The Value of Truth and the Disvalue of Pain

In my replies from the Pacific meeting session on my book, I pursued an analogy between the value of truth and the disvalue of pain. Robert Johnson emailed me with some interesting thoughts about an alternative view of pain. The view I recommended was the view that pain is always and everywhere prima facie bad, but that it’s badness can be defeated or overridden. I then suggested that we answer some of the criticisms about the value of truth with the same kind of view.

Robert Johnson suggested an alternative, valence view of pain, where pain has no value or disvalue independent of a context, and that it acquires a positive or negative value depending on the context.

I recommend the following line of argument as a reductio of the valence view (I posted this idea here at Prosblogion as well). In early Christianity, the worry arose that heaven couldn’t be a wholly blessed experience because of the knowledge of the suffering of the damned in hell. One callous theologian (Tertullian, I think, but I can’t remember for sure) turned the argument on its head: he held that part of what makes heaven so blessed is the knowledge that the wicked are suffering in hell! On the valence view, this is exactly the right position to take. I’m strongly inclined to say, “So much the worse for the valence view,” but perhaps I underestimate its virtues…


The Value of Truth and the Disvalue of Pain — 18 Comments

  1. Jon,

    I’m torn about this. Consider the following, W.D. Ross-style world comparison. Imagine two worlds, one in which the extremely wicked experience pleasure and no pain, and another in which the extremely wicked experience pain and no pleasure. Which is the better world? I confess that I feel some pull toward saying that the world in which the wicked suffer is a better world than the one in which they don’t. This is the extent to which I sympathize with retributivists. Of course, maybe this is just the worst, vindictive side of human nature speaking, but I’m not completely sure. Any thoughts?

  2. Hi Gordon, I think I agree with you, but the comparison of the two worlds is an all-things-considered comparison. I’m inclined, and I detect that you are too, to think of the suffering in question as a bad-making feature of the one world–that’s why you’re conflicted in your judgement. So you think the wicked getting what they deserve is, all-things-considered, better than the wicked getting away with whatever. The prima facie badness view of suffering has a good explanation of the conflict; the valence view doesn’t (except to accuse you of overgeneralizing from the vast majority of contexts in which pain takes the badness valence).

  3. Jon,

    Yes, that seems right. The suffering is inherently bad, but its badness is potentially outweighed by the good of retributive justice. That seems the more plausible diagnosis of the retributivist judgment.

  4. Jon, the valence view doesn’t imply the horrific Tertullian (I assume) position, but, as Gordon points out, only that pain can be a good thing, for instance, when in the wicked. It doesn’t imply the Tertullian horror because while it may be good for the wicked to suffer, it need not be a good thing that one takes pleasure in perceiving or thinking about it (and if so, it is an interesting case in which something good shouldn’t draw our interest). Many will think the virtue of a valence view will be that it is consistent with a range of substantive views of the nature of value. Suppose, for instance, you think, as the Stoics did, that what is valuable is whatever is in agreement with nature. The valence view allows you to say that when, say, pain comes in the course of natural events, it is a good thing.

  5. Jon, you say,

    “The view I recommended was the view that pain is always and everywhere prima facie bad, but that itโ€™s badness can be defeated or overridden”.

    What do you mean here? You might be suggesting that there are situations in which the pain you experience is necessary (in some sense) to some greater good. Call that the familiar (but not so interesting) view. Or you might mean, that (in the same) circumstances the pain itself is not bad at all. Call that the interesting (but crazy) view.

    I don’t think you have to hold the crazy view in order to solve the puzzle you note. (I incidentally think it was Edwards who maintained that the saved will be indifferent to the sufferings of the damned because God—so says Edwards—is indifferent to that suffering. Hard to like Edwards when he talks like that). To solve the puzzle you
    describe you have to argue not that pain (or that suffering pain) is not always bad (say, for instance, when it is just or deserved suffering), but rather that *knowledge that someone is suffering justly* is not always bad. That might be easier to show.

  6. I confess that the following argument, which is extremely simple, persuades me that Jon’s view about the negative value of pain is correct. Imagine a possible world in which all that exists is one subject with a severe migraine headache. In that world, is the headache bad, or is its value indeterminate because there is no larger context to determine an answer? I find the badness of the headache indubitable. However, I don’t see how the valence theory could accomodate that intuition.

  7. Robert, it sounds like the valence view is going to extraordinary lengths to avoid the reductio. If X is good, and knowledge in general is a good thing, which is hard to deny, it is going to be equally problematic to claim that knowledge of and contemplation of the good is not also a good thing.

    The stoic view is nuts! So I say!! My arthritis pain sucks, and that fact is not changed by noting that this is a natural event or in the natural course of events.

  8. Mike, I’m not trying to solve the problem for the doctrine of hell, so wasn’t suggesting anything about which of the two views you describe. I’m only using Tertullian’s egregious view to argue against the valence view. Robert suggests how to avoid the callousness of Tertullian’s view without abandoning the valence view, but you have to say further puzzling things in order to do that.

  9. I wasn’t defending stoicism. Just pointing out that a wide variety of views of the good fit with it better than your view, and that is a plus; you foreclose few if any substantive debates about what the good is.
    Also, my view of Tertullian puzzle doesn’t imply that contemplation of the good *in general* is a good thing; it only requires that it is not in some cases. That it is bad to take pleasure in the pain of others, even when it is a good thing that they are in pain, isn’t paradoxical, is it? Sounds right to me.

  10. Jon,

    Right, it looks like (in your post) you are rejecting the valence view because of its implications for the Tertullian view. I was saying that at least one version of the Tertullian view is weaker and perhaps easier to justify than the valence view. So, for instance, it does not seem to me entirely unreasonable to hold that (1) is not always bad.
    (1) S is aware (knows, perceives, etc.) that S’ is suffering justly.
    Is that always a bad thing? By contrast, the state of affairs in (2) seems bad on any plausible view.
    (2) S’ is enduring a painful experience.

    But, to keep it interesting, let me offer an argument for the stronger Tertullian position that does not depend on the valence view.

    1′ (Vx)(it is permissible to be gladdened that x is not treated unjustly).
    2′ (Ex)(x’s eternal damnation does not constitute unjust treatment).
    3′. :. (Ex)(x is suffering eternal damnation & it is permissible to be gladdened that x is not being treated unjustly). From (1′), (2′)

    Which premise is false?

  11. Robert, I don’t quite see how any views of the good fit better with the valence view than with my view. Any view of the good will have to tell us about prima facie vs. ultima facie goodness, and what is distinctive about the valence view is that it collapses this distinction universally. If the stoics think something is good because natural, that view, whether a claim about prima facie or ultima facie goodness, fits just fine with both views. On the view I was suggesting, the prima facie claim presents no problem–there’d just be conflicting prima facie elements in some cases–and neither does the ultima facie claim–there’d just be a claim about how the conflict was resolved.

    More generally, if a valence theory says that pain is good in a given case, that means that it is both prima facie and ultima facie good, right? When all the features of a given case are good in both senses, I don’t see how one can explain the badness of taking pleasure in such goodness, since there is no tinge of badness there to appeal to to explain the badness of the pleasure. If pain is always and everywhere a bad-making feature, it is this essential feature of pain that explains why taking pleasure in the pain and suffering of the wicked is itself bad. Maybe enjoyment directed at the overall justice of the situation is tolerable, but not when directed at the suffering itself. There’s something perverse about that, and I don’t see how the valence view has an account of that.

  12. I just took stoicism as an example because it is distinctive of it (on at least some versions) to claim that nothing is bad or good until you take up an attitude toward it, and the fitting attitude is the one that conforms itself in some way to natural law. Since nothing is good or bad until you’ve settled on the right attitude, nothing is *prima facie* good or bad either. That sort of view is ruled out by saying that pain is alwasy prima facie bad.

    Why can’t the valence view say this: Look, value is essentially relational, in the sense that you don’t get a valence until you plug in certain perameters. But not everything has to be plugged in; just time, place, person, local circumstance. If you have enough of those variables, you get an initial valence: prima facie good/bad. But whether it is ultima facie good/bad depends on the total circumstance.

    The valence view can explain why it is bad to take pleasure in the suffering of the wicked, even though that suffering is good. It’s not that it is taking pleasure in something bad; its that it’s taking pleasure in another’s pain. In just the way that your view explains the badness of taking pleasure in something that is overall good by pointing to the direction of one’s enjoyment, my view explains the badness of taking pleasure of something that is good by pointing to the direction of one’s enjoyment. In your case, the direction is away from overall justice of the situation to the bad thing; in my case, it is away from the goodness of the pain to the pain itself. The pleasure is bad in your case because its an enjoyment of a bad thing, not the overall goodness of justice; in my case, it is bad because it is an enjoyment of the person’s pain, not the justness of that pain. The right attitude would be revulsion by the person’s pain, though its justness should make your revulsion more bearable.

  13. Robert, here’s what bothers me about your explanation. On my explanation, I say: here’s something obviously perverse–taking pleasure in something intrinsically bad. That explanation has a number of virtues, including making perfectly intelligible the claim of perversity. On your explanation, you say: here’s something obviously perverse–taking pleasure in pain. That looks intelligible to me because I take it to be a priori that pain is bad. But you don’t; in fact, for you it’s not even true. Then the explanation looks just like this one to me: here’s something obviously perverse–taking pleasure in number theory.

  14. On my theory (not really mine, but I hold a relative of this view) these explanations go in a different direction. I don’t think it’s obviously perverse to take pleasure in someone’s pain. I think it is not a fitting reaction to pain. You may think, ‘Well, I can explain why it’s not fitting: pain’s bad and you should be repelled by it!’ That’s a fair reply because I haven’t yet given you anything else in my view that would explain it. But that is because there are a lot of views about what makes a reaction fitting, and I don’t want anything to turn on which of these views is correct. Suffice it to say that while I’m explaining the badness of pain as its being something we should be repulsed by, you’re explaining why we should be repulsed by pain by its badness. We’re not going to settle which of these programs is going to win in this venue, obviously. My initial point was only that it didn’t seem to me to be a slam-dunk analogy to use to show that truth is always prima facie valuable. There’s actually a respectible alternative to explore.
    In any case, as you might guess, I don’t like explanations that bottom out in some value.

  15. Yes, we’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we! So here’s a conditional conclusion: my view is better unless you think you are uncomfortable with explanations that bottom out in some value. I think it is that that really must drive the valence view.

  16. Well, not quite. One could also hold that things such as pain originally always have some valence (bad), but that valence gets switched depending on circumstance. (I think some particularists might like that sort of view.)

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