With Sam Harris doing the rounds promoting a utilitarianism that seems to take the pleasures of sentient beings to be the good to be maximized, it’s as appropriate a time as ever to flesh out my objections to prioritizing pleasure and pain as the central goods in life. More specifically, you can read my already written defense of deriving our fundamental goods from the various functions which comprise our being. We exist only through and only as a range of functional capabilities. In other words, we are our activities, we are what we do and what we do is always the expression, exercise, and realization of a power to function in a certain way.
The more we function in our most characteristic ways, the more we realize our natures and become what we are most ideally. We bring ourselves more into being the more we do the things of which we are comprised, the more we function in terms of what we are. And the more that we can build upon the naturally given functional possibilities through the numerous personally and culturally created possibilities for more complex, more powerful functionality, the more we develop ourselves, the more we can grow. And the more that our power can empower others such that our power functions through them in the future, the more our functioning continues even outside our own bodies and, so, the more that we are powerful and powerfully instantiated in the world. And we should be proud of ourselves for this. And humbled to realize how much, on the flip side, others’ powerful functioning, also constitutively contributes in a similar way to our own powerful functioning.
Like I have said, I have made the positive case for prioritizing functional power in understanding what we are and from where our good derives. Now I’d like to situate the values of pleasure and of pain in that context, to make clear their secondary role that makes them, while extraordinarily important, of secondary interest to the primacy of excellent functioning in its own right.
Primarily pleasure and pain are, along with the emotions, part of what we can call the internal “monitoring systems” of our bodies and minds that alert us when we (or those good things and people we care about) are functioning particularly well or badly biologically, psychologically, intellectually, morally, socially, or in terms of any other specifiable area of possible success or failure.
It is naturally advantageous for us to find it pleasant when and those people and things we care about are functioning well in all these ways since it is a way of continuing to encourage us to perform our beneficial behaviors which make for these good circumstances in ourselves and in what we care about. And pain attends upon many of the ills which threaten our biological, psychological, intellectual, moral, and social functioning. Pain alerts us that we might be in trouble.
Of course, some good things are painful (like the hard work involved in trying to overcome a difficult challenge–but this is also usually rewarded when we succeed with lots of our favorite pleasure, lots of dopamine in the brain) and some bad things are not painful (or not painful in time for us to stop the evil threatening us, like a long-undetected cancer). We are not perfectly designed by an intelligent designer who set up all our gauges of pleasure and pain to perfectly correspond with all goods and evils for us. So we need to use our reason to compensate and figure out some good things are good even when they are not pleasurable or when they are outright painful, and to figure out some bad things are bad even when they are not painful or when they are outright pleasurable.
So, I agree with Aristotle, contra-utilitarians, that our good must be sought in our flourishing itself, not directly in the pleasures which should ideally naturally attend that flourishing. It would only be right that doing well in terms of what we are would be pleasant since that would encourage us to continue to succeed according to what is objectively good for us. But pleasure should be an indicator of our doing well biologically, psychologically, intellectually, morally, socially, etc., and pain should be a warning we are not. Neither is an inherent good or an inherent evil for us. We need both pleasure and pain to experience the world properly and respond to it appropriately. We might say that ideally pain would not be necessary were we made perfect and fit to a stably perfect environment in which we could suffer no objective ill which required pain to alert us of it. But, for as long as we are the creatures we are who actually do need this internal mechanism of alerting us to the harms, it is a genuinely good thing for us and not itself the enemy—the harms it warns us are present are the problem.
And we need pain even for some intrinsic functions. Not only should it warn us of an evil to rectify, but some times it can help us properly feel something’s badness emotionally. When we grieve the death of a loved one, this pain is a valuable part of cognitively acknowledging that something bad for us and bad for one we love has happened, even though there is no hope of rectifying the loss. Insofar as we are beings for whom thinking truthfully is a good for its own sake and one of the characteristic powers through which we function and realize ourselves, gauging an objective evil with pain is itself a proper response that we should not want to entirely eliminate just because it is unpleasant.
Some truths are deeply unpleasant. Being a rational being means in part feeling the unpleasantness of unpleasant truths in a way that constitutes knowing the badness not only abstractly but emotionally. An abstract grasp of an evil is not as adequate as a feeling which also responds to the evil as an evil–even though this is somewhat painful for us. This is because knowing a good or an evil, means not just placing it in the “good” or the “evil” column in our mental cabinets where we sort these differences but also being attuned to the goodness or the badness emotionally and dispositionally.
An analogy to color perception may be instructive. I may have a data read out on a wavelength that tells me that the wavelength is “red” even though I cannot see the red object that caused the wavelength. It seems like I would have a fuller and more intimate experience with that redness if in addition to having all the abstract details about its wave properties, I actually had the qualitative experience of the redness as sensed by my eyes. This way of “knowing” redness is fuller than the way of knowing about redness by reading data about it.
Personal familiarity with a thing (or person) from as many senses, emotions, abstract pieces of information about it, comprehensive true theories which incorporate it, etc., all work together to make my engagement with the thing fuller and fuller. Knowledge is at least partially the knowledge of acquaintance, even when we are talking about an abstract concept. The more aspects of a thing with which I am personally acquainted, the deeper my engagement with it, the more connections I can make both abstractly and subconsciously and intuitively between features of it and between features of it and to all the many things to which I grasp from firsthand experience that it is related.
So, most fully knowing something’s relative degree of goodness or badness, means not just doing the abstract calculations about its advantages and disadvantages but either from a firsthand experience or an empathetic imagination aligning one’s feelings to respond to that thing with the emotions according to which we process goodness and badness experientially. We should feel pleasure in good things’ goodness and pain at their badness. And from the completely third-person point of view that is indifferent to human interests, considered merely abstractly, we can bracket our proper emotional value responses and prevent them from clouding our assessments of objective properties in their own rights.
For all these considerations and many more we could work out, the act of knowing in the fullest, most ideal way, (which is a major part of our rationality, which is in turn a major functional power constitutive of our being human), requires feeling appropriate pleasures and pains and emotions, just as much as it involves seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting as much as possible, and knowing things’ quantifiable relationships to other things, etc. Whatever ways we can possibly get an extra vantage point to understand a thing, either in terms of its sensual, abstractable, or its value properties, we should take advantage of. (This, and not relativism, is what Nietzsche means in calling for a perspectival approach to knowledge, by the way).
So pleasures and pains are good monitors for us to know when we are functioning well or badly or whether something is generally good or bad in some way or another for the functioning of us or those people and things in which we are properly emotionally invested. And insofar as knowing is an essential, intrinsic function through which we both minimally exist and maximally thrive, and insofar as the most complete knowledge involves intimate emotional engagement with things’ value properties, we should sometimes rightly feel pleasures and pains simply as part of fully knowing about the world and about our own lives and about the states of those things and people we care about.
Further, pleasure and pain, are important in moral motivation. While moral motivation, strictly speaking, is responsive to morally good reasons and not to just whatever will bring oneself pleasure or spare oneself pain, (such that if someone chooses attainment of pleasure or avoidance of pain over performance of moral duty as a motive, one is ill-motivated, even if one’s action happens to be the correct and dutiful one), nonetheless pleasure and pain can play an intimate role in moral thinking. We should align our pleasures to be in doing what is right and our pains to be in doing wrong such that while our good motives can be harmonized with our pleasures and our bad motives harmonized with pains, not so that our pleasure in the good will replace our respect for duty as our motivation and not so fear of pain will motivate our good actions instead of respect for duty, but so that our emotional gauges line up with our actual good and tell us the truth when we do the good and when we do the bad—tell us we are doing what is desirable when we do the good and tell us we are doing the undesirable when we do the bad. We should feel pleasure and pain in these respective circumstances so that we are feeling truthfully, not so we will be motivated to do the good bythe pleasure or by the pain.
I imagine there is much more to say about pleasures, pains, and their relative contributions to the good life. They may not be the primary good utilitarians think it is, but they are desirable for a number of reasons.
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.