All major spheres of human activity deal in one way or another with suffering:

politics, religion, healthcare, social affairs, economics, law, art, literature, philosophy, ethics, the news media, environmental studies, education, science, history, war, crime, work, sport, interpersonal relationships, personal life, etc.

Suffering is implicated in other, more specialized fields too, although their overt objects of concern are something else. For instance:

medicine, social service, social security, economic development aid, human rights protection, animal welfare, judicial punishment, the practice of torture, disaster relief, certain parts of the biological or psychological or social sciences, etc.

So there are many areas of activity that deal with suffering in relation to something else, to the State, or God, or health, or welfare, or wealth, or justice, etc. In practice, however, no discipline deals with suffering per se as its primary focus. Consequently, suffering in the contemporary world is still essentially out of control, despite a pervasive concern over its existence across the millennia. This lack may be explained by the impossibility until now of tackling suffering within an overall framework that is specifically dedicated to study and action about it.

So here an idea is proposed that is in one sense obvious, namely to develop, alongside the other areas mentioned above, a whole new sphere of investigation, an additional and quite different approach to the world and its problems – a new discipline dealing with suffering itself and with all that is related to suffering.

It is suggested that the discipline concerned with suffering should be called “algonomy”. The term comes from two ancient Greek words: algos, which means pain or suffering, and nomos, which evokes the notions of domain, management, and knowledge. It should be noted that the word “suffering” is used here in a broad sense and may refer to any pain or unpleasantness.

Algonomy is a framework that allows to deal with knowledge and action about suffering through a discipline that is proper to that phenomenon. Of course, it touches upon a large variety of domains, most particularly psychology, philosophy, religion, politics, health, justice, and the social services. However,algonomy clearly distinguishes itself from any other approach to suffering because it is concerned both specifically and universally with that subject, and with nothing else : in other words, a theoretical or practical activity may be said algonomic if, “in principle”, it deals with suffering, the whole of suffering, and nothing but suffering. Thanks to these characteristics, algonomy allows us to go beyond three kinds of shortcomings against which other disciplines, for all their merits, are powerless when they deal with suffering.

1- First, other approaches are inappropriate or inadequate insofar as their specific object of concern is not suffering itself, as such, ‘per se’. Only algonomy allows us to acknowledge the specific reality of suffering in all its guises.

2- Next, other disciplines are deficient or incomplete insofar as none of them deals in principle with everything that concerns suffering, physical or mental, human or animal. Only algonomy embraces within a common conceptual framework all forms of suffering, all causes, all remedies, all elements of the topic. If our goal is to understand and resolve the problems that the existence of suffering entails, these problems must be tackled not only one-by-one, or in narrowly defined contexts, but also in their entirety, in spite of the intimidating scale and complexity that this approach may represent.

3- Lastly, other fields of interest are misleading or inconsistent in the sense that when they deal with suffering, they always do so only in relation to their disciplinary specialty. There are countless people or groups who say that their concern is suffering, but in reality all of them are focused on concerns which are not suffering as such but rather, for instance, illness or hunger or injustice. Thus suffering has never hitherto been the specialty of anybody and therefore, per se, it has been awfully neglected. From the perspective of algonomy, all that is not first-and-foremost focused on knowledge and action about suffering represents a diversion, a deviation from what should be the primary and overriding interest.

To be sure, algonomy also has its pitfalls which must be guarded against. For instance, the new discipline may give rise to the temptations of totalitarian benevolence. Within algonomy, indeed, everything is subordinated to its core goal. Those who practice the discipline, however, will be responsible for making sure that algonomy itself is subordinated to appropriate imperatives. At times, a focus on suffering may be a priority, but at other times something else may have to prevail. For dealing with the extremely complex question of the place that algonomy should have in the scheme of things, it is suggested here to use an approach such as the one put forward in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.

To sum up, algonomy is an innovative conceptual framework with the following key uses:

  • It is a framework for a methodical approach, useful for dealing with suffering in a general, universal, systematic, well-ordered, permanent manner, and for dealing with suffering as a primary object of concern, subordinate to no other.

  • It is a framework for theoretical learning, useful for studying all that pertains to suffering, as well as for developing skills that are related to this kind of knowledge.

  • It is a framework for strategic planning, useful for designing systematic action about suffering.

  • It is a framework for practical action, useful for carrying out interventions that are concerned with the phenomenon of suffering itself.