Thursday, February 15, 2007

Absent pains and pleasures II

Here's another thought-experiment:

Imagine two uninhabited but inhabitable islands, A and B. They are excellent places to live with plenty of natural resources. They are in all respects now entirely alike.

However, they have very different histories. Both used to be inhabited. The people who inhabited island A suffered for a long time from a terrible disease. Their lives were painful. Eventually, they were all wiped out in a sudden extinction.

The people who inhabited island B lived happy lives filled with many pleasures. However, one day they were all wiped out in a sudden extinction.

Think of the deserted islands today. Do we think about them differently? Do we think of island A: Isn't it good that there is no suffering there any more? Probably. Do we think of B: Isn't it a shame that there isn't such pleasure being enjoyed there? Or do we think: It is neither good nor bad that this is now an island devoid of pleasant lives? There, I am not so sure.

ADDITION: I think the problem here is that the example is far too abstract. And this is a problem with all such thought experiments. They are designed to cut out various factors thought to be irrelevant to the very particular 'thin' conclusion we are asked to reach. But they must also be sufficiently described to elicit any reaction at all. It is impossible not to face an example like this with all sorts of questions and concerns in mind which are either meant to be discounted or are mere speculations.
In short, I can't imagine either coming to a conclusion on the basis of something like this that the absence of pains is good while the absence of pleasures is simply neutral. Nor am I very confident that considering this kind of example is a particularly effective way of clarifying or supporting something I happen to believe anyway.


RJR said...

Don't you think about island A: this is a terrible place because of what happened here? Like Tasmania.

Choppa said...

This is too abstract for me. If they're human people, they'll have a social-historical context. Communication with others etc. Not even HG Wells is this abstract!

But - he does give us two groups that might as well be isolated islands - the Molochs and the Butterfly people. If their schizo society was wiped out that would be good. If the people making it up were wiped out too, that would be bad, cos as people they are potentially capable of good lives in a good society.

In other words, perhaps, it's good if suffering ends, but perhaps the alternative to suffering is not death, but pain relief or cure (health). And it's bad if pleasure ceases, but not if it's pleasure at the cost of someone else's pain.

Doesn't Kant bring in the historical (or at least developmental) aspect in a way when he says that it's not happiness we should desire but the capacity for happiness (die Fähigkeit zum Glück)?

Maybe more throat-gripping examples of the individual dilemma could be found. Euthanasia for Pain Island, and hmmm (tough one) being dropped from the England team for Pleasure Island?

Now if we imagine Humanity - as an entity, a Species-Being - being the unconscious (no individual brain or thoughts) subject of our history, and the location of these good and bad events, we get another perspective on individual fates. The individual is produced, acts, wears out or is damaged, dies or is rejected, and is replaced. Now, is part of our individual capacity for happiness in fact contingent on our being aware of this process - knowing the biological-historical circumstances of our coming to be and the part-whole nature of the relationship between individual and species?

As a conscious human being, I don't give a damn about any of the cells that die daily in me, however long they've been slaving away for my wellbeing. As long as they're replaced by equally or more willing workers.

I start caring when dysfunction sets in. It hurts. And I probably notice a change for the better - some pleasure that might be worth pursuing to experience again. It makes me feel good.

So it seems as if the conscious Us gets ground between the unconscious operations of our parts and of our whole.

In fact, what have the dialectics of consciousness got to do with good or evil at all, when you come to think of it ;-)

Choppa said...

I'm going through Marx's Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy at the moment, and there are lots of interesting things there I'd like to quote in relation to our discussion here when I'm done with it.

Plutarch's criticism of Epicurus might lie behind Benadar's notion of the absence of pain not being a positive good. According to Marx, Plutarch was totally unable to comprehend the quality of bliss involved in ataraxy as opposed to the qualities of physical pleasure/lack of pain. Marx gives examples of better understanding (although by opponents) such as Sextus Empiricus.

When I'm done with this I'll be rereading the dissertation, cos I'm fascinated by the contrast between Lucretius' passion and Epicurus' "dispassionate monotony" as Marx calls it (comparing him to Aristotle). Perhaps Epicurus *is* empty, whereas Lucretius is full?

These aren't particularly "thin" issues, though, are they!