Friday, September 2, 2022

Pain as a category

I’m getting convinced that pain, or even physical pain, is a category that does not cut nature at the joints. Consider that the taste of mouldy bread is more unpleasant than a typical vaccination jab, but the jab is physically painful while the taste is not. So neither are all physical unpleasantnesses pains, nor is it even the case that pains are distingushed from other unpleasantnesses by intensity. (That said, it is likely true that among physical sensations, the very most unpleasant ones are all pains.)

So, pains seem to be a subtype of displeasures. Is it a subtype that cuts nature at the joints? If we could say that pain just is tactile displeasure, then that would help. But not all tactile displeasure is pain. If I have a calloused hand and I move it against a fuzzy cloth and feel the callouses catching on the cloth, that’s definitely unpleasant—but not the least painful. So only some tactile unpleasantnesses are pain.

What unifies the tactile unpleasantnesses that are pains? Is there a common feel that all the pains have and that the other unpleasantnesses don’t? I doubt it. A burning pain and a dull ache feel quite different, and what they have in common appear to be (a) their tactile nature and (b) their unpleasantness. But (a) and (b) do not distinguish pains from other tactile unpleasantnesses.

I suspect that pains are like fish, which are a paraphyletic group. (Coelacanths and lungfish are more closely related to humans than to tuna.) They do not mark a natural kind of sensation. There are many kinds of unpleasant tactile sensations, such as itch, excessive cold, unpleasant roughness, burning pain, stabbing pain, dull achy pain, etc., and the ones that we call “pain” have nothing special in common.

This point is even clearer if we do not limit ourselves to physical pain. For the pain of embarrassment is, if anything, closer to disgusting taste than to stabbing pain.

All this suggests to me that pain is not a useful philosophical category. Unpleasantness or displeasure is a useful category. Specific types of unpleasantness, some of which are pains, are also useful categories. But pain as such is not.


William said...

"pain is not a useful philosophical category"

I am curious here. I would tend to call pain a "symptom" which is in this case a kind of body signal, with pain usually but not always a distress signal. But you are utilizing the term "pain" in another way here, I think.

What does it mean for a thing such as a pain to be useful in philosophical discourse? Is it useful in creating statements that can have some sort of quantifiable ethical value that can be balanced versus other ethical categories? What are other uses of such things as a "useful philosophical category"?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Pain is what you feel when you hurt. :-)

Why might it be useful? Well, you might think there is a moral presumption against pain (i.e., presumptively you shouldn't cause it but you should relieve it). Or you might be interested in the philosophy of mind and try to figure out what functional states underlie or define pain. Or you might think that a theodicy for pain is specifically called for.

And my suggestion is that in all these cases, we would get something more illuminating if we used a broader category than pain, even if the statements about pain are correct.

Compare this. It is true to say that it is wrong to torture Poles. But it is not very illuminating. It is much more illuminating to say that it is wrong to torture humans. For it is wrong to torture Poles because it is wrong to torture humans. To focus the discussion of torture on why it's wrong to torture Poles would not be useful.

William said...

So "pain" is too specific for the uses you have given, since it can be replaced by generic moral value in one context and generic sensation in another. I suppose that being more specific than that aids in visualizing the scenario but might mislead if it led to a too-specific objection. Thanks.