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:
- We experience that pain is bad.
- We experience that pain is important.
- The disvalue of pain is irreducible.
- The disvalue of pain is real.
- If pain is bad in the sense of being important, irreducible, and real, then pain has intrinsic disvalue.
- 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:
- The badness of pain isn’t just an instrumental value.
- 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:
- Our thoughts and feelings can’t be philosophically analyzed.
- The only bad thing about pain is that we don’t like it.
- 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.)
- Pain’s subjective ontology causes it to be in a separate place than the rest of the universe.
- 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:
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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:
- Why morality is important.
- Why moral obligations are inescapable.
- 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:
- 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.)
- A social contract: We are rationally justified to help other people because human beings are interdependent. We require cooperation in order to live.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- We should become ethical egoists in order to know what we want out of life and to find out how to get it.
- “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.
- 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.)
- 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>.