Monday, October 25, 2010

What's bad about pain?

Here's an odd exchange from The God Dialogues:
Eva: The argument can be stated concisely, if we let "evil" stand for things having negative moral value.
Gene: What does that mean?
Eva: The clearest examples are pain and suffering. Those things are morally bad. I mean: it's better if there's less of them, other things being equal.
Gene: So evil is pain or suffering?
Eva: Again, those are clear examples. But there might be other evils, such as the sort of loss that death can imply.
Theo: Hold on, Eva. "Evil" doesn't mean "pain, suffering, or death." Paper cuts cause pain but rarely involve evil.
Eva: Right, I know. I just need a term for negative moral value.
Gene: Hey, I just thought of one that's less misleading than "evil."
Eva: Do tell.
Gene: How about, "negative moral value"?
Eva: Cute. Look, I'll just use "evil." Sue me later if you want.

I have to say I'm with Theo and Gene here, and don't know how or why the authors let Eva get away with this. My fear is that they did because it is common to do so in philosophical circles. If that is the case then no doubt there are objections to doing so, and it is perhaps these to which Eva pays lip service in this dialogue. Against Eva, and anyone else who talks or thinks this way, though: How does pain have negative moral value?

What I want to say is this: Inflicting pain is morally bad, other things being equal, but pain itself is not morally anything. Its badness is subjective, i.e. it feels bad.

But pain's feeling bad is analytic, isn't it? Wikipedia defines pain as: "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage." Quoting Wikipedia isn't always impressive, I know, but the article gets its definition from this source: "International Association for the Study of Pain | Pain Definitions". Retrieved 12 October 2010. Derived from
Bonica, JJ (1979). "The need of a taxonomy". Pain 6 (3): 247–252. doi: 10.1016/0304-3959(79)90046-0. ISSN 0304-3959. PMID 460931.

And that sounds pretty respectable to me. The definition itself also strikes me as perfectly reasonable, and I am a competent speaker of English.

So there is something weird about saying that pain feels bad, or is bad in a subjective (i.e. 'feely') way. It's the kind of tautology that I can imagine Wittgenstein calling nonsense. But at least it's the kind of nonsense--if it is nonsense at all--that is closer to obvious truth than obvious falsehood.

The idea that pain is "morally bad," on the other hand, sounds very confused. Can a state even have moral value at all? G. E. Moore argued that “by far the most valuable things…are certain states of consciousness, which may roughly be described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects” (Principia Ethica). I don't know what is meant a "state of consciousness," but perhaps pain would count as one. If so, perhaps Moore's work is the origin of the idea that pain is not merely bad but morally bad.

(I say I don't know what a state of consciousness is, by the way, because I don't know whether such a state is supposed to be able to exist without, say, the beautiful objects referred to. That is, is it something that can be artificially produced, or is the context essential to it? Is one supposed to be able, if only in theory, to have the pleasures of human intercourse without the human intercourse itself? Is it something in the head?)

But what do I mean by "morally bad"? What kinds of badness can there be other than the subjective kind? Lots, I would think. But doesn't there have to be a moral agent involved for there to be moral badness or goodness? It seems to me that morality has to do with agency, so that only an agent or an act can have moral qualities.

Hmm. Before I started typing this seemed to have all sorts of connections to Anscombe and problems in Moore and the problem of evil and so on and so on. Now I think maybe I've just found a bad passage in a textbook. Oh well.

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