Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Alycia LaGuardia-LoBianco


-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department here at UConn, where I have studied for five years. I received my B.A. in Philosophy from Stony Brook University. 

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

 During my fellowship year, I will be finishing my dissertation, “Action Guidance in Complicated Cases of Suffering,” in which I assess ethical responses to suffering given the nuanced ways in which someone may suffer. Ethicists hold that suffering is ethically relevant: another’s suffering calls for some ethical response, often relief of that suffering. However, this general formula hides some problematic assumptions. It takes the suffering agent as an unwitting victim who ought to be helped but does not necessarily owe anything to herself. It also assumes that, barring extreme circumstances, suffering ought to be relieved. My dissertation challenges these assumptions, arguing that the suffering agent is a moral agent, not just a victim dependent on others, and who therefore has obligations to herself. Additionally, I argue that relief of suffering is not always ethically appropriate. Rather, ethical responses to suffering are not unidimensional, but are as complex as suffering itself.

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I was lucky to take a philosophy course with Joel Kupperman here at UConn. During our discussion of Buddhism, which takes as its starting point the elimination of suffering, I was stuck on the question, why should we want to eliminate suffering? From there, I started thinking about the potential value of suffering, arguing that there are virtues that come from suffering that make it worthwhile. I then pivoted and became interested in internalized trauma and self-caused suffering. I turned to oppression literature for a framework to discuss cases in which someone unwittingly contributes to their own suffering because of oppressive or abusive forces. I realized that much ethical literature treats suffering as a blanket emotional or physical pain, and in so doing, oversimplifies widely varying experiences. These nuances matter: we should expect that the right ethical response to suffering depends on variables like the appropriateness of that suffering, whether suffering is caused by internalized behaviors, or whether an individual wants to suffer. This led me to take the suffering agent, rather than the phenomenon of suffering, as the focus of study, in an effort to recast her as a moral agent rather than a mere victim. Now, my dissertation is driven by analyzing difficult cases of suffering (such as self-injury or self-defeating behavior) with the suffering agent at the focus of analysis. 

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

I’m interested in messy, real-life problems that have been overlooked by philosophical analysis yet which can benefit from it. I think philosophy is meant to deal with just these sorts of difficulties, rolling up its sleeves and trying to untangle a problem knowing that the solution won’t be neat and pretty but trying to find an answer anyway. Real suffering is complicated. It can change someone from the outside in, it can test and destroy close relationships, and it can become something an individual depends on to feel like herself. It matters to our lives, to who we are and who we care about. So, suffering and suffering agents deserve the careful attention that philosophy provides to make some headway in understanding and addressing this painful reality. My hope is that this work will give others (philosophers or not) a new avenue to reckon with their own experiences of suffering.