Ethical Realism

July 14, 2011

Do We Experience That Pain is Intrinsically Bad?

Filed under: ethics — JW Gray @ 4:55 am
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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:

  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.

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.


  1. I enjoyed reading your open ended discussion of the is/ought question, and noticed this post about pain, and thought I’d add to it. Robert Anton Wilson was a professional novelist and amateur/popular philosopher who questioned the efficacy of even talking about “good and evil,” since there is no limit to the ways such terms can and have been interpreted. Each denomination and religion imagines for instance that their rivals are teaching or practicing something that it is “not good,,” “evil,” or “heretical.” Wilson suggested that speaking in terms of “pain/pleasure” made more sense to more people than speaking about “good/evil.”

    I agree. For instance, note this list of


    Satan “And All of His Works”
    That includes anything “connected” in churchgoer’s minds with “Satan,” including any family members, neighbors or foreigners, whose beliefs or practices (or items they own or wear or read) are not deemed “Christian” enough. Even keeping “frog” sculptures has been considered “dangerous” according to some fundamentalist groups who read in Rev. where Satan is associated with frogs.

    Churchmen during the Middle Ages taught that cats were “emissaries of the Devil” until so many cats were murdered that the rat population exploded and bubonic plague decimated Europe.

    Christmas, Other Holidays, Plays
    Puritans of Britain and America banned the celebration of Christmas (and other holidays), along with the performances of plays.

    The Abolition of Slavery
    Right up till the Civil War, most American Christian denominations in both the North and the South agreed in frowning upon anyone who held strict anti-slavery views or who considered slavery to be a “sin,” since the Bible never declared slavery to be a “sin.” [See the section on THE CIVIL WAR (AMERICA’S “HOLY WAR”)]

    The Right of Females to Vote
    Many religious leaders and churches in the U.S. opposed the attempt by women to gain the right to vote.

    Child labor laws
    Many churches frowned on laws to keep children in school and instead argued strongly in favor of allowing children the freedom to earn pitiful wages in an unsafe mine or factory (or in a church-run work house linked to a nunnery or monastery).

    Educational Information About Sex And/Or Birth Control
    During the last century in America people were fined or sent to prison for disobeying various laws made by Christians (viz., the “Comstock Laws”) against disseminating educational information about sex and/or birth control. Such information was even forbidden from being sent through the mail in plain brown envelopes when specifically requested.

    Anesthesia (putting a person to sleep during an operation) & Anesthetics (pain relievers of all sorts)
    Devout ministers argued that God gave us pain to teach us spiritual lessons and we must not interfere with the Lord’s plan by alleviating that pain. Even Mother Teresa, who founded the Sisters of Charity in India in the late 20th century was averse to the use of anesthetics. (She repeated the story of her meeting with a man who was suffering painfully with cancer. She told the man, “Jesus is kissing you.” The man replied, “Then I wish he would stop.”) Some Christians were against anesthetics being employed to reduce pain during childbirth because the Bible states in the book of Genesis that God cursed woman by “multiplying her pain during childbirth,” and who were we to defy the Lord?

    Cures for Malaria and Syphilis
    Protestants rejected early cures for malaria and syphilis because Catholics were the first to come up with them. [See Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History]

    Inoculations and Vaccinations
    Many Protestant and Catholic ministers railed against inoculations and vaccinations as “an encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah whose right it is to wound and smite.” While Pope Leo XII (1823-1829) decreed that vaccination against smallpox was “against God’s will.” [See Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Chapter XIII: “From Miracles to Medicine Theological Opposition to Inoculation, Vaccination, and the Use of Anæsthetics” (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896)]

    Ever heard of Prohibition?

    Short Dresses, Long hair (on men), Dancing, Rock and Roll Music, Playing Cards, Playing Billiards, Playing Pool, Going to the Movies, Watching TV, Masturbating
    Many Christians were against them.

    Striped Clothes
    Christians believed that striped clothing was devilish.

    The Protestant Christian, John Calvin, believed that a popular form of pants known as “split-breeches,” filled people with too much pride, so they were outlawed in Geneva, Switzerland.

    “In the 1880s Josephine Cochrane invented the dishwashing machine… From 1913 on there was a dishwasher in every…(no, not even in every grand hotel–just some of them). The Victorian prejudice was strong against denying women the devotional labor to which God had called them. There were clergymen who actually called the dishwasher immoral.” [Alistair Cooke, “A Giant Step for Womankind,” Letter from America section of BBC World News, Monday, 29 May, 2000]

    John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called democracy “the meanest and worst of all forms of government.” In 1800 the Christian president of Yale University, Timothy Dwight, said: “The great object of democracy is to destroy every trace of civilization in the world and force mankind back into a savage state…We have a country governed by blockheads and knaves. [And after giving some horrible particulars he added] Can the imagination paint anything more dreadful this side of Hell?” Pope Gregory XVI, the head of the Catholic church from 1831-1846, said, “From the polluted fountain of indifferentism flows that absurd and erroneous doctrine, or rather, raving, which claims and defends liberty of conscience for everyone. From this comes, in a word, the worst plague of all, namely, unrestrained liberty of opinion and freedom of speech… It is in no way lawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, or speech, of writing, or of religion, as if they were so many rights that nature has given man.” Today’s Reconstructionist Christians want America to become a “limited democracy under God [meaning under Old Testament Laws].”

    Working or Playing on Sunday
    In the days of the first Roman Christian Emperor, Constantine, the Old Testament command forbidding “work on the Sabbath=Saturday,” was reinterpreted so as to forbid “work on the new ‘Christian’ Sabbath=Sunday.” James I [who became king of England in 1603] thumbed his nose at the Puritans’ wish to keep Sunday a day of rest and holy contemplation by publishing The Book of Sports–a list of the sports and games one could lawfully engage in after church on Sunday. The controversy that followed was so volatile that a 17th-century historian cited it as one of the leading causes of the English Civil War. While in America (Puritan New England) the prohibition against working on Sunday was enforced with the utmost strictness. A public flogging was the penalty for violation. No food could be cooked, no beds were to be made, cutting hair and shaving were prohibited. A mother could not kiss her child on the Sabbath. Riding on this holy day or walking in the garden was prohibited. Even a sick relative or friend could not be visited if it were necessary to ride to his house. The only thing permitted was to walk “reverently to and from church.” Even as late as the early 1900s in America stores remained closed on Sunday, which was the working man’s only day off. Also closed were parks, lakes, beaches, museums, theaters, even pharmacies (so you had best stock up on grandma’s heart medication the day before Sunday). If you went out sailing heaven forbid a storm should arise and your boat should capsize because there were even laws in America against rowing out to save drowning people on Sunday. [See following section, KEEPING THE LORD’S DAY “HOLY” IN AMERICA]

    Comment by Edward T. Babinski — August 23, 2011 @ 1:43 am | Reply

    • The idea that pain and pleasure have intrinsic value has been suggested by philosophers starting with Plato or Socrates. It is a pretty good starting point in my opinion, and it can help us make sense out of virtue ethics and consequentialism. One issue left over is what (if anything) is missing. Deontologists think there’s more to morality than value (consequentialism) and virtue. I think Deontologits are often more concerned with moral rationality, and that is a tough area to fully grasp that consequentalists and virtue ethicists generally don’t deal with in a satisfying way. (Not that deontologists generally do deal with it in a satisfying way.)

      Comment by James Gray — August 23, 2011 @ 5:29 am | Reply

    A Catholic historian Donald Keefe came across the story when it was repeated by Prof. Daniel Maguire of Marquette University. Keefe tried to trace the source of the quote from Leo XII, tracing it from footnote to footnote, from book to book and found it had emanated from a Dr. Pierre Simon in Le Contredes naissances with no authority given at all. It is probable however, that the myth is much older and dates from the 19th century as it can be found in G. S. Godkin’s ‘Life of Victor Emmanuel II’ from 1880.In conclusion, Leo XII’s alleged ban of vaccination is a whiggish myth which has been repeated and promulgated slavishly ever since, despite having absolutely no basis in fact whatsoever. No doubt in cyberspace it will continue to take on a new lease of life amongst those who will swallow any myth as long as it is anti-catholic or anti-religious.

    The Influence of Korean Catholic Church on the Introduction of Smallpox Vaccination by Cheong Yak-yong : A Hypothesis.
    If he did, it was also done in the context of Western culture imported by Korean Catholic Church. Considering the above facts we can suggest the higher possibility of the introduction of smallpox vaccination through Catholic groups with Cheong Yak-yong. Of course other routes could have been available, but its possibility seems to be comparatively low.

    Finally anti-Catholic myths begin to unravel. Of course it is wrong to say that Pope Leo XII condemned the vaccine. But the reality is more fascinating. Both the Catholic clergy as many monarchs as “Carlos IV of Spain” actively promoted the vaccination (and before the cinchona bark for malaria), while Cromwell was left to die by not testing the bark Jesuit …
    In response to a Large Outbreak of smallpox in the Spanish colonies, King Charles IV Francisco Xavier de Balmis Appointed to lead an expedition That Would Jenner’s vaccine to introduce These colonies. In 1798, King Charles IV STATEMENTS The Civilian Population That Should Be vaccined. A Year Later, a copy of Edward Jenner’s book WAS Sent to King Charles IV by an Italian physician, weitere historical Attracting Attention to the prevention of smallpox. All These events culminate in the Issuance of a royal edict Announcing the Widespread Availability of the smallpox vaccine in Spain in 1800. THIS Vaccination Campaigns Be Supervised by the Catholic Clergy and immunization registries That Be Kept by Priests. I advise you to read this wonderful article:
    The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to Bring Smallpox Vaccination to the New World and Asia in the 19th Century
    According to Rafael E. Tarragó “The Catholic Clergy Gave Their support to the Vaccination
    campaign. In New Spain the expedition and feted in WAS WELCOMED
    cities like Guadalajara and Oaxaca by Their bishops. The bishop of
    Oaxaca Encouraged the Clergy to support the Vaccination Campaign
    Preaching That Should none of Them feel no obligation to do so, thinking
    I Had the care of souls and Not That of teddies; Such a view Would show
    His ignorance, A Lack of charity, and a failure to Understand That He Who
    Is Able to save a fellow human being and do not does so commits a
    crime.The bishop of Puebla wrote a pastoral letter encouraging historical
    flock to get Vaccinate, Himself and I assisted in the formation of a
    Vaccination board. …

    Comment by Alfonso — October 13, 2011 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Thoughts of a Mad Man.

    Comment by dobsonmorgan — February 18, 2013 @ 9:47 am | Reply

  4. It seems that pain is not itself morally bad or good. It is just an experience. It of course can be good it if alerts us to a problem such as we the fact that we are on fire etc.

    “Needless” anything is not going to be morally good that is true. Because moral action is the action we should take and it is not therefore needless.

    There are a number of problems with simplistic moralities based on pain and pleasure. For one it seems that our empathy is much more in tune with other peoples pain than it is with their pleasure. When thousands of people see someone suffer pain they all feel pain if they have empathy. If they had no empathy they would avoid all that pain. But the pleasure we see from someone elses pleasure – well it doesn’t seem quite as intense and is sometimes completely mitigated by envy. So basing morality on avoiding pain would seem to suggest human empathy is bad and to be avoided.

    There are other problems.

    Comment by Joe — April 2, 2019 @ 5:09 pm | Reply

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