Some time ago, I came across the All Souls College philosophy fellowship exam.  It's interesting reading throughout, but one question in particular brought me up short when I read it.

What, if anything, is bad about pain?

The fact that I couldn't answer this immediately was fairly disturbing.  Approaching it from the opposite angle was much simpler.  It is in fact trivially easy to say what is good about pain.  To do so, all you need to do is look at the people who are born without the ability to feel it: CIPA patients.  You wouldn't want your kid saddled with this condition, unless for some reason you'd find it welcome for the child to die (painlessly) before the age of three, and if that fate were escaped, to spend a lifetime massively inconvenienced, disabled, and endangered by undetected and untreated injuries and illnesses great and small.

But... what, if anything, is bad about pain?

I don't enjoy it, to be sure, but I also don't enjoy soda or warm weather or chess or the sound of vacuum cleaners, and it seems that it would be a different thing entirely to claim that these things are badMost people don't enjoy pain, but most people also don't enjoy lutefisk or rock climbing or musical theater or having sex with a member of the same sex, and it seems like a different claim to hold that lutefisk and rock climbing and musical theater and gay sex are bad.  And it's just not the case that all people don't enjoy pain, so that's an immediate dead end.

So... what, if anything, is bad about pain?

Let's go back to the CIPA patients.  I suggested that they indicate what's good about pain by showing us what happens to people without any: failure to detect and respond to injury and illness leads to exacerbation of their effects, up to and including untimely death.  What's bad about those things?  If we're doubting the badness of pain, we may as well doubt the badness of other stuff we don't like and try to avoid, like death.  With death, there are some readier answers: you could call it a tragic loss of a just-plain-inherently-valuable individual, but if you don't like that answer (and many people don't seem to), you can point to the grief of the loved ones (conveniently ignoring that not everybody has loved ones) which is... um... pain.  Whoops.  Well, you could try making it about the end of the productive contribution to society, on the assumption that the dead person did something useful (and conveniently ignore why we tend not to be huge fans of death even when it happens to unproductive persons).  Maybe we've just lost an anesthesiologist, who, um.... relieves pain.

And... what, if anything, is bad about pain?

Your standard-issue utilitarianism is, among other things, "hedonic".  That means it includes among its tenets hedonism, which is the idea that pleasure is good and pain is bad, end of story.  Lots of pleasure is better than a little and lots of pain is worse than a little and you can give these things units and do arithmetic to them to figure out how good or bad something is and then wag your finger or supply accolades to whoever is responsible for that thing.  Since hedonists are just as entitled as anyone to their primitive notions, that's fine, but it's not much help to our question.  "It is a primitive notion of my theory" is the adult equivalent of "it just is, that's all, your question is stupid!"  (I don't claim that this is never an appropriate answer.  Some questions are pretty stupid.  But I don't think that one of them is...)

...what, if anything, is bad about pain?

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This is a form of the general question "What's so bad about X?" with pain as X.

For any X, we can ask "What's so bad about X", receive an answer X2, and ask "What's so bad about X2", ad infinitum. The three most common responses are semantic stopsigns, moral nihilism, and admitting you need to ask the question more rigorously.

Once phrased more rigorously, the problem becomes easier, transforming into some combination of:

"Why do people dislike pain?", to which the answer is that it's hard-wired into the brain in some way a neurologist could probably explain, probably similar to how it's hard-wired to dislike things that taste bitter.

"Why do people call pain bad?", to which the answer is that most people think as emotivists, and call pain bad because they dislike it.

"Why is pain bad in Moral System Y?", to which the answer is that you'd have to ask the people in moral system Y, and they'll give you their moral system's answer. I think a lot of the better moral system would have it as an axiom. They probably make it an axiom because most moral systems are linked in some way or another to what people do or don't like, whether t... (read more)

Excellent response. As a side note, I do suspect that there's a big functional difference between an entity that feels a small voice in the back of the head and an entity that feels pain like we do.
Agreed, pain overwhelming your entire thoughts is too extreme, though understandable how it evolved this way.
G.E. Moore managed to ask the question about X2, dubbed it the "naturalistic fallacy", and stopped investigating. I prefer the method you advocate.

Hmm hmm.

I've had bad pain. I've had non-bad pain (the feeling of wiggling a tooth as a child). I've had bad non-pain (the feeling of bumping the nerve in your elbow). I think I can pick pain apart.

  • It's hurty. This is the least important part. Just a sensation, not even unpleasant on its own.

  • It's loud. Even small amounts shout over everything else.

  • It's intrusive. You can't will it away. About the most you can do is match its intensity and drown it out.

  • And finally it makes you want to pull away. It's a flinch, abstracted. I suspect this is the "primitive op". All animal life flinches, even stuff too simple to have a brain. Since this is an abstract demand, you can't satisfy it.

So, you are being overwhelmed by an insistent demand to pull away from the pain, and it's not letting you pull away, all overlaid with a loud sensation that won't reduce - this is why pain causes something of a cognitive crash. Also explains my other experiences above. Non-bad pain doesn't demand a flinch, so as with the tooth it tempts you to increase it. Bad non-pain is loud and demands a flinch, it's just not hurty.

Given all that, what's bad about pain? I'd say the insistence and the ina... (read more)

I agree strongly, except that you CAN eliminate most if not all pain (all I have tested) by paying attention to the details of the sensation relating to the pain. Don't flinch your attention away, rather, rest attention on the sensation until it wanders away from boredom.

Interesting, I'll give it a try. Worked a bit for some minor pains I tried it on. Any published research on this? (I hope none of it is dismissed as the placebo effect, given that this method seems to rely on the same mechanism behind the placebo effect.)
I wish I could upvote this more than once. It REALLY should be the top comment. Actually, you should probably make a top level post on this. It: * Actually answers the question, which is the goal of having these discussions. You win. * It increases understanding, both in ways that make me feel like my wisdom has increased and in ways that are practically useful. * It proposes a solution to the problem that isn't just "kill it with fire!".
Supertech would be nice, but there are ways of achieving a limited form of this using just what we already have. To some degree it can even be trained. (Not that I am suggesting what we have is good enough for most people to get what they need under current conditions; but the techniques and technologies exist, in the form of exercises, conditioning and drugs.)

I think you are confusing levels, here. Observe:

Q. What, if anything, is bad about having the functional equipment to feel pain?

A. Pain is a useful indicator of conditions harmful to the body, and therefore can only be bad insofar as it (a) is less than optimal for that purpose or (b) has undesirable side effects.

Q. What, if anything, is bad about feeling pain?

A. Feeling pain frequently causes a reduction of pleasure, and in extreme circumstances can cause distraction from important tasks or significant psychological harm.

In other words, the falling of the tree causes mechanical vibrations but no auditory experiences.

(Yes, I repeat some things which have been said before. I apologize. My point is to note the confusion in the question.)


Pain is bad insofar as it causes suffering. It turns out that nociception (perception of pain) is a pure information-conveying process; suffering is a post-pain process that happens in the insula. Lesions in the insula can cause pain asymbolia, in which the location and intensity of pain is perceived without an associated negative experience.

I identify suffering as the root-level experience of "this is bad, make it stop".

People don't like it.

Speak for yourself.
(Retracted because I bloody well got your point, even if I am a bit of a masochist myself.)
4Paul Crowley
Pain is bad exactly insofar as people don't like it. To the extent that people like it, it's not bad.

Pain is sensory input; ideally it conveys useful information to the brain.

Pain which does not convey new information is bad, because it interferes with working towards what one values.

  • The anesthesiologist is removing pain which does not convey new information.
  • The CIPA patient lacks pain whether or not it conveys new information, and therefore lacks information.

If I understand what you're saying, and if you really mean that is the sole or even the main reason why pain is a bad thing, I don't like that line of thought at all. It implies:

  • There's no reason to alleviate the pain of people who are incapacitated (eg bedridden hospital patients, people undergoing surgery) because they wouldn't be accomplishing any goals anyway.
  • There's no reason to care if a person with no goals or bad goals is in pain.
  • There's no reason to care about low levels of pain that don't prevent someone from achieving a goal.
  • Any infliction of pain that increases a person's productivity, for example whipping slaves, has no downside (to one who already accepts slavery).
  • There's no problem with inflicting pain on animals, since they don't have any interesting values anyway.
  • If Hell existed, it wouldn't be a big problem because what are you going to be accomplishing after you die anyway?
  • "Alleviate other people's pain" shouldn't be a supergoal, but only a subgoal depending on whether you like what those people's goals are.

We don't have to work for the sake of happiness alone, but happiness can't be entirely subsumed by other wants.

I'm curious as to whether or not you still stand by the opinions and reasoning expressed in this comment.
0Scott Alexander
Yes, and by the clarifications elsewhere on this thread. Is there some reason I shouldn't?
Well, you're usually right about everything, so this is quite a break in the pattern. ;-)
3Scott Alexander
That's the most confusing way of being disagreed with I've ever experienced :) are aware that I'm attacking each of the bullet points in the comment above, not agreeing with them - right?
I try to make space for people to recant old positions because I certainly need it. You're saying the points are implied by the first comment in the thread, and I don't think they are. I see by your clarifications that I agree with you significantly about the issue itself but I think you are very wrong about the implications of " bad, because it interferes with working towards what one values." For instance: If my goal is for people to not be in pain, pain to that collector is obviously bad. If my goal is for people who don't want to be in pain not to be in pain, a consequentialist calculation probably indicates I should still work to minimize the pain of people who protest that they don't care despite their statements.
-1Scott Alexander
I don't disagree that "pain [can be] bad because it interferes with working toward what one values", I only disagree that that is the only reason pain can possibly be bad. Maybe the confusion here is translating between pain and utility. I view KPReid as making the claim: "Pain in itself should not be considered disutility. Only failure to achieve a goal should be considered disutility, and pain should be counted as decreasing utility only insofar as it affects that." (where 'goal' here is an explicit goal like 'collect Pokemon' and not an implicit goal like 'avoid pain'. If all kpreid was trying to say was that "avoid pain" can be considered a "goal", I agree. In the Pokemon example, I'm assuming a neurotypical Pokemon collector who may have dedicated her life to collecting Pokemon, but still feels pain in the same way everyone else does and dislikes it - not a nonhuman Pokemon-maximizer) I consider myself as making the different claim: "Pain in itself can be disutility if the person involved does not want pain." Note that under my interpretation, it doesn't matter whether or not the pain conveys information; information may be a counterbalancing factor that outweighs the disutility of the pain, but the pain is still bad. See my response to Silas. I'm still not convinced we don't mostly agree on this issue.
We pretty much agree on the issue itself. I don't see why a person gets to "own" their pain, someone's pain can be disutility for a second person who cares about it. I agree with kpreid that you are wrong about what others are saying, that's mostly it.
1Scott Alexander
Okay, I assume it's a misunderstanding on my part and sorry about that. (lays dead thread to rest)
Nitpickery: I do not agree with "Pain in itself should not be considered disutility. Only failure to achieve a goal should be considered disutility [...]", nor does kpreid_2009. On rereading the thread somewhat, I think that your comment “This seems like straightforward utilitarianism…” best describes what I was aiming at. I think that pain in itself probably does become disutility (which is often offset by the information it carries), possibly through some intermediate stages. However, I don't want to be more precise than that, as I think at the moment that this issue is inseperable from formalizing (I first wrote “turning into something like a utility function” but that may assume too much) the entirety of the godshatter.
Please don't take me as having thought this through thoroughly... I did not intend for that description to be considered outside the person. All of what you're describing are plans the person or animal themselves would disagree with (if they could), yes? Here's a different statement of roughly the same idea: "My excess pain is bad because it interferes with what I want to do, without benefiting anyone else."
6Scott Alexander
Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're doing. Your criteria seems to set a standard for determining which pain is bad, and that criteria I would agree with. The pain that's bad is the pain beyond that necessary to send a useful signal. What I interpreted Alicorn as asking was why pain is bad in the first place. A lot of things can be useless, for example a tune that keeps playing in your head, but useless pain seems to be worse than useless anything else because of something especially bad about pain. Even from an intrapersonal perspective, I can't agree that pain is all about goals. Consider the following thought experiment: I offer you two choices for tomorrow. Option one: I will torture you for six hours, using a method that is very painful but will leave no lasting scars or aftereffects, and you can spend the rest of the day doing whatever you want. Option two: I will give you a sedative that causes you to sleep through all of tomorrow: you will wake up the day after tomorrow. If the only problem with pain was that it interferes with things people want to do, then everyone should take Option 1 without a second thought: the pain interferes with what they want to do for six hours, and then they can spend the rest of the day free. But I would take Option 2 (would you?) suggesting that there is more to the negative value of pain than simple inability to do things while you're experiencing it.
I have no particular well-structured reply to this. Miscellaneous thoughts. * Let's just attribute that preference to bias and move on :) (That is: This is an extremely “unnatural” scenario involving rather primitive brain hardware.) * No lasting aftereffects? I think you'd have to turn this into an “and you don't remember afterward” scenario.
Indeed. Pain causes operant conditioning; removing the operant conditioning makes the pain be something very unlike pain. In fact, according to a theory I vaguely remember, the idea of pain is, to a great extent, a rationalization of aversion: "I don't want to do X. I guess I don't want to do it because it will cause me pain." If this vague rememberance were completely true, it wouldn't be pain at all. But this vague rememberance ignores the fact that we know whether we're in pain or not at the time we are or not in pain.
I don't think your counterexamples accurately state a scenario or apply kpreid's reasoning correctly: He was clear that the pain in surgery conveys no new information. Plus, the bedridden can clearly accomplish some goals. In this context, it's not really possible for someone not to have goals. They might not explicitly be able to state long-term goals, but as long as they're taking deliberate actions, they have goals. And yes, for sufficiently bad goals, you do care how hard it is for the person to carry them out! The standard is hindrance, not prevention, and any level of pain will hinder, or you will not identify it as pain.

He was clear that the pain in surgery conveys no new information.

Let me try to explain this better, then. Imagine we take a person who needs surgery but was never told by their doctor what part of their body the surgery will be on. We perform the surgery without any anaesthetic and with the patient blindfolded. In this case, the pain is giving new information ("AAAIE! MY RIGHT LEG!") but we still don't approve.

kpreid could clarify that this information is useless (in that the patient doesn't gain anything from knowing) and that (s)he meant useful information. But this isn't true either. I could state before the surgery that I will give the patient ten cents if they can tell me which of their limbs I operated on, but this still wouldn't make it okay to perform surgery without anaesthetic.

The way I would have put kpreid's point is that the pain must provide sufficiently useful information to offset its painfulness. If putting someone under surgery without anaesthetic earned someone ten cents, I would consider it an atrocity, but if it was necessary so that the patient could help guide the surgeon by telling them what they feel, saving the patient's life, then it might be... (read more)

The plural of Pokémon is Pokémon.
8Scott Alexander
...give me one reason not to break your bones right now.

Because pain is bad? :P

Interesting, how the biggest karma gains are from replies which aren't serious (please don't downvote this :)
I could explain it, but then the joke wouldn't be funny anymore. ;)
Without commenting on the rest of your comment, I would like to clarify a point: The first little twinge (also, mechanical sensation that is not pain) in any given spot tells them what's going on and is useful. The rest of it that sums up to "AAAIE!" is useless-and-therefore-bad. Also, it's common for someone to not want to know what's going on; they would prefer, not just the absence of pain, but any sensation, any information from the body part(s) involved; this is reasonable and, I would argue, a separate module from the badness of (some) pain.
I would agree with this statement. This person's ambition does not involve not having pain; they would gladly be tortured for six years if that were the most efficient way of getting one more Pokemon.
Does "not having pain" count as an ambition? If so, then probably anything we like or dislike can be described as ambition or goal, and "pain interferes with our goals" reduces to liitle more than "we don't like pain".
Well, "ambition" isn't much of a word for it, seeing as how it isn't very ambitious. But yes, I think that we can generally describe our likes and dislikes as goals, in which case not liking pain very much makes pain interfere with our goals.
Good point; I wasn't careful to distinguish between a "benefit" and an "outweighed cost". However, as I mentioned in another comment, akrasia can blur the distinction. For example, what if pain causes me to take the necessary action against a minor health problem before it becomes a major problem, when otherwise I'd procrastinate? My future self would be very thankful. Yet you cannot view the pain as some add-on attribute here. The displeasure is part of its usefulness. Simply informing me that "hey, you gotta have this looked at soon" isn't enough; what I need is for my short-term goal ranking to agree with my long-term goal ranking. A contrived scenario. There is no such person, nor will there likely ever be. There might be someone whose only stated, conscious goal is to collect every Pokemon, but their biology prevents them from making that their only actual goal. So you're right that we don't break the bones of Pokemon collectors, but their friends do try make the collector's long-term goals match up with their short-term goals, and exert social pressure to tame the obsession. As in the above example, pain can be good here.
And when pain is not conveying new information, we want it to go away because pain often gets badly in the way of our goals. I find that it's extremely difficult to think clearly whilst in even mild to moderate pain, and it's also difficult to get motivated to think about or do anything, because it's hard to have any goal except "remove the pain". Obviously, this is adaptive; a lot of the time, if you're in pain, you need to be doing whatever is necessary to get rid of the pain, or you'll meet the fate of the CIPA patients. But there are lots of situations where once the pain has conveyed its information, it's no longer serving that purpose, and yet you're still being distracted from your other goals. I find migraines very curious as an example of pain. It's not at all clear to me what information the pain of a migraine conveys or how this information can be used, and it is certainly a dehabilitating pain that prevents you from pursuing goals other than "get rid of the migraine" -- or, as usually appears to be the only option (with a sample size of 1 here: my mother suffers from them -- so this is not data!), "wait for the migraine to stop".
Well put. I would be in the category of "having pain that does not convey information". I've dealt with chronic back and neck pain for a while, and it doesn't seem to have any physical correlate that shows up on MRIs or and standard medical tests. And a whole host of treatments fail to help it, except some high-grade, red-flag drugs. So, the pain doesn't convey any information. On top of that, the pain makes it very hard to think, which is a pretty obvious extrinsic reason to say it's bad. (I don't know how this would fail to occur to anyone unless they haven't been through significant pain.) Even if the pain is signaling information (about an imminent threat to your health), then it's not being useful unless it directs your attention to the ways to remove the pain.
I like this answer. If there was a version of pain that communicated the same information as normal pain, but didn't interfere with your ability to think or act, it wouldn't be bad. We probably wouldn't even call it pain.

What, if anything, is bad about pain?

It hurts.

Ugh, you sound like G.E. Moore.
What's wrong with that? And besides, Wittgenstein said it better. How could someone even doubt one has a hand? (cf anosognosia)
Wittgenstein was more sensible and eloquent, yes (though still, I think, wrong). Moore just sounds like a two-year-old. They're both trying to sidestep the question (which is what I was implicitly accusing Richard of doing).
I disagree. I completely endorse your comparison to Moore, and think RichardKennaway has hit the nail on the head.

And it's just not the case that all people don't enjoy pain, so that's an immediate dead end.

Just a footnote, but even people who enjoy pain make a clear distinction between "good pain" and "bad pain"). I doubt that anyone into BDSM enjoys a migraine or a toothache, although the practice may help them deal with it..

Then there are also the hot chili enthusiasts.

ETA: updated link for good vs. bad pain

It's funny -- I can't use masochism to get through a migraine or toothache, but I can use it to get through dentistry (which, even with anaesthesia, hurts a lot for me). The "expected, active agent" seems to play a role in that.
That link is broken, otherwise good post.

A preference utilitarian can just say pain is bad because people don't want it.

I don't enjoy it, to be sure, but I also don't enjoy soda or warm weather or chess or the sound of vacuum cleaners, and it seems that it would be a different thing entirely to claim that these things are badMost people don't enjoy pain, but most people also don't enjoy lutefisk or rock climbing or musical theater or having sex with a member of the same sex, and it seems like a different claim to hold that lutefisk and rock climbing and musical theater and gay sex are bad.  And it's just not the case that all people don't enjoy pain, so that's

... (read more)

I don't think pain is universally bad. Many people enjoy pain in small doses; some even enjoy it in large doses. I think the key aspects to "bad pain" are when pain is non-consensual, when pain persists past usefulness, and when pain breaks us.

Consent is mentioned because plenty of people do invite some amount of pain in to their life willingly, and I think most utilitarian analysis would still conclude that being a CIPA patient is not a positive.

To persisting: It's useful to know that my leg hurts; it's not useful to have to endure the pain for ... (read more)


Most people don't enjoy pain, but most people also don't enjoy lutefisk or rock climbing or musical theater or having sex with a member of the same sex, and it seems like a different claim to hold that lutefisk and rock climbing and musical theater and gay sex are bad.

Pain is forced on people; lutefisk, rock climbing, musical theater and gay sex are not. So this comparison is wrong.

And it's just not the case that all people don't enjoy pain, so that's an immediate dead end.

From what I can tell BSDM masochists enjoy very narrow and selective kind of ... (read more)

That's a strong statement. I can imagine situations where lutefisk could be forced on someone (a child being obliged to eat it by strict Scandinavian parents?) and I don't think that situation would say anything about lutefisk. (It would be a little more complicated to force rock climbing or musical theater on someone. It's possible to force gay sex on someone, but we tend to think that's bad for reasons having little to do with gay sex in general.)
If you compared pain with force-feeding someone lutefisk at gunpoint, or gay rape (that is forcing it on someone who extremely strongly dislikes it, as is almost always the case with pain), then it would be more apt - except we tend to think of them as wrong too.
Under such reasoning, pain itself is not bad, but the conditions which bring it are. However, this distinction is a bit ... too philosophical. When you feel pain, almost always you are unable to remove the pain-causing conditions. Unlike lutefisk, the forcedness is in the very nature of pain.
Pain is often forced on people, but not always. If I disinfect a wound with peroxide, it'll sting. It'd be better if it didn't sting (IMO), but nobody is forcing stinging on me; I voluntarily endure it because I value the other outcome of putting peroxide on the wound. It seems like pain is still bad, just not as bad as increased risk for infection.
Much like how someone who really hated lutefisk would eat it if they were starving and nothing else was available, because enduring the unpleasant eating experience is not as bad as starving to death.
Yes, but I used lutefisk as an example of something that probably isn't bad all by itself, as opposed to pain, which seems like it may be.
Sure, but there are also situations where people seem to seek out and value the sensation of pain itself: masochism, self-injury, and of course The Onion's pain-inducing Advil comes to mind. In these cases I would not say that the pain itself is bad. So the badness still seems to have to do more with the circumstances involved (e.g. involuntariness) than with the sensation itself.
Yes, but you can't dissociate the pain from the healing effect. In that sense, it is enforced. And this is typical for pain: either it comes by accident, or as a side effect of something which outweighs its unpleasantness. Most of people with pain, even if they endure it voluntarily, didn't choose it because of the pain itself, and would prefer the pain go away. Norwegians, on the other hand, eat lutefisk exactly because it is lutefisk. Note: in fact I don't know much about Norwegians. Perhaps they eat lutefisk because of the force of traditions and hate it actually - but if so, I would have much less difficulties in saying that lutefisk is indeed bad.

Something that seems to be getting ignored in the discussion of pain being good is the existence of pain asymbolia. People with pain asymbolia still get the signal of pain, so they know about damage and can mediate it, but it doesn't feel bad. If we accept that having the information content of pain without the negative affect would be preferable to having the information and the negative affect, then there's clearly something bad about pain.

I think there are two main bad things about pain.
1: Pain produces a strong negative affect, aka suffering, aka I ju... (read more)

8Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
One problem I can see with this: imagine that someone is in the middle of an activity that isn't life-or-death, but that they care about, i.e. running in a race that they really want to win. They step on something uneven and twist their knee or whatever. They get the signal of pain in their knee, but because it doesn't feel bad, they might just ignore it and try to win the race anyway, possibly causing a lot more damage in the process. The problem is that their temporary goal (i.e. increased social status after winning or whatever) conflicts with the long-term goal of having a functional body. Presumably humans or animals who were able to ignore pain in this way would have been more likely than average to injure themselves and exacerbate those injuries, and might not have survived to have as many children.
This is plausible. As someone who experiences pain as suffering, I need to cultivate the skill of doing painful things when I consciously decide that they should be done. If I had pain asymbolia, I imagine I'd need to instead cultivate the habit of making conservative decisions about my long-term health.
Is it obvious that the second attitude would be terribly much harder to achieve? By which I mean is it clear that the cost of becoming sufficiently conservative is higher than the cost of the pain?
Certainly not. On the contrary, successfully cultivating that sense of personal responsibility seems like a rewarding activity on its own. In fact, the only way of acquiring pain asymbolia that I've heard of involves treating pain as a warning signal and taking it seriously. So it seems like there are only benefits and no downsides to acquiring pain asymbolia, as long as you aren't cruel to yourself.
I think it's enough to reduce it to "Pain produces suffering." Suffering is bad (it just is, that's all, your question is stupid), although it can be coupled with good things, like behaviour-modification. Pain that doesn't produce suffering isn't bad.

I have chronic pain, and I could tell you what's bad about that, which I think might be applicable to pain more broadly.

Pain doesn't always serve its purpose of keeping one out of trouble, and when it doesn't, it's distracting. It sometimes makes it difficult to get up and go, much less do anything great. It can be a spirit breaker when it goes on too long, affecting mental stamina and usefulness as well as physical.

Depending on where the pain is, it can make it difficult to complete tasks in a much more specific way too, by making it difficult to walk or use ones hands. I don't have kids but I imagine it would put a big ole damper on raising them.

I have chronic pain as well, and it often interferes with my daily life and puts certain goals and ambitions out of easy reach, because I have to factor in what it will cost me, in terms of pain-coping resources, to try and do the activity anyway. I'm lucky in that my condition is not regularly so severe as to prevent me from doing certain things, but that can have its own downside -- I may overestimate the length of time before my next serious episode, and get myself into a situation that's much harder to handle once the pain kicks up. On the other hand, I'm a masochist, and find certain kinds of pain very rewarding -- it's not just the endorphins, but the sensation itself. Those don't tend to be the kinds of pain my body supplies during an episode, though, so it's a different thing.

Its painfulness.

After some medical procedure, there have been some patients for whom pain is not painful. When asked whether their pain is still there, they will report that the sensation of pain is still there just as it was before, but that they simply don't mind it anymore.

That feature of pain that their pain now lacks is what I am calling its painfulness and that is what is bad about pain.

When you talk about pain being good, you're talking about the information it sends being useful to survival, not about the method of signalling (pain).

Just as you looked at CIPA patients to ask what's good about pain by looking at those who don't have it, you can look at people who suffer from chronic pain to look at what's bad about it.

People with chronic pain have the method all the time without the useful information, and their lives suck. Chronic pain suffers are exhausted and depressed because they're fundamentally unable to do anything without it h... (read more)

Hmmm... I think I'd rather have medium-intensity joint pain for the length of time it takes a broken arm to heal than to have an actual broken arm. I would definitely take the broken arm over a permanent pain, though.

Very interesting question. I'll have a go at it, although these are 30-second thoughts: Pain is a warning system, very strongly correlated with damage and/or danger of death. Damage is bad, hence when we feel pain we want to stop whatever is causing damage; this has the incidental side effect (usually) of stopping the pain as well, so it feels as though we want to get rid of the pain - in other words, it feels as though the pain is bad, although what we really want is to stop the damage. A fitness-maximiser would want to stop the damage without the interve... (read more)

In my not terribly extensive experience with BDSM scene, I found that people who like pain like it extremely selectively - only right amount of it, of particular kind, and in sexual context. They avoid unpleasant experiences and pain outside this narrow context just like everyone else.

What is bad about pain?

It short-circuits rationality. If you are in enough pain, it no longer matters what is the rational thing to do, only what will stop the pain.

It carries immediacy that forces action before proper consideration. Future be damned, you WILL do whatever needs to be done to end the pain NOW.

In its less excruciating forms, it is a drain on mental and physical energy. No matter what you can do with pain (and some people do truly amazing things), you would be able to do more without.

Finally, it is often unproductive. You have a headache, f... (read more)

A lot of people talk about their experiences of pleasure in ways that suggest the same properties to me: it causes them to forego rational behavior and the consideration of long-term consequences in favor of seeking out/continuing pleasure, it distracts them from doing things they could otherwise do, it doesn't come with clear referents and indeed can sometimes lead to generalized happiness not connected to any particular event. If I'm understanding them right, does it follow that for them pleasure is just as bad as pain?
Yes, it does, at least in my opinion. The extreme example of this would be a heroin addict; a less extreme example would be an overweight person unable to resist a bag of potato chips. Doing what is ultimately contrary to one's long-term goals is destructive and irrational, regardless of the cause for such behavior.
(nods) OK, cool. That seemed to follow from what you were saying, I just wanted to make sure I wasn't putting words in your mouth.
Sounds interesting, who?
Everyone who's ever tried to make a pleasurable drug for 1-damage. Everything that's not damage, if signaled as a reward stimuli like pleasure, would work! As a policy (Updateless decision theory), only respond to positive reinforcement and disassociate from pain. I hypothesize that pain asymbolia is trainable. Then you wield a vorpal blade. Kalla724, if I was the boss at Oxford, you would get the Old Souls Prize from me!

Insofar as liking something and wanting it (that is, pleasure versus reward loops in the brain) seem to be separate bits of neural circuitry, I wonder if there's a meaningful sense (corresponding to hypothetical bits of brain architecture) in which pain and suffering might also be understood that way.

I enjoy pain, on occasion. It's part of why I like getting pierced and tattooed, and why I practice BDSM. Said pain is emphatically not bad when you look at what I'm getting out of it. I don't enjoy suffering on the other hand -- having my hair pulled and bei... (read more)

Another thought: I've used psychotropics whose direct effect on the perception of pain was to turn it into data -- I could still tell I was in pain, but the pain didn't matter in any sort of immediate way unless it was directly instrumental to listen to it. Standing on a hot surface came through as a meaningful signal, whereas the migraine my glasses were giving me simply got ignored until I could get to a place to take some medicine and lie down (and even then, the perception of recovery was as much "raw data divorced from the intensity of the sensation" as the pain itself had been). I suspect most people, if given the option to experience pain that way permanently, would prefer to do so rather than not (especially since not all sensations were similarly affected, just pain). If my guess about that is right, I'd pile conjecture on top of conjecture and conclude that maybe what's "bad" about pain insofar as people seek to avoid it is just that it's often a non-instrumental sensation that can impair performance for people.

you can point to the grief of the loved ones (conveniently ignoring that not everybody has loved ones) which is... um... pain.

Chemically and psychologically, I believe there's a big difference between family-just-died and legs-just-got-cut-off pain (or lesser or greater degrees - and please correct me if they are the same neurological phenomenon). The telling thing is that we call emotional suffering "pain" even though it's rather different from the meaning of pain in a physical context. In general, pain is so unpleasant that people will read... (read more)

Maybe not such a great difference.
An interesting article, but completely orthogonal to my point. My point is that it isn't entirely correct to put the two types of pain on the same scale, because they're meaningfully different phenomena. That study... asks people to assume they're on the same scale and rate them accordingly. Incidentally, it also asks people to remember pain, not to experience it. It's at least my experience that the memory of physical pain is going to be a lot different than the memory of emotional pain. Physical pain (usually) heals. Emotional pain, in many senses, does not. Emotional pain is a purely mental experience - if someone credibly told you your family died when they didn't, it'd feel just the same until you figured out they were wrong. There's nothing analogous to breaking your leg - you can't really re-create it without re-breaking your leg. Nothing in this post endorses dualism in any way, shape, or form, lest anyone misconstrue it in that manner.

Pain is a sensation; it would be odd to call it fundamentally good or bad, any more than it would be to call heat or cold or sweet or sour good or bad.

However, pain usually causes suffering. The correlation is probably close to .95, at least if you except cases of minor pain (i.e. <4 out of 10 subjectively rated). Suffering (experiencing absolute negative utility, as opposed to missing out on positive utility) is bad under most moral systems. Because the correlation between pain and suffering is so high, the exceptions get ignored and pain gets called b... (read more)

Prolonged pain and stress tend in themselves to reduce health. Sapolsky's "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" cites quite a lot of research in support of this.

What's 'bad'?

Good meaning 'useful for a particular purpose', bad is its negation. Whether the middle is excluded might be a matter of contention.
What's 'useful'? What's 'purpose'?

Maybe I can't be sure about pain, but lutefisk is bad.

Pain is broadly not preferred. That is to say, an absence of cognition is preferred to the cognition of pain. This makes the question easy for a preference utilitarian, who holds there is nothing impeding the value of the preferences of subjects: Badness attaches to pain when a subject would rather not be feeling it. When a subject prefers pain for whatever reason, there is nothing wrong with it. For objective moral systems outside of preference utilitarianism, the question is a little more threatening.

How does one define "bad" without "pain" or "suffering"? Seems rather difficult. Or: The question doesn't seem so much difficult as it is (almost) tautological. It's like asking "What, if anything, is hot about atoms moving more quickly?"

(Assuming we are discussing neural pain rather than emotional...)

Pain itself is not normally bad; it is an indicator that something bad is happening, or will happen if you don't take corrective action.

So why do we think of pain as bad?

First , we tend to think associatively; because pain is associated with bad things, we tend to think of it as bad even when it is actually helping us.

More to the point, though, sometimes the pain itself is the problem. When there is no corrective action we can take, then the pain itself becomes bad because there is no reason ... (read more)


The important thing to point out is that the information signal we experience as pain is an instructive signal more than just an indicative signal. I mean to say that pain's purpose is to make the organism react against whatever is hurting it, not just become aware of it. Since conscious decision making in humans is delayed at least 500ms (and sometimes up to 10 seconds!), signals such as pain have to be a result of low-level cybernetic reactions in the nervous system and not just a conscious experience after the fact. I'm sure if an intelligent designer... (read more)

The problem with pain is its inherent stupidity in dealing with its goals and inability to even cooperate with reason. It'd get more points if it were like vision, informing but leaving more advanced parts of mind in peace to do the decision-making.

5Wei Dai
I have a counter-example that seems to show that the badness of pain is not necessarily derived from its effect on decision-making. Suppose I tell you that I'm going to make a copy of your brain and keep it in a jar unconnected to any motor nerves/circuits. I'm going to do this no matter what, but unless you pay me X dollars, I'm also going to keep it in excruciating pain. (If you do pay up, I'll give it a neutral experience.) Assuming you're willing to pay more than 0 dollars, doesn't that show that even if pain has no bad effects on decision-making, it would still be bad?
I read it as a different question: what is bad about pain vs. what is the nature of pain's badness. The first question is about describing the ways in which pain isn't optimal, how its properties could be changed to improve the result (like a naive suggestion to completely eliminate it, which turns out to be a worse option). The second question is about what features in particular make people characterize pain on the bad side of things. It's a less constructive question, it considers specifically the current implementation rather than how its role could be better played by something else.
2Wei Dai
This question seems just as constructive to me, but for a different purpose. Suppose we want to outlaw people building brains (or running brain simulations or AIs) in their basements and forcing them to have bad experiences. We'll probably have to do this sooner or later, so it would be nice to understand what makes a bad experience bad. Since it's commonly agreed that pain is bad, it seems like a good starting point to study the nature of its badness.
And this is a third question, about the nature of badness, for which pain is but a special case, not necessarily anywhere near the most salient one. I suspect pain only registers as an important example of badness because of availability bias, it's a particular incarnation of badness which people actually experience, as opposed to a concept of pure badness derived from an accurate theory of badness. You'd want to study the nature of badness, not the nature of pain.
The example doesn't show "pain that has no bad effects on decision-making". That excruciating pain you're going to put the brain through will fundamentally alter what decisions that brain will make, via diversion of its cognitive resources. Perhaps you don't consider that effect on that brain's decision making to be bad. Why wouldn't you? If you're using the brain simulation to do human-level AI, you want it at its best. If you're researching how people respond to pain, then it can be good or bad depending on what the purpose of that research is.
0Wei Dai
But I said that it's not connected to any motor nerves, so it has no decisions to make. Well, I suppose it can still decide what to think about, so let's say I also remove that ability and force its thoughts to drift randomly.
Neither are most supercomputers connected to motor nerves, yet people are quite interested in their output! In that case, it's no longer clear if "pain" is even well-defined. Something whose thoughts truly drift randomly and are prevented from attaining any order ... is in a state of entropy; it does not even count as a control system, let alone life.
So you think pain is bad because it is stupid?
Not up even to the human standards of sanity, yes.

Is pleasure any less stupid? It's a little less demanding about attention, but arguably that has more to do with the commonly encountered intensity level.

There's an old saying: "The dose makes the poison."

This is like asking what's wet about the water. I can't imagine a frame of mind that could put "pain" in doubt without putting "bad" in similar doubt, thus making the question meaningless and confusing like some kind of koan. "What's X-like about X?" To reduce confusion you should try a less vague formulation, like "why do people seek to avoid pain?", where we can hope for a neurological answer or something.

ETA: Righting a Wrong Question seems to apply well here, simplifying your question to "Why do people think pain is bad?" which is much easier to answer.

Staring from the point you've suggested, I would say: People don't think pain is bad -- not when it directs them to do something in their interest like let go of a hot stove, or be aware they have a broken bone. Moreover, on careful reflection, most people would want to get a pain signal when e.g. cancer is developing so they can treat it at the earliest possible time, and will be shielded from any procrastination.
Is it easy enough that you could answer it? I don't know why people think pain is bad, either, except that we don't like it - and I addressed that as an explanation in the article.
You mean the bit about masochists? We don't need to explain why they think pain is bad in their specific circumstances, because they don't think pain is bad in those specific circumstances. As for the rest of us (and the masochists when they're outside the bedroom), we find pain painful because those who didn't got themselves killed instead of contributing to our lineage.

One obvious downside to pain is that it tends to hijack your thought processes. It becomes increasingly difficult to think (and act) effectively as the amount of pain you're in increases. Therefore pain inhibits you from achieving any goals you might have, which seems like generic badness to me.

But an alternate way to phrase that is that being in pain supplies you with a new, generally overriding goal: to get out of pain. Unless you think that, in general, acquiring new goals is bad, or that, in general, you shouldn't have goals that aren't maximally compatible with each other, I don't see what's necessarily bad about acquiring the goal "get out of pain" - unless you have an independent reason to think that the situation which yields that goal (pain) is bad.
I agree with the below discussion. Pain allows an external person/thing to override my existing thought processes. It's like mind control. But is this my true reason? I don't think so.
Anything that diverts your attention from without would be bad for the same reason: a sudden movement, the commencement of some noise, a change in temperature, an adjustment of the ambient light, celery suddenly tasting like sugar cane. That does not make these things bad. It makes them attention-getting. Pain is attention-getting, but that can't be all there is to it.
I'm not sure I'd characterize those things as not bad if they distracted me from what I'm doing. Badness is subjective.
It gets attention and WON'T LET GO.
What about brief pains, then? If I touch something that's built up a static charge and it shocks me and I experience a moment of pain, it quite promptly "lets go". Why does that situation seem worse than the situation in which I touch something that has built up a static charge and experience the scent of roses, or the sound of a flute, for that same moment?
I think it's reasonable to say that having a new goal forced on you against your will is bad. Certainly if a person gave you a new goal against your will (through brainwashing, or just doing some damage to you) we would morally condemn that person. Furthermore, many types of pain offer no obvious means to get rid of them (e.g. chronic lower back pain, or migraines), so it could be considered an objectively bad goal for that reason.
Certainly we would. But I don't think it generally follows from "a person who causes state X should be condemned" that state X is bad. Intention matters. If someone, in attempting to lie to me, causes me to believe something true (because they were mistaken about the fact of the matter on which they lied), that doesn't mean that believing a truth is bad, but (the attempt at) lying is still wrong/condemnable.
No, of course it doesn't follow generically. That was more along the lines of a motivation than a formal argument.
To put it a little differently: I'd be displeased about it if someone brainwashed me to have a new goal against my will. But I'd also be displeased about anything that anybody could do with my mind without my express invitation, even if it were something I would have expressly invited (e.g. "now raw celery tastes like sugar cane!") My intuitions about that have to do with the invasiveness that comes of involving another agent, and not with the result. We tend to feel differently about things we do to ourselves, and things that happen to us through mindless processes, and things that are done to us on purpose by other persons. Even if those things are all alike.
I see your point and recognize that my motivational example was a bad one. If I were to try again I'd invoke something like stare decisis: it's difficult to plan how to efficiently achieve your goals if the goals keep changing, therefore having your goals changed unexpectedly is bad.
I'm not sure quite what you mean by goals here. The most plausible interpretation I can offer is that: Goals are the drives that cause behavior. "Because of goals X and Y" is an answer to "Why did you do Z?" (and not an answer to "Why should you do Z?"). In this case, we ought to adopt the set of goals that (through the actions they cause) maximize our expected utility. Our utility function needn't mention goal-achievement specifically; goals are just the way it gets implemented. Acquiring a goal uncorrelated with our utility function is bad, because value is fragile. It's not that the causes of the goal "get out of pain" are bad; it's that the consequences might be. For a wide range of utility functions (most of which make no explicit mention of pain), a system that provided information about damage without otherwise altering the decision-making process would be more useful.
Goals are for achieving. If a high-priority goal is hard to satisfy, my utility function returns a low number. My answer to the main question: pain does an important job, but there are better ways to do it. Heck, pain can even hinder the goal of getting out of pain, it's so bad.
Well if the pain hurts (which it does), and you don't know how to stop the pain, and the pain does not direct you to do things that make the pain go away, then I think the answer's pretty obvious. The pain isn't changing your goals; it's just making it harder to think about them, and thus achieve them.
It seems that you can have a goal without any clear way to achieve it. If you're in pain and don't know how to fix that (short of, presumably, suicide), you can still have the goal "get out of pain". I think I could legitimately be said to have the goal "live forever", even though I don't know how to do that. Are you saying it's bad to have goals that you don't know how to achieve?
My comment mentioned that the pain keeps you from thinking. So, if the goal is something that you: a) don't know how to achieve b) are unlikely to learn how to achieve c) have trouble thinking about anything due to the existence of it, d) don't even agree with the goal, e) your health does not suffer from not pursuing the goal Then yes, taken together, it's obvious why goals meeting a-e are bad.

If CIPA patients are an extreme case of what's good about pain, it seems their opposite might be useful for finding what's bad about it. And indeed, I'd consider patients disabled by chronic pain to be the opposite of patients disabled by a lack of pain. Pain is good when it pushes us to do things which we regard as good for ourselves, such as "go eat a vegetable" or "stop putting weight on that broken limb". For as much as "good" and "bad" have any meaning, then, isn't pain "bad" when it pushes us to do things that we regard as bad for ourselves?

For insta... (read more)

This is my idea:

Pain is a signal. Like pleasure, it converts neutral events in the body or mind into concepts imbued with value, positive or negative. Things that happen that are (evolutionary) determined to be bad for an organism's survival or reproduction are, over time, linked to a pain signal in the brain, giving the organism a reason not to do them. Pleasure is also a signal. Some events can cause pleasure AND pain, which just means that they trigger both signals (with varying strength.) The signalling mechanism is, of course, imperfectly calibrated, ... (read more)

This doesn't seem to take into account the fact that pain hurts. I suggest that "why pain is bad" rests ultimately on that fact. Torture isn't bad just because it confuses signals and doesn't increase reproductive success.
1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
You are right. I was trying to give a reductionist, objective description of what pain is, but that doesn't really cover what it is.
Well, to be fair, that's pretty much what most attempts end up doing, and I just happened to pick on you out of capriciousness ;)

I don't know if pain is bad, but it's definitely something I don't like and want to avoid. I'd much prefer a warning and alert mechanism that doesn't feel so subjectively awful, and that doesn't misfire so much.

I don't know if I'd want to have congenital insensitivity to pain, but I'd like to "cap" my sensitivity to something much less than it currently is.

Eliezer has written about this, too.

most people also don't enjoy lutefisk or rock climbing or musical theater or having sex with a member of the same sex, and it seems like a different claim to hold that lutefisk and rock climbing and musical theater and gay sex are bad

Hmm, I've never tried lutefisk...


Well, let's make a sharp distinction between response to physical injury and response to mental distress, both usually called "pain," both feeling very similar.

Physical pain serves a definite purpose. It alerts us to injury and trains as a strong negative re-enforcement against getting hurt. Physical pain can of course be exploited in torture to do real, permanent damage, and if given the chance I would vouch to reduce the uncomfortable properties of pain. Physical pain is a damage response (very good) but is too effective (i.e. torture is possib... (read more)

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Pain to me means something that forces me into a state of being that is the exact opposite of those I desire to experience. Good = what I want, and pain is what I don't want, and what robs me from Good.

Is it just a question of the definition of "pain" and "bad"?

Pain is usually taken to be the opposite of pleasure, and bad is usually taken the opposite of good, and pleasure and good aren't always the same thing (e.g. wireheading is pleasurable but not good, according to most), so pain wouldn't be the same as bad either.
Interesting, so I might be in the minority for whom pain is the opposite of not only pleasure, but good, too. (since I can't think of any case when pain wouldn't take away from any kind of 'goodness') EDIT what are some examples for painful, but not bad?
Eating spicy food?
"The standard definition for pain, as developed by the International Association for the Study of Pain is as follows: "An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience normally associated with tissue damage or described in terms of such damage."" I think the key word in the definition is unpleasant. All the examples in the articles you linked,and as far as i read, in the comments, assume the activity is enjoyed despite being unpleasant. However I don't see what points that such activities aren't enjoyed precisely because they are, on the whole, pleasant, despite being partly unpleasant.
You might endure a (short-term) unpleasant feeling because it's a side effect of something you think will also have (longer-term) desirable outcomes/makes you more like the person you want to be (for example, hunger when you're on a weight-loss diet). This is the reverse of wireheading (by which term I'm including present-day non-fictional implementations of the idea, such as heroin), which gives pleasant feelings but doesn't make you more like the person you want to be. (The fact that pleasurable things can have longer-term bad outcomes and painful things can have longer-term good outcomes is the very root of akrasia, isn't it?)
And then there are masochists. (ETA: according to
Masochists are defined as people who derive pleasure from pain... is it really pain if it is pleasurable?
Yes, and one need not go as far as fringe sexuality, about which I think most people have no real knowledge, for an example: painfully hot curries. Not everyone likes these, but some do. Of course, the question is superficially complicated by the fact that the word "pain" is used both in the sense of physical pain, as caused by hot curries, hitting yourself with a hammer, and so on, and a more generalised sense of "any feeling you do not want". When this is noticed, the superficial paradox of pleasurable pain dissolves like the paradox of the tree falling unheard in the forest.
Especially as one can be confused about whether "physical pain" experienced is "good or bad", and feel pleasure / displeasure (depending on cognitive context) from same stimulus (e.g. stretching).
Yes, the standard definition of pain (accoording to a quick google search) is "An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience normally associated with tissue damage or described in terms of such damage." We should really pick a definition before answering the question in the post...
4Paul Crowley
Speaking as a masochist, I do not think a definition of pain which excluded that experienced by masochists for fun would cut nature at the joins.
I am confused whether masochists experience pain as pleasure, or experience pleasure as the result of pain, In the former case certain pain wouldn't be bad for masochists, but not necessarily in the latter.
0Paul Crowley
Certainly at least in my case the second seems much closer to the mark. I don't understand your second sentence.
I meant that saying "and then there are masochists" in response to "what is bad about pain?" implies the existence of masochists proves at least sometimes pain can be non-bad, but if in fact masochists do not enjoy the pain itself, but the pleasure they experience simultaneously while experiencing pain, then their existence is not in fact an argument in favor of pain not being intristically bad.
1Paul Crowley
Interesting idea. Would horror movies and roller coasters be better if you could experience their pleasures without having to experience fear? I think it's very closely analogous.
My intuitive answer is they would

"When is pain worst?" an is important and deeply related question which is, fortunately for us, much easier to examine directly. I feel worse to have a papercut than it is to have an equally painful, but ultimately more damaging cut elsewhere. I feel worse to have a chronic pain that will not go away than I do when I feel a brief pain that goes away shortly after. I feel worse if I am unable to fix the injury that is causing me pain. It feels unfair, awful and even unbearable to ache for days during a bad bout of the flu. I know that the pain doe... (read more)

Most people don't enjoy pain, in those people, it causes suffering. With near certainty, suffering decreases the utility of the universe according to the coherent extrapolated volition of humanity.

Torturing masochists is perfectly fine as far as I can tell, in fact, better than fine.

Most people here seem to be giving reasons why pain is GOOD. It's a warning system, etc.

Pain is bad, because it causes us to abandon our higher thoughts, and react impulsivly, occasionally making the situation much worse. Sharp pain typically demands a swift response, like the automatic jerking of a hand away from the flame. One can learn to train themselves to surpress this automatic response, but then the damage from the flame is greater while they take the time to think out why and how they should remove thier hand from the flame.

In short, pain is bad because it, more oft than not, forces an unthinking instinctual reaction.

So like orgasm, then?

If it's trivially easy to say what's bad about the lack of an ability to feel pain because you wouldn't want it to happen to your child, isn't it trivially easy to say that pain is bad for precisely the same reason?

If people in general really cared a lot about their children experiencing a minimum of pain, I would not expect some common parenting strategies to exist.
Well, there is an easy experiment we can do. Just find a mother with her son out walking around, grab the son and start torturing him, and observe the mother's response.
I think she would probably react negatively if you grabbed her son and gave him a lollipop, too. If his father, however, grabbed the son and started hitting him on some pretense or other, a certain percentage of mothers sampled probably would not protest.
Good point, we need a control group where we grab the son and then do nothing. Then we compare the reactions to the group where we grabbed the son and tortured him.
I would expect the negative reaction to be much more severe in the case of torture.
Certainly. But there is something of a confounding factor involved.

Pain is pretty much body-ese for "bad". It is necessary as an indicator of what is bad - injuries, poisons, illnesses cause pain because pain is how we know those things are bad.

It's kind of a meaningless question then; the badness is not contained in the pain but in the things causing it.

You might as well ask what is acid about the colour on indicator paper.

It seems like this is a resurgence of the ought-from-is dilemma. For this reason I think accepting that "pain is bad" as a primitive is acceptable, as there doesn't seem any way to derive it from anything. Off hand I might venture that more specifically we call pain "bad" because creatures strive so strongly to avoid it, this too being a primitive. (And like you mentioned, we appreciate it when it helps us avoid other things we want to avoid even more, like death).

What makes this different from lutefisk is how strongly we try to avoid ... (read more)

I don't think anything about pain as a concept or feedback process is bad. The things which may cause or accompany pain however are bad or challenging and can cause harm to sustainable life. That is what people actually don't like. I am unfamiliar with cases where pain does not accompany some destructive situation.

On the flip side, I like the pain in my muscles after exercise because I understand it's origins and it is signaling to me that I successfully broke muscle down which I have a reasonable expectation of growing back stronger.

Pain in and of itself... (read more)


It's unwanted and frightening. Your awareness of it, even your awareness of the possibility creates revulsion and fear.

It's so strong you have a hard time thinking about anything else, a hard time functioning, and you feel that something is deeply wrong that you are powerless to change.

At least, that's what I find bad about pain. I suppose those things are technically my fault.


The difficulty of answering this question suggests one possibility: pain might very well be the only intrinsically bad thing there is. Pain is bad simply because it is bad, in a way that nothing else is. It could be argued that the "goodness" or "badness" of everything else is reducible to how much pain qualia it causes or prevents.

I don't buy this, but at least you should include pleasure as well.
You certainly wouldn't be the first to suggest this. Bentham once asserted that he couldn't even imagine badness reducing to anything other than pain.

I think (though I haven't thought about it very much yet) that maybe the most coherent line of argument is that pain per se is not a bad thing, but it is an indication that a bad thing is occurring, e.g., burning oneself, tearing a muscle, walking on a joint that is damaged and therefore damaging it further. All these are easily argued to be bad things because they get in the way of the goals of the pain-experiencer. So when we say "pain is bad, we should minimise it", that's really just shorthand for "things that cause pain are bad, we shou... (read more)

And counterargument: I've read about back pain patients who are in pain for no other reason than that some nerves are messed up and won't stop mistakenly sending pain signals. The "bad thing" behind this particular pain is the messed-up nerves. But why are the messed-up nerves bad? Because they're causing pain. There's simply no other reason.
In such cases, the pain can have quite serious consequences. (Warning: Nightmare Fuel.)
Thanks to that article, I've spent the past 15 minutes scratching miniscule itches all over my body.
That sounds like me, minus the successful troubleshooting. Pain is the root-level sensation of "this is bad, make it stop", which doesn't involve conscious reasoning of why it is bad. It's necessarily going to interfere with your other goals, because it will insert itself (and assert itself) in your goal ranking. If that goal is something you want, great. If not, it's bad.