Monday, May 23, 2005

Is Pain Impersonally Bad?

Thomas Nagel, in The View From Nowhere, argues that anyone's pleasure and pain provide everyone - not just the subject of the experience - with reasons for action. That is, they provide "agent-neutral" reasons, rather than "agent-relative" ones. If he's right about this, then we can charge the egoistic amoralist with irrationality, for their failure to recognize and act on these reasons. But is he right?

We begin by recognizing that "each person has a reason to care about his own pleasure and pain" - this is, so far, merely an agent-relative reason. Next, as Nagel explains:
We have to decide whether the kind of reason people have to avoid pain for themselves can be plausibly combined with impersonal indifference to it. Here the argument from disassociation seems to me persuasive. If we assign impersonal value to pleasure and pain, then each person can think about his own suffering not just that he has reason to want it gone, but that it's bad and should be got rid of. [emphases added] If on the other hand we limit ourselves to relative reasons, he will have to say that though he has a reason to want an analgesic, there is no reason for him to have one, or for anyone else who happens to be around to give him one... evaluation of [the pain] is entirely confined within the framework of a judgment about what it is rational for this person to want.

But the pain, though it comes attached to a person and his individual perspective, is just as clearly hateful to the objective self as to the subjective individual. I know what it's like even when I contemplate myself from outside, as one person among countless others. And the same applies when I think about anyone else in this way. The pain can be detached in thought from the fact that it is mine without losing any of its dreadfulness. (p.160)

One must be careful when trying to perceive values from an objective point of view, since within the "absolute conception" there is no room left in the world for mattering at all. As I wrote in my previous essay:
The essentially relational nature of value is made clearer by the notion of an evaluative point of view. Absolute objectivity, or the absence of a perspective, leaves no room for value; the universe doesn’t care what we do. But this need not lead to nihilism. Viewpoints exist, and value exists in relation to them. Morality does not require some ‘absolute value’ that is good from the null view. On the contrary: evaluation is impossible when deprived of all criteria, and ‘ought’ becomes meaningless – “a word of mere mesmeric force”.

But Nagel's point is well-supported by the alternative approach of Hegelian objectivity. If, in the objectifying process, we expand our viewpoint rather than constrict it, we can retain such perspectival notions as 'mattering'. We can achieve a (more) objective viewpoint which incorporates the values of ourselves and others, and thus recognizes the badness of pain and the importance of relieving it. This "moral point of view" will offer agent-neutral reasons to act.

But this is not enough to refute the amoralist. He may grant that one plainly ought to act morally according to this agent-neutral viewpoint. But the question is, what reason does he have for adopting this view-point in the first place? (Kai Nielsen, Why Be Moral?, p.290.) Why expand his perspective in such a way as to include the concerns of others? He is only concerned with himself; he does not wish to take on board others' concerns, for they are of no import to him. Adopting the objective point of view would thus seem to distort what the egoistic individual has reason to do, for it includes concerns that he does not share.

This, then, is the crux of the matter. Is the amoralist acting irrationally in refusing to acknowledge the welfare of others as an end he ought to pursue? That seems far from obvious. However, in a future post I'll look at how an analogy with prudence might support this claim.

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