In discussions of morality, particularly utilitarian morality, much weight is put on pain. For example, discussions of animal rights often hinge on an animals ability to feel (or express that they are feeling) pain. But why should we put moral weight on pain? Pain has a specific evolutionary purpose, namely to encourage the person experiencing pain to avoid things that are damaging: being punched hurts because it is destructive to the body, and once we know that it hurts we will avoid being punched and thus increase our likelihood of survival. The selection value of this is particularly apparent when we consider the parts of the body that, in a normal individual, are the most sensitive to pain (e.g. the eyes, the underarms, the neck, the genitals), which tend to be areas where even small damage is either life- or reproduction-threatening.

But problems arise when we look at examples of individuals who don’t feel pain. First, it seems odd to say that if someone does not feel pain, then it is not immoral to punch them or otherwise damage their body. Second, it also seems that the world would actually be better if these individuals did feel pain: because they don’t feel pain, they are prone to accidents and often early death, because they do not learn to avoid damage.

Consider also a sentient machine which is simply not programmed to experience pain. Assume it has internal experiences and is conscious and intelligent, but pain is not one of its experiences (a not unreasonable choice for a sentient machine, who can more easily swap out a damaged body). What role does the absence of pain play? It seems that, by virtue of its sentience, it is still a moral agent, much like a human who does not feel pain.

Contrast with a machine that only feels pain. It does not think or have internal states, and is otherwise a zombie but for its ability to experience significant pain. Is this machine a moral agent? Does its pain have independent moral weight? I would argue not. This might be

Pain seems neither necessary nor sufficient for moral weight. Instead, pain should be thought of as a poor proxy for the actual locus of moral weight, namely sentience. What destroys sentience is wrong, regardless of whether it creates pain. What does not, is not, regardless of whether it produces pain.

It is important to point out, of course, that pain itself can be destructive of sentience. Pain is tied closely to human learning, so experiencing great physical pain can significantly affect the long-term functioning of a human mind. But this, again, is destruction, the pain itself seems without moral weight. Consider, for example, hot sauce and wasabi, which create intense pain with no associated damage. They are not generally considered morally relevant.


Morality is based upon long term anentropy (aka “stable harmony”). Pain has always merely been an indicator or sign of disharmony - entropy of the stable harmony. Quite often pain is accepted as necessary in order to accomplish greater good (anentropy), such as getting a flu-shot. Pain has never been the compass of morality.

Fact is, the greatest pain is Cageism, Annui, boredom. De-stimulation, anhedonia is the worst.

Thus morality must switch to the new and out with the old. It is time to be Enlightened. Carleas you present one, maybe more, good points and let me expound on them.

People are against hunting (causing animals temporary pain) but not against caging animals their whole lives. This is sick and disgusting. Therefore Carleas you have a point, in modern morality there is an over emphasis on physical pain, thus making their moral systems bankrupt.

For example, if a man touches a woman on the ass, which causes her mental pains for a few minutes, society believes he should rot in a small room with nothing to do for 6 months. This is sick, twisted, cruel and unusual.

There is a difference between choosing to eat hot peppers and being force-fed hot peppers.

Pain is generally unpleasant and undesirable … it is taken on willingly because one gets some compensation for it.

Why would it be ethical to inflict pain, an unpleasant experience, on someone without his consent?

Yes, I think this is right. “Anentropy” is a good word and a good way to think about it. Complexity or information seem to be loci of moral value, and they are frequently understood to be the inverse of entropy.

I agree that this should be the case, but Millian utilitarianism is strongly focused on the reduction of suffering. For Mill, the subjective experience of suffering seems morally bad in itself, and not just because it is associated with increased entropy.

I think of the unwanted infliction of pain as being wrong because of its destructive effects. For example, if you spike a friend’s meals with hot peppers, it will make them distrustful, may hurt your relationship, may make them go hungry, etc. All of these are bad independently of the pain, and the pain itself is not enough to make them bad (since we have examples where there is pain and no bad). So again, the pain is neither necessary nor sufficient for their to be a moral wrong.

Let’s think of it another way: suppose that one night, shortly after a person fell asleep, they were seized and tortured in such a way that they weren’t damaged and they did not remember it. The pain was absolutely excruciating, but with absolutely no long term effect (they even awake the next day feeling rested). What is the moral weight of that experience? I would argue it’s small, and if it’s non-zero, I’m tempted to say that it’s only because I have difficulty fully suspending my disbelief that the pain would have zero continuing consequences.

Yes. At least not really. And if pain has ever been “the compass of morality”, then for rhetorical reasons.

They are distressed because eating the peppers is painful. Attempting to remove the pain as the cause of the distress is absurd.

There is moral aspect to the pain when it is applied. The fact that it is forgotten in the future does not change that. One only lives and acts in the present.

And yet others eat the peppers, and choose the pain. Is it that pain+consent is OK, and pain+lack of consent is not? In that case, it looks like the consent is doing most of the work.

Under what moral theory?

To the point of forgetting pain: let’s say there’s an anesthetic, and there’s a 50% chance that it doesn’t numb you, but makes you unable to move, appear unconscious, and forget what happens to you while under its influence (such that there is zero lasting effect), but experience 100x more pain. I would say that the use of this anesthetic is morally identical whether or not it works by numbing you or by making you seem unconscious and forget. I say this because I would minimize destruction, and that harm is identical in either case.

One should be cautious that this is not taken too far. If I push a boulder down a hill, and there’s an orphanage at the bottom, by living and acting in the present has moral consequences only because of what happens in the future. In the same way, pain seems to have moral consequences only if it has long term harmful effects in the future. One might live and act in the present, but one’s actions are frequently judged by the future.

This is pretty clearly overstated. See Mill, Singer, or especially Richard Ryder.

First this:

Then this:

So something “should be the case” (Carleas) and, if it is, it is “pretty clearly overstated” (Carleas) to you. That is odd. You either (a) want that “overstated” things “should be the case” or (b) you are contradicting yourself here.

I already said that consent is a critical part of morality.

How does consent “do work”? Why are are you separating pain and consent?

I have to pick a moral theory in order to discuss this??

This is just getting too bizarre. You can’t discuss this in terms of real people having real experiences? That indicates, to me, that it’s based on contrived logic.

Okay but in your example, someone had to inflict pain in the present but you chose to only consider the morality in the future. IOW, you were extremely careful in selecting a particular time at which there appears to be no moral aspect to the pain. If one looks at the entire sequence of events, there is a point when the morality of inflicting pain arises.

The pain is constant. We have two events that are identical in terms of the pain experienced, so it can’t be the infliction of pain that makes one of them immoral. If x+y>x+z, it can only be because y>z.

I have offered two:

  • Spicy foods
  • People who don’t feel pain
    The first shows that pain is not sufficient, and the second that it’s not necessary.

But intuition pumps are a common part of philosophical exploration, especially when it comes to morality. Contrived examples help tease out fine distinctions in moral intuitions. And really, real people having real experiences is just another form of intuition pump when it comes to generalizing a moral theory, right?

Yes. Because I suspect that pain by itself, divorced from its consequences, is not actually a moral bad. To which…

You don’t have to… but if, for example you’re defining a moral system in which pain is just a moral atom, which just is bad as a given and which we can’t analyze, the conversation isn’t very long or interesting :slight_smile:

So, I ask in part out of curiosity, and part so we can move past disagreeing about whether inflicting pain without inflicting damage is morally wrong, and get to ‘why’ and explore the nature of our moral intuitions.

I’m not sure what you mean by “except of rhetorical reasons”, but Richard Ryder certainly seems to present his case as centering on pain as a locus of morality.

Furthermore, isn’t Phyllo making basically that case right here?

Note, in case this is just a case of confusion, I have said “a locus”, “much weight”, “strongly focused”, etc., which is to say that I’m not claiming that any moral system takes pain to be the exclusive source of morality (though such a system may exist), only that it is morally relevant. That latter claim is common, and it is what I’m questioning here.

Sorry, didn’t see this before my last post:

I don’t see anything wrong with (a). It should be the case, but it isn’t, and to say that it is as strongly as you have is to overstate things.

But it is not overstated to say that “pain has never been the compass of morality” and “if pain has ever been ‘the compass of morality’, then for rhetorical reasons”, because it is a fact that it is used rhetorically.

Can you say more about what you mean? Are you saying Mill intended something else when he talked about suffering?

They are consenting to experiencing pain. There is not some abstract ‘consent’ separate from the thing being consented to. (X can’t be removed from the equation, therefore you can’t write y>z alone.)

The person who inflict the pain(or non-pain in this case) does not actually know that the ‘victim’ feels. That, in itself, would restrain their actions. If one can be certain that the ‘victim’ feels nothing, then the moral evaluation proceeds to considerations of physical damage. If there is no pain and no physical damage, than I would say that there is nothing immoral about the action.

Pain is unpleasant… that is one of it’s attributes. I don’t see how you can get away from that fact.

You would need to explain why we have morality … what purpose does it serve?

The relationship between pain and morality becomes obvious once that question is answered.

Oh for heaven’s sake. Carleas, you are using a psychologist as your authority reference on morality???
…geeezzz… Why not use a Scientologist or a botanist, perhaps a civil traffic engineer or street cop.

You know, when it comes to ethics and morality, you can find some idiot to agree with anything. During liberal eras, ethics gets over emphasized and applied to ridiculous issues (giving plants equal rights because they might be feeling pain).

Pain has either (a) never been the compass of morality or (b) if it has been, then as a fake, namely for rhetorical reasons (almost everywhere, especially in the media).

Yes. That is how it works - and with an increasing success.


Why have you deleted my post?

I mean the following one which you quoted:

Physical pain is more about present suffering, emotional pain is more about past, present, and future suffering which far outweighs physical pains and is easily understood by a multitude of psychology examples with far reaching implications from self-medicating (addictions/obsessions) all the way to phantom limb syndrome. Psychological pains are what determine the type of society we endure.