We experience that our pain (or suffering) is bad, but is everyone’s pain bad? Is it wrong to cause other people pain (at least some of the time) because their pain is bad? Many philosophers think that (at least some) pain is “intrinsically bad”—bad just for existing and worthy of being avoided for its own sake. If so, it seems reasonable to say that everyone’s pain is bad and it’s wrong to cause needless pain to others. However, this is an interpretation of our experience of pain and not everyone agrees with it. I will discuss various interpretations of what it means to experience that pain is bad:
- Pain thwarts us from achieving our goals.
- We dislike pain.
- Our own pain is bad within our personal experience.
- Pain is intrinsically bad.
One reason to think that pain is intrinsically bad is if there isn’t a better alternative interpretation for our experiences. 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.
I would like to make two clarifications. One, when I say “pain” the word “suffering” might be more appropriate. Emotional pain can be included. Two, I don’t know that all of our pain experiences are intrinsically bad, but I think that the idea that at least some pain experiences are intrinsically bad is plausible.
1. Pain thwarts us from achieving our goals.
One sort of value is known as “instrumental value” which is equivalent to “usefulness.” Food is a useful way to alleviate hunger and it’s therefore “instrumentally good” for helping us achieve that goal. Pain can be useful (instrumentally good) at telling us when we are wounded and alert us to our health problems. Pain can also be “instrumentally bad” insofar as it thwarts us from achieving various goals. Sometimes having an intense headache can keep us from reading a book, getting work done, or enjoying ourselves.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem plausible that pain is merely bad in the instrumental sense.
First, pain is (sometimes) bad, even when it is instrumentally useful. The goals pain can help us achieve aren’t always a good reason to feel (or cause) pain. For example, I could be on a television show where people beat me and such a television show can help people achieve various goals (make money, entertain thousands of viewers, etc.) Nonetheless, I wouldn’t want to be on the television show because feeling pain seems more important than the goals that would be achieved from being beaten on television. Feeling pain seems like a cost that needs to be compared with the benefits expected when we make decisions. We don’t decide to voluntarily feel intense pain unless we think there’s something more important to be gained from the experience. For example, someone might physically fight criminals despite the fact that it will likely cause her pain because it might be necessary to protect other people.
Second, I experience that pain is bad insofar as it feels bad. Instrumental disvalue has to do with having our goals thwarted, but the fact that pain feels bad doesn’t tell me anything about goals being thwarted. Instead, the fact that pain feels bad tells me that pain seems like something worthy of avoidance in general. I know that a certain goal (avoiding pain) is worthy because I’ve experienced pain and pain is not merely a something that thwarts us from achieving goals.
2. We dislike pain.
One reason to think that “pain is bad” is because we dislike it. Sometimes we say that something is bad when we dislike it (or desire to avoid it). For example, we might think homework is bad insofar as it is something we often want to avoid. It is true that we often dislike pain and want to avoid it. However, I’m not convinced that this (or pain’s instrumental disvalue) is the only reason we say that pain is bad. Instead, I think we experience that pain is bad prior to and conceptually separable from disliking it. The reason that we dislike pain (when we do) is precisely because it feels bad. We experience that intense pain is horrible and we treat pain as a cost rather than a benefit when making decisions because the experience hurts.
3. Our own pain is bad within our personal experience.
Some people think that pain is bad within our personal experience. I experience that my pain is bad, and it’s rational that I want to avoid pain because of how I experience it. I agree that pain is bad within our personal experience.
However, I don’t think that pain is only bad within our personal experience. You don’t live in a separate reality where your pain is bad, and I don’t live in a separate reality where my pain is bad. And pain isn’t an “illusion” just because it’s “only in your head” or “subjective.” Pain is subjective in the sense that it exists as a psychological phenomena, but that doesn’t mean it’s an illusion. If pain were an illusion, then I suggest that it would have to be deceptive. If I hallucinate that I have horns, then I am having a deceptive experience that could suggest that I have horns when I really don’t. The experience seems to refer to something that doesn’t exist. However, pain doesn’t refer to anything outside of itself. It is something that hurts whether anything else exists or not.
Instead, I find it more plausible that everyone’s “personal experience” is part of a single reality. What exists “only in your head” is part of reality like everything else. The idea that only atoms or solid objects exist seems like a strange view to have.
4. Pain is intrinsically bad.
One view of pain is that it’s “intrinsically bad” or “bad just for existing.” My pain is a cost rather than a benefit when I make decisions insofar as I realize that it’s intrinsically bad. Your pain can also be a cost to my decisions in the same way. 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.
Additionally, the idea that pain is bad seems to help explain why we dislike pain, why we get angry at people who cause needless pain, and why we think it’s appropriate to feel empathy towards others who suffer. It seems appropriate to dislike whatever is intrinsically bad; it seems appropriate to be angry at people who needlessly cause something intrinsically bad to happen; and it seems appropriate to feel empathy and care about the pain others experience if their pain is intrinsically bad. 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.
One common reason people reject that pain could be “intrinsically bad” is because they don’t see any reason to think that intrinsic values can exist. One possible explanation is that intrinsic values exist because the right material conditions exist that produces it, similar to how the living brain seems to be the material condition that produces our psychological activity. Certain psychological activity (or perhaps all psychological activity) seems to have intrinsic value, such as pain. The same material conditions that cause pain seem sufficient to cause something intrinsically bad to exist.
Not everyone thinks that we experience that pain is intrinsically bad, but such a position raises questions—Don’t we experience that pain is bad? If so, in what sense is it bad? I suggest here that pain isn’t merely instrumentally bad because we understand that avoiding pain is often a good idea even when it helps us achieve our goals; pain isn’t merely something we dislike because we dislike it precisely because we experience that it’s bad; and pain isn’t merely bad within our personal experience because it also seems bad within other people’s experience—and their experiences are just as real as our own. The idea that we experience that pain is intrinsically bad seems intuitive based on our belief that causing needless pain is wrong, and so on.