Sunday, September 23, 2007

Evaluating (and Enumerating) Pains

What matters: the objective quality and duration of a pain, or our subjective conception of it? Suppose you undergo (1) 30 seconds of intense pain; or (2) 35 seconds of intense pain, followed by 5 seconds of milder pain. It turns out that most people prefer the second type of experience; afterwards, it seems to them to have been more bearable. Does that make it less bad for them in fact, or are they simply irrational/mistaken?

I'm drawn to the subjectivist option. (Plausibly, if anything is subjective, pleasure and pain most surely are.) What matters is subjective suffering, not the objective qualities of pain. It just turns out to be a curious fact about human psychology that you can make us suffer less by inflicting additional (if attenuated) pain.

Parfit seems to assume the contrary view in arguing against temporal neutrality in Chp 8 of Reasons and Persons. In his 'Case Two', you wake up the day after a painful operation, though you cannot remember exactly how long it was. A nurse tells you there are two possibilities: (1) You had 5 hrs of pain, but the operation is now over; or (2) You had just 2 hrs of pain yesterday, and have another hour still to come. Parfit suggests that the first seems preferable, despite being worse for your life as a whole. But, it seems to me, one episode of extended pain may have a roughly constant disvalue no matter its actual duration, at least if you cannot subjectively tell the difference. If this is so, then the first option is actually better for your life as a whole. It contains merely one episode of pain, whereas the alternative contains two.

One objection to my position is that memory flaws may distort our retrospective understanding of how bad a pain really was at the time. (This seems to be what Daniel Gilbert thinks of the attenuated pain case, based on his remarks in a talk last week.) I'm not sure what to make of this suggestion. But even if we're drawn to a more objective theory of hedonistic evaluation, we may only wish to count as distinct experiences those that are qualitatively distinct. (We would then think that duplicate universes, or Nietzschean eternal recurrence, would make no difference to the value of the world.) Most of the time, even intrinsically identical pains are embedded in discernibly different experiences, and so count as recognizably distinct. But in Parfit's hospital case, it seems like the duration doesn't introduce sufficient qualitative differences. After a while, many moments of hospitalized agony all blur together, and we may think the reason for this is precisely that there is truly nothing in the experiences to distinguish them. And so they count for just one.

My intuitions on these cases are all over the place, so I'd love to hear what others think. For any who prefer a more practical example, consider Michael Vassar's past comment:
One potentially important example of experiences that may be identical enough not to stack and may not be comes from factory farms. It's plausible that factory farms aren't all that bad, but also plausible that they are good candidates for "worst thing ever". I'd definitely like to know which is true.

What do you think? Is it true that (a) qualitatively (sufficiently) identical experiences only count for one? and (b) many animal pains are (sufficiently) qualitatively identical?

9 comments:

  1. The shorter pain may be subjectively worse retrospectively, but the longer pain is subjectively worse concurrently. If you were 28 seconds into the experience, I'm sure that you would subjectively prefer (1), and that the extra 5+5 seconds would not be part of a qualitatively indistinct blur in your mind at that time. (Many people are even willing to make significant concessions in order to cause an episode of intense pain to end sooner, such as confessing to serious crimes that they may or may not have committed.)

    You could still argue that (1) is worse, all things considered, but your argument that (2) is not worse in any meaningful way strikes me as wildly implausible.

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  2. I dont think it is fair to judge such things retrospectively - afterall if I was to judge my life that way I might easily choose to inflict massive pain on myself for all the time before I was about 10 (maybe to make myself amazingly fit?) because I can't remember anything much from that time.
    In many ways i might be considered an entirely different person (different atoms making me up - almost entirely diferent memories etc) but one that I think deserves his own weighting morally speaking - presumably equal weighting, maybe even higher weighting than me now.

    GNZ

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  3. Right, so the second half of my post was meant to address those worries. It would be interesting to learn whether people still make the same retrospective judgments when they are fully informed (i.e. aware of the longer duration, and not simply forgetting how awful their earlier experiences were). It seems to me at least possible that they might. And then we are left with a difficult question about how to evaluate a large episode of pain: can we simply add up the badness of each individual moment (as it was experienced), or do we need to look at the experienced episode as a whole, thus taking into account things like the general 'shape' of a pain, whether it tapered off towards the end, etc.?

    I'm tempted by the latter option, which is why I place more weight on (informed) retrospective assessments than concurrent ones.

    Blar - if you were to tell me when I was 28 seconds into the experience, this would provide a 'signpost' or focal point that would significantly change the quality of the experience (reducing blur). If, on the other hand, you are merely talking about a general disposition -- to want the pain to stop ASAP, say -- I don't think this overwhelming drive is a good reflection of one's true preferences. (I'm pretty sure I care about other things more than pain, no matter that you could get me to "agree" to anything while subject to torture.)

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  4. In the hospital example, it seems to me we should also factor in the anticipation of future pain - which is surely a type of suffering in its own right. It doesn't seem implausible to me that a longer, but one-time, painful experience might be preferable to less pain overall broken up by periods of fearful anticipation. The former might actually have less pain overall than the latter.

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  5. I should edit my comments before posting. :) The last sentence would make more sense as, "The former might actually have less overall suffering than the latter."

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  6. I dont think it is fair to judge such things retrospectively - afterall if I was to judge my life that way I might easily choose to inflict massive pain on myself for all the time before I was about 10 (maybe to make myself amazingly fit?) because I can't remember anything much from that time.
    In many ways i might be considered an entirely different person (different atoms making me up - almost entirely diferent memories etc) but one that I think deserves his own weighting morally speaking - presumably equal weighting, maybe even higher weighting than me now.

    zsy

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  7. whoa, deja vu.

    Richard-
    I agree with you. It makes more sense from a therapeutic perspective that you'd evaluate your pain retrospectively. As far as the "memory flaws" objection, you could say that such flaws are more likely to occur if small pains are repeated than if one large pain is endured. Take, for example, the case of a chronic arthritis sufferer versus the case of an athlete who endured a painful knee injury. We might say that the athlete has a better prognosis despite the fact that his/her one moment of intense pain is far worse than the many moments of dull pain caused by arthritis.

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  8. Is he saying that multiple pains experienced by one animal are equivalent to just one? Or is he going further and saying that multiple pains experienced by multiple animals should be "stacked"? I don't agree with either of those positions. But I can at least understand believing the first position; I can't imagine believing the second position.

    Also, even if the first position were correct, and even if each individual animal's whole life just counted as one moment of pain (which is doubtful), you'd need to consider the many billions of animals a year who are victims of factory farms.

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  9. It's the second position. (I doubt there's any principled motivation for the first position that wouldn't extend to the second.)

    One way to motivate the position is to consider cases of teletransportation and duplication. Better to have three duplicates go on to live distinctively good lives, than to have four duplicates whose good lives are completely indiscernible from each other (despite occurring on distinct planets).

    I discuss this more in my value holism paper.

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