Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Absent pains and pleasures

I mentioned in an earlier post an intriguing argument by David Benatar in his book Better never to have been. I want to revisit it here because it also chimes with some thoughts I have been toying with when lecturing a course on pleasure in ancient philosophy. The question concerns the value of the absence of pain compared with the value of the absence of pleasure. Benatar uses this as support for a more general thesis that the absence of goods is not bad while the absence of evils is good. Consider the following (Benatar p.30):

1. The presence of pain is bad.
2. The presence of pleasure is good.

These are, I would think, relatively uncontroversial. Next come the trickier claims:

3. The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.
4. The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

These are interesting for me because various ancient authors are similarly interested in the relationship between pleasure and pain, and their respective values. Some are particularly interested in cases in which the absence of, for example, pain is taken to be pleasant and wonder in what sense this might be criticised. Plato, for example, seems interested in saying that the pleasure one might feel when you recover from a painful illness might be classified as a 'false' or 'apparent' pleasure, conjured up by the misleading comparison with what went before. It would be better to say that there is an intermediate, neutral, state of being between pleasure and pain.

In Benatar's book 3. gets some interesting clarification since, in particular, the explanatory clause (‘even if…’) is the bit that seems to need support. Contrast, for example, ancient accounts such as Epicurus’ or Speusippus’ which also hold that the absence of pain is good. Epicurus even claims that it is the most pleasant state possible. The clear implication is that it is good for someone living in a painless state. Benatar wants something more general: 3. is intended to say that the absence of pain would be good even if the absence of the pain requires the non-existence of the potential subject of pain.

Consider: Mr A has a very painful illness. The only way for the pain to cease is for Mr A to die. In this case the absence of the pain is good, even if that good is no enjoyed by Mr A. This is important since it allows Benatar to point out that what is good is not really that Mr A is no longer feeling pain.

His point will apparently apply equally in the following case. Consider Mr and Mrs B who are considering whether to have a child. They know that, were they to have a child, for various reasons that child would necessarily suffer pain throughout its life. In that case, we are invited to conclude, it is better not to have the child since the absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone. It is not as if baby B is waiting anxiously in case she is born to a life of pain and then feels positive relief when the parents choose not to try to conceive.

At some points in Benatar’s interesting defence of the asymmetry between 3 and 4 my intuitions simply give out and I find myself not particularly able to feel pulled one way rather than another. But why not see what you make of this example (from p.35)?
Whereas, at least when we think of them, we rightly are sad for inhabitants of a foreign land whose lives are characterized by suffering, when we hear that some island is unpopulated, we are not similarly sad for the happy people who, had they existed, would have populated this island.
I think this is probably true. But what should we infer from it? Should we infer, as Benatar wishes us to do, the asymmetrical claims 3. and 4. above?

1 comment:

Choppa said...

"1. The presence of pain is bad.
2. The presence of pleasure is good."

Hm. In my comment on "dedications" I gave a couple of examples in which pain may be good (or at any rate useful and so good in the long run): fever, contractions and foul smells. Pain has a meaningful function in our lives, in other words. Deliberately inflicted pain (torture) is a perversion of this meaningfulness. The operative evil here might be "slavery, unfreedom" and not pain as such.

The presence of pleasure as a good is very dependent on what kind of pleasure is involved, as all the po-faced moralists of the world never tire of reminding us. For them, bodily pleasure is evil (transient) while spiritual pleasure is good (enduring). For me, spiritual pleasure makes the body radiate joy and well-being (think "Dalai Lama" :-), while bodily pleasure is a mixed bag of transient goods (drug high), transient evils (hangovers), enduring goods (sexual satisfaction and confidence - makes the body radiate joy and well-being :-), and enduring evils (too many to mention - eg addiction, syphilis, AIDS). Negotiating life is very much about controlling this mix, I think.

"3. The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.
4. The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation."

3 is probably key, as you say. Lucretius disagrees loudly that there is a good involved. The absence of pain is just that - no pain. Nothing. Neutral. Nothing to rejoice at (except in contrast to the afterlife nightmares propagated by religion) and nothing to fear. The interstitial gods have a nature that combines lack of pain ("nam privata dolore omni, privata periclis") with enjoying immortal peace ("immortali aevo summa cum pace fruatur"), we don't. We have a mortal nature that just ceases to exist - no pain, no joy, no good, no evil. The presence of pain might be a reason to put an end to yourself or someone else, if it's intolerable (too great or too hopeless), but needn't be if it's tolerable (and "tolerable" pain is a subject for a book, at least).

So a good can only be a good as opposed to a neutral nothing if it's experienced as such by a sentient organism.

The badness of me depriving someone else of a good to enjoy it instead of them is what politics is all about :-), including the good of communal abstinence for a future greater good (ie planning and investment, not eating up the seed corn).

What about the suffering foreign country and the unpopulated island?

Now, if the people in that country are suffering while under attack from hostile forces, but resisting courageously and well (say, Leningrad during the siege of WW2, London during the Blitz, Hanoi and Haiphong during the Vietnam War??) then I would feel a lot more than sadness for them. Just "sadness" would be the passive alienated crocodile-teared sadness of The Economist reporting that "sadly" whole swathes of productive educated adults in sub-Saharan Africa are succumbing to AIDS and other epidemics for want of medical resources, infrastructure, etc. My response could vary from benevolent spectatorship, to donating money, to donating time, to political fighting here, to political or military combat there. In other words, the grief I felt at the suffering could be transformed into various kinds of attitudes and activities aimed at relieving and stopping the suffering. Like rage, curiosity about the reasons for the suffering, or combativity.

As for the unpopulated island (O brave new world!) and its potentially happy denizens, a touch of historical perspective might resolve the problem. Why is it unpopulated? Who might live there? Is anyone planning to inhabit it? Is there any potential conflict of interest involved between different potential colonists? How does the potential of this place affect me and mine, us and ours, and what if anything could or should we do about it?

In fact we experience grief daily at the unused potential of our world in relation to the people suffering from this potential not being realized. People not getting food, people being forced to wash in and drink filthy infected water, people not getting water when there is an ocean of fresh water under their feet they're prevented from drilling for (because of land ownership relations and lack of resources), people not getting education, people not getting decent shelter. Not to mention people suffering actively from human-imposed pain and humiliation (child labour, slavery of various kinds, sweatshop labour, unprotected labour in dangerous trades, bullying, beating, FGM, poison in the water and air, discrimination with regard to imprisonment, etc etc). And - unless we are stunned into shuddering lumps of meat like Belgian cattle being prodded up the arse with shock-sticks to get them on to the abattoir lorries - we react with more than grief, as above, and take some kind of action against the causes of the suffering.

An interesting thing about this argument is that it doesn't have to be hypothetical. As soon as we look at more than individual and one-dimensional responses to concrete "suffering", we see that they can be organized, massive, well-grounded and effective over time.

Wouldn't it be great to have some text fusing the positions of Lucretius and Spartacus?? :-)

Or maybe we've already got one - "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"!