A common picture of value determination with respect to pains, pleasures and other such mental states seems to be the following: the intrinsic value of such states is determined by their phenomenological character. Thus, some people hold that all pleasures are intrinsically good, and all pains intrinsically bad. (Call this the straightforward theory.) Of course, straightforward theorists can allow that some pleasures are extrinsically bad, and some pains extrinsically good. The enjoyment of another’s suffering can lead the malicious to harm others in the course of seeking out such pleasure; the pain of punishment, on the other hand, may prompt the wicked to reform. Straightforward theorists will insist, though, that the phenomenological character of the mental state is the fundamental, if not the only, determinant of its intrinsic value.
Certain sorts of ethical baggage tend to come along with such views. For instance, many people think that since pain is always intrinsically bad, there is always at least some moral reason to eliminate it. Similarly, some people think that there is always at least some moral reason to promote or increase any particular (potential or actual) pleasure.
Some people accept a slightly more complex axiological theory than this, allowing that at least some pleasures (pleasure in another’s suffering, for instance) might be intrinsically bad. A few are even willing to say that some pains (like the deserved punishments of the wicked) are intrinsically good, though my sense is that it is far more common to hold that these pains are bad in themselves, but extrinsically justified.
I think that the proponents of more complex theories are moving in the right direction, but that we must go still further. We must recognize that there is a greater variety of counter-examples to the straightforward theory than is commonly appreciated (I’ll describe a couple in a moment), and that the landscape of value is thus significantly more complex than has been realized. And more fundamentally, we must reject the idea that the phenomenological character of a mental state is the primary determinant of its intrinsic value.