In recent posts I have been arguing that there is one sense of the word “good” which can be analyzed in terms of facts and that this is the kind of “goodness” which we can consider a real part of the world. This real, intrinsic, factual sense of goodness is its meaning as “effectiveness”. We often use the word good as a synonym for “pleasure”, “usefulness”, “preferences”, “something desired”, “something liked”, “something in our interests”, etc. I want to say that these many shorthand ways of speaking are legitimate as long as when thinking philosophically or abstractly making judgments about true goodness we understand that these forms of goodness must be analyzed objectively in terms related to factual effectivenesses.
James Gray argues this is mistaken and I take his counter-position to be that pleasure is irreducibly intrinsically good (and that pain is irreducibly intrinsically bad). I will answer his objections after addressing my idea of intrinsic goodness as not so irreducible.
My position is that pleasure is in one sense truly “intrinsically good”, in that its goodness is not merely accidental to human beings but it plays an integral and indispensable role in our excellent functioning. Nonetheless, however much we like it and desire it, in objective terms we can understand that its value is distinguishable from these enticing feelings by which it functions. Its objective value is in its instrumental role in guiding us towards functioning both minimally and maximally well.
Of course we should not only like and desire pleasure but maximize it and, even, positively relish our experiences of it—as much as this is consistent with maximizing our overall flourishing and does not hinder or distract from it. Recognizing pleasure’s objective value is instrumental, does not make it any less subjectively wonderful. It does mean that we should adjust some of our subjective longings for it which conflict with its objective worth. And all humans can think of countless examples of cases wherein we need to train ourselves not to be swayed by the enticements of pleasures because more important goods would be threatened.
So, I take pleasure to be an intrinsic instrumental good for us. Our maximal functioning according to our inherent excellences in their most powerful combination is our highest intrinsic, non-instrumental good. Given the structure of our nature, pleasure is indispensable to this project and so its instrumentality does not make it merely an extrinsic good for us. But the reason it is objectively good is separable from the subjective feelings which we most immediately like about it. These delighted feelings are fine and praiseworthy because, and only insofar as, they track the truth that the things giving us pleasure are objectively good for us. And these pleasures should only give us an amount of pleasure which either tracks the truth of a thing’s real value for us or at least does not distract or hinder us from finding more objectively valuable things which should more properly entice us with pleasure.
As evolved creatures, our pleasures only imperfectly guide us to objective good and so our subjective preferences for pleasure must be constantly assessed on objective grounds.
And pain is similarly an intrinsic instrumental good for us. I disagree with James where he characterizes it as intrinsically of disvalue. It is just as vitally helpful to us as pleasure is in helping us in our functioning. Our pains help us avoid what is harmful to our functioning. We should feel as much pain as is necessary to warn us of harms and motivate us to adequately avoid them. Any more pain than is necessary threatens to be a distracting, counter-productive hindrance to our excellent functioning in our characteristic activities and so should be avoided.
The value of pain in these objective ways is assessable separably from the ways we rightly immediately subjectively disvalue it from a 1st-order perspective. Our proper response to pain in most contexts should be to want to remove it and the harm causing it. Its being good and valuable does not mean it is a desirable subjective condition beyond its role as a warning. It functions as an objectively valuable desirable warning precisely in making us subjectively want to rid ourselves of it.
But, of course, if removing the pain will only mask a harm that will get objectively worse if pain is not prodding us to fix it, then avoiding the subjective pain could become an obstacle to removing an objective harm and be a bad thing. If we can minimize pain and still get its warning functions this is desirable since this will help us improve objective functioning all around.
Pain is also hard to dismiss as of fundamental disvalue because of the dialectical relationship it shares with pleasure and with various virtues.
Many objectively and/or subjectively valuable pleasure experiences are clearly created or intensified through the ways that they emerge either as following pain or oscillating with it. As Nietzsche noted, intense pleasures, particularly the sexual, often are integrally admixed with certain kinds of pains. And, of course, the pleasures of victory and all other forms of accomplishment are intensified in contrast with the preceding pains that led up to them. I agree with Nietzsche (in Antichrist 2) that our highest feeling worth calling “happiness” (in the feeling sense of the term) is “the feeling that resistance is overcome”, i.e., the feeling of struggle culminating and hard-earned, deeply psychologically satisfying success. This satisfaction in some significant part is constituted dialectically by the pains that precede it.
And many virtues, such as endurance, patience, resolve, dutifulness, commitment, etc., rely to some extent on pain as a precondition of their realization. Without the pain there is less requirement or possibility for strengthening of a character trait into an admirable virtue.
And, again to side with Nietzsche, I think our highest possible virtue is will to power, where this is defined not as it is imagined in the popular imagination, but rather as the perpetual embrace of the resistances through which one can be challenged to grow and the strength of character to perpetually succeed in order to effectively overcome those challenges and grow before moving on eagerly to the next obstacle. (My view of the will to power itself and of Nietzsche’s view of it as well, are both deeply indebted to Bernard Reginster’s account of it in his book The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism.)
So, our highest, most functional excellent activity intrinsically requires pain as a dialectically constitutive feature of its exercise. And our highest, most objectively, and subjective valuable pleasures come from this highest functional activity and their subjective intensity is partially created and incredibly increased by reference to pains. And those subjectively intense and highly subjectively valued pleasures are in turn intrinsically objectively valued for the ways they motivate renewed engagement in will to power.
My account says much more than James’s counter-account does where he writes that:
“good” of pleasure means something like the “how it feels” of pleasure. Other people “feel” pleasure as good as well. Pleasure isn’t good because we desire it — we desire it because we know how it feels.
The problem with defining the “good” of pleasure as “the ‘how it feels’ of pleasure” is that pleasure only is the “how it feels” of pleasure. Pleasure just is feeling pleasure. Now, I agree that pleasure is “good” pleasure if it functions to feel pleasant. A brain experience is a “good” instance of pleasure to the extent it is something that feels strongly satisfying. In this way it pleasure is understandable as a sort of characteristic effectiveness and has inherent goodness therein (since goodness iseffectiveness).
But pleasure’s effective contribution to our good, our effectiveness as humans, is instrumental and not intrinsic, for the reasons and in the ways laid out above.
Same goes for the badness of pain. We understand that we ought to give strangers aspirin because their “pain matters.” The underlying health problem that causes the pain is certainly important — but we should cover up the “symptoms” of that health problem because of how pain feels.
We cover up the symptoms as long as it does not interfere with removing harms because pain has either adequately served its instrumental function of warning us of the problem or because it has malfunctioned where there is no serious problem to properly warn us about or because it has overstressed a minor problem. Pain which remains after it has served its warning and motivational functions is just a distraction from our other effective functionality and objectively should be removed as such. We also subjectively do not like it and there is no reason to tolerate something we do not like if no greater objective value is at stake in putting up with it.
All of these are reasons to remove the headache which need not misleadingly refer to pain as intrinsically disvaluable.
This is also why torture is wrong. Because it feels so horrible. We might be able to function perfectly as human beings after being tortured, but functioning well is irrelevant because torture would still be wrong even if it didn’t hinder functionality.
Torture is not wrong just because it feels so horrible. Dental work feels so horrible but it is not wrong. Torture is wrong because it uses pain to destroy another person’s ability to function autonomously and this is one of the most integral and highest functions of being human. Torture is wrong because it does lead to long term physical and emotional dysfunction. The pain is not itself decisive. Obviously these other impairments and violations of each other’s functioning capitalizes on the subjective unbearableness and horribleness of intense pain. But the pains themselves are not intrinsically evil or disvaluable, they are just being evoked in evil, objectively disvaluable ways that undermine more valuable functions.
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.