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Lecture | Workshop

Virtuous Suffering: new perspectives on the ethics of suffering for critical global health and justice

Monday 16 September 2019 - Tuesday 17 September 2019
Kamerlingh Onnes Building
Steenschuur 25
2311 ES Leiden

Can suffering be positive? Currently dominant discourses, primarily voiced through human rights activism and humanitarianism, maintain the opposite: suffering, mentally and physically, has to be avoided and where it exists, it has to be reduced. Global public health approaches are at the frontline of this fight against suffering. Within and beyond public health, researchers from a range of disciplines have inquired into the human experience of suffering, primarily focusing on its negative dimensions, even though some have argued for the importance of going beyond the suffering subject in order to look for resilience.

But what if people do not want to avoid suffering? What if they, for example, see it as an avenue for self-improvement? How, when and why do people accord positive value to the suffering of themselves or others, for example by transforming useless suffering into suffering for something or through evaluating suffering as necessary purification? What is the role of religion in such alternative valuations of suffering? And how are ideas of suffering transforming through regimes of law and order in favor of severe punishments including the infliction of pain? We propose that addressing these questions to critically assess dominant perceptions of suffering is a much-needed contribution to (critical) global health approaches in light of the ever-expanding use of humanitarian discourses both locally and globally.

Keynote lecture

This paper aims to put us in a better position to understand and evaluate the imperative to reduce suffering, not just as an abstract principle but in terms of the concrete social practices in which it gets instantiated and how they change over time. The paper makes three interrelated claims. The first claim, most closely linked to the workshop theme, is that the category of “virtuous suffering” falls within the domain of an “ethics of suffering” and that properly understanding and evaluating an ethics of suffering requires uncovering the “politics of suffering” that accompanies it. The second claim is that every politics of suffering brings with it a more or less explicit conception of the social causes of suffering and a repertoire of remedies. I focus here on the shift in the modern West to a secular framing of suffering and its causes – the rise of “social suffering.” The third claim is that assessing any politics of suffering requires being attentive to shifts in the meaning and practice of alleviating suffering over time. I focus here on the shift in the latter half of the twentieth century toward a “neo-liberal politics of suffering” and the eclipse of social suffering.


The workshop on 16 and 17 September 2019 will build on scholarship (in anthropology) on ethics and moralities that articulate the productive potential of failure and suffering and critical (historical) scholarship of human rights, humanitarianism, social justice and global health. Keynote lectures by Jeffrey Flynn and Ruth Prince. The workshop is initiated by Annemarie Samuels (Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology) and Paul van Trigt (Institute for History) and hosted by the research team of the ERC project ‘Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Historical Perspective’, based in the Institute for History at Leiden University.

If you want to visit a panel or keynote lecture (organized as lunch seminar), please send an email to rethinkingdisability@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

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