Philosophy Tutor: Pain and Pleasure

Posted by Enoch Lambert on 8/22/14 10:15 AM

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Philosophy students! Let it never be said that I, your philosophy tutor, never showed you that  philosophy can and does impact the real world.  The philosopher Peter Singer’s 1975 book, Animal Liberation, has had a tremendous impact on our contemporary world (as have several other of his books).  It not only helped bring attention to the ways the animal meat we eat is manufactured, it provided powerful arguments that those ways are morally impermissible which have given animus to many individuals and movements to change their eating habits and advocate for agricultural reform.  Part of his argument might be summed up by saying, pain is pain! It makes no difference whether pain happens inside of non-human animals or human animals--we have an obligation to minimize it as much as possible and to not inflict it merely for our own comfort or leisure.  I was reminded of Singer’s work this week when I read this article appearing in the New York Times trying to argue that raising animals for food is not so bad so long as we can do it without inflicting unnecessary suffering on them (though the author recognizes that this would still require major consumer and agricultural reform).  

I’m not here to discuss the question of vegetarianism itself today. II will neither try to add to the debate nor try to advocate for one position over another, though I highly recommend reading the works above.  Rather, I would like to briefly discuss some general philosophical issues raised by the debate that deserve treatment of their own, answers to which may carry consequences for the ethical issues.  As is my usual modus operandi, I will try to raise questions and provoke thinking, rather than try to persuade.  

Singer and others have essentially argued that the location of pain is morally irrelevant.  All pain deserves moral consideration, no matter what kind of body (human or otherwise) it belongs to.  Now, of course the same kind of pain can be caused in multiple places.  I’m pretty sure of that because I’ve stubbed both my right and my left big toes and I can testify that the pain is pretty much the same in both places.  Any being that has the same neurophysiology associated with their toes (or similar appendages) will almost surely experience the same sort of pain as I do when they bang said toes or appendages against something hard.  But are all pains basically of the same type?  

Let me try to get clearer about what I mean.  On the one hand, we certainly do make some kind of distinctions in types of pains.  We talk about “dull” vs. “sharp” pains.  And we say that some are more intense than others.  Certainly some have different behavioral effects than others.  Virtually any adult can restrain from showing any signs of being in pain when lightly pinched.  But virtually no one has the power to refrain from involuntarily exhibiting a number of pain-related behaviors upon badly fracturing a bone.  But these distinctions in kinds of pains are relatively superficial compared to what I have in mind.  

My question is whether there are pains, or (more broadly) negative effects, that are so qualitatively different from the kinds of physical ailments we undergo from day to day that they deserve another name altogether.  Whether there are negative experiences that require more sophisticated experiential capacity to undergo, to feel, and to understand.  Consider, for instance, the experience of contemplating your own death.  Not when you are facing the possibility of immanent death, so that your physiological defense mechanisms are aroused.  But when you are otherwise relaxed and unoccupied.  Many people report feelings not just of fear (as when faced with immediate threat) but a special kind of terror accompanied by feelings of uncanniness, absurdity, etc.  Such feelings clearly have negative affective quality to them.  But are they best described as painful?  Could they be assessed on the same scale as garden variety pains?  

On the flip side, consider pleasure.  I get a lot of it when I eat certain foods.  I remember a time in my life when there was little more enjoyable than eating one of my favorite treats.  And my best guess after watching many dogs eat is that they derive a certain amount of pleasure from eating as well.  But are the experiences of my younger self and of dogs when chowing on our favorite foods all there is to pleasure or feelings of good affect?  Are all the experiences I seek out just more or less intense versions of that exact type of feeling I had as a youth?  

Consider activities like setting a long term goal, working hard to achieve it, and then accomplishing it; being able to understand some great idea or work of art or piece of music and appreciating what makes it so good; deeply connecting on multiple different levels with another person through an intense conversation.  Are the positive feelings associated with such activities the same type of state as those caused by the gustatory sensations from a lollipop?  If not, what is the best way to describe them?  What makes them different?  

I have been suggesting that there may be feelings with positive and negative valence that are not reducible to pleasure or pain.  And if there are such feelings, they certainly deserve moral consideration--at least as much as pleasure and pain.  Even more, though, it is worth wondering whether whatever machinery that makes it possible to experience these more sophisticated positive and negative affects also “reach down” and influence how basic pain and pleasure are experienced.  Answers to such descriptive questions about how minds operate may affect how we reason about ethical issues such as the one mentioned at the start.     

Tags: philosophy