Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Suffering; Oppression; Self-Care; Self-Sabotage; Self-Injury

Major Advisor

Paul Bloomfield

Associate Advisor

Daniel Silvermint

Associate Advisor

Lewis Gordon

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Open Access


It is uncontroversial that suffering has moral significance; ethicists from many camps agree that another’s suffering generates a duty to relieve that suffering. Yet the reality of suffering is often more complicated than this truism suggests. Sometimes we desire to suffer, sometimes we choose to suffer, and sometimes we ought to suffer. It is therefore unclear that relief is appropriate in every instance of suffering. Additionally, the focus on the duty to relieve others’ suffering overlooks the genuine, if burdened, moral agency of sufferers. In this dissertation, I take these complications of suffering and the moral agency of sufferers seriously and unpack their ethical implications.

The first two chapters offer an analysis that challenges standard philosophical assumptions about suffering. In the first chapter, I motivate a view of suffering as distressed disorientation: it becomes difficult for an agent to be, or continue being, in the world. This view puts suffering agents’ diachronic experiences, rather than the negative quality of their pain, at the center of the analysis. In Chapter Two, I consider the edifying potential of suffering in order to argue that there are virtuous responses to personal suffering. Rather than approaching suffering as a problem to be overcome, I argue that virtuous responses include authentically acknowledging one’s suffering and recognizing it as part of the human condition.

The remaining chapters focus, respectively, on ethical complications of three particular ways of suffering. In Chapter Three, I argue that sufferers have a duty to self-care even when their agency is burdened by harmful upbringing or socialization. Chapter Four considers how emotional self-sabotage complicates caring relationships and the ethical considerations needed to mediate these complications. Finally, in Chapter Five, I look at self-injury, or deliberate body mutilation used to cope with emotional distress. Many agents report that this heavily stigmatized behavior gives them a sense of control over their suffering. I analyze the paradoxically agency-conferring and agency-undermining effects of self-injury through the lens of oppressive internalization and body shame. By attending to complicated, true-to-life cases of suffering, I aim to motivate a reassessment of ethical understandings of suffering.

Available for download on Tuesday, July 09, 2019