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Friday, November 12, 2021


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Hello Bill,

1) First a question: Going back to the comment I left on the first part, do you yourself think the situation is in any way different if it can be convincingly argued that the pain is always supervenient upon an absence?

2) As far as I can see the argument that pain is evil is based on the assumption that it would be better to not experience pain than to do. I'll grant that. What I dispute is the conclusion that therefore pain itself is evil as opposed to perceived as evil for those who suffer it. It's parallel to the lamb who says the lion must be evil, after all it's a rather unpleasant animal to meet. But that would obviously be nonsense, being evil for the lamb doesn't have any bearing on whether the lion is evil. The lion is flourishing and in eating the lamb its a good lion.
So if you want to say that pain is a positive entity, not a mere absence, then, granting the lamb-lion example, it seems that the problem of pain couldn't arise. In being experienced, the pain would be flourishing, wouldn't it? Putting aside how strange that sounds, this puts doubt on whether it can be regarded as evil.
We can go further though. And if my reasoning is valid we'd have a very interesting contrast here. Of course if pain is positive and its better for it not to be there, then we'd have a counter example to the thesis that being is better than non-being. However that seems to be entailed by being being convertible with goodness. So if I didn't commit any slippery slope here, then either only the convertibility of being and goodness is true. Or pain is a positive evil. They seem to be contrarians.

3) David Oderberg; "The Metaphysics of Good and Evil":

"Now consider the useless pains in which it would be irrational to take pleasure. The anti-privationist sees these as positive beings, states of feeling that it is bad to have, thus refuting privationism. One privationist response is to insist on the distinction, not necessarily between pain and painfulness (which would merely shift the objection to one about useless painfulness), but between pain/painfulness and suffering, where – as Bill Anglin and Stewart Goetz argue – it is suffering that is evil, not pain (or painfulness). The feeling of pain is itself either good or neutral – good if considered simply as a positive being, a feeling that is what it is supposed to be and could not be anything else, much like a bacterium that may or may not cause illness; neutral if thought of not in terms of what it is but what it does, which may be to cause suffering in some cases, and in other cases not.

A second response is that useless pain is itself a disorder and hence a form of privation. Patrick Lee writes: ‘And so the function of an animal organism which is naturally oriented to the survival and flourishing of the animal must be, just insofar as it does contribute to that end, good. And where the qualification (“just insofar as etc.”) does not obtain (for example, useless pain, toxins being circulated with blood), that is because of a disorder, that is, a privation.’ In other words, when pain fails to achieve its end (whose actual achievement makes the pain good) the pain is privative – and hence evil – due to a failure of the body’s normal functioning. This, I submit, is a mistake. We can agree with Lee that there is a disorder underlying useless pain: possibly faulty neural connections or discharges in phantom limb cases, hyperstimulation of nerve endings in the ingestion of capsaicin, and so on. But the pain, which is mental, is not the disorder, which is physical. (In the case where the disorder itself is mental, we can still distinguish the pain – uncontrolled anguish, say – from the underlying disorder, which might be one of many possible mental ailments.) The first response, by Anglin and Goetz, gets us closer to the truth. The pain, qua sensation, is what it is and does what it does, and is good just as any positive being is good. Contra Anglin and Goetz, however, there is no room for the pain’s being intrinsically neutral – at least on the Scholastic theory. Also contra these authors, we do not have to distinguish painfulness from suffering since we should address painfulness head-on and understand it as being itself a privation – a ‘privation of normal consciousness’, as Anglin and Goetz put it; a privation of ‘inner peace’, as Mark Murphy puts it. What is bad about pain is that it disrupts the mind, depriving the possessor of normal mental equilibrium. Even a person lacking mental equilibrium in other respects (stress, say, or some other distraction) suffers an extra deprivation when they are in pain and insofar as they are in pain. This does not, though, require holding that pain just is privation of mental equilibrium, nor does it require giving a precise definition of mental equilibrium. The former is false because there are all kinds of privations of mental equilibrium that have nothing to do with pain. The definition of mental equilibrium is not required because we know by ostension, by direct acquaintance, what kind of equilibrium is lost when we are in pain (whether reflecting on our own pain or observing another person’s).

Now one could define pain as a certain kind of privation of equilibrium and then define the relevant equilibrium as the kind one has when one is not in pain. It looks viciously circular but is no more vicious than defining red as the colour of fire engines (and any similar colour) and the colour of fire engines as red, so long as we remember that we are giving an ostensive definition: the colour of fire engines is that colour, red.
There is not much to be gained epistemically by this sort of two-step definition; it is enough to say that red is that colour – the colour of fire engines. Similarly, when we define pain as a privation constituted by a distinctive loss of mental equilibrium, we mean the equilibrium lost by that particular kind of feeling.

Anyone who has ever been in pain knows what is lost thereby, and anyone who has not (lucky them) must make do with a description that does not give them full access to the concept of pain any more than the person who cannot actually see red has full access to the concept of redness.
An obvious objection now arises. When pain is achieving what it is supposed to do, that is, directing its possessor to actual damage, it also involves loss of mental equilibrium, often no different in quality to that of a useless pain: a sharp stabbing feeling is as much a distraction whether one has in fact been stabbed or not.

This might be thought to undercut my response to the problem of functional pain – pain that does its job – which was to say that such pain is in every respect good, albeit unpleasant. If the unpleasantness is located in the selfsame loss of mental equilibrium as in the case of useless pain, one might claim that this commits the privationist to the inconsistency of holding functional pains to be both good and evil.
The answer is as straightforward as the objection is obvious. In standard, by-nature’s-book cases, where pain leads to the detection of damage and there are no other complications or distractions, there is a loss of equilibrium but it is not a privation; it is a mere absence. Recall that a privation is the absence of a due good, a good that is supposed to be there. In straightforward, functional pain cases, the equilibrium is not supposed to be there, so its absence is not a privation. On the contrary, the possessor is in exactly the mental state they are supposed to be in, which is the state of being directed to damage.
In non-standard cases – common but still deviant – there will be two things going on. There will be the same functionality as we find in the standard case – direction to damage – where the loss of equilibrium is still no privation. But there will also be other things happening, for instance when the pain of a sprained ankle causes me to ignore a red light at a pedestrian crossing, or some such. This specific loss of equilibrium is a privation: good functioning requires me not to ignore dangers to my well-being. So there is both privation and mere non-privative absence in such cases. Does this mean that one and the same absence is both privative and non-privative? That would be a problem, but it is not the case. Rather, we should say that there are distinct absences – the privative absence involved in being, say, caused to ignore a red light, and the non-privative absence involved in detection of the injury. This is not an ad hoc move on the part of the privationist but fits in well with what we ought to say:

The part of the overall feeling of pain that makes you look for damage is not the same as the part which causes you to ignore a red light. There are two disturbances, two reactions, and it is of little concern whether we say these are two parts of one overall reaction or not. Note that if you ignore the red light at the very same time as you are directed to look for damage, this still does not mean that there is a single disturbance that is both privative and non-privative. In such a case you ignore the red light because you are looking for damage, not because of the very same disequilibrium in virtue of which you are looking for damage. Such is the situation when you turn your attention from the light as you reach for your ankle." (pp. 307-311)

Although a mere amateur in these philosophical matters, I sense some serious difficulty with Oderberg’s assertion that “The feeling of pain is itself either good or neutral – good if considered simply as a positive being, a feeling that is what it is supposed to be and could not be anything else, much like a bacterium that may or may not cause illness; neutral if thought of not in terms of what it is but what it does, which may be to cause suffering in some cases, and in other cases not.” A bacterium is an animate primary substance and while if “may or may not cause illness” (and hence pain and suffering), its capacity to do so depends on its nature and its biological relationship to other animate primary substances (for example, humans or animals). Thus, while some bacteria are harmless if resident in the human gut, streptococcus, perfectly benign in certain soils, causes severe illness once it winds up in the human throat. My problem arises in treating “a bacterium” and “the feeling of pain” as if they were both “positive being(s).” Although the meaning of this term is not exactly clear to me, it seems that Oderberg is lumping together a primary animate substance (a bacterium) with “the feeling of pain,” which is something that is said or experienced by some primary animate substances, but is not a “being” or “substance” in itself. The feeling of pain has no existence beyond the moment or moments at which it is felt by some living being, and when such moments involve horrendous, often enduring, pain, something is present that is more than simply a privation. No one who endures such pain regards it as anything but evil, nor does he or she make a distinction between it (the pain) and the suffering; they are identical. This may be completely wrong-headed, and I am happy to be corrected, but that is my reaction to the first paragraph of Oderberg. As to the others, I am still attempting to grasp them.


Thanks for the comments. I have read them carefully, but I find them hard to follow. But I thank you for the references, some of which I consulted yesterday afternoon.


Good to hear from you. There is a lot to be said here, and time is short at the moment.

One thing to bear in mind is that for a Thomist such as Oderberg, to be = to be good. Ens et bonum convertuntur. Anything that IS is good, just in virtue of existing or being, and it is good in the measure that it IS. Existence is not axiologically neutral for Augustine and Aquinas. And so Oderberg says that a felt pain is good if considered simply as a positive being.

More later.

Thanks for the post, this was very interesting. I wonder if the extended privation theory of Alex Pruss may be helpful here. He claims that it is in contrast to a lot of the privation theory, but it really seems to be an extension of theory, at least by my lights. What he argues is that evils that involve things with positive ontological status, is that the evil involved is not the goods in themselves, but rather the goods misarrnaged, and the missarrnagment is not a thing or independent substance at all: the evil is the misarrangment and the misarrangment does not exist, so that is where the privation comes in. To think of the example of pain, pain is not in itself evil because it can be good to feel pain in some circumstances, rather when pain is an evil, like in the cases of torture for example, the evil there is not pain qua pain, but rather pain qua misarranged as a method of torture, and the misarrangement is the privation. I feel that Pruss' proposal is helpful here, but I would be interested to hear what you think, God Bless.

That's on me, I tend to make notes on my comments and then loose track. I really start to use a computer instead of a phone.

Anyways your response to Vito actually made it a lot easier for me to reframe my second point. If to be is to be good, then this is incompatible with the idea of a positively existing evil. I initially thought this would pose a dilemma for you as well, but you seemingly don't include yourself in the list of people with the position Oderberg holds. Which brings me to my question though: Is a rejection of that principle compatible with divine simplicity? Wouldn't that make God something beyond good? I forgot the name of the philosopher who used simplicity to navigate through the horns of the eutyphro dilemma (you certainly know it), but to me for now it seems that this all entails that to be=to be good.

If my lamb-lion example was too convoluted as well, then I just want to state that the unpleasant feeling doesn't suffice to be considered evil, subjective perspective on a thing has no bearing on its axiological status.

Anyway, thanks for the patience, I try to write better in future comments.


Pruss is a smart guy and I would like to read him on this issue. Do you have a link or other reference for me? Is his view in an article, a book, a blog post?

Hi Prof. Vallicella,

To my knowledge Pruss hasn't written anything on this issue yet, but he talks about it in a recent conference lecture that he gave. I'll link that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYs0ompB0kk&t=223s. Pruss' lecture only lasts for the first hour of the video.

God Bless.

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