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Pain, Dislike and Experience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2009

Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Oxford


It is widely held that it is only contingent that the sensation of pain is disliked, and that when pain is not disliked, it is not intrinsically bad. This conjunction of claims has often been taken to support a subjectivist view of pain's badness on which pain is bad simply because it is the object of a negative attitude and not because of what it feels like. In this article, I argue that accepting this conjunction of claims does not commit us to this subjectivist view. They are compatible with an objectivist view of pain's badness, and with thinking that this badness is due to its phenomenal quality. Indeed, I argue that once the full range of options is in view, the most plausible account of pain is incompatible with subjectivism about value.

Research Article
Utilitas , Volume 21 , Issue 3 , September 2009 , pp. 327 - 336
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 I'll assume throughout that whenever something is intrinsically bad it also gives reasons to avoid it.

2 For a detailed review of the effect of frontal lobotomy on pain, see Freeman, W. and Watts, J. W., Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders and Intractable Pain (Springfield, IL, 1950)Google Scholar. Philosophers tend to misreport these effects. Although lobotomy patients are not generally motivated to avoid or end their pain, it is not clear that they are completely indifferent to it. But there are other forms of brain disorder – such as pain asymbolia – where pain sensation does seem to be experienced without any trace of dislike.

3 For valiant recent attempts to defend the Sensation Theory, see Goldstein, Irwin, ‘Pleasure and Pain: Unconditional, Intrinsic Values’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50 (1989), pp. 255–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Rachels, Stuart, ‘Is Unpleasantness Intrinsic to Unpleasant Experiences?’, Philosophical Studies 99 (2000), pp. 187210CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 The denial of Contingency is compatible with subjectivism. One can hold the view that the sensation of pain is necessarily disliked, but that nevertheless it is not disliked because it is bad but bad because disliked. On this view, rather implausibly, it would be just a brute metaphysical fact that it is the sensation of pain – and not, say, that of a green afterimage – that is necessary disliked.

5 Notice that although the Necessary Dislike Theory is different from the Sensation Theory as it is usually defended, it is still the view that what makes pain bad is a particular sensation. So it is perhaps best to think of the Necessary Dislike Theory as the conjunction of the Dislike Theory and the Sensation Theory (see III below).

6 This version of the Dislike Theory is all too often missed, but this is not to say it has not been defended. Derek Parfit hints at it in Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984) and develops it explicitly in an unpublished manuscript. Feldman, Fred, ‘On the Intrinsic Value of Pleasures’, Ethics 107 (1997), pp. 448–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar, argues for it at length, but does not draw its metaethical implications. The objectivist version of the Dislike Theory that I shall develop below, however, is different in an important respect from the version endorsed by these philosophers.

7 I owe this way of drawing the distinction to Derek Parfit.

8 Notice also that on the objectivist view, the sensation of pain could be said to be bad only in a derivative sense.

9 For a similar complaint, see Chang, Ruth, ‘Can Desires Provide Reasons for Action?’, Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, ed. Wallace, J. R., (Oxford: 2004)Google Scholar and Sobel, David, ‘Pain For Objectivists: The Case of Matters of Mere Taste’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8 (2005), 437–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 This ambiguity is noted in Hare, R. M., ‘Pain and Evil’, Essays on the Moral Concepts (London, 1972)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 I have not seen this possibility discussed in the extensive literature on the question. A possible exception is Scanlon who talks of ‘complex experiential wholes’ combining sensation and dislike (Thomas Scanlon, ‘Replies’, Social Theory and Practice 28 (2002), pp. 337–40).

12 I am assuming that, if it were possible to unconsciously dislike one's present pain, this wouldn't count as an instance of suffering (for a defence of unconscious dislike, see Berridge, K. C. and Winkielman, P., ‘What is an Unconscious Emotion? (The Case for Unconscious “Liking”)’, Cognition and Emotion 17 (2003), pp. 181211)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Could it really be awful to experience a sensation that I was behaviourally disposed to want to end, even if at the time I was completely unaware of being thus motivated? For further evidence that our dislike of present pain isn't just a generic con-attitude, consider the fact that conscious dislike directed at a future sensation of pain also needn't be unpleasant or bad (see Scanlon, ‘Replies’).

13 I owe this suggestion to Derek Parfit.

14 See Hare, ‘Pain and Evil’, and Alston, William, ‘Pleasure’, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edwards, P. (New York, 1964), vol. 6, pp. 341–7Google Scholar.

15 See Ploner, M., Freund, H.-J., and Schnitzler, A., ‘Pain Affect Without Pain Sensation in a Patient with a Postcentral Lesion’, Pain 81 (1999), pp. 211–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The interpretation of such reports obviously requires further discussion. But it is subjectivists who repeatedly appeal to the example of lobotomy.

16 Talk of dislike suggests an attitude with an intentional object. I've tried to show that the state of dislike is not a generic con-attitude. But it is not even obvious that dislike must take an intentional object. Perhaps objectless anxiety is an example of objectless dislike. The experiential Dislike Theory can be revised to allow for such a possibility. The pure theory can't.

17 Of course, typical experiences of suffering will also include a neutral sensory component.

18 I have greatly benefited from discussing these issues with Derek Parfit. I am grateful to Timothy Chan and Nicholas Shackel for extremely useful comments.

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