What we talk about when we talk about pediatric suffering

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In this paper I aim to show why pediatric suffering must be understood as a judgment or evaluation, rather than a mental state. To accomplish this task, first I analyze the various ways that the label of suffering is used in pediatric practice. Out of this analysis emerge what I call the twin poles of pediatric suffering. At one pole sits the belief that infants and children with severe cognitive impairment cannot suffer because they are nonverbal or lack subjective life experience. At the other pole exists the idea that once child suffering reaches some threshold it is ethical to eliminate the sufferer. Concerningly, at both poles, any particular child vanishes from view. Second, in an attempt to identify a theory of suffering inclusive of children, I examine two prominent so-called experiential accounts of suffering. I fi nd them both wanting on account of their absurd entailments and their flawed assumptions regarding the subjective experiences of people who cannot communicate expressively. Finally, I extend arguments found in Alastair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals to argue that child suffering can be understood only as a set of absences—absences of conditions such as love, warmth, and freedom from pain. An evaluation of these absences reveals the exquisite dependency of children. It also discloses why pediatric suffering is necessarily a social and political event. Unlike adults, children will never be either the authors or the mitigators of their own suffering. Rather, children must rely wholly on others in order to resist suffering, grow, and flourish.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSpringerBriefs in Ethics
PublisherSpringer Nature
Number of pages21
StatePublished - 2022

Publication series

NameSpringerBriefs in Ethics
ISSN (Print)2211-8101
ISSN (Electronic)2211-811X


  • Disability
  • Pediatric ethics
  • Quality of life
  • Suffering
  • Withholding/withdrawing treatment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Philosophy
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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