives. From this meaning and from helping others, they also discovered greater contentment.


Basaran, T. (2014). The Curious State of the Good Samaritan: Humanitarianism Under Conditions of Security. Pp 61-29 in C. Kinvall & T. Svensson (eds) Governing Borders and Security: The Politics of Connectivity and Dispersion. London: Routledge.

LaFasto, F. M. J. & Larson, C. (2012). The Humanitarian Leader in Each of Us: 7 Choices That Shape a Socially Responsible Life. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

For anyone that would like some background reading on the concept and current knowledge about world suffering overall, this technical research report may be useful. To read report, click on this link:

A Technical Introduction to World Suffering 1jan15


This little essay in 1,000 words explains why one American demographic wallows in such deep despair that its life expectancy has been growing shorter. While addictions have largely been blamed, I argue that these stresses arise out of a loss in meaning by a culture caught in consumption.

Why are many White Americans living shorter lives? Over the past half-Century peoples’ life spans have been rising around the world except for war-torn or politically trapped countries. In late 2015, researchers reported that life expectancy was falling in middle America. It should have produced a shockwave, but it did not get media attention for 12 months.

The original report on falling life expectancy appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It was written by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, a powerful wife-husband team of economic professors from Princeton University. But the media failed to read their report seriously until the National Center for Health Statistics released a report, Mortality in the United States in late 2016. By that time, Trump had won the election and reporters were looking for explanations for his support among the voters.

In late March of 2017, a new chapter emerged in the sociological discovery that American life expectancy has been dropping among middle age, middle income, low education whites. Case and Deaton released a re-write of their early report through Brookings. Then Vox Media released a summary report suggesting some factors underlying the so-called collapse of white middle America. The chief idea they highlighted was that the prototypical Trump supporters were dying deaths of despair at a high rate, with the main route to mortality being suicide, opioid overdoses, obesity and alcoholic-related liver disease.

Professors Case and Deaton argued that these deaths of despair were not a simple function of insufficient income nor of rising costs of healthcare. Instead, they claim that a sense of hopelessness was bred from a long run stagnation in wages from those with little education, low income, and middle age.

The latest Case/Deaton report points out that the epidemic of deaths from despair is not occurring in other economically advanced countries, except for Russia in the early 1990s. During that serious drop in life expectancy, Russians were dying mainly of heart disease and alcoholism. Evidence of hopelessness and despair also can be found.

Furthermore, Professors Case and Deaton did not find hopeless despair among America racial minorities or those with college education. They further concluded that the despair arises not from comparing one’s economic status with others at one point in time, but from comparing their current family income across time to the higher income of earlier generations of their family members.

For the Vox article, Case and Deaton commented that the problem might largely be solved by legislating against prescription opioids. What neither of these economists nor the Vox writers seemed to recognize is that the tragic suffering and deaths of a specific American subgroup is not due to opioid addiction alone, but a host of other factors including loss of meaning in the lives of middle Americans.

When one wins the lottery, or starts a new, high-paying job, life has immediate meaningfulness due to the challenge and fun of spending large sums of money. But when the money dries up, one’s sense of life’s meaning may dry up. The constant barrage of advertisements to spend money on almost everything, in the context of declining family income, lack of health insurance, and no new income in sight, produces a state best described as a deficit in hope and meaning.

According to the Vox Media report, Deaton suggested that the problems of American self-destruction due to despair could be solved by legislation making it harder to get opioids. Given the near-failure of the war on drugs and the high rates of deaths from alcoholism, opioid bans are not likely to greatly improve the situation. The problem needs to be addressed by social safety net improvements on the one hand and on the other hand, instigating programs that encourage more and deeper community relationships.

Americans in the past few years have faced a vacuum in life meanings as the socio-political culture has shifted to the right. We have seen a revival of individualism and a revival of claims that providing social safety nets harms those that need our help. At the same time, due to job loss and low wages, the White lower middle class needs to have safety nets that help pay for rapidly-rising costs of healthcare and health insurance. To save face, this demographic group in the United States tends to reject government assistance and opposes assistance of any kind to others.

Without a moral responsibility to help others in one’s community, we lose a major source of what makes live meaningful: close, caring relationships within a community, not just one’s family. If we refuse to help those living in poverty and suffering around the world, we also lose a great opportunity to find meaning bring greater meaning into our lives.

White Americans for generations have found meaning in their lives by aiming to give their offspring (and their children’s children) a better, more comfortable life. No wonder those in this social demographic feel a sense of despair and meaninglessness from knowing their children and grandchildren will be even worse off than their parents and grandparents.

Carol Graham has arrived at a somewhat similar conclusion in her latest book on happiness, Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream. From her research on poor white voters, she found that their increasing unhappiness arose in part from a deficit in optimism.

Now that well-paying jobs for the non-college-educated are scarce to non-existent, their main source of optimism and meaning has disappeared. The drive to suicide and drugs is not an income problem so much as a loss in opportunity for one’s family and future generations of the family.

Graham’s conclusion is that our nation’s future well-being depends upon reducing the tremendous inequality of wealth in the United States. Huge disparities in income or wealth tend to diminish the meaningfulness of one life within such societies. No wonder that White middle-class Americans with little education die early from despair magnified by obesity and addictions.