Notes: The First Brick

Further word on a line of inquiry that could supplant economics as scholarship’s premier “dismal science

SEVERAL MONTHS ago in this space I had occasion to mention an article by Ralph G. H. Siu, who is a chemist, a former director of the Justice Department’s National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, the author of Microbial Decomposition of Cellulose and other books, and the progenitor of something called panetics, which is the study of the infliction of suffering. Siu had published an article about panetics in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in which he proposed the establishment of a basic unit of suffering, to be called the “dukkha” (from the word for “suffering” in Pali, a language spoken by the Buddha). The dukkha would play a role with respect to suffering analogous to that played by the calorie with respect to heat, though it would necessarily be calibrated with less precision. To determine the value of a dukkha, Siu began by dividing all suffering into a number of intensity levels, from level one (“barely noticeable”) to level nine (“unbearable, wanting to die”); he then defined a dukkha as the amount of suffering experienced in one full day by a person whose suffering for the duration of that day is at intensity level one. In his article Siu offered several intriguing calculations based on his conversion of data on unemployment, crime, pollution, and other ills into dukkha equivalents. ( He noted, for example, that in one recent year the population of the United States had endured some seven percent of the theoretical maximum of suffering that could have been inflicted on it in that year.) And he went on, finally, to urge the installation of panetics as a new academic discipline at America’s colleges and universities: a discipline both theoretical and applied, which would at last give the causes, nature, and quantification of suffering the attention they deserve.

My reaction to Siu’s proposal at the time, though I didn’t dwell on it in print, can be fairly described as skeptical. Acquiring the means to perform a sophisticated calculus on human suffering could, I suppose, assist in its alleviation. This is certainly the argument that a paneticist would advance. But I worry that suffering may be one of those conditions, like coldness or debt, that an ability to quantify may only make more distressing. Moreover, I am uncomfortable with the idea that in a world calibrated in dukkhas it would be possible to assert equivalences between certain levels of radically different kinds of suffering—grief, hunger, illness, and envy, for example—much as in a world calibrated in dollars one can find paintings, real estate, horseflesh, and human lives of seemingly equal value. Furthermore, should we not be concerned that panetics could in the wrong hands be used to intensify rather than alleviate suffering, and to do so on a scale never before imagined?

Those thoughts, at any rate, came to mind—as did the realization that the whole issue was probably moot. The possibility that the dukkha had much of a future in academe seemed somehow remote.

RALPH G. H. SIU has, however, been busy. Not long ago I received a copy of a book by Siu, its spine bound with plastic rings, titled Less Suffering for Everybody: A Guide to Panetics. Along with the book were some stapled sheaves of paper labeled Deliberation Distillates—a newsletter that began last year, containing excerpts of communications with Siu from forty or so people identified as founding members of a new organization called The International Society for Panetics. Deliberation Distillates, which serves as an epistolary form of meeting, was inaugurated by a memorandum from Siu to his colleagues that closed with the charge “And so, my fellow Founding Members, may the fertile ideas gush forth!”

This package of materials on panetics was sent to me by one of the founding members, whom I happen to know. He wrote that the first meeting of the ISP’s eleven-member board had just been held at the Cosmos Club, in Washington, D.C., and that a plenary session of founding members in Washington later this year would officially heave the society into public view. The roster of the ISP’s founding members is a distinguished one, if diverse in that slightly discordant way for which we reserve the word “motley.” Although most of the members, like the noted economist Kenneth E. Boulding, are academics, the group also includes many people from other walks of life: for example, Patrick V. Murphy, the former police commissioner of New York City, and Gus Tyler, the former assistant president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Interest in panetics seems to be nearly as indiscriminate as suffering itself.

I reached Ralph Siu by telephone one afternoon at his home in Washington. He is an irrepressibly affable man of seventy-three who was born in Honolulu to Chinese parents and who retains as legacies of his traditional Chinese upbringing a slight accent and a fondness for proverbs. He spent most of his career in U.S. government service, much of it as the deputy director of research and engineering in the Army Materiel Command. Starting in 1944 he undertook as a hobby what he describes as “the complete psychophilosophical integration of Eastern and Western ways of thinking.” So far six volumes of a projected twelve-volume series on this subject have been published (three by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, three by John Wiley & Sons). Two others, in what is to be known as the Panetics Trilogy, have been written and distributed informally. One of Siu’s earliest books, The Portable Dragon: A Layman’s Guide to the I Ching (MIT, 1968), was a best seller, and has never been out of print.

Siu speaks with an eager hopefulness that endows even terms like “infliction capacity” and “panetic dominance” with a fetching lilt. He explained that the aims of the ISP, at least at the beginning, are twofold. The first task is to refine the definition of the dukkha, and to achieve a consensus on the types of objective and subjective conditions to which it can legitimately be applied. “There’s an international unit of Vitamin A,” Siu told me. “In the same way, we need a standard international unit of suffering we can use for social policy.” He stated emphatically that the society was not wedded to the dukkha, that it was merely a provisional standard, and added, “I don’t want to rule out other options.” Assuming, though, that the dukkha, however defined, remains a viable panetic unit, an eventual goal of the society would be to produce an annual estimate of this country’s gross national dukkhas as a supplement to other social indicators that are commonly used to gauge trends in the U.S. population’s general well-being.

The second objective is the creation of a “panetic-systems atlas,” which would diagram the various ways in which suffering moves about the world. “Let’s take a prison system,” Siu said. “On the one hand, you can identify the number of dukkhas being inflicted on inmates in many different ways, and on the other, you can identify all the dukkhas being ameliorated in different ways. So you can map all these streams going in and going out, and make a dukkha-flow diagram. Then you can see where the big dukkhas really are. You might find that where the big dukkhas are is not necessarily what is getting all the attention.” The goal, Siu explained, would be to produce such maps for people and institutions of all kinds—for families, workplaces, schools, government bureaucracies, and whole political entities of ever larger size. “Someday,” he said brightly, “you could diagram the whole United States. Can you imagine all the thousands, all the millions, of streams of dukkhas going in and out?”

Siu paused for a moment, and then added, “That will, of course, take decades and decades of bricklaying. But someone has to lay the first brick. And it is not just for the sake of knowledge, though there is that. The sooner we put panetics into practice, the sooner some suffering person will be relieved.”

EVERY SO OFTEN there is a newspaper account of astronomers who have stumbled on some impossibly distant cosmic phenomenon that they believe could represent the birth of a star. In front of reporters the scientists theorize with barely repressed excitement, intoxicated by the prospect of boundless possibility. That is the tone one encounters in Deliberation Distillates. Needless to say, only time will tell if what we are witnessing is truly the birth of a new scholarly discipline. Many of the telltale signs of such an occurrence are present: the acquisition of tax-exempt status for the society, the talk of applying for grants and otherwise seeking “support,” of founding a journal, attracting graduate students, holding an international conference. If the idea of the paneticist’s dukkha seems to some people too arbitrary or cut-and-dried, so at one time must have seemed the economist’s man-hour, the engineer’s horsepower. My original reservations were not really put to rest in my conversation with Siu, but I did come away feeling that he was appropriately cast in the role of the Max Weber of panetics—perhaps, indeed, was the only person up to the job.

And what if the endeavor should founder? I expect that Siu will see things in perspective, that he will endure no more than a few dukkhas before equanimity returns. “I don’t know if I have a single favorite proverb,” he said at one point in our conversation, “but one that my father always told me was, ‘A full stomach is heaven; the rest is luxury.’”

In the meantime, we can all hope that Ralph G. H. Siu at least brings to a conclusion volume eleven of his twelve-volume series. “It is going to be about cheerfulness,” he explained, “which I regard as the pinnacle of harmony with the universe.” The basic unit, I respectfully propose, should be called the siu.

—Cullen Murphy