Friday, October 15, 2021

An asymmetry between physical and emotional pain

Here is a puzzling asymmetry. It seems that:

  • Typically, we should seek to remove serious physical pains, even when these pains are normal and we are unable to alleviate the underlying problem.

  • Typically, when emotional pains are serious but normal, we should not seek to remove them, except by alleviating the underlying problem.

Thus, if one has lost a leg in an accident, it seems one should be given pain killers, whether or not the leg can be reattached, and even if one’s degree of pain is proper to the loss. But if one has lost a friend, the grief should not be removed, unless it can be done by restoring the friend (there is, after all, more than one sense of “lost a friend”).

Structurally, it seems that leg and friend cases are parallel: In both cases, there is a harm, which it is normal to perceive painfully.

Solution 1: The difference is due to instrumental factors. In the case of the loss of a friend, the pain helps one to restructure oneself mentally in the tragic new circumstances. In the case of the loss of a leg, however, assuming one is already seeking medical attention, the pain is unlikely to lead to any further goods.

Solution 2: Due to the Fall, typically our physical pains are excessive. We feel more pain for a physical loss than we should given that our primary ends are not physical in nature. The appearance of asymmetry is due to an equivocation on “normal”: the kind of pain we feel at physical damage is statistically normal for fallen human beings, but is not really normal. On the other hand, when we talk of normal emotional pains, there the pains are either really normal, correctly grasping the tragedy of the situation, or else they are actually deficient. (A standard theological intuition is that Jesus suffered mentally more at evils than any of us, because his virtue made him more acutely aware of the badness of these evils.)

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