Slavoj Žižek is generally viewed as controversial. But in watching a recent video made by him, he had a good point about us lengthening the pain of others. For example, he argues that "good" slave owners created more of a problem because they did not take slaves out of slavery, nor lead them towards a revolution ("large societal response") because of the fact that the slaves were being treated too nicely to revolt or for anyone else to attempt to change the system entirely. This, in Žižek's mind, only perpetuated slavery further.

My problem is this- let's say that there is a group of people who are poor and suffering. Someone who's more altruistic in nature will decide to attempt to help them by donating supplies, food, medicine, etc. to their community to alleviate their suffering. Žižek might view this as bad, since we would be perpetuating the situation, rather than creating the possibility of a Marxist state, where poverty is "impossible", via revolt, social change, etc. However, in leaving them to suffer, we run into an ethical barrier where the let people suffer on purpose and not in consequence to something they've done. This lets the innocent suffer, which is clearly a violation of the basic principle of non-maleficence.

Can cruelty and suffering be justified if it might lead to social transformation, or to possibly establish an ideal state?

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    If your slaves are treated well enough to never consider revolt, will they consider themselves suffering? If they do not consider themselves suffering, is it acceptable for others to determine they are, overriding their own decision? Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 9:59
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    @GuntramBlohm: there's "suffering relative to those not enslaved", and then there's "suffering so badly that it's worth some largeish percentage of us dying in a revolt with an uncertain chance of success in ending our slavery". I think the question is talking about measures that move people from one side of the latter to the other. It's not necessarily the case that moving the other side of the former is even in view, let alone achieved, by merely ensuring that revolt isn't a good move for the slaves. So sure, they might well consider themselves suffering. If in doubt, ask them. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 13:02

7 Answers 7


ad 1) On the base of human rights there is no justification for the suffering of people. In addition, history has shown that the promise of a better future can be a dangerous delusion and invites to misuse.

ad 2) We cannot be certain: History has shown that the ideal Marxist state is a theoretical fiction.

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    Indeed. When in history cruelty and suffering did lead to social transformation, cruelty and suffering did not go away. In many cases it got worse.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 8:42
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    "History has shown". Counter question: Who are the ones to write the history down? And to decide what is to be read.. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 8:48
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    @mathreadler Simple question, simple answer: Historians are the ones to write the history down :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 9:08
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    And if what is written down is not considered history, I suppose they would not get to be called historians? :-) Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 9:16
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    @mathreadler I consider a modern historian a person who has successfully studied the corresponding academic discipline, knows the rules of this dicipline, and applies them when writing the history down.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 9:29

For what it's worth: there's actually some empirical research around the question of which sorts of aid and intervention actually provide long-term solutions versus prolonging indigence/poverty/etc.

In particular some experimenters have tried giving homeless people moderately-sized amounts of cash (about $5,000 USD). The results compare very favorably to more ration-oriented charitable-org-style giving:

None of the men wasted his money on alcohol, drugs or gambling. A year later, 11 of the 13 had roofs over their heads. (Some went to hostels; others to shelters.) They enrolled in classes, learned how to cook, got treatment for drug abuse and made plans for the future. After decades of authorities’ fruitless pushing, pulling, fines and persecution, 11 vagrants moved off the streets

So this kind of analysis seems suggestive, but maybe is especially illuminating with respect to the viability of larger-scale "socialized rent" programs like basic income -- which an increasing number of administrative districts are experimenting with, in different variations (so soon hopefully we'll have a lot more empirical data about these sorts of programs on much larger scales).

However recall that Zizek has some hard words for basic income supporters, since after all it effectively serves to morally legitimate capitalism (this was even the stated motivations of the sociologists who come up with the idea) -- and so basic rent programs, precisely because they are so effective at fighting extreme poverty, may end up extending the amount of time capitalism is able to mystify people into thinking it is a virtuous economic regime.


I think the question itself encloses a fallacy which is rather evident, but for some reason often skipped over: What is a positive social transformation? What is an ideal state? As in the case of beauty, the "right" answer is in the eye of the beholder, and hence there isn't a correct answer.

Being this so, who gives the right to the person who asks the question to decide on which suffering should be allowed or which is a desirable transformation of the state of things?

Many mass manipulators have asked and responded this question aloud throughout history, presenting themselves as saviors of a nation. The funny thing is that, of course, the question was always aimed at deciding on the suffering of other people, but never on the suffering of the person asking the question or its own social group.


Can cruelty and suffering be justified if it might lead to social transformation, or to possibly establish an ideal state? It would be a coherent position to hold that, in the real world, no possible outcome can justify cruelty and suffering. This is the position of some pacifists and conscientious objectors. During WWII, for example, I doubt there were any COs who held that a Nazi victory would be a desirable outcome; still, they held that there are certain acts that (for whatever reasons they ascribed) are wrong, and that is understood to mean, We avoid them absolutely, under all conditions. Some may have added that if unwelcome consequences follow, this is not our moral responsibility (whatever the practical facts); morally, it's the responsibility of whoever directly provides the unwelcome consequences. Whoever it is who decides to keep 10 million people enslaved when they had the power to free them, just because we chose not to pinch someone, for example.
We might not like the potential real-world consequences of levering apart the moral, the ethical and the practical in this way, but it is not an intrinsically incoherent position. Pragmatically, in the real world (unlike in philosophers' thought experiments, for example, or in marxist political programmes) the consequences of our actions might be held to be subject to the principal law of human affairs, the Law of Unintended Consequences; a possible benefit might weigh less heavily in the balance against an actual harm than we think.
Perhaps one question that might help to clarify one's thinking would be: - Am I willing to regard, and treat, other people as instruments, at least when the ethical and pragmatic pressures are great, or do I regard them as subjects, radically. always, under all circumstances, with absolute and inalienable rights?
In which case I could ask them whether they'd mind if I pinched them. Or kept them enslaved.


I feel it is important to throw a wrench into your question: You are using the word “justified” without specifying a standard of right and wrong. While I have a particular worldview (taken from the Bible), which determines a black-and-white view of right and wrong, many other people on this forum and this planet do not see things this way.

For example take Ursula Le Guin’s The ones who walk away from Omelas, which deals with “justified” suffering. While the story itself does not directly apply to your question, the fact that she wrote it illustrates multiple views on what can be justified. Many ethical doctrines were laid down by men and women who see nothing wrong with cruelty (I am pointing all five fingers at Ethical egoism), or even disagree on the definition of cruelty (such as how the American livestock system functions).

  • Although, given the context, I guess it begs the question of whether or not a "bloody Proletarian revolution" counts as cruelty for the purpose engendering social transformation. Do you define this as a "necessary evil?" As justice?
    – Benjamin
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 13:49
  • I think bloodiness must always involve cruelty, no matter what the intent is.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 14:02
  • While I would like to agree with your sentiment, there are many times that our intentions do not line up with the results. As the history of the Soviet Union will show, often we sign up for things that are sweet at the onset, only to have them turn our stomachs sour in the end. My point though is that to avoid subjectivity we need dependable definitions. For an example of this look at abortion. It is one of the most controversial topics today; we can’t even agree on whether or not it is humane or cruel.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 15:46
  • In LeGuiin's book the ones who walk away are the ones who do not think the suffering is justified. They do nothing to decrease the suffering, they just walk away. This bothered me greatly when I read it.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 8:45

Fact is that if you do something meaning well, you should try to find out what the consequences of your well-meaning actions are, and make sure that they don't have unintended bad consequences. And if there are unintended bad consequences that make your well-meaning actions actually bad, then stop them.

On the other hand, I don't think there was any slave owner who was cruel and made slaves suffer in order to encourage them to revolt and become free. (There may have been some who were well-meaning in a perverted way "encouraging" slaves through cruelty and suffering to stay in the place where they "belonged").

And if I remember correctly, slavery in the USA was not abolished by a bloody uprising of the slaves. If anyone knows history better than I do, they might give an example where slaves got their freedom by uprising.

  • You may want to look into the Nat Turner uprising. Slaves in North America did revolt and more regularly than you might suspect, but maybe the question is why rebellion was not universal (which I think is maybe what Z is pointing to anyway)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 13:25

This question and responses illustrate how easy it is to get sidetracked from the abstract moral question by the empirical difficulties involved in getting information in very complicated social situations.

It is extremely easy to answer the abstract moral question.

Can cruelty and suffering be justified if it might lead to social transformation, or to possibly establish an ideal state?

With a simple example. Suppose it were the case that simply pinching somewhat and causing them a very brief sensation of pain would result in freeing 10 million people from a situation of horrible slavery. We also suppose that the person to be pinched is completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Would such a pinch be justified? It is cruel and causes some suffering.

Resounding YES! The answer to the question - YES ! - is beyond question. Any other answer is patently absurd.

So what's going on with all the discussion? If you look over the answers there are a great many points brought up. Points that are related as to whether in various particular circumstances the amount of suffering would justify the intended result and whether or not allowing the suffering would even have the intended result.

These are empirical matters which can be impossible to determine beforehand. What suffering is allowable will depend strongly on one's belief about what the outcome is likely to be.

Other points raised are whether or not the desired changes are actually desirable. Of course if two people disagree on whether or not the intended changes are desirable they won't agree on causing someone pain and suffering to achieve those ends. The question is quite ambiguous about this, it is asked as if there is a general answer

Can cruelty and suffering be justified if it might lead to social transformation, or to possibly establish an ideal state?

As such it is asking

Can cruelty and suffering ever be justified if it might lead to social transformation, or to possibly establish an ideal state?

At the other extreme we could have:

Is cruelty and suffering always justified if it might lead to social transformation, or to possibly establish an ideal state?

Other clarifications come to mind:

Can cruelty and suffering ever be justified if it almost certainly will lead to social transformation and establish an ideal state?

Is cruelty and suffering always justified if it almost certainly will lead to social transformation and establish an ideal state?

All these alternatives show that the question can only be meaningfully answered if the actual circumstances are known. What are the probable effects of allowing a specific amount and type of suffering. These empirical relations are of course extremely difficult to come by so oblique arguments are made instead.

It's really a version of asking "Do the ends justify the means." without ever saying what ends? what means? The question has become stripped of the context absolutely necessary for it's answer.

  • And consider the opposite question; is it justified to keep 10 million people in conditions of horrible slavery to save one person from a very brief sensation of pain. One person in slavery and 10 million people being pinched?
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 7:02
  • It's not enough to say the ends justify the means. If the means are unbearable then the end cannot be justified.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 7:03

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