Peer-Reviewed Articles

Pathologizing Pathos: Suffering, Technocentrism, and Law in 20th-Century American Medicine

Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 2023

In the second half of the 20th century, concerns about problems in the doctor-patient relationship gave way to a new medical discourse on suffering, owed largely to the work of American physician Eric Cassell. This article tracks the development of his theory of suffering and its global success in transforming tragic medical experiences into diagnosable clinical entities. Beginning with his intellectual development in the 1960s, this article traces Cassell’s initial interest in suffering first to his early research on truth-telling and autonomy, followed by his pioneering work in bioethics. Although closely aligned with philosophy, much of the institutional success of bioethics came from American law, which impacted Cassell’s theorizing. At the same time, doctors like him experienced a growth in medical malpractice lawsuits, driven in large part by costly ‘pain and suffering’ awards, which the medical community sought to curb by encouraging legislatures to codify informed consent. The success of these efforts mandated that doctors disclose previously withheld bad news capable of causing suffering. The cultural changes that followed these disclosures became Cassell's impetus, while legal pain and suffering supplied much of his theory's language and concepts.

This paper has two aims. The first is to defend a recent critique of the leading medical theory of suffering, which alleges too narrow a focus on violent experiences of suffering. Although sympathetic to this critique, I claim that it lacks a counterexample of the kinds of experiences the leading theory is said to neglect. Drawing on recent clinical cases and the longer intellectual history of suffering, my paper provides this missing counterexample. I then answer some possible objections to my defense, before turning to my second aim: an expansion of my counterexample into a spectrum of suffering that varies according to the selves and purposes that suffering affects. Next, I connect this spectrum to the tolerability of suffering, which I distinguish from its affective intensity. I conclude by outlining some applications of this distinction for the psychometric reliability of assessment instruments that measure suffering in clinical contexts.

Suffering is an experiential state that every person encounters at one time or another, yet little is known about suffering and its consequences for the well-being of nonclinical adult populations. In a pair of longitudinal studies, we used two waves of data from garment factory workers (Study 1 [T1: 2017, T2: 2019]: n = 344) and flight attendant workers (Study 2 [T1: 2017/2018, T2: 2020]: n = 1,402) to examine the prospective associations of suffering with 16 outcomes across different domains of health and well-being: physical health, health behavior, mental health, psychological well-being, character strengths, and social well-being. The primary analysis involved a series of regression analyses in which each T2 outcome was regressed on overall suffering assessed in T1, adjusting for relevant sociodemographic characteristics and the baseline value (or close proxy) of the outcome assessed in T1. In Study 1, associations of overall suffering with worse subsequent health and well-being were limited to a single outcome on each of the domains of physical health and mental health. Overall suffering was more consistently related to worse subsequent health and well-being in Study 2, with associations emerging for all but two outcomes. The pattern of findings for each study was largely similar when aspects of suffering were modeled individually, although associations for some aspects of suffering differed from those that emerged for overall suffering. Our findings suggest that suffering may have important implications for the well-being of worker populations and can be used by employers and practitioners to promote employee health.

My paper challenges an influential distinction between pain and suffering put forward by physician-ethicist, Eric Cassell. I argue that Cassell’s distinction is philosophically untenable because he contrasts suffering with an outdated theory of pain. In particular, Cassell focuses on one type of pain, the interpretation of nociception induced by noxious stimuli such as heat or sharp objects; yet since the late 1970s, pain scientists have rendered both nociception and noxious stimuli unnecessary for pain. I argue that this discrepancy between Cassell’s distinction and pain science produces three philosophical problems for his distinction: first, he frames his distinction too generally, concentrating on only one type of pain (interpreted nociception) to the neglect of others, such as neuropathy; second, it is possible that Cassell’s understanding of pain may include suffering; and third, Cassell gives examples of pain and suffering manifesting independently of each other, but it is possible that these cases may instead exemplify differences between nociceptive and non-nociceptive types of pain. Due to these problems, I conclude that Cassell’s distinction currently lacks a difference. I call for new efforts to articulate the differences, if any, between pain and suffering. 

Suffering is an important theme in many bioethical debates, yet little historical research is available to contextualize ideas about it. My article proposes a preliminary intellectual history of suffering in bioethics using the field’s most trusted tertiary work, the four editions of the Encyclopedia of Bioethics (1978-2004), later renamed Bioethics (2014). In the first edition, I find suffering roughly conceptualized as either the negation of a good or as a pain. The former acquired a technical connotation beginning in the second edition, when physician Eric Cassell refined the negative aspects of suffering into a full-fledged theory. Now, suffering no longer marked the loss of just any good but instead threatened one’s purpose in relation to that good. Cassell also strongly distinguished suffering from pain which, when combined with his theory of suffering, hardened earlier distinctions between pain and suffering that were present but weak in the first encyclopedia. Both Cassell’s theory and his strong distinction impacted how other contributors moralized suffering in the later encyclopedias, although his influence was not total: utilitarians continued to moralize suffering in ways that still roughly construed it as pain. Consequently, Cassell and the utilitarians conflicted conceptually. Nevertheless, this tension went unfelt in the encyclopedias for reasons I describe. I close by suggesting areas for further historical research and argue for their relevance to bioethical inquiries into suffering.

Eric Cassell famously defined suffering as a person’s severe distress at a threat to their personal integrity. This article draws attention to some problems with the concept of distress in this theory. In particular, I argue that Cassell’s theory turns on distress but does not define it which, in light of the complexity of distress, problematizes suffering in three ways: first, suffering becomes too equivocal to apply in at least some cases that Cassell nevertheless identifies as suffering; second, Cassell’s account does not explain what sort of experience suffering is, resulting in theoretical and practical difficulties in distinguishing it from other medical conditions; third, there is good reason to believe that in medical contexts, ‘distress’ just means ‘suffering’ or some cognate concept not yet distinguished from it, rendering Cassell’s theory circular. I consider a rebuttal to my objections and reply, concluding that Cassell’s theory of suffering needs a definition of distress to settle what the nature of suffering really is. 

Other Publications

 Sweet Melancholies

Journal of Medical Ethics Forum

Works in Progress

'The Lot of Man': A Computational History of Suffering in Western Thought

Book Manuscript in Preparation

This project is a computational history of ideas about suffering in Western canonical texts. Using HathiTrust digital humanities tools for text analysis, I track semantic associations with suffering, such as word prevalence and co-occurrence, across different compilations of the Western canon. I use these associations as a framework for scoping a multi-disciplinary Western intellectual history of suffering over the longue durée

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