TOP Q (6): Why Should Pleasure And Pain Matter Morally?

I have already begun to explain my own view of the nature and limits of the ethical value of pleasure and pain (and I’d pleased if you considered my views there and, admittedly, a bit pained if you do not bother to!)  But I would like to throw this out as today’s open philosophical question:  Are pleasures intrinsically good?  What about harmful pleasures?  are pains intrinsically bad?  What about helpful pains?  For my utilitarian readers, why do you think pleasure and pain can trump all other goods?  How do you answer the problem that if the only wrong is causing pain, then there’s no real wrong in murdering someone in their sleep (they’ll never know and experience no pain)?  Is my account of pleasure and pains as instrumental goods, rather than intrinsic ones, persuasive?  Why or why not?

And also, there are a couple of topics which I think got short shrift by way of comments in large part due to the website being down, beyond our control, for a full 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday of this week.  If you find them interesting, consider giving these questions a shot too:

3rd TOP Q: Can Virtues Conflict Or Must Every Truly Virtuous Action Be Approvable According To Every Other Virtue As Well?

TOP Q 4: What Obligations Is Someone Prominent Under When She Is Perceived To Speak For A Group?

And of course, the first two TOP Qs are also still interesting even several days later:

1st TOP Q: “How, If At All, Can People’s Claims To Simply Intuit That There Is A God Be Rationally Refuted Or Supported?”

2nd Top Q: “Is It Unfair To Call All Religions ‘Scams’?”

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Chris

    for one because murdering someone in their sleep still causes an immense amount of pain- just not for the dead.. but for everyone impacted by the crime- including those who have to *clean up* and those who have to grieve their loss.. why suicide isn’t a good option even for those in incredible pain- it causes even more pain in its wake. Pain and pleasure are information.. it our choice as to assign a good or bad to them..

    • Daniel Fincke

      But what about drifters with no family? Is the only reason it’s wrong to kill people is because of the pain it causes other people besides them themselves?

      And when you say it is our choice to assign a good or bad to pleasure and pain, are you saying these choices can be made in a wholly arbitrary fashion or can any defensible truths about value be brought to bear when making the choices we do?

  • Pete C

    In my view pleasure and pain can both be inherently wrong or right depending upon the situation. As in your question re: the drifter, the aftermath or lack thereof is instructive. In the non-moral context this is empirically proven. I may love to eat McDonalds and ice Cream but it may eventually hurt me which is why nutritionists would tell me that it’s “bad.”

    Specifically, consider the drifter. He may never know his life has been painlessly taken. But it may have been his choice to continue living and you have deprived him of something with subjective intrinsic value. This is a kind of pain, notwithstanding the argument that it is not experienced in the same way a chronic ankle sprain would.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I would say that is a harm to interests, but if it is never felt, I would be disinclined to call it a “pain”. And that is why I would think the primary moral harm is not specifically pain but an unjust violation of someone’s interests, more objectively understood.

      Of course, quite often one of the worst ways to harm someone’s interests is to cause them unnecessary pain. But pain itself is not an intrinsic bad to me, even though sometimes harm of interest manifests itself as pain.

      Is that persuasive?

  • Pete C

    I think so. For the purposes of the question then, you are defining pain solely as a state of physical (or mental) discomfort? If so then I think you have put it well.

    But for the sake of discussion, consider the following. Let’s go back to the drifter, and assume the same scenario. No pain, so is there a moral harm?

    Notwithstanding what has become of the poor drifter, can we look at the situation from the effect that it has on the killer? Perhaps he experiences pleasure. But is there a moral harm? I would be inclined to say yes on a personal and societal level. Put aside that conventional mores would tell us that such an act is bad. Objectively speaking let us look at the aftermath in the mind of a killer. To complete such an act could potentially create a state of mind wherein the gravity of killing as a pasttime is diminished. What happens now? Will he kill again? Will the experience embolden him to kill other people or animals in ways where they WILL experience pain? Could this not lead to additional pain either on other members of society but also upon the self, including the risk of retaliation or incarceration, or later on feelings of remorse?

    This is obviously an extrapolation. But is it realistic to look at such an act in a vacuum, existing only for one moment in time, rather than consider the psychological implications?

    As a corrolary, is an act that is “bad” always bad if it has the potential for consequences, or only when those consequences actually arise?

  • James Gray

    Pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad. They are worthy of consideration. That doesn’t mean that they are the only considerations. I agree that virtue is the greatest priority.

    Additionally, happiness can coexist with some pain and sadness. It is a greater element of the mind than mere pleasure. Happiness is a separate consideration to pleasure and pain.

    I mainly agree with your assessment but it’s not entirely clear how far off other philosophers tend to be from your assessment.

    Your view that pleasure and pain can be instrumental to other values (virtue in particular) is relevant but doesn’t dismantle the fact that causing people pain with no reward is possible and wrong.

    You earlier say, “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.”

    Technically utilitarians are like Aristotelians who care about everyone and reject egoism. A utilitarian can seek happiness — which was Aristotle’s primary good (most final end.) He defines “flourishing” in terms of happiness. Aristotle wouldn’t value virtue if it didn’t lead to happiness. That is a difference between Aristotle and the Stoics. That’s not to say that virtue isn’t a high priority for Aristotle. It has to be a high priority to attain happiness.

    I think utilitarians are very aware of the fact that pain can be instrumentally useful. Pain is just one element worth their consideration and positive experiences are the other (at least for classic Utilitarians).

    If virtue is an intrinsic good in and of itself, then we need an argument for that. The utilitarians could then treat it as such.

  • James Gray


    Of course, quite often one of the worst ways to harm someone’s interests is to cause them unnecessary pain. But pain itself is not an intrinsic bad to me, even though sometimes harm of interest manifests itself as pain.

    We disagree here. Why isn’t pain in and of itself intrinsically bad? If I could cause you pain through a matrix experience by virtual torture, doesn’t the pain itself make my behavior bad? Sure, there are other things bad about the behavior, but the pain seems relevant.