Discover more from New Work in Philosophy
Alycia LaGuardia-LoBianco (Grand Valley State University) and Paul Bloomfield (University of Connecticut), "The Axiology of Pain and Pleasure"
Forthcoming, Journal of Value Inquiry
Think of the last time you got a paper cut. Undoubtedly, you felt a sting of pain (and perhaps some marvel at how a thin sheet of paper can cause such discomfort). That the paper cut hurt, that it was unpleasant, is undisputed. But was that pain bad? Think too of the more significant pains you’ve felt: the physical aches of old injuries, the despair of grief. Again, these are painful experiences, but do those pains themselves have a further moral value? Do the facts about what pain is yield the conclusion that pain is bad—intrinsically so?
Views that answer this question affirmatively—holding that pain is intrinsically bad—are easy to come by. It seems a clear and natural step from felt experiences of pain to claims about its value: pain feels bad, so it must be bad. Similarly with pleasure: pleasure feels good, so it must be good. These claims about the intrinsic values of pain and pleasure are common in moral philosophy and axiology, most robustly in hedonism.
When these views encounter apparent counterexamples in which pain seems good—the pain of the paper cut motivates you to be more attentive, the despair of grief expresses the positive value of love for the dearly departed—they are often explained away by maintaining pain’s intrinsic badness. So, for example, one might argue that any good value that comes from pain is instrumental (and thus extrinsic). Perhaps pain is valuable as a means to some good, but only instrumentally so; it is still intrinsically bad. Or, perhaps, pain can be accompanied by some other kind of good value, but nevertheless, it retains its intrinsic disvalue. Similar moves are used in the face of purported counterexamples to theoretically preserve the intrinsic value of pleasure.
But an alternative proposal has received far less attention: what if these cases of ‘good’ pains and ‘bad’ pleasures should not be explained away but, instead, taken at face value? That is, what if we deny pain’s intrinsic badness and pleasure’s intrinsic goodness? This proposal is motivated by the intuition that the pains involved in cases of the devastating grief over a loved one, or appropriate despair at injustice, or even the fearful experiences of scary movies are in no way intrinsically bad, however unpleasant they may be. This is not to deny that these pains hurt, nor that pains are often (perhaps usually) bad, but just to deny pain’s intrinsic badness.
This is the argument we make in our recent paper, “The Axiology of Pain and Pleasure.” We motivate an error theory of the value of pain and pleasure according to which arguments for pain’s intrinsic disvalue and pleasure’s intrinsic value rest on a mistake. This mistake arises from the commonplace association between what is painful and what is bad. Typically, pain arises due to something bad—and injury, an injustice. Routine exposure to such pairings leads to the association between felt experiences of pain or pleasure and their respective moral values. But, like Hume’s argument that the perceived connection between events leads us to mistakenly attribute a necessary connection between them, we contend that the usual connection between badness and pain yields a similar mistake: the conclusion that pain is intrinsically bad. Instead, we should recognize that though pain is always painful, and certainly can be bad, this badness is always only instrumental (and thus extrinsic) rather than being intrinsic, and we think the same is true, mutatis mutandis for pleasure and its value.
In order to correct this mistake, we argue that we should understand pain and pleasure through their role in evolution, as mechanisms which, when functioning properly, motivate us to avoid what is bad for us and do what is good for us. (Notice how the theory of pleasure most moral theorists use today was developed without knowledge of evolution by natural selection.) Given this evolutionary perspective, the value of pain and pleasure is always and purely instrumental.
Thus, when pain motivates us to avoid what is bad, it is itself good pain, and when pain motivates us to avoid doing what is good, it is bad pain. Similarly, when pleasure motivates us to do what is good for us, it is good pleasure and when pleasure leads us to do what is bad for us, it is bad. This formulation is normatively neutral, as we are not specifying what is actually good or bad for us, but only stipulating that the value of pain and pleasure is always and only derived from how well these experiences help us do what is good and help us avoid what is bad.
The way these distinctions ramify through different normative moral theories will tell a complicated set of stories. But presumably, this view of pain and pleasure would have its most drastic impact on hedonistic theories of morality, including classical utilitarianism. Thus, we might say that good pleasures and good pains are the ones that help maximize well-being while bad pleasures and bad pains are harmful to well-being. Of course, this is neutral across different views of well-being. In any case, the idea would not be that hedonism in general or utilitarianism in particular no longer make sense, but only that their axiology of pain and pleasure’s values need refinement: what ought to be maximized are not pleasures per se, nor ought pains per se to be minimized, but rather good pleasures alone are maximized while bad pains alone are minimized.
Imagine if we trained ourselves and our children to abandon the idea that all pains are bad and all pleasures good, and we learn to veridically discriminate the good from the bad–painful or not. We would start to avoid pain when it is harmful but not avoid it when we know it leads to what we acknowledge is good (as the pains of exercise lead to good health). And we would learn to pursue pleasure, including the occasional baccanale, only when it is salubrious, and to avoid pleasures whenever they tempt us to do what we know is wrong. In our moral deliberations, we would cease to think that any amount of pleasure all by itself justifies immoral action and we would cease to think that pain is a reason to avoid doing what we know to be good.
And what a wonderful world it would be…
Thanks for reading New Work in Philosophy! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.