The quality of pains

Chap. 2 of J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism is widely interpreted as defending qualitative hedonism, as a view about the nature of personal well-being. On views of this sort, your level of well-being is determined by certain facts about your pleasures and pains. However, it is not determined purely by “quantitative” facts about these pleasures’ and pains’ duration and intensity. Instead, it is determined by three dimensions of these pleasures and pains – namely, by their duration, intensity, and quality.

Extant discussions of this view have much to say about the quality of pleasures. But they have virtually nothing to say about the quality of pains. In this post, I shall sketch a version of qualitative hedonism that gives what seems to me a plausible account of the quality of both pleasures and pains.

According to this version of qualitative hedonism, pleasures always add to your personal well-being, and pains always detract from your well-being. But the degree to which a pleasure or pain affects your well-being is not just determined by the intensity and duration of that pleasure or pain. It also matters to what extent the pleasure or pain is appropriate.

Let us suppose, following a broadly Aristotelian view, that whenever you experience pleasure, this pleasure is closely associated with some conscious activity of yours. As I am thinking of them, these conscious activities are always at least partly mental activities, but may often essentially involve the external world as well. So, listening to your friend’s singing, climbing a mountain, or simply perceiving the warmth of the bath water on your skin, would all count as conscious activities of the relevant kind.

Similarly, let us suppose that whenever you suffer a pain – in the sense that concerns us – this pain is closely associated with some conscious activity of yours. For example, your bodily pains are associated with your conscious perception of a process that is occurring within your body. Other pains or experiences of distress may be associated with your consciously thinking about some terrible event or the like.

To keep things simple, in this post, I shall only focus on cases in which the conscious activity associated with the pleasure or pain is either a perceptual activity, or an activity that involves thinking about a state of affairs that one believes to obtain.

Focusing on these cases, I propose that the appropriateness of a pleasure or a pain is determined by the following two features of the associated conscious activity.

  1. For the pleasure or pain to be appropriate, any perception involved in the associated activity must be veridical, and any belief involved in the activity must be true. (Many of the pleasures and pains in Robert Nozick’s notorious example of the “experience machine” count as inappropriate for this reason.)
  2. Among these veridical cases, pleasure is appropriate to the extent that either the perception itself, or the object of the perception or belief, is good (or worthy of being enjoyed); and pain is appropriate to the extent that either the perception itself or the object of the perception or belief is bad (or worthy of one’s dislike or loathing).

With pleasures, the role of appropriateness is straightforward. The more appropriate a pleasure is, the more the pleasure contributes to your personal well-being – while conversely, the more inappropriate a pleasure is, the less the pleasure enhances your well-being. (According to this view, then, utterly inappropriate pleasures do enhance your well-being, but only to a vanishingly small degree that is barely distinguishable from their making no contribution at all.)

It seems plausible that there are two factors explaining why the appropriateness of a pleasure increases its contribution to your well-being:

  • An appropriate pleasure involves something good’s being (as we might say) “taken up into your life” through your pleasure.
  • It also involves your responding in an appropriate way to something that is worthy of this response.

In a parallel way, there are two factors explaining why the inappropriateness of a pleasure reduces the pleasure’s contribution to well-being:

  • An inappropriate pleasure does not involve something good’s being “taken up into your life” through your pleasure.
  • It also involves your responding in an inappropriate way, to something that is not worthy of this response.

With pains, on the other hand, these two factors pull in opposite directions. This is how it works with appropriate pains:

  • An appropriate pain involves something bad’s being taken up into your life through your pain – which in itself seems to intensify the extent to which the pain lowers your well-being.
  • But it also involves your responding in an appropriate way to something worthy of this response – which to some degree mitigates the extent to which it lowers your well-being.

These two factors also pull in opposite directions in the case of inappropriate pains:

  • An inappropriate pain does not involve anything bad’s being taken up into your life through your pain – which in itself seems to mitigate the extent to which the pain lowers your well-being.
  • But it also involves your responding in an inappropriate way towards something that does not merit this response – which seems to intensify the extent to which it lowers your well-being.

With pains, then, these two factors typically cancel each other out. Unlike the appropriateness or inappropriateness of pleasures, the appropriateness or inappropriateness of pains makes on balance little or no difference to the extent to which these pains detract from one’s well-being. Instead, the intensity and the duration of the pains are by far the most important factors.

This version of qualitative hedonism is still a broadly hedonistic view of personal well-being. On this view, something can only be intrinsically good for you only if it consists in your pleasure or enjoyment; and something can only be intrinsically bad for you only if it consists in your pain or distress. It is just the degree to which a pleasure is good for you depends on its degree of appropriateness – and if it  is appropriate, it involves something that is “worthy of being enjoyed” being “taken up” into your life through pleasure.

However, this view conflicts with the project of giving a hedonistic theory of value in general. It clearly presupposes certain other values – the values of perceptions, or of the objects of perceptions or beliefs, that make them “worthy of being enjoyed” or “worthy of one’s dislike or loathing”. It seems clear that these other values cannot themselves be explained in purely hedonistic terms. These other values would have to be explained in some other way. In this way, this kind of qualitative hedonism about personal well-being seems incompatible with a hedonistic theory of values in general.

9 Replies to “The quality of pains

  1. Thanks, John! That’s a good question.

    It’s been a while since I read Feldman’s 2006 book, Pleasure and the Good Life. And the view that I sketch here is certainly quite similar to his. So far as I can recall his view, however, there are a couple of differences.

    First, I’m not buying into his view that pleasure is to be understood in terms of our attitudes rather than our experiences. I think that my view is compatible with taking pleasure to be a distinctive feeling-involving mental state, closely associated in the way that I described to some other conscious activity, but than just an attitude of being pleased that…, as Feldman argues.

    Secondly, what I remember from Feldman’s view is his “truth-adjusted hedonism”. The “truth-adjusted” element corresponds to the first of the two conditions that I impose on the “appropriateness” of pleasures and pains. I may be forgetting something, but I don’t remember anything in Feldman’s work that corresponds to my second condition.

  2. Strictly speaking, the sketch given in this post doesn’t reflect my views 100% exactly. Ideally, I would have to restate this sketch to make it consistent with the principle that John Broome has defended (which I accept), that “goodness is reducible to betterness”.

    The way to do this, I believe, would be to argue that the value of personal well-being is itself the result of aggregating two simpler values: the hedonic dimension of well-being (the value of appropriate pleasures), and the analgesic dimension of well-being (the value of freedom from pain). In comparing two lives, to determine which life has a higher overall level of well-being, we must take account both (a) of which life is better in hedonic terms, and also (b) of which life is better is analgesic terms, and we must then somehow aggregate these two values to weigh them against each other.

    Within this framework, then, the key points of the post are the following:

    1. One life is better than another on the hedonic dimension of well-being to the extent that it has a higher score in terms of the appropriateness-adjusted quantity of the pleasures that the life contains.
    2. One life is better than another on the analgesic dimension of well-being simply to the extent that it contains a lower quantity of pains; it is not necessary to consider the appropriateness of these pains.

    The main point of the post could be taken as an explanation of why there is this difference between the hedonic and analgesic dimensions of well-being.

  3. Ralph, this is fascinating! Just a little side question about what it means for something good or bad to be “taken up into your life” through pleasure/pain. You say that “an inappropriate pain does not involve anything bad’s being taken up into your life through your pain,” and that that mitigates the extent to which the pain lowers your well being. Could an inappropriate pain actually involve taking something *good* “up into your life” (but just “taking it up” in a really wrong-headed way)? Or does your understanding of “taking up into” preclude that?

  4. Thanks, Olivia! Your comment raises two questions, I think.

    1. The first question is about my image of something’s being “taken up into your life”. My idea is that there are lots of good and bad things that happen in the world — but only some of these good things make your life better (with respect to personal well-being), and only some of the bad things make your life worse (in this respect). On the picture that I was sketching, good things that happen in the world only make your life intrinsically better in this respect when you enjoy them, and bad things that happen in the world only make your life intrinsically worse in this respect when they pain you. So, I can restrict my talk of good things’ being “taken up into your life” to cases where you enjoy these good things, and I can similarly restrict my talk of bad things’ being “taken up into your life” to cases where you are pained by these bad things.
    2. Your comment also raises the question about what to say about cases where you enjoy things that are really bad (i.e. worthy of your dislike or loathing), or are pained by things that are really good (i.e. worthy of being enjoyed by you). To this question, I reply that these are inappropriate pleasures and pains. Intuitively, the worse a bad thing is, the more inappropriate it is to enjoy it; and the better a good thing is, the more inappropriate it is to be pained by it. According to the general picture that I sketched in the post, the inappropriateness of a pain doesn’t make a significant difference to how much it worsens your life in the relevant respect, but the inappropriateness of a pleasure does make a significant difference to how much it improves your life in this respect.

  5. Hi Ralph. I thought I might register an intuitive reaction. I’d be very curious to hear any thoughts you might have. The appropriateness of the object of pleasure seems to me to affect the virtuousness or the value of the response (with Hurka) or perhaps something about meaningfulness (with Wolf) rather than welfare. But with those concepts I don’t get the switch with pain: the appropriateness of a painful response seems to make it more virtuous or meaningful rather than less.

  6. Thanks, Barry!
    As I understand you, you say that the appropriateness of a pleasure affects its “virtuousness or value”, Now, these terms can be interpreted in various ways. For example, on some interpretations, being non-culpably mistaken is irrelevant to the “virtuousness” of one’s response — although as I using the term ‘appropriate’, it prevents one’s response from being “appropriate”. So, how are you using these terms here?
    I suggest that, as you are using the terms, the appropriateness of a pleasure just is its virtuousness: appropriateness “affects” virtuousness in the trivial sense that it is one and the same quality. So, of course, we don’t get a switch with pain: the appropriateness / virtuousness of a pain can’t make the pain less appropriate / virtuous!
    At all events, if you don’t have the intuition that vicious / inappropriate pleasures contribute less to well-being than virtuous / appropriate pleasures, then I guess we do disagree. This is the basic (Platonic / Aristotelian) intuition that I am starting out from here.

  7. Thanks Ralph. I think appropriateness is necessary but not sufficient for virtue, hence not identical with it. I certainly think its an interesting rather than trivial question how appropriateness and virtue are related. As for the idea that appropriateness affects well-being: I also find this attractive. But I consider it to have the status of a desirable conclusion rather than a starting intuition.

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