Ethics of Grief: Profiting from the Pain of Others

Imagine you and a friend go to see a documentary (or even fictional film) about the plight of victims of famine, war, disease, or oppression, and you bawl uncontrollably throughout the film as your friend sits next to you unmoved and indifferent to everything happening on the screen. You think anyone who isn’t moved by the extreme suffering you’ve just seen must be some kind of monster (or a sociopath at the least). You feel, in short, that crying is more moral than just sitting there.

You will admit, of course, that your crying through the movie didn’t help the victims any and your friend’s indifference didn’t really hurt anyone. Still, it seems that a moral person should have feelings for those who are suffering, even if you can’t find any real benefit for these strong feelings for strangers who get no benefit from your tears, heartfelt as they are.

In fact, your friend might point out that you are getting all worked up for no reason, and it might be better to keep your emotions in check. Your wailing for these strangers won’t change anything for them, but it might impair your ability to attend to problems you can change. What good are you to your children, for example, if your mind is on the poor souls in some far corner of the world? You should get your head together, friend, and get on with the business of life.

But, you counter, if you learn to be indifferent and unmoved by the pain of strangers, you may become indifferent to the pain of others, including friends and, yes, your own children. You don’t want to become the kind of monster you now suspect your friend of being. You want to be the kind of person who is moved by the suffering of others. You may not be able to help in every situation, but you do not want to become callous and cold. You want to be a caring individual. It isn’t about what you can do but about what you are.

And now your friend points out that not only did you cry during the movie, but you seemed, in some sense, to enjoy it. In fact, you apparently went to the movie with the prior intention of being moved to tears. You chose the movie because it was described as “moving” and “emotionally riveting.” Will you be happy when your children fall ill because it will satisfy your need to “let it all out”? Perhaps you are the monster, after all?

You didn’t enjoy the pain, you object, but you enjoyed the high quality of the film and its ability to elicit the pain. It was beautiful in its ability to enlarge compassion and trigger a caring response. The film will help, if nothing else, audiences develop a greater sense of concern for others, even if it doesn’t affect everyone (with a sly and disapproving nod to your friend).

And your friend now points out that people had to suffer in order to expand compassion and develop a greater caring response, so the suffering of others is used as a means to your own ends. You are actually acting selfishly after all, and the film makers are also exploiting the suffering of these people in order to teach a moral lesson and even to make a profit and perhaps sit in the spotlight after receiving coveted awards. You can just imagine the director’s teary expressions of gratitude and exhortations for a more acts of compassion at the ceremony.

In 2012, comedian Anthony Griffith told the story of his daughter’s cancer in a moving performance for The Moth. The video quickly went viral. You can see the video here:

The video on YouTube now has more than 1.8 million views. It is almost impossible to watch the video without sobbing, and people shared it by promising that anyone watching should have some tissues on hand. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, we enjoy experiencing his grief with him. It might be objected that we are emotional voyeurs watching a sort of grief porn. By watching, we are not helping his daughter, we are not preventing future cancer deaths, we are not improving medical care, and it isn’t clear how we might be improving ourselves.

Paradoxically, we simultaneously want to avoid our own pain but glom onto the pain of others. Watching the story enables us to experience the pain without having to actually experience the loss of child. Doing this while watching a fictional account of loss seems justifiable in many ways, but to seek out a chance to cry and experience this kind of pseudo-grief that is provided by the actual grief of another person certainly raises an ethical concern.

We might say that Anthony Griffith needed to talk about his loss, and we are providing him with an audience. We are doing him a great favor by listening. We are honoring his loss. And he may agree with us. In this case, he is using us to help him along his healing journey, but this doesn’t seem to be what is going on. We want to see and hear his story. We want to be part of his grief story without having to do any heavy lifting ourselves. We watch the video, feel emotional excitement, hug our loved ones because one never knows when they will be gone, and then we are done with it.

We might say that we want to hear the story because it is well written and well performed. Griffith is extremely talented as a story teller, and we appreciate his talent and courage to share such a personal story. When we watch the video, we are paying tribute to his writing and his acting. The only problem is that he really doesn’t seem to be acting. He has merely put his pain on view for the world. He is certainly talented, and the story is well-written, but most people will be moved by anyone’s story of a lost child. It is relatively easy to evoke strong emotions with a story of intense pain and grief.

It may be that we want to hear his story so we can prepare ourselves for the times our story might be the main event. Someday we will have to do the heavy lifting. If we can live through Griffith’s pain, maybe we can face our own. By experiencing Griffith’s grief, we see that we can also face it and live through it just as he has done. We finish the video feeling somehow more prepared.

Or we may be drawn to the stories of others because it provides an evolutionary advantage. By hearing stories of others, we develop compassion and care. Other than providing an audience, we may not be helping Griffith directly, but we may be better able to empathize with others in the future. We are preparing not only for how to face our own struggles but to help others through theirs. If this is true, then we are actually doing something noble and beneficial by watching such videos.

Or, maybe we are just seeking the thrill of an emotional roller coaster ride.

Comments are welcome below. I appreciate corrections to typos and so forth (randall@ethicsbeyondcompliance.com).

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in ethics, Mental Health, Narrative, Philosophy, Psychotherapy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s