Monday, November 08, 2010

Pain and Warning

Bill Vallicella has an interesting pair of posts (One, Two) in which he argues for the failure of a common argument for the claim that pain, while real, is not intrinsically evil. (I put it this way because as far as I can see he doesn't give any argument for the claim that pain is intrinsically evil; the only arguments given seem to suggest only the much weaker conclusion that pain really is evil in some way. I have never, in fact, seen an argument for the claim that pain is intrinsically evil; I once read something by McCloskey on the subject that went on for pages and everything in those pages really just boiled down to saying that pain must be intrinsically evil because it just obviously was. Conceivably I'm missing some crucial argument that everyone just assumes and no one ever elaborates. Or, conceivably, there are just steps that are left out as obvious that I don't find obvious, which might well be the case here.) The particular argument in question is that pain is actually, insofar as it is a real thing, a good because it is a warning signal. In response, Vallicella lists four points (I leave off the fourth because I am unsure how it's supposed to be relevant, and therefore have nothing to say about it):

(1) "If pains are warning signals, then they are instrumentally good. But what is instrumentally good may also be intrinsically evil. The searing pain in a burnt hand, though instrumentally good, is intrinsically evil. Its positive 'entity' (entitas in scholastic jargon) is apparently not well accommodated on the classical doctrine that evils are privationes boni. Again, the pain is not the mere absence of the good of pleasure, but something positively bad. After all, the hand is not numb or as if aenesthetized; there is a positive sensation 'in' it, and this positive sensation is bad. So even if every pain served to warn us of bodily damage, that would not detract from the positive badness of the pain sensation. One cannot discount the intrinsic positive badness by pointing to the fact that the pain is instrumentally good."

(2) "The intensity of many pains seems out of all proportion to the good that they do in warning us of bodily damage. This excruciatingness is part of the evil of pain."

(3) "The argument that pain is good, not evil, because it warns us about bodily damage fails to account for the pain that persists after the warning has been heeded. The pain in my burnt hand continues, of course, because the hand has been damaged; but then that pain is intrinsically and positively evil and the evil cannot be discounted in the way the pain at the time of the contact of hand with stove can be discounted."

I don't think the Warning System Response is the strongest argument for the claim in question, despite its relative popularity, but I am unconvinced that these three points do much to weaken it. I think we need to be particularly careful with (1), because it is not clear what is meant by intrinsic badness in the first place. One way to gloss 'intrinsic badness' would be to say that something is intrinsically bad if and only if it is bad by its nature considered on its own and relative to nothing else. Read straight, that would make it impossible for any experience, like pain, to be intrinsically bad, because if pain is intrinsically bad it must always be bad for someone: pain is always for someone, and therefore can't be considered in abstraction from its relation to something other than itself. But there are many different ways one could tweak it. One could drop the "relative to nothing else," for instance; but it would seem that there could be things whose nature, as we find them in the world, consists of good + privation, with, obviously, the intrinsic badness coming from the intrinsic privation. If pain is intrinsically bad in this sense, it isn't a counterexample to the privation account. One could, alternatively, say that something is intrinsically bad if and only if it is the opposite of intrinsically good, understood as worth having for its own sake. Such an opposite, however, couldn't be "not worth having for its own sake," because then all instrumental good would be intrinsically bad. So the opposite must be "worth not having for its own sake," and I don't see how any sense is to be made of that. So we seem to have several alternatives here, and it's not clear what could be in view.

But setting this aside and assuming we have some solid account of intrinsic badness, I don't think we can move as quickly as (1) moves. For while it is true that, on the assumption that there is intrinsic badness at all and the plausible assumption that if there is any, intrinsic badness would have to be distinct from instrumental badness, we nonetheless have to consider that instrumental goodness often -- even if not always -- builds on features that can be recognized as intrinsically good. For instance, it's a common view that pleasure is intrinsically good; but if so it's precisely pleasure's intrinsic goodness that makes it apt for being instrumentally good in all sorts of ways (rewards). Likewise, if something is intrinsically bad, it's entirely reasonable to ask what it is about the thing that makes it nonetheless possible for it to be instrumentally good. It is entirely reasonable to take something's aptness for instrumental good as a sign that it is not intrinsically bad; even if it is not an infallible sign. So (1) on its own does not, I think, do enough. One can, however, see (2) and (3) as attempts to supply the lack.

The key thing we need to know in order to evaluate (2) is the precise relationship between excruciatingness and privation of proportion in pain. If excruciatingness is just one form of privation of proportion in pain -- e.g., one that involves excess with regard to a capacity for experience sufficient to disrupt the normal functioning of the capacity -- then (2) concedes the point at hand. Now, it is certainly clear that the two are related somehow, that what is excruciating is out of proportion; but one would have to say that there is something else in the excruciatingness that is not the privation and is intrinsically bad. (It's worth noting, as an incidental point, that there obviously is also a privation of proportion of pain in the other direction, i.e., a lack of proportion due to insufficient pain; lepers get it and because of it have to be very, very careful. Lepers often have sores and the like, but leprosy as such apparently doesn't do this kind of damage; what it does is make it very easy to damage yourself severely because you lack a sense of just how much damage is being done. It's this sort of thing, I take it, that makes the Warning System Response plausible to so many people. And it has to be admitted that it's difficult to make sense of what 'intrinsically bad' means if it's consistent with being worse off for lack of it, claims about instrumental goodness not withstanding.)

Similar things can be said about (3). But (3) in particular seems to be based on the idea that if pain is a warning it can only serve this function while damage is going on. This seems certainly not true: people with pains in their hands are motivated to take better care of their hands than people whose hands don't hurt; when the pain isn't noticed, people forget easily that damage has been done and still needs to be given space to heal. Thus the warning pain that a hand is burned seems to be just as functional as the warning pain that a hand is being burned.

So there seems something missing in the response, and I think it's pretty clear what it is. What we actually need to see is an account of intrinsic badness that shows (1) that pain is intrinsically bad; (2) that it is not intrinsically bad purely because it intrinsically involves a privation; and (3) that the way in which it is intrinsically bad according to the account allows its warning function, at least under proper circumstances, to be instrumentally good in the way it is. Without such a thing, I don't think any objection to the Warning System Response will be very persuasive.

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