The sense in which pain is objectively bad

The sense in which pain is objectively bad July 10, 2018

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 

It is not uncommon for defenders of the objectivity of moral value to point to the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain. But it is also not uncommon that the claims that pleasure is objectively good and pain is objectively bad to be ambiguous and thus misunderstood (see, for example, this Twitter thread from Sam Harris and this video response to Harris’s argument). I think such ambiguity and misunderstanding can be avoided if we are careful and so I want to carefully explain the sense in which pleasure can be thought to be objectively good and pain objectively bad.

Good, Bad, and Reasons

The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do not have single meanings; they can be used in several distinct ways to indicate different things. For example, we might say that some object is good in the sense that it satisfies some set of criteria, as when we say of a particular bloom on a rose bush that it is a good specimen of its variety. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ can also be used to merely express one’s own approval or disapproval, as for example when we say something like “This wine isn’t very good” merely as a means of expressing our dissatisfaction with the selection. But neither of these senses has any direct relevance to morality. The morally significant sense of these terms is normative in character. The normative sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is equivalent to what Derek Parfit calls the reason-implying sense. In this sense, something is good when there are reasons to want it, pursue it, preserve it, etc.; something is bad when there are reasons to want that it not occur, to avoid it, etc. A more careful account of what Parfit means by good and bad in the reason-implying sense is as follows:

To say that something Φ (an object, event, state of affairs, state of mind, etc.) is good in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond positively to Φ (i.e, to want that Φ occur, to try to bring Φ about, to preserve Φ, to choose Φ, etc.).  To say that something Φ is bad in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond negatively to Φ (i.e., to want that Φ not occur, to try to prevent it from coming about, to try to eliminate it, to avoid it, etc.). [Parfit discusses this sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in volume one of On What Matters (see esp. pp 38-42).]

It is in this sense that pleasure is good and pain is bad. The nature of pleasure gives us reasons to pursue it and to want that it occur. The nature of pain gives us reasons to avoid it and want that it not occur. Importantly, this does not imply that we can never have reasons to avoid pleasure and want that it not occur or reasons to pursue pain and want that it occur. This is because something can have both intrinsic value and instrumental value. Something is intrinsically good when we have reasons to want it for its own sake. Something is instrumentally good when we have reasons to want it, not for its own sake, but because of the things it brings about. Something is instrumentally bad when we have reasons to want that it not occur because of what it brings about. When we want pleasure, at least typically, we want it for its own sake. We don’t want pleasure, again typically, because of the effects that pleasure has; we want it just because of what it is. Since the nature of pleasure gives us reasons to want it for its own sake, pleasure is intrinsically good. Money, on the other hand, is good because it is useful, i.e., the goodness of money consists in the fact that with money we can acquire other things that are good. We have reasons to pursue money because it allows us to achieve these other good things.

The Badness of Pain

Pain is intrinsically bad. It is a bit odd to say that it is for its own sake that we want that pain not occur. Perhaps more intuitively, we can say that pain is intrinsically bad because its nature gives us reason to want the cessation of pain for its own sake. Nonetheless, at least in some circumstances, pain is instrumentally good. Pain plays an important role in the motivational architecture of biological creatures; it motivates us to avoid damage to our bodies. Because pain has this effect, we have reasons to want that pain occur. This is shown via the phenomenon of congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP). People born with this condition do not feel physical pain and as a result, many of them are seriously injured, some fatally, in childhood. This example shows that it is bad if a person cannot feel pain. So, due to the role that pain plays in protecting us from bodily harm, pain is instrumentally good. Notice that the proper conclusion here is that the nature of pain gives us reasons to not want to feel pain but that we also have reasons to want that we can feel pain. This is not a contradiction.

There are other reasons that we might want pain. Pain is sometimes an indication of healthy physical developments, as in the case of the pain associated with exercise. If you go running and experience no physical discomfort, then chances are good that you will not be making much progress toward your health goals. Intense or prolonged experiences of pain can also result in the release of endorphins into the body, which can induce a state of euphoria. When we want pain because of its association with progression toward our health goals or for the euphoric effects it leads to, we want pain not for its own sake but because of its effects. So, the fact that some people sometimes have reason to want pain does not conflict with the claim that the nature of pain gives us reason to want that it not occur. Notice that when pain is instrumentally good, our reasons are not to pursue pain for its own sake, but to pursue things that bring about or are associated with pain. When a runner goes for a long run pursuing a runner’s high, she is not pursuing pain for its own sake. What she wants, for its own sake, is the euphoria that accompanies the rush of endorphins.

Though the reasons run in opposite directions, there is no contradiction in saying that, in some circumstances, there are both reasons to pursue pain and reasons to avoid it. Think, by way of analogy, about making an important decision, for example, whether you should move across the country to take a new job. When you carefully consider what you should do, you will weigh the factors that count in favor of moving (higher salary, e.g., or a more rewarding position) against the factors that point in the opposite direction (not wanting to be far from friends and family, e.g.). So, we can have reasons for some course of action (or for having some desire) and reasons that count against that same course of action (or against having that same desire). The upshot is that there is no contradiction involved in claiming both that there are reasons to avoid pain and also that there are, in some circumstances, reasons to not avoid pain (and maybe even reason to pursue it). Nonetheless, it remains true that, since pain is intrinsically bad, we always have reasons to want that it not occur and to avoid it. It is just that, in some circumstances, these reasons are overridden by other reasons that we have to pursue things that are painful.

Is the badness of pain objective?

If the badness of pain is subjective, then the badness of pain constitutively depends on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of a subject or subjects. And if the badness of pain is objective, then it does not constitutively depend on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of subjects. To say that something, F, constitutively depends on X is to say that X at least partly constitutes F. In other words, part of what it is to be F is to be X. Suppose we think, plausibly, that our taste preferences are subjective. Then part of what it is for something to taste good is for a subject or subjects to have certain kinds of reactions, desires, or attitudes toward it. [Michael Huemer, whose work introduced me to this notion, has an excellent discussion of constitutive dependence (and how it differs from other kinds of dependence) in his book, Ethical Intuitionism, which I highly recommend.]  For the remainder of this article, when I talk about dependence, I will be talking about constitutive dependence.

Since we are talking about the reason-implying sense of ‘bad,’ if the badness of pain is subjective then the reason we have to want that pain not occur depends on the goals interests, beliefs, desires, or attitudes of subjects. Is this true? Let’s begin answering this question with the following observation: It is certainly not the case that the qualitative character of pain is subjective. By ‘qualitative character’ I mean to indicate the feeling of pain, considered in isolation of its causes, effects, or value. What I am saying is that the qualitative character of pain is completely independent of any person’s beliefs, desires, attitudes, interests, or judgments about it (or anything else, for that matter). When you stub your toe, you have an experience that has a certain qualitative feel to it. That experience, which we call pain, would exist even if no person (including yourself) had any beliefs, desires, attitudes, etc. about it. No person’s beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. in any way makes up or constitutes the experience. So, the experience is completely objective.

[A subtle complication. A painful experience is always an experience of a subject (it is my pain or your pain or her pain, etc.). But this does not make the existence of pain subjective in the relevant sense. This is because the conscious experiences of a subject are still objective in the sense that they are not dependent on the goals, interests, desires, etc. of subjects. If I am in pain (or in pleasure, for that matter), my pain does not depend for its existence on the beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. of any subject. States of consciousness (which are states of subjects) are objective in the relevant sense.]

So what about the claim that pain is objectively bad in the reasons-implying sense?  If the badness of pain is subjective, this means that the reason that we have to want that pain not occur (and to avoid it, want it to cease, etc.) depends for its existence on the beliefs, desires, goals, interests, or judgments of subjects. This seems implausible. That I have a reason to avoid pain depends on the qualitative character of pain. The nature of the experience gives me a reason to want that it not occur. This seems true regardless of my (or anyone else’s) desires. Even if I wanted it to occur, for its own sake, this would not change the fact that I have reasons to want that it not occur.

Suppose you meet a person who tells you that he wants to jab a metal fork into his eyeball. When asked, he admits that he expects that doing so will cause tremendous pain and that he will intensely dislike the experience, but nonetheless he still wants to do it. Should we say about such a person that he has no reason to not stab himself in the eye with a metal fork? Should we say that he has a reason to stab himself? It seems to me that the answer to both questions is no. Since stabbing himself in the eye will cause intense pain, he has a strong reason to refrain from doing so. And he has this reason regardless of what he wants.

There are philosophers who argue that all reasons depend on desires (or desire-like mental states). Such philosophers defend a version of what I have previously referred to as the DBR (desire-based reasons) thesis. This is not the place for a full examination of the DBR thesis. In a future article, I will offer some reasons to think that the DBR thesis is false. For now, I will only note that, if DBR is true, then we only have reasons to avoid pain if we have some desire the satisfaction of which requires (or is furthered by) our avoidance of pain. If DBR is true, we have no reason to avoid pain for its own sake.

One final point: The claim that goodness and badness in the reason-implying sense (which is the morally relevant sense) are objective is just the claim that there are reasons to respond positively to pleasure (by wanting that it occur, pursuing it, etc.) and reasons to respond negatively to pain (by wanting that it not occur, avoiding it, etc.) and that these reasons do not depend on the goals, interests, desires, beliefs, or judgments of any subject. The existence of such reasons does not seem to have any bizarre metaphysical or epistemological consequences.

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