Tag Archives: badness of pain

Thomas Nagel

Generalization would lead to the recognition of value in possible future experiences, in the means to them, and in the lives of creatures other than ourselves. These values are not extra properties of goodness and badness, but just truths such as the following: If something I do will cause another creature to suffer, that counts against doing it. I can come to see that this is true by generalizing from the evident disvalue of my own suffering[.]

Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford, 2012, p. 77

Scott Siskind

The proper way to prove that pain is bad is proof by induction: specifically, hook an electric wire to the testicles of the person who doesn’t think pain is bad, induce a current, and continue it until the person admits that pain is bad.

Scott Siskind, Less Wrong

Stuart Rachels

Suffering, by its nature, is awful, and so one needs an excellent reason to cause it. Occasionally, one will have such a reason. Surgery may cause a human being severe postoperatory pain, but the surgeon may be right to operate if that’s the only way to save the patient.

And what if the sufferer is not a human, but an animal? This doesn’t matter. The underlying principle is that suffering is bad because of what it’s like for the sufferer. Whether the sufferer is a person or a pig or a chicken is irrelevant, just as it’s irrelevant whether the sufferer is white or black or brown. The question is merely how awful the suffering is to the individual.

Stuart Rachels, ‘Vegetarianism’, in T. L. Beauchamp & R. G. Frey (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, Oxford, 2012, pp. 883-884

John McTaggart

Pain is an evil–all our morality implies that. Even if we have a right to forgive the universe our own pain–and I doubt if we have the right to do even this–we have certainly no right to forgive it the pain of others. We must either believe the pain inflicted for some good purpose, or condemn the universe in which it occurs.

John McTaggart, ‘The Necessity of Dogma’, International Journal of Ethics, vol. 5, no. 2 (January, 1895), p. 156

Alastair Norcross

I have experienced pains no more severe than a broken wrist, torn ankle ligaments, or an abscess in a tooth. These were pretty bad, but I have no doubt that a skilled torturer could make me experience pains many times as bad.

Alastair Norcross, ‘Comparing Harms: Headaches and Human Lives’, Philosophy & Public Affairs (Spring, 1997), vol. 26, no. 2, p. 146

Jeff McMahan

Suffering is bad primarily because of its intrinsic nature: it is bad in itself. Suffering of a certain intensity and duration is equally bad, or almost equally bad, wherever it occurs.

Jeff McMahan, ‘Animals’, in R. G. Frey and Christopher Heath Wellman (eds.), A Companion to Applied Ethics, Malden, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 529

Michael Huemer

I have been a moral realist for as long as I can remember. I think the reason is roughly this: it seems to me that certain things, such as pain and suffering to take the clearest example, are bad. I don’t think I’m just making that up, and I don’t think that is just an arbitrary personal preference of mine. If I put my finger in a flame, I have a certain experience, and I can directly see something about it (about the experience) that is bad. Furthermore, if it is bad when I experience pain, it seems that it must also be bad when someone else experiences pain. Therefore, I should not inflict such pain on others, any more than they should inflict it on me. So there is at least one example of a rational moral principle.

Michael Huemer, Ethical Intuitionism, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2005, p. 250

Adam Smith

What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience? To one in this situation, all accessions of fortune may properly be said to be superfluous; and if he is much elevated upon account of them, it must be the effect of the most frivolous levity. This situation, however, may very well be called the natural and ordinary state of mankind. Notwithstanding the present misery and depravity of the world, so justly lamented, this really is the state of the greater part of men. The greater part of men, therefore, cannot find any great difficulty in elevating themselves to all the joy which any accession to this situation can well excite in their companion.

But though little can be added to this state, much may be taken from it. Though between this condition and the highest pitch of human prosperity, the interval is but a trifle; between it and the lowest depth of misery the distance is immense and prodigious. Adversity, on this account, necessarily depresses the mind of the sufferer much more below its natural state, than prosperity can elevate him above it.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759, sect. 1, chap. 3

Stuart Rachels

Ethics is founded on evidence that can’t be shared. My experience of severe pain gives me reason to believe that nihilism is false. In other words, when I am in severe pain, that pain, as it’s presented to me, gives me evidence that it’s bad in some way. I can’t share this evidence with you; you can’t feel my pain. Even if you could peer inside my head and see it, you wouldn’t be presented with it in a way that gave you evidence of its badness. But you, of course, are in the same position regarding your pain: when you are in severe pain, that pain, as it’s presented to you, provides you with evidence that it’s bad in some way. So, each of us has evidence for his or her severe pain being bad in some way. In the case of infants and nonhuman animals, the evidence is there, but the creature is too unsophisticated to recognize it as such.

Stuart Rachels, Hedonic Value, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Syracuse, 1998, p. 35

Thomas Nagel

Consider how strange is the question posed by someone who wants a justification for altruism about such a basic matter as this. Suppose he and some other people have been admitted to a hospital with severe burns after being rescued from a fire. “I understand how my pain provides me with a reason to take an analgesic,” he says, “and I understand how my groaning neighbor’s pain gives him a reason to take an analgesic; but how does his pain give me any reason to want him to be given an analgesic? How can his pain give me or anyone else looking at it from outside a reason?

This question is crazy. As an expression of puzzlement, it has that characteristic philosophical craziness which indicates that something very fundamental has gone wrong. This shows up in the fact that the answer to the question is obvious, so obvious that to ask the question is obviously a philosophical act. The answer is that pain is awful. The pain of the man groaning in the next bed is just as awful as yours. That’s your reason to want him to have an analgesic.

Thomas Nagel, ‘The Limits of Objectivity’, in Sterling McMurrin (ed.), The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 1, Cambridge, 1980, pp. 109-110

Thomas Nagel

When the objective self contemplates pain, it has to do so thought the perspective of the sufferer, and the sufferer’s reaction is very clear. Of course he wants to be rid of this pain unreflectively—not because he thinks it would be good to reduce the amount of pain in the world. But at the same time his awareness of how bad it is doesn’t essentially involve the thought of it as his. The desire to be rid of pain has only the pain as its object. This is shown by the fact that it doesn’t even require the idea of oneself in order to make sense: if I lacked or lost the conception of myself as distinct from other possible or actual persons, I could still apprehend the badness of pain, immediately. So when I consider it from an objective standpoint, the ego doesn’t get between the pain and the objective self. My objective attitude toward pain is rightly taken over from the immediate attitude of the subject, and naturally takes the form of an evaluation of the pain itself, rather than merely a judgment of what would be reasonable for its victim to want: “This experience ought not to go on, whoever is having it.” To regard pain as impersonally bad from the objective standpoint does not involve the illegitimate suppression of an essential reference to the identity of its victim. In its most primitive form, the fact that it is mine—the concept of myself—doesn’t come into my perception of the badness of my pain.

Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford, 1986, p. 161

John Broome

[Pain] is a bad thing in itself. It does not matter who experiences it, or where it comes in a life, or where in the course of a painful episode. Pain is bad; it should not happen. There should be as little pain as possible in the world, however it is distributed across people and across time.

John Broome, ‘More Pain or Less?’, Analysis, vol. 56, no. 2 (April, 1996), p. 117

Roger Scruton

If animals are conscious, then they feel things—for example, pain, fear and hunger—which is intrinsically bad to feel. To inflict deliberately such experiences on an animal for no reason is either to treat the animal as a thing or else in some way to relish its suffering. And surely both those attitudes are immoral.

Roger Scruton, Animal Rights and Wrongs, 2nd ed., London, 1998, p. 21