Ethical Realism

September 6, 2013

Interpreting Our Experience of Pain

Filed under: epistemology,ethics,metaethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 4:05 am

I recommend that you read “Do We Experience that Pain is Intrinsically Bad?” before reading this. If you don’t know what ‘intrinsically bad’ means, you should also read my FAQ on Intrinsic Values.

The question is how to properly interpret and describe our pain experiences. We say that there’s at least some sense that (intense) pain experiences are bad. What does ‘bad’ mean in this context? Could we ever experience that pain is intrinsically bad? I will define what ‘bad’ means and consider some examples of pain experiences. I will say a little about how I interpret the various pain experiences.

What’s ‘bad’ mean?

I would say that the term ‘bad’ is a family resemblance notion that can’t be properly defined using a single definition, and that we should consider the various ways people use the term instead. We use the term ‘bad’ in many different ways. To define it properly requires sensitivity to that ambiguity. Sometimes the term ‘bad’ refers to a negative attitude (such as the view that mediocrity is bad), and sometimes it refers to a negative value (such as the view that it would be better for needless pain to no longer exist because it’s bad). I think that there are six main ways people can interpret pain as being bad:

  1. instrumentally bad – What thwarts our goals. For example, eating too much sugar is instrumentally bad insofar as we have a goal to be healthy. On the other hand many things are instrumentally good. Vegetables is instrumentally good for our goal to be healthy.
  2. something we desire to avoid – We are likely to desire to avoid dying. Dying is bad insofar as we desire to avoid dying. On the other hand some things could be said to be good because they are desired. Chocolate could be said to be good insofar as we desire it (and it can give us pleasure).
  3. bad within experience – When we say that pain feels bad (or that certain emotional experiences feel bad) we are talking about something being experienced as being bad within our experience. On the other hand pleasure and certain emotional experiences feel good.
  4. something that’s rational to avoid – We could say that it makes sense for us to want to avoid certain things, but it doesn’t make sense to want to avoid other things. It makes sense to want to avoid getting cavities, so getting cavities is bad in this rational sense. It doesn’t make sense to want to avoid being healthy, so being healthy is not bad in the rational sense.
  5. bad as a final end – To have a reason to avoid something with no additional goal needed. (However, keep in mind that reasons for action are often considerations in favor or against various actions, and there can be more important considerations.) It not only makes sense to want to avoid certain things, but no other goal needs to be referenced. One plausible example is suffering—it seems like there’s no reason we have to want to avoid suffering beyond knowing what suffering is. Other things need an additional justification for us to rationally avoid them. For example, eating sugar isn’t bad unless it also harms you in some way. Eating too much sugar is bad for some additional consideration beyond merely eating it (because it makes us unhealthy). We could say that suffering is bad for its own sake, but eating sugar isn’t bad for its own sake. On the other hand, we could also say that some things are good as final ends (perhaps happiness).
  6. intrinsically bad – It is a final end to avoid things that are intrinsically bad and the reason that it’s rational to want to avoid these things is a desire-independent reason. If suffering is intrinsically bad, then we would have a reason to want to avoid suffering, even if we didn’t desire to avoid suffering. The fact that suffering is intrinsically bad could be said to be a reason to desire (and to rationally want to avoid) suffering. The fact that something is intrinsically bad is also a reason to act based on other people’s experiences. Assuming suffering is intrinsically bad, everyone’s suffering is intrinsically bad. Their suffering is just as real as yours, their suffering is not just bad for them, and we all have a reason not to cause one another suffering. On the other hand, we could also say that some things are intrinsically good (perhaps happiness).

These terms are not mutually exclusive, and they are often related. We often take our desires as final ends, and intrinsic values are also a type of final end. The main difference is that when something’s intrinsically bad, then you have a desire-independent reason to avoid it. (Final ends can refer to desire-dependent or desire-independent reasons.)

If pain is intrinsically bad, then we have a reason to want to avoid needless pain other than the desire to avoid it. We also have a reason to try to help other people avoid needless pain, even when we know the others won’t reciprocate. There could be good reasons to still be willing to experience pain when it’s not needless, like when you need a cavity filled at the dentist.

I also think that the fact that pain is bad within an experience is the reason that it’s intrinsically bad. Other people’s experiences also matter. It would not be appropriate to think, “I can’t feel your pain, so I have no reason to help you avoid pain.”

Three examples of experiences

I wrote another essay about why I prefer an interpretation of (at least some) pain experiences to be that we experience that those experiences are intrinsically bad. It is quite a short piece and much more could be written about it. In particular, we can consider various examples of pain experience and consider how to best interpret them. There are different ways things can be bad, and intrinsically bad is just one way things can be bad. When a person says that (at least certain) pain experiences are bad, they might mean that they desire not to have them, that pain feels bad, or that pain experiences thwart their goals. If we have a pain experience that is not properly described as being bad in any of these ways, then it is a good candidate for being better interpreted as being intrinsically bad. In that case we would have to think of a pain experience that’s experienced as being bad, but it’s not something that we desire to avoid, or something that feels bad, or something that thwarts a goal. I don’t think we will ever be able to come up with an example of a pain experience like that, but I don’t think we have to. For one thing I think pain experiences are intrinsically bad because they feel bad. Even so, I do think it can be useful to consider certain pain experiences. I will describe how I would interpret how those experiences are bad.

Example 1

A child touches a hot stove and moves her hand away from it because of the pain it causes.

Is the pain in this scenario instrumentally bad? Yes, insofar as the person has a goal to avoid pain. But why have that goal? I think we have that goal because the pain feels bad and/or it’s intrinsically bad.

Is the pain something we desire to avoid? Yes, but do we have a good reason to want to avoid it? I think we do.

Is the pain bad within the child’s experience? Yes because it feels bad, but don’t we also have a reason to care about the child’s experiences? If so, it is likely a desire-independent reason.

Is it rational to want to avoid it? Yes, but why? Is it because of a desire to avoid it or is there some other reason to want to avoid it?

Is the pain bad as a final end? Yes, there is no additional goal needed for us to have a reason to avoid pain. Knowing what the pain is like is enough reason to want to avoid experiencing it.

Is the pain intrinsically bad? I think so. I would say it’s a final end and there’s a desire-independent reason to want to avoid it. I think it is rational for us to help others avoid having this experience. For example, it would be rational for us to say to the child, “Stop! The stove is hot!” before the child touches it. I think that would be a rational response, even if we could not possibly hope to get any personal benefit from doing so.

Example 2

John watches a romantic comedy movie. There’s a point in the movie where there’s a misunderstanding. According to the movie, Susan thinks Mark kissed another woman romantically, but he was actually being sexually assaulted by the other woman. Then there’s a period where Susan and Mark are depressed and split apart. That part of the movie is the low point of the movie. It makes John feel bad watching it, but he knows that low points like that are part of making romantic comedies entertaining. Movies tend to be better when there are various obstacles that have to be overcome. A movie with no obstacles or conflict would make a boring movie. John enjoys the movie immensely and had nothing better to do with his time.

Is the pain in this scenario instrumentally bad? No, in this case the pain is instrumentally good. It is part of the big picture and it’s part of what makes the movie entertaining. There’s an overriding goal (entertainment) that is more important than the pain, so John could had a better reason to experience the pain than to not watch the movie at all. We could say that the pain was for a greater good.

Is the pain something John desires to avoid? No, he knows that the pain is needed to make the movie more entertaining.

Is the pain bad within the experience? Yes, there is a sense that the pain feels bad.

Is the pain something that’s rational to avoid? No, it is not rational to avoid it insofar as it’s necessary for a greater good.

Is the pain bad as a final end? It is not bad as a final end insofar as it is needed as part of an overall positive experience. However, there could be an overall final end to avoid pain. The only reason that the pain is worth having in this situation is because there’s an overriding reason to have it. If the pain existed in isolation (perhaps if John only watched the depressing part of the movie), then the pain would be worth avoiding.

Is the pain intrinsically bad? I think it is intrinsically bad, even in this situation. We can still say that the pain feels bad, and we have a reason to want to avoid feeling bad. However, John has even more important reasons to be willing feel bad given the context. This is something like a cost-benefit analysis. The pain in this case is not good for its own sake. It is bad when taken in isolation and the only reason John has to have the pain is because of the benefits it can give him (as a more entertaining experience).

Example 3

Joanna is a visting stranger in town and has a really bad headache. Todd notices that she has a headache and offers her an aspirin. She eagerly accepts it. Todd knows he will never see Joanna again and couldn’t rationally expect to be benefited by his action.

Is the pain in this scenario instrumentally bad? Yes.

Is it something Joanna desires to avoid? Yes.

Is the pain bad within Joanna’s experience? Yes.

Is the pain a final end? Yes, it is Joanna’s final end insofar as she is the one who feels the pain. However it is also Todd’s final end insofar as it makes sense for him to help out.

Is the pain intrinsically bad? I think so. I think Todd has a reason to help Joanna, even though he has no reason to think he could benefit from helping her. She will not have a chance to reciprocate or anything like that.

Some people will say that Todd has a reason to help insofar as he cares for Joanna. Perhaps he has a strong sense of empathy for strangers. But then we can wonder if Todd should have empathy for strangers who will never reciprocate. Perhaps empathy can help improve our relationships with friends and relatives, but why have empathy for strangers? It might be possible for us to learn to be selective about who we empathize with, and the intergroup bias suggests that the way we view our membership in various groups can have a strong effect on how much we empathize with others. Current research suggests that people already tend to empathize much more with those they think of as members of their group than others:

We know… that adults with normal empathic capacity also frequently fail to respond to another’s suffering. This may be because people are less likely to detect and attend to another’s suffering when the victim is distant in space, time, kinship, or across racial, political, or social group boundaries (Batson & Ahmad, 2009). Empathy is even fragile between minimal groups — groups in which the boundary is arbitrary (e.g., red team and blue team) — such that children randomly assigned to color teams show greater empathy for ingroup members than for outgroup members when those children are socially rejected (Masten, Gillen ‐ O’Neel, & Brown, 2010).1

Similarly people often also have the chance to help animals who are suffering. Does the suffering of animals matter? I think so, and yet we have no reason to expect the animals to reciprocate. Also, not everyone has empathy for animals. Empathy can be very selective and is often very selective.


Our experiences are one of the most important ways we can know about the world (at the very least), but our experiences have to be interpreted properly. My interpretation of our experiences of (intense) pain is that we experience that they are intrinsically bad. Why? Because we experience that (intense) pain is bad (in some sense), and all the plausible ways we can interpret certain pain experiences as being bad seem insufficient other than that we experience that it’s intrinsically bad. I did not fully argue for that to be the case here, but I did illustrate how I interpret various pain experiences.


1 Bruneau, Emile G. and Rebecca Saxe. (“Identifying, Measuring, and Regulating the Psychologial Biases that Contribute to Political Violence.” [PDF]) 3.

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  1. “In that case we would have to think of a pain experience that’s experienced as being bad, but it’s not something that we desire to avoid, or something that feels bad, or something that thwarts a goal. I don’t think we will ever be able to come up with an example of a pain experience like that, but I don’t think we have to.”

    Well, that’s where I get off the train. I think (and I’m sure many others would as well) that any and all pain experiences being bad are plausibly explained by desire-dependent reasons. The invocation of 6 alongside these desire-dependent explanations requires an ontological commitment that is not attractive given my background evidence. Such that on the balance of probabilities I think it’s amply reasonable to deny that pain experiences being bad are even sometimes best explained as being intrinsically bad.

    There is still more I think I could say more but given the global considerations above I don’t think I need to. The argument definitely gets you thinking and will no doubt convince some.

    Comment by Koala — September 6, 2013 @ 9:01 am | Reply

    • Yes, some people will not believe the intrinsic value interpretation is plausible because they think there is something ontologically loaded about it. That’s one reason that moral anti-realism is considered to be a legitimate option for philosophers, and it might be the best reason to be an anti-realist. I do not claim that I know intrinsic values to exist and can prove it to everyone once and for all. I realize that smart people disagree with me. This is just part of an ongoing debate.

      Even so, I have discussed what I believe to be your concern in detail here:

      Comment by JW Gray — September 6, 2013 @ 5:40 pm | Reply

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