Tag Archives: moral intuition

Is it obvious that pain is very important?

“Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase of pain. Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes [...].  –George Orwell, 1984 via Brian Tomasik , who seems to agree that just considering pain should be enough to tell you that it’s very important.

It seems quite a few people I know consider pain to have some kind of special status of badness, and that preventing it is thus much more important than I think it. I wouldn’t object, except that they apply this in their ethics, rather than just their preferences regarding themselves. For instance arguing that other people shouldn’t have children, because of the possibility of those children suffering pain. I think pain is less important to most people relative to their other values than such negative utilitarians and similar folk believe.

One such argument for the extreme importance of pain is something like ‘it’s obvious’. When you are in a lot of pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. Hell, even when you are in a small amount of pain, mitigating it seems a high priority. When you are looking at something in extreme pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. So pain is just obviously the most important bad thing there is. The feeling of wanting a boat and not having one just can’t compare to pain. The goodness of lying down at the end of a busy day is nothing next to the badness of even relatively small pains.

I hope I do this argument justice, as I don’t have a proper written example of it at hand.

An immediate counter is that when we are not in pain, or directly looking at things in pain, pain doesn’t seem so important. For instance, though many people in the thralls of a hangover consider it to be pretty bad, they are repeatedly willing to trade half a day of hangover for an evening of drunkenness. ‘Ah’, you may say, ‘that’s just evidence that life is bad – so bad that they are desperate to relieve themselves from the torment of their sober existences! So desperate that they can’t think of tomorrow!’. But people have been known to plan drinking events, and even to be in quite good spirits in anticipation of the whole thing.

It is implicit in the argument from ‘pain seems really bad close up’ that pain does not seem so bad from a distance. How then to know whether your near or far assessment is better?

You could say that up close is more accurate, because everything is more accurate with more detail. Yet since this is a comparison between different values, being up close to one relative to others should actually bias the judgement.

Perhaps up close is more accurate because at a distance we do our best not to think about pain, because it is the worst thing there is.

If you are like many people, when you are eating potato chips, you really want to eat more potato chips. Concern for your health, your figure, your experience of nausea all pale into nothing when faced with your drive to eat more potato chips. We don’t take that as good evidence that really deep down you want to eat a lot of potato chips, and you are just avoiding thinking about it all the rest of the time to stop yourself from going crazy. How is that different?

Are there other reasons to pay special attention to the importance of pain to people who are actually experiencing it?

Added: I think I have a very low pain threshold, and am in a lot of pain far more often than most people. I also have bad panic attacks from time to time, which I consider more unpleasant than any pain I have come across, and milder panic attacks frequently. So it’s not that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I agree that suffering comes with (or consists of) an intense urge to stop the suffering ASAP. I just don’t see that this means that I should submit to those urges the rest of the time. To the contrary! It’s bad enough to devote that much time to such obsessions. When I am not in pain I prefer to work on other goals I have, like writing interesting blog posts, rather than say trying to discover better painkillers. I am not willing to experiment with drugs that could help if I think they might interfere with my productivity in other ways. Is that wrong?

One-on-one charity

People care less about large groups of people than individuals, per capita and often in total. People also care more when they are one of very few people who could act, not part of a large group. In many large scale problems, both of these effects combine. For instance climate change is being caused by a vast number of people and will affect a vast number of people. Many poor people could do with help from any of many rich people. Each rich person sees themselves as one of a huge number who could help that mass ‘the poor’.

One strategy a charity could use when both of these problems are present at once is to pair its potential donors and donees one-to-one. They could for instance promise the family of 109 Seventeenth St. that a particular destitute girl is their own personal poor person, and they will not be bothered again (by that organisation) about any other poor people, and that this person will not receive help from anyone else (via that organisation). This would remove both of the aforementioned problems.

If they did this, I think potential donors would feel more concerned about their poor person than they previously felt about the whole bunch of them. I also think they would feel emotionally blackmailed and angry. I expect the latter effects would dominate their reactions. If you agree with my expectations, an interesting question is why it would be considered unfriendly behaviour on the part of the charity. If you don’t, an interesting question is why charities don’t do something like this.

Leaving out the dead

She asked how uncle Freddie was doing. The past few days have been quite bad for him, I said. He was killed by a bus just over a month ago. The first few weeks nothing good happened that he would have missed, but he really would have liked it when the cousins visited. We are thinking about cancelling the wedding. He really would have wanted to be there and the deprivations are getting to be a bit much.

This is a quote from Ben Bradley via Clayton Littlejohn‘s blog. Commenters there agree that postponing the wedding will not help Freddie, but their suggestions about why seem quite implausible to me.

This is really no different to if Freddy was alive but couldn’t come to the wedding because he was busy. Would it be better for him if we cancel it entirely so he wouldn’t be able to come in any case? I hope it is clear enough here that the answer is no. His loss from failing to attend is the comparison between a world where he could attend and the real world. Changing to a different real world where he still can’t attend makes no difference to him in terms of deprivation. This doesn’t involve the controversial questions about how to treat non-existent people. But I think in all relevant ways it is just the same as dead Freddy’s problem.

The apparent trickiness or interestingness of the original problem seems to stem from thinking of Freddy’s loss as being some kind of suffering at some point in time in the real world, rather than a comparison between the real world and some counterfactual one. This prompts confusion because it seems strange to think he is suffering when he doesn’t exist, yet also strange to think that he doesn’t bear some cost from missing out on these things or from being dead.

But really there is no problem here because he is not suffering in the affective sense, the harm to him is just of missing out. It would indeed be strange if he suffered ill feelings, but failing to enjoy a good experience seems well within the capacity of a dead person. And as John Broome has elaborated before - while suffering happens at particular times, harms are comparisons between worlds, perhaps of whole lives, so don’t need to be associated with specific times. My failure to have experienced a first time bungie jumping can’t usefully be said to have occurred at any particular moment, yet it is quite clear that I have failed to experience it. You could say it happens at all moments, but one can really only expect a single first bungie jump, so I can’t claim to suffer from the aggregate loss of failing to experience it at every moment.

You might think of the failure as happening at different moments in different comparisons with worlds where I do bungie jump at different times. This is accurate in some sense, but there is just no need to bother differentiating all those worlds in order to work out if I have suffered that cost. And without trying to specify a time for the failure, you avoid any problems when asked if a person who dies before they would have bungie jumped missed out on bungie jumping. And it becomes easy to say that Freddy suffered a cost from missing the wedding, one that cannot be averted by everyone else missing it too.

***

P.S. If you wonder where I have been lately, the answer is mostly moving to Pittsburgh, via England. I’m at CMU now, and trying to focus more on philosophy topics (my course of study here). If you know of good philosophy blogs, please point them out to me. I am especially interested in ones about ideas, rather than conference dates and other news.

Mediocre masses are not what’s repugnant

The usual repugnant conclusion:

A world of people living very good lives is always less good than some much larger world of people whose lives are only just worth living.

My variant, in brief:

A world containing a number of people living very good lives is always less good than some much larger, longer lived world of people whose lives contain extremes of good and bad that overall add to life being only just worth living.

The usual repugnant conclusion is considered very counterintuitive, so most people disagree with it. Consequently avoiding the repugnant conclusion is often taken as a strong constraint on what a reasonable population ethics could look like (e.g. see this list of ways to amend population ethics, or chapter 17 onwards of Reasons and Persons ). I asked my readers how crazy they thought it was to accept my variant of the repugnant conclusion, relative to the craziness of accepting the usual one. Below are the results so far.

Results from repugnance poll

Poll results

Most people’s intuitions about my variant were quite different from the usual intuition about the repugnant conclusion, with only 21% considering both conclusions about as crazy. Everyone else who made the comparison found my version much more palatable, with 57% of people claiming it was quite sensible or better. These are the reverse of the usual intuition.

This difference demonstrates that the usual intuition about the repugnant conclusion can’t be so easily generalised to ‘large populations of low value lives shouldn’t add up to a lot of value’, which is what the repugnant conclusion is usually taken to suggest. Such a generalization can’t be made because the intuition does not hold in such situations in general. The usual aversion must be about something other than population and the value in each life. Something that we usually abstract away when talking about the repugnant conclusion.

What could it be? I changed several things in my variant, so here are some hypotheses:

Variance: This is the most obvious change. Perhaps our intuitions are not so sensitive to the overall quality of a life as by the heights of the best bits. It’s not the notion of a low average that’s depressing, it’s losing the hope of a high.

Time: I described my large civilization as lasting much longer than my short one, rather than being larger only in space. This could make a difference: as Robin and I noted recently, people feel more positively about populations spread across time than across space. I originally included this change because I thought my own ill feelings toward the repugnant conclusion seemed to be driven in part by the loss of hope for future development that a large non-thriving population brings to mind, though that should not be part of the thought experiment. So that’s another explanation for the time dimension mattering

Respectability/Status: in my variant, the big world people look like respectable, deserving elites, whereas if you picture the repugnant conclusion scenario as a packed subsistance world, they do not. This could make a difference to how valuable their world seems. Most people seem to care much more about respectable, deserving elites than they do about the average person living a subsistance lifestyle. Enjoying First World wealth without sending a lot of it to poor countries almost requires being pretty unconcerned about people who live near subsistance. Could our aversion to the repugnant conclusion merely be a manifestation of that disregard?

Error: Approximately less than 4% of those who looked at my post voted; perhaps they are strange for some reason. Perhaps most of my readers are in favour of accepting all versions of the repugnant conclusion, unlike other people.

Suppose my results really are representative of most people’s intuitions. Something other than the large population of lives barely worth living makes the repugnant conclusion scenario repugnant. Depending on what it is, we might find that intuition more or less worth overruling. For instance if it is just a disrespect for lowly people, we might prefer to give it up. In the mean time, if the repugnant conclusion is repugnant for some unknown reason which is not that it contains a large number of people with mediocre wellbeing, I think we should refrain from taking it as such a strong constraint on ethics regarding populations and their wellbeing.

Is it repugnant?

Derek Parfit‘s ‘Repugnant Conclusion‘ is that for any world of extremely happy and fulfilled people, there is a better world which contains a much larger number of people whose lives are only just worth living. This is a hard to avoid consequence of ethical theories where more of whatever makes life worth living is better. It’s more complicated than that, but population ethicists have had a hard time finding a theory that avoids the repugnant conclusion without implying other crazy seeming things.

Parfit originally pointed out that people whose lives are barely worth living could be living lives of constant very low value, or their lives could have huge highs and lows. He asked us to focus on the first. I’m curious whether normal intuitions differ if we focus on a different form of ‘barely worth living’.

Consider an enormous and very rich civilization. Its members appreciate every detail of their lives very sensitively, and their lives are dramatic. They each regularly experience soaring elation, deep contentment and overpowering sensory pleasure. They are keenly ambitious, and almost always achieve their dreams. Everyone is successful and appreciated, and they are all extremely pleased about that. But these people are also subject to deep depressions, and are easily overcome by fear, rage or jealousy. Sometimes they lie awake at night anguished about their insignificance in the universe and their impending deaths. If they don’t achieve what they hoped they can become overwhelmed by guilt, insecurity, and hurt pride. They soon bounce back, but live is slight fear of those emotions. They also have excruciating migraine headaches when they work too hard. All up, the positives in each person’s action packed life just outweigh the negatives.

Now suppose there is a choice to have a small world of people who only appreciate the pleasures, or a much much larger world like that described above. Perhaps it turns out that the overly pleasured people are unable to be made productive for instance, so we can choose a short future with a large number of people enjoying idle bliss with our saved up resources, or an indefinitely long future with an incredibly much larger number of productive people each enjoying small net positives. How crazy does it seem to prefer the latter at some level of extreme size?

 

I give my interpretation of the results here.