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?

24 responses to “Is it obvious that pain is very important?

  1. People are willing to put themselves through some short-term pain to achieve a greater objective. So, while pain is a bad, it’s certainly not an infinite bad, and the fact that something (e.g. having a child) cannot happen without the possibility of future pain is not a good argument against that something.

  2. “Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase of pain. ” “Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain” – this is tangential to your main point, but it seems like a mistake to take as a founding assumption of your thinking on a subject something which has an obvious counterexample in BDSM, as well as other examples mentioned in the blog post Mike cites. A philosopher who tried to define their way out of this would no longer be cutting Nature at the joins.

  3. People with high AQ scores
    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html
    typically have unusually low pain-sensitivity compare to neurotypicals. Many very high AQ people can stoically endure physical insults that would leave the rest of us screaming in agony.
    This finding accords with the extreme-male-brain theory of autistic spectrum disorder: testosterone is a powerful painkiller. But perhaps another factor is beta-endorphin levels in high AQ folk are elevated too. [Recall how pain-racked patients given morphine commonly report that afterwards they can still feel the pain, but the sensation doesn’t seem to matter any more.]
    Abnormal opioid function may also help explain why high AQ folk are not so reliant as neurotypicals on social interaction – the normal source of endogenous opioid release in social primaries,.

    I know Katja’s AQ score is almost three times mine. I think pain is the worst thing in the world: I would sign away the keys to my home rather than endure 10 seconds of torture. And I sympathise with David Benatar (“Better Never To Have Been”) – though selection pressure means Benatar’s proposed solution of human extinction though voluntary childlessness won’t work.

    So who is right? The high AQ scoring lesswrong crowd, for instance, or tender-minded neo-Buddhist animal lovers?

    Well, I’m biased, obviously. But one reason I’d argue that ethicists who prioritize severe pain are correct is that in the realm of pure phenomenology, appearance and reality are one-and-the-same. If you feel you are in excruciating agony, then you really are in excruciating agony. For sure, you can be mistaken if you think your torments are God punishing you for your sins, or whatever – but not mistaken about the raw phenomenal horror of the experience itself.
    Meta-ethical anti-realists would presumably respond here that this fact of neurotypical human psychology doesn’t show pain is of cardinal importance – or indeed of any importance at all. But IMO the fact that agony is empirically important is enough – regardless of any metaphysical issues about what agony “means”. It’s objectively the case that first-person facts (e.g. I am in all-consuming agony) are as much part of the furniture of the world as the rest mass of the electron or the second law of thermodynamics. Without the pleasure-pain axis, nothing would matter at all.

    Anyhow, philosophising aside, here is one practical proposal that might significantly reduce the burden of suffering in the world.
    Before having children, IMO all prospective parents should use preimplantation genetic diagnosis to ensure that their children are born with benign “low pain” alleles of of the SCN9a gene:
    http://www.jci.org/articles/view/33297

  4. Alexander Kruel

    Masochist: Please hurt me!
    Sadist: No.

  5. We (the group I belong in) are raised up on the implicit assumption that pain leads to success or other sorts of good thing. Maybe it is connected to another assumption, that every one is treated equally. Extra pain, is to be balanced with extra gain. No pain, no gain. If gain, then pain.

    Actually, I think a certain amount of pain is good for at least two reasons. It makes me more compassionate to other people who I take to be in painful situations. There is a distance between knowing it and actually sensing it. The latter has a closer connection to our ethical behavior sometimes. Besides, pains stimulates a stronger desire to get rid of it. To do that, I identify its course and trying to manipulate. Possibly, would end up with some betterment of self.
    I did not agree that people usually took pain to be the least wanted thing in life. Quite contrary, I think people are addicted to it sometimes.
    Cafeine, tobacco, as well as other substance that are addictive tend to invoke bitterness, which is a slight version of pain. And what about people get tatoo, after experiencing a counsiderable degree of pain.

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

    Not special in the sense of qualitatively different. But you would want to include your episodes of potato-chip bliss in evaluating the value of potato chips. And so with pain, perhaps to greater effect because of questions of degree.

    What ought to bother you is the absence of any rule as to how to combine the near and far assessments. Neither can be taken alone, yet any way of combining them is apparently arbitrary. This doesn’t go down well with your scalar utilitarianism.

  7. Pablo Stafforini

    I think we should rely on near assessments of pain and compare those with near assessments of rival values. The bias that concerns you is avoided if one relies on recollections of prior near assessments at a time when one is neither directly experiencing pain nor in direct contact with those other values. At this moment, I’m experiencing neither pain nor the taste of potato chips. But I can recall that, when I was in pain, I thought the experience was worse than I thought the taste of chips was good when I eat them.

    But this is also the reason I am personally not a negative utilitarian. I recall some near assessments of pain and near assessments of pleasure such that the assessed badness of the pain was greater than the assessed goodness of the pleasure.

  8. Pablo Stafforini

    (Sorry, in case it wasn’t obvious, the final clause of the last sentence should have read: “the assessed goodness of the pleasure was greater than the assessed badness of the pain”.)

  9. Pingback: Pain in context « Blunt Object

  10. Thanks for the post, Katja! A few things to say.

    First, I don’t entirely agree with Orwell’s choice of words, but I included the quote as he wrote it for the sake of readability. In particular, as many have pointed out, what matters is not “pain” directly but “suffering,” i.e., the response that “this feels really awful and I want it to stop.” The commenters raised several examples where pain itself isn’t aversive: Pain asymbolia, masochism, people given morphine, etc., not to mention self-cutting and other things people do in order to release endorphins/opioids to make themselves feel better.

    I would also omit Orwell’s word “physical,” because because mental pain can be just as bad.

    Finally, I would say that I don’t believe that just any old amount of suffering has a moral seriousness far beyond other emotions. Rather, there are certain forms of severe suffering — say, burning at the stake, or being a chicken that has missed the cutting blade of a slaughterhouse and is submerged into boiling water to drown while defeathering — that call for such extreme attention relative to other things. I’m not necessarily a negative utilitarian, but my exchange rate between this kind of suffering and other pleasure is extreme. For example, I might say 1 minute of burning at the stake == 100 billion years of eating really yummy potato chips. (This is an illustration; I might waffle on the exact numbers.)

    Most suffering isn’t nearly so extreme in its importance relative to potato chips and the like.

    [Katja:] “Concern for your health, your figure, your experience of nausea all pale into nothing when faced with your drive to eat more potato chips.”

    Yes, this is similar to the case of doing anything to avoid pain. But as Pablo said, I think there’s a difference of degree when I reflect on the two experiences.

    To answer your question, I don’t think there’s a good “argument” for why the most severe forms of pain (e.g., torture experiences) deserve so much more weight than everything else. I don’t think it can be deduced from the fact that people avoid pain at all costs when tortured, because people do all kinds of other stupid things in the heat of the moment, like injecting drugs with a needle that they know has been used by someone with HIV. Rather, I feel after reflection that extreme suffering stands out, and I think the Orwell quote is a poetic expression of this sentiment, even if the quote isn’t necessarily the reason for it.

    (By the way, in the context of the novel, Winston would probably agree with my distinction between ordinary suffering and extreme suffering. O’Brien says the following in Part III, Chapter 5: “‘By itself […] pain is not always enough. There are occasions when a human being will stand out against pain, even to the point of death. But for everyone there is something unendurable–something that cannot be contemplated. Courage and cowardice are not involved.”)

    [jjuuaann0:] “It makes me more compassionate to other people who I take to be in painful situations. There is a distance between knowing it and actually sensing it. The latter has a closer connection to our ethical behavior sometimes.”

    Yes, I agree. In fact, there’s a recent thread on Felicifia (http://felicifia.org/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=492) discussing the possibility that painful experiences during life lead to greater empathy and concern for preventing the suffering of others. However, this is an instrumental benefit of suffering. We can (and should) still regard the suffering itself as intrinsically bad, even though the positive consequences might outweigh the original cost.

    • Thanks for the detailed reply.

      I didn’t mean to suggest that eating potato chips compares in degree to being in intense pain. Just that we tend to treat the singleminded obsession they both bring about differently. For pain, we take it as reason to be much more concerned about pain the rest of the time. For potato chips, we take it as reason to just not start eating potato chips, or at least not to have a large stash of them nearby. If we treated potato chips analogously to pain, we would think the rest of the time that we really should eat more potato chips, knowing how very addictive they are when you are eating them. My question is why we should treat these two obsessions so differently.

      “I don’t think there’s a good “argument” for why the most severe forms of pain (e.g., torture experiences) deserve so much more weight than everything else…Rather, I feel after reflection that extreme suffering stands out”

      What goes on in this reflection?

      I agree with you that suffering is the problem, and that physical suffering is not necessarily the worst.

      • Pablo Stafforini

        “I didn’t mean to suggest that eating potato chips compares in degree to being in intense pain. Just that we tend to treat the singleminded obsession they both bring about differently. For pain, we take it as reason to be much more concerned about pain the rest of the time. For potato chips, we take it as reason to just not start eating potato chips, or at least not to have a large stash of them nearby.”

        I think this is so because there is a mismatch between how much we want potato chips and how much (less) we like them (see Kent Berridge, ‘Food reward: brain substrates of wanting and liking‘), whereas there is no such mismatch in typical instances of pain. Just as with drug cravings, the intensity of many food cravings is not indicative of the degree to which we like such foods.

        • I agree with Pablo’s liking vs. wanting point on potato chips, and for utilitarians, liking is all that matters. However, to the extent we do like potato chips, eating them has some positive value, and as I said, billions of years of enjoyable (not just addiction-driven) potato-chip munching might compete with a minute of torture.

          “What goes on in this reflection?”

          Mainly I consider what kinds of package deals I would accept for future experiences. If we paused time, sent me to a machine to have certain experiences, erased my memory at the end, and then brought me back and restarted time, in which cases would I prefer to have the experiences? I conclude that it would take a huge amount of pleasure to outweigh very brief periods of suffering if the suffering was extreme. Ordinary suffering — even things like getting a fever or being nauseous — don’t take too much pleasure to compensate, but drowning or burning alive do.

  11. I’m glad Brian Tomasik posted that comment, as it means I don’t have to!
    I am almost a negative utilitarian (not a ‘perfect’ one to whom happiness, etc., doesn’t matter) because there are so many ways to suffer, with such great magnitudes, and so few ways to experience joy, especially lasting joy.

    If pain didn’t cause suffering, it wouldn’t be matter at all. (In fact, it would probably not exist at all and have been replaced by something else that causes suffering. Maybe we would have named this thing, “pain”…)

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  13. >> 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 know this post isn't directly addressing anti-natalism, but I do want to just note that the "harm of coming into existence" argued for by at least some anti-natalists is not necessarily as narrowly hedonic as it might at first appear. The harm might include, for instance, death itself, the end it brings to all one has an interest in having continue but which depends for that continuance on one's being ably alive.

  14. “We all have enough strength to endure the misfortunes of others”.
    (La Rochefoucauld)

    Memory tends to be state-dependent. So to de-bias ourselves, it might be useful if this discussion were conducted, not merely in a state of physically comfortable well-being, but also while writer and reader alike were in severe pain. We could then speak more authoritatively on the topic. For one common theme of people who do undergo excruciating pain is their shock at just how terrible raw agony can be – terrible to an extent that is normally cognitively closed to us. In addition, genetic and physiological differences mean that “severe” pain as understood by some people is qualitatively distinct from severe pain as experienced by others. Indeed there are some experiences so bad that one would destroy oneself and the whole world to stop them. Do pain-racked people who kill themselves – and who would destroy the world too – overestimate the awfulness of their experience? If our representational capacities were sufficiently advanced that we were all endowed with a generalisation of mirror-touch synaesthesia, I wonder what conclusions we might draw.
    (cf. http://www.livescience.com/1628-study-people-literally-feel-pain.html)

    I agree with Katja that the possibility that maybe pain _isn’t_ very important should be critically examined. But then it should be dismissed. For if the idea were to gain currency, then the consequences could be ethically catastrophic. For example, self-serving bias means that humans already discount the suffering of nonhuman animals in our factory farms and slaughterhouses
    ( cf. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-17004268
    http://bit.ly/wwBXtA
    etc)
    Clearly, most humans already act, a lot of the time, as though we don’t think pain – or at least the pain of others – is very important. Explicit belief to that effect would make institutionalised animal abuse even worse. To conclude, if I may quote Robert Lynd: “It is a glorious thing to be indifferent to suffering, but only to one’s own suffering.”

  15. One argument that pain and/or suffering should have a special status is the evidence that bad is stronger than good – for instance, than bad experiences take longer to recover from, are more memorable, influence learning more, and are more predictive of relationship duration than good experiences. As Baumeister et al. put it in explaining why this general principal should be so, “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.”

    Is there any reason one should take one’s own pain to have a special status? Probably not – it might even be self-defeating to specially privilege pain, if you have a choice. Is there a reason one should consider pain more than pleasure when acting towards others, especially strangers? I think the reasons are stronger here, as in the case of feeding MDMA to strangers.

  16. Is it ironic that I happened to be eating potato chips when I read this blog post?

  17. I feel I must comment here because several people (David, Sister, Brian, Pablo) whose writings I follow have already commented. And pain is ‘obviously’ very important to me, be it only because I dedicated my lifelong work to the study and alleviation of suffering. I can see, however, that for people in general pain is not that important. I think we put faith or value in what ‘saves’ us, i.e. in what we do for a living, and in those people or things that support us with respect to life and death.

    Preference for the alleviation of pain as an ethical or professional commitment comes from a process of thought, like most other more or less ‘obvious’ commitments, I think. In my case, I experienced or witnessed in my youth a variety of sufferings so large that I realized they had a common feature: suffering itself!!! Then, when I had to choose what to do in life, I chose to work on that phenomenon, suffering itself. And to my great surprise, I realized that no one was busy in that field of work, that no one was working full time and for one’s entire life on that very topic!!!

    So, the question for me is not so much “Is it obvious that pain is very important?”, but rather: how come that suffering has not been considered important enough to be the subject of a proper discipline? The answer, I suggest, has to do with the profound ignorance and confusion that have prevailed until now regarding the real nature of pain.

  18. sheepordonuts

    I have found from personal experience, through help from my therapist, that my value judgements affect my qualitative and subjective experiences. the whole notion of “pain is bad” makes pain much worse. not only do you have the physical pain, you have a value judgement that this pain is bad/unwanted and this makes it much stronger. Certain things being given the value of good or bad are very much culturally driven and it is often hard to even see that one is doing it. Having pain and trying hard over extended time to not judge this pain as “good” or “bad” can have amazing effects onto the intensity of that pain, and even more on the ability to bear that pain. I feel that bad moved away from meaning “something that would be preferably gone” to a more of a moral judgement, and in this process of miscommunication and misunderstanding we lost our ability to sense the world as it is.

  19. A lot of people willingly eat spicy food, even though the feeling is actually pain, and no one thinks it’s immoral. So it’s probably not the pain itself, but the preferences to avoid it and to stop it is what makes pain bad.

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