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Monday, December 3, 2007day link 

 Megadukkhas - quantifying suffering
picture As a sub-theme in an article about Root Irresponsibility for Major World Problems, Tony Judge touches on the strange unit of measure called a "dukkha":
The most extensive and insightful methodological approach to the incidence of suffering is that developed through the research of R G H Siu and the International Society for Panetics. They developed the concept of the "dukkha" as a measure of suffering. For the panetics community, the dukkha is a measure of the intensity and duration of pain and anguish adapted from the 9-point hedonic scale used to provide subjective judgements in market research. Dukkha is also a central concept in Buddhism.

According to this approach, one dukkha expresses the amount of suffering endured by one person experiencing one intensity unit for one day (roughly the equivalent to the amount of suffering felt by one person with a moderate toothache for eight hours). A "megadukkha" represents the order of magnitude of suffering sustained by 1,000 persons for about 10 hours a day, for a year, with severe stomach ulcers and without medication. The approach has been explored further by Johan Galtung (Panetics and the Practice of Peace and Development, 1999).
Wow. dukkha is of course a traditional Buddhist term, which is probably somewhat mis-translated and mis-understood from its original meaning, but which is typically translated as "suffering". Read more about dukkha as a unit of measure here.

I never heard about dukkhas or megadukkhas before. Of course it would be tricky to measure in any precise way, but just the concept that one could quantify suffering opens a bunch of doors. See, stuff that can't easily be accounted for tends to become somewhat invisible in our kind of society. Particularly if it can't be counted in dollars, but also simply because it is difficult to count, or it isn't counted.

In the many years I've lived in L.A. I've had hundreds of hours to sit in bumper to bumper traffic and ponder the outrageous and unnecessary waste of time and resources that is going on, not to mention the anger and suffering from people sitting in their cars going nowhere. The suffering is relatively minimal if we compare to the hundreds of millions of people in other parts of the world who starve, who're tortured, who's family members are killed, who don't have health care, etc, but if we add it up it wouldn't be all that minimal. But just think about the cost to start with, if it actually were accounted for.

Say I could get to work in downtown L.A. in 15 minutes, if the traffic actually was flowing, but it takes me an hour. That means I spend 1.5 hours per day doing nothing useful, while burning gasoline and sitting being frustrated. If we only looked at the time aspect, then me and the other 2 million people who're doing the same will waste around 3 million hours that day. Multiply that by the $20 or so we get paid by the hour for working, and you have $60 million in a day, or around $18 billion per year. You could buy a hell of a lot of freeway for that. Tripple-decker underground freeways would be perfectly feasible if you accounted for the time and money that would be saved. Or think of it on a daily basis. There's a stalled car in one of the lanes 2 miles further along, and thousands of people suddenly waste thousands of hours when the traffic grinds to a halt. If you account for that cost, even drastic measures would be perfectly economical. You could keep a Sikorski crane helicopter hovering over every section of freeway 24/7 ready to lift any stalled vehicle off the freeway, and the cost would be completely negligable in comparison.

But I'm getting distracted. This was about suffering. Imagine that we could find ways of reducing the overall suffering on the planet. That's what the Institute for Panetics is working on. They propose principles and awareness campaigns for different sectors of society. Law and order, media, health, religion, government, etc. Here are some definitions and objectives:
WHAT IS PANETICS?

Panetics is an integrated discipline to study and help reduce the INFLICTION of suffering by humans upon other humans. It was founded upon the conviction that a growing international consensus supports the right of people to be relieved from suffering inflicted by other people when they act through governments, institutions, professions and social groups. To that end, Panetics is an evolving, "pan-ethical" approach to research, policy analysis, decision-making and management."Panetics" is a term coined by Ralph G.H. Siu from "paneti" which means "to inflict" in Pali, the language of the Buddha.

PANETHICS

Combining the Greek word for "all" ("pan") with "ethics", Panethics is an attempt to synthesize thinking from both East and West into a readily understandable and agreed upon system of ethics for a world community. It is based upon the fundamental principle that no one has the right to unjustly inflict distress, pain and anguish on another. The semantic and synergistic relationship between the two terms "panetics" and "panethics" is intentional.

The term "panethics" was first coined by Professor Rudolph Krejci during a lively discussion in April 1986 at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute with its director Syun-Ichi Akasofu and the Visiting Lecturer in Panetics, Ralph G.H.Siu.

PANETIC OBJECTIVES

The main aims of Panetics are to analyze the sources of inflicted suffering, develop practical ways to help reduce human suffering inflicted by individuals through governments, institutions, professions, or social groups, and encourage their application.

PANETIC PREMISES

People have a right to be relieved from suffering inflicted by other people. The international community has begun to demonstrate a willingness to support that right. We lack both awareness and the tools required for decision-making and intervention to be sure that such actions actually alleviate, rather than increase, human suffering. To prevent such missteps, we must search for measures to assess potential and actual human consequences of actions with the same attempts at precision that we try to use in economic decision-making. Such panetic analyses can help leaders, professionals and managers evaluate the humane consequences of their actions, lessen the suffering they might otherwise cause, and thereby advance the well-being of humanity.
That's a wise and noble endeavor. Of course, making words for it, creating units of measure, outlining principles - it makes it something one can begin to think about. Think with in constructive ways, where one can make better decisions, as opposed to just walking around with a generalized gloomy feeling about the world. You can actually to some degree add it up. Does option A or option B best reduce the amount of suffering in the world?

If consequences can be identified, labeled and accounted for, it is so much more likely they will become part of the decision process. There are consequences like pollution, wasted time, wasted money. If the bill could be sent to those responsible, they just might have to make different decisions. And there's the consequence of pain and suffering. Which isn't just a matter of sending somebody a bill. Suffering sucks. A little suffering once in a while might motivate you to make things better. But a lot of continued suffering just makes life suck a whole lot.

So, I'm all for a global megadukkha reduction act. Down with the dukkhas.

Of course we need a unit for happiness too, then. Just sitting around not suffering doesn't automatically make life great. Let's max out the joy and happiness counters while we're at it.
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