Is Pain Evil? Are Moral Truths Describable in Non-Moral Language?

This post asks two questions. The first, “Is pain evil?” has been widely discussed in the past, but I think it’s worth bringing it up again with regards to the One-Chip Challenge (see below). The second, “Are moral truths describable in non-moral language?” is something that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere (full disclosure though, my reading in moral philosophy is not extensive). Notice that I’m not asking whether ethical facts, are reducible to non-ethical facts, but whether it is possible, even in principle, to state rules using non-moral language which accurately and completely describes moral truth.

First, let us consider the question of whether pain is evil with respect to the following video showing two people engaged in a challenge to eat very hot corn chips:

I challenge anyone to claim that the pain the man is going through is evil, when it has brought so much joy to so many people. It is common wisdom that the evil of pain can be offset by a greater good, such as when one goes through the pain of having a tooth removed, but in such cases it is usually understood that the pain is still evil; it is just offset by a greater good.

I don’t think that explanation can account for cases like the one-chip challenge where there is no clear offsetting good, and the pain itself is a source of joy to others. When I say that there is no clear offsetting good, I don’t mean that the man is not benefiting in any way from the pain–perhaps it made his job a bit more secure–but that there is no clear connection between any such vague good and the man’s reason for choosing to suffer the pain.

People often chose to experience pain and other negative feelings for reasons that are hard to pin down. People who are terrified of heights go skydiving or bungee jumping. People who are afraid of sharks or afraid of the water go scuba diving. People who are disgusted by slime or blood go fishing.

Of course, you could argue that all such cases can be explained in the same way as the tooth removal: at some level, there is arguably always some offsetting good which makes the person feeling the pain think that the pain is worthwhile to achieve the good. In many cases, the mere satisfaction of overcoming the pain is a good that may make it worthwhile to suffer the pain; but–according to this argument–the pain itself is still evil.

However this is a weak position because rather than independently identifying a level of good and a level of evil and showing that in all such instances, the level of good outweighs the level of evil, this argument merely assumes that the level of good must outweigh the level of evil, or the person would not have chosen it. It is more a stipulation than an argument.

An alternative (and I think more believable) position is that pain and other forms of negative feelings are not evil in and of themselves, but are morally neutral. Why are they then so closely associated with moral evils? Because humans, like all animals, have an aversion to such feelings, an instinctive drive to avoid them, and it is when our drive to avoid a negative feeling is frustrated, that we are experiencing evil.

Something very similar applies to positive feeling that are often associated with good. Laughter is often associated with good, but it can be caused by the suffering of others, and in this case, it is not good (I’m using “suffering” to mean negative feelings that are, in the given situation, evil). Affection is considered good, but it can take the form of a completely self-centered and selfish need that is objectively evil.

When one starts to consider all of the various permutations of factors and situations that render a situation good or evil, it starts to seem that there is no set of rules that can accurately describe what is good and what is evil. Of course, this is a false impression, as there is a very simple rule, “What’s good is good and what’s evil is evil”, but that rule is unsatisfying for the same reason that the answer “everything” is an unsatisfying answer to the question “what is there”: the answer is true but un-illuminating. What we really want is a set of rules that do not use moral language that can be used to identify what is moral:

  • killing is wrong except in self-defense or in defense of another
  • taking what belongs to another is wrong unless you have their informed consent
  • causing pain to another person is wrong unless it is done to achieve a greater good

In other words, what we want are natural laws: rules set down in the language of sensory experience, social interaction, wants, needs, desires, consent, intention, etc., everything except the language of good and evil, which will fully and accurately describe what counts as good and what counts as evil.

Such a set of rules would not be a causal account of moral truths, and certainly not a reduction of moral truths to non-moral truths, merely be a description of specific moral truths in non-moral language. What I am proposing is another level of incompatibility more extreme than the claim that moral truths cannot be explained in non-moral language; I am proposing that moral truths cannot even be fully and accurately described in non-moral language, that the language of good and evil, right and wrong, contains a stubborn core that is completely immiscible with non-moral language.