Ethical Realism

October 7, 2009

An Argument for Moral Realism

Moral realism is the view that some things “really matter” and have intrinsic value. I will argue that we have good reason to believe that at least one thing has intrinsic value, so we have good reason to believe moral realism is true. In particular, I will argue that we have good reason to accept that pain has intrinsic value. The evidence of intrinsic value requires us to accept that anti-realists will fail to explain our moral experiences involving pain. We have more reason to accept realism than anti-realism in so far as moral realism can better account for our moral experiences involving pain.

I will argue that a moral realist can account for our moral experiences involving the badness of pain, the importance of morality, the inescapability of moral obligations, and the importance of altruism. These experiences and intuitive positions are all going to be difficult for the anti-realist to explain.

1. An Argument from Moral Experience

If we have evidence that anything in particular has intrinsic value, then we also have evidence that moral realism is true. Our experiences of pleasure and pain are probably the most powerful evidence of intrinsic value because such experiences are tied to our belief that they have intrinsic value. My argument that pain has intrinsic disvalue is basically the following:

  1. We experience that pain is bad.
  2. We experience that pain is important.
  3. The disvalue of pain is irreducible.
  4. The disvalue of pain is real.
  5. If pain is bad in the sense of being important, irreducible, and real, then pain has intrinsic disvalue.
  6. Therefore, pain has intrinsic disvalue.

I am not certain that the premises are true, but I currently find good reasons for accepting them. Therefore, we have reason for accepting the conclusion. The conclusion could be read saying, “We have reason to believe that pain has intrinsic disvalue.” If we accept that pain has intrinsic disvalue, then we will simultaneously accept moral realism.1

In order to examine the plausibility of my argument, I will examine each of the premises:

We experience that pain is bad.

We know pain is bad because of our experience of it. If someone described their pain as extremely wonderful, we would doubt they are feeling pain. Either the person is lying or doesn’t know what the word “pain” means. When a child decides not to touch fire because it causes pain, we understand the justification. It would be strange to ask the child, “So what? What’s wrong with pain?”

We experience that pain is important.

If pain is important in the relevant sense, then it can provide us reason to do something without merely helping us fulfill our desires. In other words, we must accept the following:

  1. The badness of pain isn’t just an instrumental value.
  2. The badness of pain is a final end.

Pain’s badness isn’t an instrumental value – Pain’s disvalue is not an instrumental disvalue because pain can be quite useful to us. Pain can tell us when we are unhealthy or injured. We evolved pain because it’s essential to our survival. Pain’s bad for a different kind of reason. Pain’s disvalue is found in our negative experience, and this is why pain is a candidate for having an intrinsic disvalue.

Whenever someone claims that something has intrinsic value, we need to make sure that it’s not just good because it’s instrumentally valuable. If it’s merely useful at bringing about something else, then it’s not good in and of itself (as intrinsic values are). Pain is perhaps the perfect example of something that is useful but bad. If usefulness was the only kind of value, then pain would actually be good because it helps us in many ways.

Pain’s badness isn’t just our dislike of pain – We dislike pain because it feels bad.2 If pain didn’t feel bad, then we wouldn’t have such a strong desire to avoid intense pain. Pain means “feels bad” and it is manifested in various experiences, such as touching fire. We have to know the meaning of “bad” in order to understand pain at all. We attain an understanding of “bad” just by feeling pain.

If pain was only bad because we dislike it, then we couldn’t say that “pain really matters.” Instead, the badness of pain would just be a matter of taste. However, we don’t just say pain is bad because we dislike it. We also say pain is bad because of how it feels.

Avoiding pain is a final end – A final end is a goal people recognize as being worthy of being sought after for its own sake. Money is not a final end because it is only valuable when used to do something else. Pleasure and pain-avoidance are final ends because they are taken t be worthy of being avoided for their own sake.

We know that avoiding pain makes sense even when it doesn’t lead to anything else of value, so avoiding pain is a final end.3 If I want to take an aspirin, someone could ask, “Why did you do that?” I could answer, “I have a headache.” This should be the end of the story. We understand that avoiding pain makes sense. It would be absurd for someone to continue to question me and say, “What difference does having a headache make? That’s not a good reason to take an aspirin!”4

Both realists and anti-realists can agree that pain is bad, and they can both agree that pain is a final end. Our desire to avoid pain is non-instrumental and such a desire is experienced as justified. (However, the ant-realist might argue that it is only taken to be justified because of human psychology.)

If pain is a final end, then we understand (a) that pain is important and (b) it makes sense to say that we ought to avoid pain.

Pain’s disvalue is irreducible.

If the badness of pain was reducible to nonmoral properties, then we should be able to describe what “bad” means through a non-moral description. However, we currently have no way of understanding pain’s badness as being something else. We can’t describe pain’s badness in non-moral terms. If someone needs to know what ” bad” means, they need to experience something bad.

To say that some moral states are irreducible is just like saying that some mental states are irreducible. Pain itself can’t be described through a non-mental description. If we told people the mental states involved with pain, they would still not know what pain is because they need to know what it feels like.

Someone could argue that “bad” means the same thing as something like “pain,” and then we would find out that the badness of pain could be reduced to something else. However, pain and the badness of pain are conceptually separable. For example, I could find out that something else is bad other than pain.

They could then reply that “bad” means the same thing as a disjunction of various other bad things, such as “pain or malicious intent.” But people who disagree about what constitutes what is “bad” aren’t just arguing about the meaning of the word “bad.” They are arguing about what has the property “bad.”5 Additionally, the word “bad” would no longer have any importance. If “bad” just means “pain or malicious intent,” then why care about it? Why ought I refrain from causing pain or having a malicious intent?

It could be that we can find out that “bad” and “pain” are identical, but then “bad” might not be entirely reducible to “pain” (or a disjunction of bad things). We might still think that there are two legitimate descriptions at work. The “pain” description and the “bad” description. (Some people think water is H2O through an identity relation similar to this.) This sort of irreducible identity relation require us to deny that pain is “important.” (If the identity theory did require us to deny that pain is “important,” then we would have a good reason to reject such an identity theory.)

I have given reason to think the word “bad” is irreducible, but I haven’t proven it. If someone could prove that pain isn’t important, and we can reduce pain to something else, then I will be proven wrong. I just don’t see any reason to agree with that position at this time. I discuss the badness of pain as irreducible in more detail in my essays “Objection to Moral Realism Part 1: Is/Ought Gap” and “Objections to Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness.”

The badness of pain is real.

If the badness of pain is real, then everyone’s pain is bad. Pain isn’t bad just for me, but not for you. It states that we don’t all merely share a subjective preference in avoiding pain, but that pain’s badness is something worthy of being avoided and helping others avoid it. Why does it seem reasonable to believe pain’s badness to be real? There are at least four reasons. One, I experience that my pain hurts and I know that other people do as well. Two, it’s not just people’s subjective preferences in question. People hate pain because of how it feels. Three, people’s pain exists (and if pain exists, then the badness of the pain exists). Four, I see no reason to deny that the badness of other people’s pain exists. I will discuss this final consideration in more detail when I discuss anti-realist objections.

We have no good reason to deny that pain is bad. We experience that pain is bad for ourselves, and other people experience that pain is bad for themselves as well. Even though pain is subjective, there is nothing delusional about our belief that pain is bad. It’s not just a personal like or a dislike. We don’t just agree to treat other people’s pain as important as part of a social contract.

The belief that the badness of pain is real and “pain is bad no matter who experiences it” will be rejected by anti-realists. If I gave food to the hungry, it would be absurd to question why I did it. Imagine someone who disagrees with my action and says, “Other people’s pain is irrelevant. You should only try to avoid pain for yourself, so feeding the hungry is stupid.” This person’s position is counterintuitive to the point of absurdity. We have all accepted that other people’s pain matters. It makes sense to feed the hungry, it makes sense to give to charity, and it makes sense to give someone an aspirin who has a headache. We don’t have to benefit from helping other people. To deny that “pain is bad no matter who experiences it” isn’t a position that many people can find acceptable. (I suppose some sociopaths might find it acceptable.)

If pain is bad, important, irreducible, and real, then pain has intrinsic disvalue.

I want to suggest this premise to be justified in virtue of the very meaning of intrinsic value. If pain is bad, important (worthy of being desired), irreducible, and real; then I think we have already established that pain has intrinsic disvalue by definition. We have established moral facts that could give us what we ought to do, such as, “We ought to avoid pain.” Such an ought judgment is not merely based on my personal belief or desire; it’s based on the fact that pain is important no matter who experiences it.

Conclusion: Pain has intrinsic disvalue

If my premises are true, then the conclusion follows. I have given reason for accepting the premises, so we have some reason for accepting the conclusion, and the conclusion entails the truth of moral realism. I will take all of my premises to be sufficiently justified, but I will consider why someone might decide that the badness of pain “isn’t real.” An anti-realist could attempt to deny that “pain is bad no matter who experiences it.” The strongest evidence that badness is real is the fact that denying it seems to require unjustified philosophical commitments. I will attempt to show that the alternatives are less justified in the next section.

2. Anti-Realist Objections

Anti-realists will claim that badness is not real. Five reasons to deny the reality of pain are as follows:

  1. Our thoughts and feelings can’t be philosophically analyzed.
  2. The only bad thing about pain is that we don’t like it.
  3. Pain’s subjective ontology causes it to be less real than required for it to have intrinsic disvalue. Pain is something like an illusion. (“Subjective ontology” merely refers to subjective reality, or subjective existence.)
  4. Pain’s subjective ontology causes it to be in a separate place than the rest of the universe.
  5. What’s good or bad is only good or bad to someone in particular.

I will consider each of these objections and explain why they are implausible. One of the best reasons to believe that pain has intrinsic value is because rejecting that pain is bad no matter who experiences it is implausible. My argument requires us to accept that I have mentioned all of the most plausible explanations to our moral experiences. I can’t be certain that I have mentioned all of the most plausible explanations, but I will take it as the burden of proof for the anti-realist to mention any that I left out.

Our thoughts and feelings can’t be philosophically analyzed.

The proposition that “our thoughts and feelings can’t be philosophically analyzed” is one that lacks a justification, and we should reject it considering our knowledge of observation’s reliability through introspective evidence. It will be tempting for philosophers to reject my argument because I take our moral experiences seriously, but such experiences could be an unreliable source of information. People often believe that only observation can count as a reliable source of evidence. Yes, empirical knowledge is very reliable. However, that doesn’t prove that no other form of justification is possible.

We have found that empirical knowledge is one of the most reliable kinds of knowledge.6 Gathering information through observation is the foundation of science. Some philosophers will reject any form of justification other than observation, and they might argue that our experience that pain is bad is a subjective state that can’t be analyzed. We can’t know if pain is bad just by experiencing it, and we certainly have no basis to say that pain is bad no matter who experiences it.

This is a very dismissive response to all phenomenological (introspective) evidence.7 If our first-person experiences don’t matter, then we also have no way to know that we have observation. We know we have observation because we experience it first hand (and an introspective analysis of our experiences can give us reason to trust observation).8 So, observation is not the only way to attain knowledge. We require a first person experience in order to justify that observation exists, we require a first person experience in order to justify that pain exists, and we require a first person experience in order to justify that observation and pain have certain properties. One property that pain has is that it’s bad.

The only bad thing about pain is that we don’t like it.

I have already discussed why I don’t think pain isn’t just bad because we dislike it, but there is more to be said. The statement “the only bad thing about pain is that we don’t like it” lacks justification because pain feels bad, and that is a good reason to dislike it. It was bad even before we decided we don’t like it (or at least it being bad is conceptually separable from disliking it). However, some people have taken our interests to be the source of all value in the sense that satisfying desires is good and unsatisfied desires are bad. However, this belief can’t be satisfactorily justified. Consider these three possible reasons that personal interests could be viewed as the source of all value:

  1. Neglecting desires can lead to pain and satisfying desires can lead to pleasure. (However, this view of personal interest is based on the value of pleasure and pain, so it doesn’t help us avoid the view that pain is bad for everyone.)
  2. Personal interest is the source of all value because our desires are under our personal control. We don’t have to dislike pain. (This answer is unsatisfying because it our natural reaction to pain is that it is bad. If someone was able to no longer dislike pain, then we would wonder if that person even experienced pain anymore.)
  3. Personal interest is the only possible source of motivation. We can’t be motivated by other people’s interests. (This answer is unsatisfying because it is possible that intrinsic value exists even if we can’t be motivated to promote goals with intrinsic value. It is also possible for our personal interests to coincide with goals that have intrinsic value.)

If pain is only bad because we dislike it, then pain would appear not to be bad no matter who experiences it. At least not in the sense that it really matters. Instead, avoiding pain could just be a personal preference. However, I disagree that this view of pain’s badness makes sense. Its badness is actually a good reason to dislike it in the first place.

Pain isn’t real because of its subjective ontology.

Some people do think that physical reality is more real than mental reality. Why would someone think mental content isn’t very real? Sometimes we have experiences that are “only in our head.” Optical illusions are only in our mind. Hallucinations are only in our mind. Beauty might be some kind of an illusion, and the fact that we experience that pain is bad is also believed to be some kind of an illusion.

I am not convinced by this objection because pain isn’t taken to be anything other than what it feels like. An illusion is a deceptive experience. To see a cow in the distance, which is actually just a cardboard cutout of a cow, is an illusion when it deceives us. Pain can’t be taken to be deceptive. It doesn’t make us believe it is something out in the world like a cow or a rock. It’s just a feeling.

Still, many people seem to think that there is something not very real about our thoughts and feelings. You see a cow, but your experience of the cow is less real than the actual cow. A materialist might be tempted to say that physical particles and energy are the most real kinds of thing, and the mind and mental experiences are not as real. However, I don’t see how this view can be justified. Something is ontologically objective if it exists outside the mind (including minds), and something is ontologically subjective it is exists inside the mind. Either way, we are talking about part of reality.

Pain’s subjective ontology causes it to be in a separate place than the rest of the universe.

Some people seem to enjoy a very peculiar kind of relativism where everyone lives in a separate universe.9 Ontological subjectivity and objectivity seem different enough that they might indicate a severe separation of reality. Minds are each within a kind of bubble that separates mental stuff from physical reality. When you experience that pain as bad, it is really bad for you, but you are so separate from the reality other people exist in that their pain doesn’t exist for you, and so their pain can’t be bad for you. Such a view admits that pain really is bad and might even have intrinsic disvalue, but only within each person’s perspective. Each person lives in something like a separate reality.

I do not find this objection to be plausible enough to fully discuss, but I suspect some people agree to it, and such a view might motivate a kind of anti-realism. Instead of endorsing this kind of relativism, I endorse the view that every person exists in the same reality and our thoughts and feelings are all part of the same reality. We simply are unable to directly know each others’ thoughts and feelings. Instead of having direct knowledge of other people’s consciousness, we can indirectly know their thoughts and feelings through their behavior, biology, situation, and verbal reports. We know that our biology causes us pain when we touch fire, and people with similar biology will feel similar pain when they touch fire.

What’s good or bad is only good or bad to someone in particular.

This position could be a problem for moral realism if good and bad were merely based on subjective desires or if we each live in a relativistic reality bubble. I have already discussed both of those possibilities. I see no other reason to find the statement “what’s good or bad is only good or bad to someone in particular” to be a threat to the reality of intrinsic value. Even if good or bad things can’t exist without someone in particular, that doesn’t prove intrinsic values don’t exist.

It could be true that specific people must be benefited or harmed in order for intrinsic value to be attained. I agree that intrinsic values don’t float around in the universe. They have to be manifested appropriately. Pain doesn’t exist without being experienced by someone, but it could really matter when it does exist. Other people’s pain could really matter, even if I don’t personally care about it.

3. Objections against Anti-Realism

An anti-realist will have some difficulty in explaining the following:

  1. Why morality is important.
  2. Why moral obligations are inescapable.
  3. Why altruism is justified.

I can’t prove that a moral anti-realist will be unable to account for these three intuitive moral beliefs, but I currently don’t understand how they could be accounted for. This is a challenge to anti-realists. Until these intuitive beliefs can be accounted for by the anti-realist, we will have additional reason to doubt anti-realism in general.

Why morality is important.

Some people argue that morality is important because it concerns our desires. This answer does explain why morality can be important to someone in particular, but there are two reasons it isn’t satisfying. One, it implies ethical egoism. Breaking traditional moral rules, such as “thou shalt not kill,” could be the best way to satisfy personal desires.

Two, personal desires are often unimportant. We might think someone’s personal desire to count blades of grass is irrelevant to morality, unlike our desire to avoid pain.

On the other hand intrinsic values can make sense out of morality’s importance. Pain really matters, so it is important to be moral (and reduce the pain in the world).

Why our moral obligations are inescapable.

I can decide to stop being a doctor in order to abandon my obligations of being a good doctor. However, we can’t decide to stop being moral in order to abandon our moral obligations. The anti-realist could argue that we can’t escape moral obligations because they are simply our obligations to satisfy our desires. We can’t stop caring about satisfying our desires, so we can’t stop caring about morality. However, this anti-realist does not properly answer the question. I need to know why I should have obligations to treat other people with respect and why it’s a good idea to give strangers an aspirin when it helps them get rid of a headache. As I said before, killing people could occasionally be the best way to satisfy my desires.

Again, intrinsic values can make sense out of the inescapability of our moral obligations. It is important that we don’t cause people pain because it really matters. We say that we are obligated not to cause pain because it would be horrible to cause severe harm. The more harm an action could cause, the more important it is not to do the action.

Why altruism is justified.

If pain isn’t bad for everyone, then we need to know why the examples of altruism (helpfulness) are so intuitive. Why do we take other people’s pain as worthy of consideration? Why do we find it so reasonable to help other people avoid pain by giving them an aspirin? Let’s consider these three possibilities:

  1. Instincts: We are social animals. We care for people by nature. We want people to approve of us. (However, this answer isn’t entirely satisfying because we want people to approve of us based on our actual virtue and worth. It might be true that we are happy to get approval of others, but we would also prefer to be worthy of that approval.)
  2. A social contract: We are rationally justified to help other people because human beings are interdependent. We require cooperation in order to live.
  3. Cultural practice: We have been indoctrinated into a moral institution. Part of that institution requires us to find everyone’s pain to be worthy of consideration.

These three answers are unsatisfying for at least three reasons:

  1. These views imply ethical egoism.10 We wouldn’t be able to justify a personal interest in helping other people avoid pain unless it would benefit ourselves to do so, which is counterintuitive. Helping other people seems like a good thing that doesn’t need a selfish justification.
  2. These views can’t account for the importance of morality itself. Without intrinsic values, we would want everyone to follow moral rules except ourselves. It’s within our personal interest to cheat whenever it would benefit us to do so, but we intuitively believe moral demands are always worthy of consideration.
  3. Totalitarian regimes make sense if morality isn’t important. We might as well all agree to a social contract that can watch us at all times and punish us whenever we break the rules of the social contract. This could help us avoid Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”11

If morality isn’t really important, then altruistic moral demands are not worthy of consideration. It might be possible to free ourselves from our instincts, social contract, and cultural practices. We sometimes have an interest of helping other people without conscious regard to ourselves, but we might be able to train ourselves to lose this interest. A wise philosopher would be able to reject morality and accept a kind of personal egoistic ethic. However, this is a highly counter-intuitive result. It would be absurd for wise philosophers to reject morality, stop caring about people, and commit crimes in order to selfishly benefit themselves. In order to accept such a counter-intuitive result, we would need a persuasive justification.

I do not deny that instincts, a social contract, or cultural practices play a role in our moral beliefs and motivations, but the role they play is limited. If our motivation in valuing other people’s pain were solely from one or more of these sources, it wouldn’t prove that pain doesn’t have intrinsic value. It might still make sense to say that other people’s pain is bad because they experience it as bad. However, if pain doesn’t have intrinsic value, then these sources of motivation might be the only ways to explain why we value other people’s pain.

Finally, intrinsic values can account for altruism. Everyone’s pain is bad, so it’s better for one person to feel pain than two. We should then do what we can to reduce the pain in the world.

Conclusion

We have good reason to accept that pain is intrinsically bad considering that it feels bad no matter who experiences it and the alternatives to this view do not seem plausible. Additionally, the moral realist can explain why it is intuitive to believe everyone’s pain has disvalue and why we have a good reason to want to help people avoid pain. Anti-realism can explain altruistic ethics to some extent, but it’s only skin deep. Anti-realists will have various ways to try to explain why people are altruistic, but altruistic action is not justified for anti-realists because they can only justify ethical egoism. Ethical egoism is counterintuitive considering that giving an aspirin to someone with a headache makes sense without any personal benefit required. I do not expect that the anti-realist will be able to justify their rejection of pain’s intrinsic disvalue sufficiently, and the anti-realist will have the burden of proof considering their counterintuitive results. I have attempted to consider the best reasons to believe that pain lacks intrinsic disvalue, but those reasons lack sufficient justification.

There might be a foolproof argument that proves that pain lacks intrinsic disvalue, but I don’t know of it. Most anti-realists do not provide such a proof. Instead, anti-realists argue that intrinsic value isn’t needed in order to explain our moral understanding or our moral experiences. (We should reject intrinsic value because it is a queer property, and nothing queer should be accepted unless it is necessary to do so.) I have argued that the anti-realist is wrong. We do need intrinsic value in order to explain our understanding of morality and moral experiences. If we reject intrinsic value, then we have various counterintuitive conclusions:

  1. We should become ethical egoists in order to know what we want out of life and to find out how to get it.
  2. “Ethics” isn’t important, but wise people will tend to develop their own egoistic ethic just because it is a natural behavior given our psychology. We want to satisfy our desires, and “ethics” is nothing more than an attempt to satisfy our desires.
  3. We can’t expect or demand that anyone take our desires into consideration. Of course, some people will try to coerce others into behaving in certain ways. (They might try to force others into treating them nicely.)
  4. We should agree to live by a social contract, but we should cheat and break the rules of the contract whenever we would be benefited by doing so, and perhaps that is a good reason to want to live in a totalitarian state that can watch us all at all times to keep us in line.

1 Intrinsic values are able to to explain why there are irreducible moral facts that do not depend on our beliefs or desires.

2 We tend to desire what we believe to be valuable; we don’t only desire as a matter of choice or in an arbitrary manner. Our experience that pain is bad is independent of choice. We experience pain as bad whether or not we desire to avoid it. Sometimes we have a headache and no aspirin is available. Pain can’t always be avoided; sometimes we have to cope with it. It makes sense to say that pain is bad, even when it is irrelevant to our behavior. Pain is usually relevant to our behavior in the sense that we want to avoid pain, but pain is not always relevant in that way. It is quite possible to experience a headache without desiring an aspirin (or even to end the pain) because we might just accept the headache as being unavoidable or we might simply not think about it. This would be a situation when coping or ignoring the headache would be appropriate.

3 From the first person perspective, we understand that pain is always bad to some extent, but avoiding pain isn’t our only priority. Pleasure can be worth it, even if it leads us to pain. For example, a horror movie can cause fear, which is an uncomfortable emotion, but the fear can also give us excitement and an adrenaline rush that can be quite enjoyable. Moderate masochistic behavior is perfectly normal. Additionally, we might want to live, even if we will experience more pain than pleasure (because we might value our life more than the pain); and we might choose to go to college even though the homework can be quite painful, but college can be worth it when considering that it will lead us to a better life in the long run.

4 On the intuitive level, to deny that pain has a real kind of importance is absurd. No one wants others to torture them. To think being tortured is morally irrelevant is not a position anyone could accept.

5 R. M. Hare made it clear that we can argue about moral truth without merely arguing about what the words mean. To say “Abortion is wrong” doesn’t mean “Abortion is against utilitarianism.” People can argue about whether abortion is right or wrong partly by arguing about the most appropriate ethical theory. R. M. Hare introduced a story where cannibals argue with missionaries about what is right and wrong.

6 Mathematics and logic are also very reliable sources of evidence, and that could also be a clear counterexample to the claim that observation is the only reliable source of evidence.

7 Some philosophers consider introspection to be a form of observation.

8 Observing other people observing something, or observing ourselves while observing something else in the mirror doesn’t help us justify the fact that observation exists because it would require viciously circular reasoning.

9 A relativist believes that morality is relative. What is right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another.

10 “Ethical egoism” is the view that we are only morally justified to promote our personal good. If ethical egoism is true, helping others is only justified if it simultaneously benefits oneself.

11 Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Chapter XIII. Internet Archive. 18 Jan. 2010. <http://www.archive.org/details/hobbessleviathan00hobbuoft>.

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27 Comments »

  1. [...] James Gray @ 6:15 am Many ethicists agree that moral philosophy requires the use of intuition. My argument for moral realism itself requires the use of intuition. However, philosophers will require that we justify our use of [...]

    Pingback by Objections to Moral Realism Part 2: Intuition is Unreliable « Ethical Realism — October 27, 2009 @ 6:15 am | Reply

  2. The problem with anti-realism’s analysis of importance is that it doesn’t make it clear why morality itself is important, or why altruism (non-selfish behavior) is a rationally justified form of behavior. A moral realist could say that altruism can promote an intrinsic value by giving someone else pleasure or alleviating pain, but that justification is not available to the anti-realist. For an anti-realist, morality (and helping others) will then only be justified insofar as it promotes our self-interest and satisfies our personal desires.
    This part seems queer, doesn’t it? If nothing is true morally, then self-interest is equally untrue as a moral value. Rational justification is entirely a different matter. To lob a rock up a hill doesn’t seem rational. When appended to the desire to build a shrine atop the hill, it seems rational. That is, egoism is nt about rationality, it is a goal one can be rational in achieving.

    For what it matters, a view of humans as egoistic seems to me deeply wrong. One needn’t moral truth for us to not act self-servingly, we do so quite happily – at least when we realise the other is a person and not a number. This is sadly too rare.

    Comment by kaiserpingvin — December 16, 2009 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for the comments. I should probably make it clear that people might be altruistic but the main question here is if it is rational. It might be a good idea to clarify a little about why antirealists have some reason to reject altruism. Some people have defined rationality as personal desire satisfaction. This definition isn’t entirely absurd for an antirealist because we can’t escape our personal desires. They have some value to us no matter what. However, if the antirealist is correct, other people and their desires don’t have any value. It is not then clear how we could justify helping others. Social instincts are not necessarily rational. So humans might not be egoistic, but that leads us to various questions, such as, “Is it rational for them to be egoistic? And can they justify altruism?”

      Comment by James Gray — December 16, 2009 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

  3. [...] were we created?” These are related questions for some people, but I have argued that there can be better ways to live our life, even if we are a product of [...]

    Pingback by Is There a Meaning of Life? « Ethical Realism — December 29, 2009 @ 10:26 am | Reply

  4. [...] lot of background information. I have provided an argument that intrinsic values exist in my post, An Argument for Moral Realism, but this one essay should not be considered a sufficient education on the question, “Does [...]

    Pingback by Denying the Meaning of Life « Ethical Realism — January 4, 2010 @ 10:54 am | Reply

  5. [...] a moral realist can meet the challenge by showing how we do argue about intrinsic values. My Argument for Moral Realism might be one such example because it involves the argument that pain has intrinsic disvalue. What [...]

    Pingback by Objections to Moral Realism Part 4: Moral Beliefs Can’t Motivate « Ethical Realism — January 6, 2010 @ 9:29 am | Reply

  6. [...] (such as make people happy). If something “really matters” then it has “intrinsic value.” I have argued that there is at least one meaning of life (one thing that has intrinsic value)—Pain. However, pain is “bad.” If pain is the only thing [...]

    Pingback by How to Find the Meaning of Life « Ethical Realism — January 14, 2010 @ 5:55 am | Reply

  7. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to reading this. I have to disagree with you, and I have to rest on my previous statement that says it is not possible for us to know where morality comes from.

    I have another suggestion for morality that you haven’t mentioned. I eluded to it earlier on your other post when I spoke about selfish reasons for morality. I believe that everything that a person does is for selfish reasons. I don’t think it can be proven, just like I don’t think many things can be proven, but it seems to me to be consistent with how things work.

    The biggest argument with this is the idea of the selfless act. I don’t believe there is such a thing, and this needs some explanation. A selfless act would indicate that the person performing the act gets no reward whatsoever by doing it. We know this isn’t true. When I give money to charity, for example, I feel good about it. When I hold the door for someone, I feel good about it. Why would I feel good about these things? I think it is because they are things I have been taught are good things to do for people. Being taught this doesn’t necessarily mean I will carry it with me, but I have learned that many of these things, because of the social suggestion, have the ability to make me feel good. On top of that, when someone holds the door for me, for example, I have this idea that it is a nice thing they are trying to do for me because I have been taught that it is. It then makes me feel good about that person’s intentions, and reinforces my desire to do such things for other people.

    One might ask what evidence I have that it’s social suggestion and not some other source, and I have an answer for that. Etiquette. There are many rules of etiquette that people have no idea of until they are in the situation that requires knowledge of them. Some of them seem rather silly, but it is considered rude to break them. Rudeness is a moral slight, and since there is no way for people to know what is and isn’t rude without being taught, this is pretty good evidence of social suggestion being a large part of our morality.

    Where does this desire to conform come from, I don’t know. I imagine that there is some evolutionary possibility that would help make people that play into other people’s selfish desires more successful, and I can imagine several scenarios. The problem is, my imagination is not evidence, and it only serves to hopefully point me down the right path, but speculation still isn’t evidence, even if I find myself on the right path later.

    I understand that you believe that there is some intrinsic value, and you make a good case for personal intrinsic value, but what is lacking is some concrete method to decide where altruism and empathy comes from. What it boils down to here seems to be pure speculation, seeded with a type of bias. I am not saying that my ideas are not biased, because they are, but I admit that is the case. I spent lots of time examining my idea of selfishness, and I examined it so greatly that if I were to write a book about it, it would take several hundred pages. Because of that time I have invested, I tend to not want to let loose of the idea unless the argument is better than my own.

    Now, I have discussed the ideas I have with many people, and I have heard many objections. It is not possible to go into the amount of detail necessary to explain selfishness as a source for morality here, maybe I will make a post on my blog sometime where I can go into more detail. Even then, it won’t be a complete explanation of it, and I still think there are other sources for morality that are evolutionary/memetic in nature.

    Finally, I still don’t see the evidence for where empathy/altruism comes from. I see evidence here for selfishness, but not for selflessness without selfishness.

    Comment by Godlessons — February 15, 2010 @ 7:30 am | Reply

    • Well, I’ve finally gotten around to reading this. I have to disagree with you, and I have to rest on my previous statement that says it is not possible for us to know where morality comes from.

      What exactly do you disagree about? What exactly did you read?

      I have another suggestion for morality that you haven’t mentioned. I eluded to it earlier on your other post when I spoke about selfish reasons for morality. I believe that everything that a person does is for selfish reasons. I don’t think it can be proven, just like I don’t think many things can be proven, but it seems to me to be consistent with how things work.

      The biggest argument with this is the idea of the selfless act. I don’t believe there is such a thing, and this needs some explanation. A selfless act would indicate that the person performing the act gets no reward whatsoever by doing it. We know this isn’t true. When I give money to charity, for example, I feel good about it. When I hold the door for someone, I feel good about it. Why would I feel good about these things? I think it is because they are things I have been taught are good things to do for people. Being taught this doesn’t necessarily mean I will carry it with me, but I have learned that many of these things, because of the social suggestion, have the ability to make me feel good. On top of that, when someone holds the door for me, for example, I have this idea that it is a nice thing they are trying to do for me because I have been taught that it is. It then makes me feel good about that person’s intentions, and reinforces my desire to do such things for other people.

      Getting a reward for an action doesn’t indicate that you did it for the reward. It could be an accident. It is possible that all actions are egoistic, but I don’t see any reason to agree with that at this time, and I do see reason to disagree with it. If I give a stranger an aspirin, I don’t do it to hope to get a warm and fuzzy feeling. I don’t know that I even get any feeling like that very often. But it might “feel good” to do what I think is right in some sense. If so, that solves the selfishness problem immediately. We wouldn’t have to be selfish insofar as we selfishly want to do what is right.

      It should be noted that actions, if always selfish, do not always benefit us. We often do harmful things to ourselves (such as drug addictions), so we could only hope to get a benefit from our actions.

      Note that the sort of egoism many philosophers believe in is actually “desire” egoism. Some philosophers believe in desire-independent practical reasons, and some don’t. Hume thought all motivation requires a desire. That is itself a kind of egoism, and I don’t necessarily disagree with it. I might “desire” to give the guy the aspirin.

      One might ask what evidence I have that it’s social suggestion and not some other source, and I have an answer for that. Etiquette. There are many rules of etiquette that people have no idea of until they are in the situation that requires knowledge of them. Some of them seem rather silly, but it is considered rude to break them. Rudeness is a moral slight, and since there is no way for people to know what is and isn’t rude without being taught, this is pretty good evidence of social suggestion being a large part of our morality.

      Yes, it is possible that morality is a social convention and/or based on instincts. That is the anti-realist view. There are pretty elaborate and interesting anti-realist theories. Some people, for example, suggest that right and wrong are based on the rules we would agree to if we were perfectly rational. That way social conventions can be revised and improved.

      I understand that you believe that there is some intrinsic value, and you make a good case for personal intrinsic value, but what is lacking is some concrete method to decide where altruism and empathy comes from. What it boils down to here seems to be pure speculation, seeded with a type of bias. I am not saying that my ideas are not biased, because they are, but I admit that is the case. I spent lots of time examining my idea of selfishness, and I examined it so greatly that if I were to write a book about it, it would take several hundred pages. Because of that time I have invested, I tend to not want to let loose of the idea unless the argument is better than my own.

      My view is based mostly on common sense. I haven’t had to worry a lot where empathy or the desire for justice comes from. They might be instinctual. However, that doesn’t mean that intrinsic values don’t exist. My evidence for intrinsic value is independent of actual human behavior and found in experience.

      Now, I have discussed the ideas I have with many people, and I have heard many objections. It is not possible to go into the amount of detail necessary to explain selfishness as a source for morality here, maybe I will make a post on my blog sometime where I can go into more detail. Even then, it won’t be a complete explanation of it, and I still think there are other sources for morality that are evolutionary/memetic in nature.

      A lot of people think that. I don’t deny it. I just think it is somewhat irrelevant to my argument. Intrinsic values are compatible with instincts and desires. This is where I explain such a position: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/objections-to-moral-realism-part-4-beliefs-cant-motivate/

      Finally, I still don’t see the evidence for where empathy/altruism comes from. I see evidence here for selfishness, but not for selflessness without selfishness.

      Comment by James Gray — February 15, 2010 @ 10:14 am | Reply

  8. [...] An Argument for Moral Realism [...]

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  9. John, this seems like the best page to comment on.

    I agree that it is an objective fact that pain is bad and has disvalue. But I do not understand how this fact can be the basis of a definition of morality and therefore a source of moral realism.

    I am not following the jump from the objectively true statement “pain is bad and has disvalue” to whatever moral statement you eventually will claim is an example of moral realism, perhaps “all people ‘ought’ to avoid causing other people pain”. (Moralities are guidelines for interacting with other people, not whether our experience of pain is a fact or not.)

    It seems to me there are only two ways to logically make this jump to some moral statement about how people ought to treat each other. The first way would be to be clear you are aiming only for an “emotional ‘ought’ moral statement” (simply stating the way you feel about it as a matter of fact and think others should feel). The second way is to propose your derived definition of morality as a “rational choice moral statement” which you will then argue is the rational choice for a moral standard that is expected to, on average, best meet a group’s needs and preferences.

    Reading your post, I get the impression you are actually proposing this fact leads to a third kind of statement that is extremely difficult to defend (it has never been successfully done so far as I know), a “rational argument ‘ought’ moral statement”. However, this requires a rational argument that reveals the source of justificatory force beyond enlightened self interest binding people to not cause other people pain even if that choice causes them certain psychological pain in the form of less well satisfied needs and preferences like a preference for selfishness.

    Are you intending this fact about pain to lead to one or a combination of these three alternative kinds of moral statements or to something else?

    Comment by Mark Sloan — June 6, 2010 @ 9:29 pm | Reply

  10. Mark, thank you for taking your time to post comments. I will respond to them.

    I agree that it is an objective fact that pain is bad and has disvalue. But I do not understand how this fact can be the basis of a definition of morality and therefore a source of moral realism.

    Moral realism states that there is an objective fact about morality. If there is one, then moral realism is true.

    More specifically, if there is one intrinsic value, then moral realism is true.

    You might wonder how intrinsic value relates to the rest of morality and that is a good question, but I did not answer that here.

    I am not following the jump from the objectively true statement “pain is bad and has disvalue” to whatever moral statement you eventually will claim is an example of moral realism, perhaps “all people ‘ought’ to avoid causing other people pain”. (Moralities are guidelines for interacting with other people, not whether our experience of pain is a fact or not.)

    My definition of “ought” is “it will really be better to do it.” For example, you ought not torture people because doing so would be horrific. If you have a different definition of “ought,” then you might not get an “ought” from intrinsic value. Moral realism can be true even if there aren’t any “oughts.”

    It seems to me there are only two ways to logically make this jump to some moral statement about how people ought to treat each other. The first way would be to be clear you are aiming only for an “emotional ‘ought’ moral statement” (simply stating the way you feel about it as a matter of fact and think others should feel). The second way is to propose your derived definition of morality as a “rational choice moral statement” which you will then argue is the rational choice for a moral standard that is expected to, on average, best meet a group’s needs and preferences.

    If Kant is correct that there is moral rationality, then you “ought” to do something in the sense that it is rational.

    Reading your post, I get the impression you are actually proposing this fact leads to a third kind of statement that is extremely difficult to defend (it has never been successfully done so far as I know), a “rational argument ‘ought’ moral statement”. However, this requires a rational argument that reveals the source of justificatory force beyond enlightened self interest binding people to not cause other people pain even if that choice causes them certain psychological pain in the form of less well satisfied needs and preferences like a preference for selfishness.

    It depends what you want “ought” to mean. I don’t think it has to mean much of anything at all. My argument doesn’t require it to. The point of the argument is something like the following:

    1. There is at least one intrinsic value.
    2. Therefore, moral realism is true.

    The “ought” stuff is a red herring. It is a secondary question.

    Are you intending this fact about pain to lead to one or a combination of these three alternative kinds of moral statements or to something else?

    Neither are required by the argument and I already said what I think “ought” means above. I talk a little about how I view “oughts” here:

    http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/a-moral-realist-point-of-view-part-1/

    Comment by James Gray — June 7, 2010 @ 2:25 am | Reply

  11. James, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that morality is used “normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.” For scholarly sake, I should mention that I left out the first definition, as it was about descriptive morality as in a code of conduct put forth by society another group or an individual and and i felt it did not apply here.

    Moving on, I believe in your post, you mistake Godlessons selfishness argument. I believe the proper term he would want to use is self interested. We don’t kill people because we think it’s wrong, maybe. However, that thinking it is wrong is a strong enough reason to overcome any reason to kill someone, and is thus self interested, as all acts are.

    Next, let us examine your first argument,

    “1. We experience that pain is bad.
    2. We experience that pain is important.
    3. The disvalue of pain is irreducible.
    4. The disvalue of pain is real.
    5. If pain is bad in the sense of being important, irreducible, and real, then pain has intrinsic disvalue.
    6. Therefore, pain has intrinsic disvalue.”

    I believe in premise one you are conflating bad and painful, and thus fall into the trap of the naturalistic fallacy. Perhaps undesirable would work, but I don’t believe bad can. You justify it in saying that “We have to know the meaning of “bad” in order to understand pain at all.” I disagree. I think several other words are actually more fitting, such as uncomfortable or painful. The proper statement of why we don’t like pain is “I don’t like pain because the feeling it gives me causes much discomfort, and since I value comfort, pain is bad.” I just don’t see how you can derive an intrinsic value other than ourselves.

    In your discussion of premise 2 you say “we must accept the following: 1. The badness of pain isn’t just an instrumental value. 2. The badness of pain is a final end.” In justifying this you rely on an appeal to emotional thought of its badness. However, is this really an accurate description of intrinsic bad. For example, a masochist enjoys feeling what would be very stereotypical pain, and certain people cannot even feel pain at all. Do these people, especially the latter, have no chance at morality because they do not recognize the intrinsic badness of pain?

    “If the badness of pain is real, then everyone’s pain is bad. Pain isn’t bad just for me, but not for you.”

    Philosophically speaking, what reason do I have for universalizing my disinterest in pain, lest that it is helpful in my avoidance of pain. If one, theoretically, were to feel no pain but be completely aware of his body, would morality not apply to him, again?

    But basically, I think the main issue with your post is that you provide no reason to consider pain as bad, except that it feels as such. Is that not a little circular? If bad is defined as pain, then pain is bad! However, I don’t think pain is bad in itself, its bad because of the pain it causes us which we don’t like. If we were masochists, pain might be good.

    Comment by Evan — August 11, 2010 @ 12:51 am | Reply

    • Evan,

      Thank you for taking the time to read this and for leaving comments. I will discuss them below.

      I believe in premise one you are conflating bad and painful, and thus fall into the trap of the naturalistic fallacy.

      I never defined “bad” as “painful.” The naturalistic fallacy does not apply to this case. I am saying that we experience pain as bad, not that it is defined as such.

      Perhaps undesirable would work, but I don’t believe bad can. You justify it in saying that “We have to know the meaning of “bad” in order to understand pain at all.” I disagree. I think several other words are actually more fitting, such as uncomfortable or painful.

      A better description for pain is “painful?” That is circular. And the word “uncomfortable” is merely a mild sort of pain and is also circular.

      Once someone experiences pain, it is pretty clear to them that pain is bad.

      The proper statement of why we don’t like pain is “I don’t like pain because the feeling it gives me causes much discomfort, and since I value comfort, pain is bad.” I just don’t see how you can derive an intrinsic value other than ourselves.

      Because we are left with the Euthephero dilemma: Is pain bad because I dislike it, or do I dislike it because it’s bad?

      The fact is that I dislike it because it’s bad. It’s not just a preference for comfort (non-pain).

      A person might think that pain is wonderful until they actually experience pain. Then they would find out it is bad. No one desires pain precisely because we have no choice. Knowing what pain is is the cause of disliking it, and disliking pain is not the cause of saying it’s bad.

      I am basically repeating myself. I have a similar argument for premise 1 above.

      In your discussion of premise 2 you say “we must accept the following: 1. The badness of pain isn’t just an instrumental value. 2. The badness of pain is a final end.” In justifying this you rely on an appeal to emotional thought of its badness. However, is this really an accurate description of intrinsic bad.

      No. The conclusion of the entire argument is that pain is intrinsically bad. That is not the conclusion of the second premise. The premise is merely that “pain is important.”

      For example, a masochist enjoys feeling what would be very stereotypical pain, and certain people cannot even feel pain at all. Do these people, especially the latter, have no chance at morality because they do not recognize the intrinsic badness of pain?

      Masochists do recognize the intrinsic badness of pain. You are misunderstanding masochists.

      If someone truly didn’t, then they would fall into moral error indeed.

      “If the badness of pain is real, then everyone’s pain is bad. Pain isn’t bad just for me, but not for you.”

      Philosophically speaking, what reason do I have for universalizing my disinterest in pain, lest that it is helpful in my avoidance of pain.

      I already explained it above. Everyone’s pain is bad. Pain is bad because of how I experience it. Other people’s pain is bad because they experience it that way. The experience that pain is bad is not delusional. I then look into reasons that anti-realists think that pain isn’t really bad and explain them to be inadequate. The “best explanation” of our observations and experiences is that pain is really bad.

      If one, theoretically, were to feel no pain but be completely aware of his body, would morality not apply to him, again?

      That person would have to trust the rest of us that physical pain is bad, but that person would already know about emotional pain (suffering) and could probably generalize that physical pain is bad for a similar reason that emotional pain is bad.

      But basically, I think the main issue with your post is that you provide no reason to consider pain as bad, except that it feels as such. Is that not a little circular? If bad is defined as pain, then pain is bad!

      Experience is not a definition. To observe that water is H2O is not to merely define water as H2O. And, yes, observation can be somewhat circular because it is theory-laden. However, that is nothing new and scientists have had a huge amount of success using observation as evidence.

      To experience that a stove is hot doesn’t “define” stoves as hot. It is merely a fact that this stove is hot. In the same way we experience that one pain is bad, and we end up generalizing that all pain is bad. It might be that I am wrong and only certain pains are bad, but that wouldn’t disprove my argument for intrinsic value. If some pain is intrinsically bad, that is enough to prove that moral realism is true.

      For more information about moral observation and how it relates to moral realism, I recommend reading this: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/moral-realism-by-torbjorn-tannsjo/

      There is more I have written about moral observation in the past as well.

      However, I don’t think pain is bad in itself, its bad because of the pain it causes us which we don’t like. If we were masochists, pain might be good.

      That doesn’t make sense. Imagine the emotional pain of losing a loved one. A masochist is going to feel emotional pain, like everyone else. The worst sorts of pain and suffering are emotional.

      For more information about masochism and why it is irrelevant to intrinsic value, you might want to read this: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/is-there-a-meaning-of-life/

      Comment by James Gray — August 11, 2010 @ 2:48 am | Reply

  12. [...] detail why I think such a thing. In fact, I can’t imagine it being otherwise. My argument is here:http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/an-argument-for-moral-realism/ If goodness cannot, given its concept, be an objectively observable natural property or a natural [...]

    Pingback by Rejecting And Reconciling Moral Intuitionist Ideas Into My Naturalist Account Of Goodness – Camels With Hammers — January 30, 2011 @ 10:30 pm | Reply

  13. A couple questions:

    In premise (1) what exactly do you mean by ‘bad’? Are you referring to an objective state of affairs, or is ‘bad’ used there just as a placeholder for synonyms of ‘a negative feeling’? ‘Hurts’, for example.

    And also regarding the conditional premise, (5), are you saying that our “experiencing pain is bad in the sense of being important, irreducible and real” -is- an intrinsic disvalue or that our “experiencing pain is bad in the sense of being important, irreducible and real” -has- intrinsic disvalue? You say the consequent of the conditional follows from the antecedent “by definition” which seems to my mind suggests either reading.

    Comment by Koala — September 3, 2013 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

    • Koala,

      Regarding premise 1, I mean that there’s at least some sense that we experience that pain is bad. I can’t say in premise 1 that it’s objectively bad because that is the conclusion of the argument.

      Regarding premise 5, I am saying that the experience is of pain having certain qualities, and that those qualities (when combined) are identical to intrinsic badness. Perhaps I overstated it. If they are not identical to intrinsic badness, then I would say that being intrinsically bad still seems like the best fit. In that case the argument could actually be a distunctive syllogism: Pain isn’t bad merely in the sense of being instrumentally bad, disliked, etc.

      I put forth a more modest argument about pain being intrinsically bad here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/do-we-experience-that-pain-is-intrinsically-bad/

      Comment by JW Gray — September 3, 2013 @ 8:30 pm | Reply

  14. Thanks for the link that helped clear some stuff up. However:

    I understand what you mean by pain (suffering) and what you mean by intrinsically bad (objectively bad, bad in itself). But I see no attempt to properly define “bad”. You say that “bad” is not in the objective sense since that would beg the question, true. But also you say that “bad” is not reducible to natural qualities of negative experience like “hurt” – or following the above poster, Evan – “painful, uncomfortable, undesirable” etc. So what is it?

    For example you say “we dislike pain because it is bad”. This is ambiguous, are you saying that we dislike it because it -feels- bad (painful, uncomfortable etc) or because it is -actually- bad (intrinsically bad)? I think you have failed to give a clear definition of “bad” and have so far equivocated between these two definitions yet you reject them both.

    Also, if you are saying that “the experience is of pain having certain qualities, and that those qualities (when combined) are identical to intrinsic badness.” you are not saying that these certain qualities are sufficient to obtain intrinsic badness, on your account they would be both sufficient and necessary, a biconditional. Your argument is still valid though.

    Comment by Koala — September 4, 2013 @ 6:35 am | Reply

    • So what is it?

      ‘Bad’ is an ambiguous term that could refer to intrinsically bad, instrumentally bad (thwarts a goal), or something we desire to avoid. That’s why I try to narrow down the options to find out if pain is intrinsically bad rather than bad in some other sense.

      For example you say “we dislike pain because it is bad”. This is ambiguous, are you saying that we dislike it because it -feels- bad (painful, uncomfortable etc) or because it is -actually- bad (intrinsically bad)? I think you have failed to give a clear definition of “bad” and have so far equivocated between these two definitions yet you reject them both.

      Also, if you are saying that “the experience is of pain having certain qualities, and that those qualities (when combined) are identical to intrinsic badness.” you are not saying that these certain qualities are sufficient to obtain intrinsic badness, on your account they would be both sufficient and necessary, a biconditional. Your argument is still valid though.

      Also, if you are saying that “the experience is of pain having certain qualities, and that those qualities (when combined) are identical to intrinsic badness.” you are not saying that these certain qualities are sufficient to obtain intrinsic badness, on your account they would be both sufficient and necessary, a biconditional. Your argument is still valid though.

      I did imply a biconditional here, but being sufficient for intrinsic badness is actually all that was needed.

      Comment by JW Gray — September 4, 2013 @ 8:32 am | Reply

    • What we call “feels bad” is what I call “the experience that there’s something bad about pain.” I don’t think that “feeling bad” is a different category from intrinsic badness, being disliked, or thwarting a goal.

      I also don’t know that there is an essence of “badness” that can be conceptually separated from the various types of badness that I listed. I think that it is a family resemblance notion that people associate together for some reason. When something is intrinsically bad, we tend to dislike it; and when we dislike it, we tend to think it’s intrinsically bad; etc.

      Comment by JW Gray — September 4, 2013 @ 8:50 am | Reply

  15. Okay I see the issue now. So regarding:

    “1. Pain thwarts us from achieving our goals.
    2. We dislike pain.
    3. Our own pain is bad within our personal experience.
    4. Pain is intrinsically bad.”

    Are you saying that 1-3 is -sufficient- for 4, or in the disjunctive sense that 4 is the best explanation of the experience of pain being bad rather than 1 or (xor?) 2 or 3. Because the way you discuss it on the other page suggests the former while the argument on this page obviously suggests the latter.

    Comment by Koala — September 4, 2013 @ 9:54 am | Reply

    • Sorry, realised a typo – should be the other page suggests the LATTER* while the argument on this page obviously suggests the FORMER*.

      Comment by Koala — September 4, 2013 @ 2:43 pm | Reply

      • Are you saying that 1-3 is -sufficient- for 4, or in the disjunctive sense that 4 is the best explanation of the experience of pain being bad rather than 1 or (xor?) 2 or 3. Because the way you discuss it on the other page suggests the former while the argument on this page obviously suggests the latter.

        That 4 is the best explanation. It might be that pain is often bad in sense 1 and 2, but even when it’s not; we could still say it’s bad in sense 4.

        I did suggest that here. Consider the following section:

        Pain’s badness isn’t an instrumental value

        It is also here that I said, “Pain’s badness isn’t just our dislike of pain – We dislike pain because it feels bad. If pain didn’t feel bad, then we wouldn’t have such a strong desire to avoid intense pain. Pain means “feels bad” and it is manifested in various experiences, such as touching fire. We have to know the meaning of “bad” in order to understand pain at all. We attain an understanding of “bad” just by feeling pain.”

        Perhaps I was not as clear in this essay as it should have been, which was one reason that I decided to write about this issue again a couple of years later.

        Comment by JW Gray — September 4, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

  16. Okay, right. Mm, sorry for my all my confusion but I can’t help to think that an eminently clearer formulation of the argument would have then been to scrap the conditional, (5), and turn (1) into a disjunctive premise. So:

    1′. The experience of pain is best explained by either it being intrinsically bad or instrumentally bad or something we dislike.
    2′. It is not best explained by it being instrumentally bad
    3′. It is not best explained by it being something we dislike
    4′. Therefore, the experience of pain is best explained by it being intrinsically bad.

    You say, “It might be that pain is often bad in sense 1 and 2, but even when it’s not; we could still say it’s bad in sense 4.” Right, as you said on your other post you are only saying that least -some- experiences of pain that are best explained by it being intrinsically bad. I’m not convinced by this. You need to then show that the experience of pain being bad is never best explained by 1 and/or 2. Indeed, further, you must show not only that, but also show the best explanation of it is 4. And I don’t think this promising for two reasons:

    (i) There is virtually no conceivable situation where 1 and/or 2 is not the best explanation of some experience of pain (i.e. suffering).

    (ii) Even if there was some such instance, I can always plausibly maintain the best explanation might be given by something else without invoking 4 if I don’t want to commit myself to the idea that intrinsic values exist. You seem to acknowledge this when you said, “I personally don’t think that there is a better alternative interpretation of our experiences than that (some) pain is experienced as being intrinsically bad, [-]but there could be better interpretations that I don’t know about.[-]

    Also, if we go by your formulation on this page, I have some further comments –

    Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that the the experience of pain being bad is best explained by 1, the dislike of pain and/or 2, it thwarts us from achieving our goals. And that any and all experiences of pain being bad are sufficiently explained by 1 and/or 2. That means I disagree with you when you say “Our experience that pain is bad is independent of choice. We experience pain as bad whether or not we desire to avoid it.” If there was a situation where I desired not to avoid pain, I would not consider it bad, that seems fairly commonsensical to me.

    Also, you say “The belief that the badness of pain is real and “pain is bad no matter who experiences it” will be rejected by anti-realists.” Well, no, I wouldn’t reject that per se. Only that I don’t see how it follows from “pain is bad no matter who experiences it” to “I shouldn’t cause other people pain” or “I should try to alleviate the pain of others”.

    “Imagine someone who disagrees with my action and says, “Other people’s pain is irrelevant. You should only try to avoid pain for yourself, so feeding the hungry is stupid.” This person’s position is counterintuitive to the point of absurdity.”

    How is it counter-intuitive? From what line of reasoning have you concluded that feeding the hungry is relevant and worthwhile?

    And:
    “The statement “the only bad thing about pain is that we don’t like it” lacks justification because pain feels bad, and that is a good reason to dislike it.”

    This is confusing. The only reason pain is bad is because we dislike it, or so I think. But you’re saying pain is bad for reasons other than disliking it, and that itself is a good reason to dislike it. I don’t see how my position “lacks justification” any more than yours does.

    “It was bad even before we decided we don’t like it (or at least it being bad is conceptually separable from disliking it).” In your other post you say similarly “Instead, I think we experience that pain is bad prior to and conceptually separable from disliking it.”

    If someone has never experienced pain in their life, do they know it’s bad? I don’t think so. Is it conceptually separable? I’m not sure. Can you think of such a situation where we could not reduce the experience of pain being bad to a dislike of pain? And moreover, in this supposed situation does pain’s badness being intrinsically bad provide the better explanation? This all needs to be established.

    Comment by Koala — September 5, 2013 @ 6:01 am | Reply

    • Right, as you said on your other post you are only saying that least -some- experiences of pain that are best explained by it being intrinsically bad. I’m not convinced by this. You need to then show that the experience of pain being bad is never best explained by 1 and/or 2. Indeed, further, you must show not only that, but also show the best explanation of it is 4. And I don’t think this promising for two reasons:

      I did offer reasons to think that.

      (ii) Even if there was some such instance, I can always plausibly maintain the best explanation might be given by something else without invoking 4 if I don’t want to commit myself to the idea that intrinsic values exist. You seem to acknowledge this when you said, “I personally don’t think that there is a better alternative interpretation of our experiences than that (some) pain is experienced as being intrinsically bad, [-]but there could be better interpretations that I don’t know about.[-]

      Yes, that is always the case with arguments to the best explanation.

      Also, if we go by your formulation on this page, I have some further comments –

      Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that the the experience of pain being bad is best explained by 1, the dislike of pain and/or 2, it thwarts us from achieving our goals. And that any and all experiences of pain being bad are sufficiently explained by 1 and/or 2. That means I disagree with you when you say “Our experience that pain is bad is independent of choice. We experience pain as bad whether or not we desire to avoid it.” If there was a situation where I desired not to avoid pain, I would not consider it bad, that seems fairly commonsensical to me.

      Let’s say you decide to get an education. That requires you do homework and you actually desire to do it, even though there is some pain involved. The homework can involve elements of intellectual pleasure and pain. There might be no way to avoid the pain in order to have the educational experience (similar to how bodybuilding requires some pain). I think we would say that you experience pain, even though you desire the painful activity. In fact, you might say that there’s something even more enjoyable about having various obstacles in your way (like difficult homework) that can make a successful experience even more triumphant. And we can say that there’s something bad about the pain. You experience that there’s something bad about it, even though it aligns with your desires and goals.

      Also, you say “The belief that the badness of pain is real and “pain is bad no matter who experiences it” will be rejected by anti-realists.” Well, no, I wouldn’t reject that per se. Only that I don’t see how it follows from “pain is bad no matter who experiences it” to “I shouldn’t cause other people pain” or “I should try to alleviate the pain of others”.

      That’s exactly my point. I am saying everyone’s pain is bad. That your pain is not special. You can’t say, “I don’t want to feel pain, but I don’t care if you feel pain. Therefore, only my pain is bad for me. Other people’s pain are bad for them.

      “Imagine someone who disagrees with my action and says, “Other people’s pain is irrelevant. You should only try to avoid pain for yourself, so feeding the hungry is stupid.” This person’s position is counterintuitive to the point of absurdity.”

      How is it counter-intuitive? From what line of reasoning have you concluded that feeding the hungry is relevant and worthwhile?

      Exactly. We know it is worthwhile.

      “The statement “the only bad thing about pain is that we don’t like it” lacks justification because pain feels bad, and that is a good reason to dislike it.”

      This is confusing. The only reason pain is bad is because we dislike it, or so I think. But you’re saying pain is bad for reasons other than disliking it, and that itself is a good reason to dislike it. I don’t see how my position “lacks justification” any more than yours does.

      Do you have a reason to dislike pain? Is it rational or just some peculiarity of you? I think you would agree that pain “feels bad” wouldn’t you? In that case it’s not just that we dislike pain.

      “It was bad even before we decided we don’t like it (or at least it being bad is conceptually separable from disliking it).” In your other post you say similarly “Instead, I think we experience that pain is bad prior to and conceptually separable from disliking it.”

      If someone has never experienced pain in their life, do they know it’s bad? I don’t think so. Is it conceptually separable? I’m not sure. Can you think of such a situation where we could not reduce the experience of pain being bad to a dislike of pain? And moreover, in this supposed situation does pain’s badness being intrinsically bad provide the better explanation? This all needs to be established.

      Being conceptually separable doesn’t require a situation to be established because there could be a 100% correlation. I think you would agree that pain feels bad. That is enough to agree that it’s conceptually separable.

      Comment by JW Gray — September 5, 2013 @ 8:29 pm | Reply

  17. “Let’s say you decide to get an education. That requires you do homework and you actually desire to do it, even though there is some pain involved. The homework can involve elements of intellectual pleasure and pain. There might be no way to avoid the pain in order to have the educational experience (similar to how bodybuilding requires some pain). I think we would say that you experience pain, even though you desire the painful activity. In fact, you might say that there’s something even more enjoyable about having various obstacles in your way (like difficult homework) that can make a successful experience even more triumphant. And we can say that there’s something bad about the pain. You experience that there’s something bad about it, even though it aligns with your desires and goals.”

    To recap, I maintain that ‘bad’ (i.e. the experience of pain being bad) is best explained by 1 (us disliking it, it hurts etc) and/or 2 (thwarts goals, not relevant here though). I understand your example here and I’ve come around to agree with it, but I can’t see its significance? You said “Our experience that pain is bad is independent of choice. We experience pain as bad whether or not we desire to avoid it.” True, but on my view this amounts to a triviality – “Our experience that pain hurts is independent of choice. We experience that pain hurts whether or not we desire to avoid it.” So yes, I desire the homework, the homework causes me intellectual pain, and there is something bad about the pain – it hurts, I dislike it. But it’s bad only to that extent.

    “Exactly. We know it is worthwhile.”

    Just like that? How exactly have you come to this conclusion that feeding the hungry is more worthwhile rather than, say, not feeding them?

    “Do you have a reason to dislike pain? Is it rational or just some peculiarity of you? I think you would agree that pain “feels bad” wouldn’t you? In that case it’s not just that we dislike pain.”

    ‘Feeling bad’, (i.e. the experience that there is something bad about pain) is no more than 1 and/or 2 for me. Like I have said, 1 and/or 2 are the best explanation of ‘bad’ so they are effectively synonymous. The reason I dislike pain is because it feels bad. But that’s equivalent to ‘the reason I dislike pain is because I dislike it’ or even equivalent to ‘the reason I pain hurts is because pain hurts.’ I never denied it wasn’t irreducible after all.

    “Being conceptually separable doesn’t require a situation to be established because there could be a 100% correlation. I think you would agree that pain feels bad. That is enough to agree that it’s conceptually separable.”

    I still deny the first claim that “It was bad even before we decided we don’t like it.” Why believe that? How would anyone come to the know the badness of pain if they have first never disliked it? Someone who has never experienced the dislike of pain, ever, still knows that pain is bad? I’m not convinced. Secondly, I now think it’s not even conceptually separable – they are separable but only insofar as we can talk about pain feeling bad and disliking pain as different expressions of the same thing, but once we come to accept the view that they are in fact one and the same thing, I cannot see how they become conceptually separable. I think a good test of this is, can you think of a situation where the experience of pain is bad but that we do not dislike it (hurts etc)?

    Taking a look at your comments on the other page in defence of 4 that pain being intrinsically bad is (in at least some cases) the best explanation of the experience of pain being bad, I can’t see how all those examples you give are better suited to be explained by 4 than by 1 (and/or 2). For instance, compare:

    “This also seems to help explain why many people think it’s wrong to cause “needless” pain—everyone’s pain is intrinsically bad and it seems wrong to cause something intrinsically bad to happen without a good reason for doing so.”

    and:

    “This also seems to help explain why many people think it’s wrong to cause “needless” pain—everyone [*]dislikes pain (it hurts etc)[*] and it seems wrong to cause [*]people to dislike something/hurt people[*] without a good reason for doing so.”

    What good reason is there to think your explanation is better than mine?

    And:

    “If pain isn’t intrinsically bad, then we will want a better explanation for why we dislike pain, get angry at people who cause needless pain, and so on.”

    I won’t say its a better explanation for arguments sake (although I think it is) but, again, why cant we say that we get angry at people who cause needless pain because we all recognize we dislike pain and its generally bad idea to go around causing needless instances of people disliking something. Or to take the other example you gave, we feel it appropriate to feel empathy toward people who are in pain because we recognize we dislike pain and that others dislike pain so when others are in pain we can empathize with them (i.e. with their dislike). Now, this is all for arguments sake. I’m not saying that’s what I really believe, just that its an equally plausible account of these experiences we have with pain.

    Comment by Koala — September 6, 2013 @ 6:20 am | Reply

    • To recap, I maintain that ‘bad’ (i.e. the experience of pain being bad) is best explained by 1 (us disliking it, it hurts etc) and/or 2 (thwarts goals, not relevant here though). I understand your example here and I’ve come around to agree with it, but I can’t see its significance? You said “Our experience that pain is bad is independent of choice. We experience pain as bad whether or not we desire to avoid it.” True, but on my view this amounts to a triviality – “Our experience that pain hurts is independent of choice. We experience that pain hurts whether or not we desire to avoid it.” So yes, I desire the homework, the homework causes me intellectual pain, and there is something bad about the pain – it hurts, I dislike it. But it’s bad only to that extent.

      The significance is that there’s something bad about it even though it’s instrumentally good and aligns with our desires. I don’t think the example can do much other than clarify our interpretations. I already said I don’t think there can be an example of pain that absolutely must be interpreted as having intrinsic value.

      Just like that? How exactly have you come to this conclusion that feeding the hungry is more worthwhile rather than, say, not feeding them?

      If you don’t want to think we know anything about ethics at all, then I don’t know how you think moral philosophy is possible. Maybe you think believing killing everyone is just as rational/justified as the belief that we should help people who are hungry?

      There are obvious examples of ethical and unethical behavior. That is relevant to how we reason about ethics.

      ‘Feeling bad’, (i.e. the experience that there is something bad about pain) is no more than 1 and/or 2 for me. Like I have said, 1 and/or 2 are the best explanation of ‘bad’ so they are effectively synonymous. The reason I dislike pain is because it feels bad. But that’s equivalent to ‘the reason I dislike pain is because I dislike it’ or even equivalent to ‘the reason I pain hurts is because pain hurts.’ I never denied it wasn’t irreducible after all.

      You can feel bad in a sense and still not have 1 or 2. That’s what the example I gave showed.

      I still deny the first claim that “It was bad even before we decided we don’t like it.” Why believe that?

      Because it is rational to dislike pain based on what it’s like to feel pain. We have a reason to dislike pain. It’s not just some random dislike people all have for some random reason.

      How would anyone come to the know the badness of pain if they have first never disliked it?

      By experiencing it.

      Someone who has never experienced the dislike of pain, ever, still knows that pain is bad?

      Obviously experiencing pain is part of it. We know what pain is like. We know there’s something we should dislike about it.

      I think a good test of this is, can you think of a situation where the experience of pain is bad but that we do not dislike it (hurts etc)?

      The hurt of pain is not equivalent to disliking it. Ever heard of masochism? The example I gave above is also an example.

      Taking a look at your comments on the other page in defence of 4 that pain being intrinsically bad is (in at least some cases) the best explanation of the experience of pain being bad, I can’t see how all those examples you give are better suited to be explained by 4 than by 1 (and/or 2). For instance, compare:

      “This also seems to help explain why many people think it’s wrong to cause “needless” pain—everyone’s pain is intrinsically bad and it seems wrong to cause something intrinsically bad to happen without a good reason for doing so.”

      and:

      “This also seems to help explain why many people think it’s wrong to cause “needless” pain—everyone [*]dislikes pain (it hurts etc)[*] and it seems wrong to cause [*]people to dislike something/hurt people[*] without a good reason for doing so.”

      What good reason is there to think your explanation is better than mine?

      Why do you think other people’s desires are relevant to decisions you make? You seem to be mixing up desire-independent reasons with desire-dependent reasons.

      If you check the opening page, you will see that I talk a little more about this issue. Maybe it will help clarify my view a bit.

      Comment by JW Gray — September 6, 2013 @ 6:43 am | Reply


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