Pain and Pleasure

Natures Firework

Natures Firework



Pains hurt—they feel bad; pleasures please—they feel good. How do we understand the kind of goodness and badness at issue in pleasure and pain? One way to make sense of the badness of pain is in terms of an evaluative decision.  According to Norton Nelkin, “pain involves both a phenomenal state and a unprompted, non-inferential assessment of that state as representing a harm to the body,” where such an assessment is a conclusion.  The claim that such judgments are natural and non-inferential is intended to prevent the protest that if pains were to consist in part in decision, then we could simply control when we feel pain by making or refusing to make the decision. Rather, the assessments are pushed upon us—spontaneously.  In this way, such evaluative judgments are similar to perceptual judgments: when I see the redness of a ripe tomato that redness thrusts itself upon me and I cannot but see it as red.  Similarly, when I hit my toe, the badness of that sensation thrusts itself on me and I cannot but feel it as painful.

Aside from the difficulties involved in applying this account to animals, which might seem to lack a capacity for judgment, a central problem with Nelkin’s account is that it does not make good sense of the way in which pains motivate behavior.  Although, some pain behavior is mere reflex, as when you jerk your hand away from a hot stove.  In general, pain motivates intentional action.  Thus, if your arm is strapped down as I bring a lit candle to your hand, you may try to blow the flame out or push me away, actions that are rationally motivated precisely because of the badness of the pain you feel.  Nelkin recognizes this and so tries to make sense of such motivation by appealing to desire as a usual but not necessary causal consequence of pain. The trouble is, however, that the link between the pain and the motivation seems to be much more direct than this, for this all too easily allows for the possibility that pains might not motivate, whereas the idea of a pleasure or pain that is disconnected from motivation is almost unintelligible rather than merely uncommon.  Consequently, it seems that the kind of evaluation understood in pleasure and pain must be distinguished from that of ordinary evaluative judgments somehow other than by being spontaneous and non-inferential, and the problem is to find an informative way to eloquent that difference.

At this point, it might seem more promising to turn to another way to make sense of the evaluation understood in pleasure and pain: in terms of an associated desire.  The idea here is that the sensation that is the pleasure or pain causes us to desire to keep it or mitigate it, and it is in virtue of such a desire that we can make sense of the goodness or badness of pleasure or pain. Thus, G. Lynn Stephens and George Graham understand pain to be a complex state consisting of the awareness of a certain phenomenological quail and a desire for relief.  Similarly, Michael Tye understands pain to be an experience of a disordered state of the body that “elicits an immediate dislike for itself together with anxiety about, or concern for, the state of the bodily region where the disturbance feels located.  In each case, apparently, the thought is that desire is a kind of evaluation—its ends are absolutely understood in the desire to be worth pursuing or avoiding—and it is in terms of such an evaluation that the painful experience is a bad one or the pleasurable experience is a good one.  Nonetheless, understanding the connection in desire between the evaluation and the motivation is not trivial.  For on the one hand desire must be distinguished from mere goal-directedness of a sort exhibited by, for example, chess-playing computers in that desires motivate because of their understood evaluations.  It is not merely that one antecedent has the motivation, as a kind of goal-directedness, and then somehow comes to endorse this motivation as worthwhile; rather what distinguishes desire from mere goal-directedness is that being motivated in the way characteristic of desire stems from a recognition of its object as worth pursuing or avoiding.  On the other hand, the kind of evaluation implicit in desire must be distinguished from that explicit in evaluative judgment because evaluative judgment can be dissociated from motivation in ways in which desires cannot: to evaluate in the way characteristic of desire just is to be motivated to pursue it.  Hence, in desire the evaluation and the motivation are inseparable.

The trouble is that a proper understanding of the connection in desire between evaluation and motivation requires understanding desire itself to be a kind of pleasure or pain: such evaluations are ones that please or pain us, and it is precisely for this reason that they motivate us to act accordingly.  If this is right, then the standard appeal to an antecedent notion of desire to account for the badness of pain would be viciously circular.   To argue for this, I shall take what may initially seem a detour through the emotions, a discussion which will ultimately turn out to be fundamental to understanding pleasure and pain and their goodness and badness.  For, I shall argue, to understand what is distinctive about emotions as such is to understand them to be a distinctive kind of evaluative response, namely that of pleasure or pain: to feel fear, for example, is to be pained by danger, where such pain just is the evaluation implicit in one’s fear. Consequently, by taking emotions as my concept of pleasure and pain I shall develop a more satisfying account that includes both desire and bodily sensations.

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