Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Virtue versus painlessness

Suppose we had good empirical data that people who suffer serious physical pain are typically thereby led to significant on-balance gains in virtue (say, compassion or fortitude).

Now, I take it that one of the great discoveries of ethics is the Socratic principle that virtue is a much more significant contributor to our well-being than painlessness. Given this principle and the hypothetical empirical data, it seems that then we should not bother with giving pain-killers to people in pain—and this seems wrong. (One might think a stronger claim is true: We should cause pain to people. But that stronger claim would require consequentialism, and anyway neglects the very likely negative effects on the virtue of the person causing the pain.)

Given the hypothetical empirical data, what should we do about the above reasoning. Here are three possibilities:

  1. Take the Socratic principle and our intuitions about the value of pain relief to give us good reason to reject the empirical data.

  2. Take the empirical data and the Socratic principle to give us good reason to revise our intuition that we should relieve people’s pain.

  3. Take the empirical data and our intuitions about the value of pain relief to give us good reason to reject the Socratic principle.

Option 1 may seem a bit crazy. Admittedly, a structurally similar move is made when philosophers reject certain theodical claims, such as the Marilyn Adams claim that God ensures that all horrendous suffering is defeated, on the grounds that it leads to moral passivity. But it still seems wrong. If Option 1 were the right move, then we should now take ourselves (who do not have the hyptohetical empirical data) to have a priori grounds to hold that serious physical pain does not typically lead to significant on-balance gains in virtue. But even if some armchair psychology is fine, this seems to be an unacceptable piece of it.

Option 2 also seems wrong to me. The intuition that relief of pain is good seems so engrained in our moral life that I expect rejecting it would lead to moral scepticism.

I think some will find Option 3 tempting. But I am quite confident that the Socratic principle is indeed one of the great discoveries of the human race.

So, what are we to do? Well, I think there is one more option:

  1. Reject the claim that the empirical data plus the Socratic principle imply that we shouldn’t relieve pain.

In fact, I think that even in the absence of the hypothetical empirical data we should go for (4). The reason is this. If we reject (4), then the above reasoning shows that we have a priori reasons to reject the empirical data, and I don’t think we do.

So, we should go for (4), not just hypothetically but actually.

How should this rejection of the implication be made palatable? This is a difficult question. I think part of the answer is that the link between good consequences and right action is quite complex. It may, for instance, be the case there are types of goods that are primarily the agent’s own task to pursue. These goods may be more important than other goods, but nonetheless third parties should pursue the less important goods. I think the actual story is even more complicated: certain ways of pursuing the more important goods are open to third-parties but others are not. It may even be that certain ways of pursuing the more important goods are not even open to first-parties, but are only open to God.

And I suspect that this complexity is species-relative: agents of a different sort might have rather different moral reasons in the light of similar goods.


Martin Cooke said...

Nice argument; I like to think that this justifies, to some extent, the young Adolf's dentist not withholding the neutralizer.

steve said...

i) We could also distinguish between temporal pain that fosters soul-building virtues and pain that continues after the soul-building virtues fostered by pain have been developed. The latter seems gratuitous.

ii) But what if soul-building virtues decay unless periodically reinforced by suffering?

iii) Of course, for many people, pain doesn't improve their character. The effect of pain is person-variable. It makes some people worse and others better.