Hoddle is reputed to have said that the disabled have been born with their disabilities to compensate for the bad things they have done in a previous life. This is the ugly side of the doctrine of reincarnation and karma, so often thought of as an attractive, harmonious view of life and nature. But there are similarly unpleasant consequences for anyone who believes that life has a purpose. Whatever your religious persuasion, if you believe that that the universe is governed by benign forces, at some point you have to explain why there is so much suffering, misfortune and misery in the world. This is known to theologians and philosophers as "the problem of evil".
One can attempt to explain away some of life's travails by saying they are the result of the abuse of our free will. But many of the ills of the world are not man-made. Nature as well as thalidomide sometimes produces disability, for example.
So we return to the question: why suffering? One solution is that suffering serves the greater long-term good. Hoddle has opted for this explanation. His particular version is that our suffering is the pay-back for the suffering we inflicted on others in past lives. Why this should be considered more offensive than other forms, however, is quite baffling. For the most popular alternative essentially claims that God has deliberately created the world in such a way as to allow suffering, because it is better for us that way in the long run. We do not even deserve to suffer, except insofar as we share in the original sin of Eden. This is not seen as a wicked and offensive view to hold. But, like Hoddle, it essentially says to the disabled, "You have been born with your difficulties for your own good and for the good of others."
And there's the rub. The fact of the matter is, that in order to believe life has a good purpose, at some stage you have got to swallow something pretty distasteful. Either the unfortunate deserve their misery or our universe is ruled by a God who believes it is good for people to suffer, sometimes unimaginable horrors, so that they and others who respond to their suffering can become better people. Can it really be a comfort to believe that our creator thinks the existence of cancer, starvation and countless other horrors, unequally distributed with no regard to desert, is an acceptable price to pay for our spiritual development?
So what is the alternative? It is to accept that there is no guiding force, that bad things just happen. If you are born disabled, it is not your fault and it is not for your own good: it is just bad luck. Nature deals the cards without thought or care, and there is no point in blaming the dealer. All we can do is make the best of the hands we have been dealt.
Therein lies a genuine irony. Traditionally, it is the view that life has no purpose which is seen as the bitter pill to swallow. But, as Glenn Hoddle found out to his cost, squaring the view that there is a point to it after all with the ills of the world turns out to be the most offensive, sourest brew of all.
Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers Magazine, www.philosophers.co.uk
Please send any comments on the Thought Police to Nick Fearn, email: email@example.com