On the Intrinsic Badness of Suffering
An Argument From the Phenomenology of Suffering
It is an old thought that experience itself provides at least prima facie epistemic justification for some of our beliefs (indeed, according to one way of thinking - and one to which I am myself disposed - all justification is necessarily grounded in experience, given that all of the possible sources of justification are themselves certain sorts of experiences). At the very least, it seems that we can know some truths - namely truths about the nature and contents of our own phenomenology - only by means of turning inward; by introspecting. I can know what it is like to be me at a given moment by - and, indeed, only by - attending to the character of my subjective experience.
Third-person investigations of the mind can undoubtedly reveal a great deal, such as hidden motives; the ultimate origins and neurophysical correlates of our thoughts, feelings, and desires; and much more besides. However, as Thomas Nagel notes in his landmark essay, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” (1974), such third-person investigations, by their very design, can reveal precisely nothing about the intrinsic nature of first-person experience, or that of our myriad conscious states; of what have for some time now been termed qualia. And as René Descartesrecognized in the 17th century, if we know anything at all, it is that there is first-person experience (less well-known is that Augustine of Hippo recorded essentially the same insight in the fifth century). The claim that there is no first-person experience is, as Galen Strawson puts it somewhat bluntly, “the silliest claim ever made”.
It is this latter point upon which I wish to focus. Although by definition no two subjects-of-experience can ever partake of the exact same (i.e., numerically identical) experience, there are, it seems, some states of consciousness that are shared: all human beings experience such states as pleasure, love, pain, and (of present concern) suffering. In order for this to be so, it must be the case that these states have certain essential properties; otherwise, they could not be instantiated in different minds. Such properties could be accessible only by way of introspection.
Thus, it follows that we can generate new knowledge - at minimum, about the nature of certain of our own mental states - by means of introspection. If there is value in this world (of the sort that would make Value Realism true) then it is reasonable to suppose that badness is something real, with which we are directly acquainted by virtue of its instantiation in (or, perhaps, in its identity with) certain of our conscious states.
By its nature, whatever is true of the phenomenology of experiential suffering is accessible to us only by means of direct conscious access (this is not to say that we are immediately aware of every aspect of it, as not all aspects of our phenomenology admit of immediate, untutored awareness). I suggest (partially on the basis of my own experience of unsanctioned, intrinsically aversive states) that
(P1) there are some to whom badness seems obviously essential to experiential suffering,
so that one of the essential properties of such suffering is badness, itself. We experience states of suffering, in other words, as bad; they cannot be experienced in an evaluatively neutral fashion.
Built into experiential suffering, in other words, is (I propose) the sense that “this ought not be”; that suffering is something to be avoided, or escaped. The reports of others suggest to me that my experience of suffering is not totally idiosyncratic. I also do not presume it to be universal. The argument I will construct will be of epistemic significance only for those to whom experiential suffering seems as it does to me.
I. Phenomenal Conservatism and Introspective Beliefs
Moreover, we should, arguably, accept the epistemic principle according to which
(P2) if it seems to one that p, then one has prima facie evidence that p and so, absent a defeater, ought, epistemically, to believe that p.
This is simply a statement of the view known as phenomenal conservatism - a new term (coined by Michael Huemer) for an old view. To deny (P2) would be to adopt a fairly extreme position concerning the nature of epistemic justification that likely entails commitment to some severe form of skepticism: if we lack epistemic justification for believing, prima facie, that things are basically as they seem, then the prospects for having any knowledge are very dim indeed, given that (as previously mentioned) all knowledge is arguably constructed, at some fundamental level, precisely on the basis of how things seem. So, plausibly, insofar as we have reason to reject global skepticism (as most people believe that we do implicitly, given that most people believe they have knowledge), we have reason to accept (P2).
Additionally, I propose that
(P3) our considered judgments concerning the essential properties of our phenomenological states are (at least among) our most epistemically justified beliefs.
This claim should, I believe, be granted by anyone who accepts the conceptual possibility of Descartes’s Evil Demon Hypothesis, in which it is hypothesized that one is being deceived at every turn by an omnipotent and omniscient evil being, such that all of our beliefs are non-veridical.If the evil demon is epistemically possible, then it is epistemically possible that all of our beliefs - except, as Descartes of course notes famously, the belief that there are experiences - are false. But given that we can know that there are experiences even in the most radical skeptical scenario, knowledge of our experiences may be our surest variety of knowledge.
This is not to say that all of our phenomenological beliefs (i.e., our beliefs about our own phenomenology) are infallible. Indeed, it seems possible to me that I could be mistaken about, for example, the precise nature of the mood or emotion I am experiencing at a particular moment.But, crucially, these beliefs - unlike all of our empirical beliefs - could be true even in worlds in which we were radically deceived by the evil demon. In such worlds, I might be mistaken that I have burned my hand on the stove, but I could not be mistaken about feeling as if I had burned my hand..
And our experiential beliefs seem to be on even firmer footing than other of our non-empirical beliefs, such as our mathematical and logical beliefs. Descartes himself grants that the evil demon could impose upon us a psychology that, for example, caused false mathematical and logical beliefs to seem indubitable. But surely just as the evil demon could not deceive us about whether there are experiences, so he could not deceive us about their phenomenal character. Given that experiential states are, by definition, characterized by their phenomenological properties, which are accessible only by way of direct experience, it is not clear that deep and intricate knowledge of them would be rendered inaccessible to a victim of the evil demon.
II. The Argument From the Phenomenology of Experiential Suffering
Taking all of the preceding considerations onboard, we can construct The Argument From the Phenomenology of Experiential Suffering as follows:
(P1) There are some to whom badness seems obviously intrinsic to experiential suffering.
(P2) If it seems to one that p, then one has prima facie evidence that p and so, absent a defeater, ought, epistemically, to believe that p.
(P3) Our considered judgments concerning the essential properties of our phenomenological states are (at least among) our most epistemically justified beliefs.
(C1) Those for whom experiential suffering is experienced as bad ought, epistemically, to believe that experiential suffering is intrinsically bad, and, indeed, this belief will number among their most justified beliefs.
(C2) Those for whom experiential suffering is experienced as bad ought, epistemically, to believe that (S) suffering is intrinsically bad.
The weak link in this argument is, of course, (P1). No argument along the lines of the one above will be convincing to someone who experiences unsanctioned pain far differently than I, nor to someone who denies the existence of conscious experience (i.e., the existence of qualia), altogether.
So, although it is on the basis of The Argument From the Phenomenology of Experiential Suffering that I accept one of the central claims of this project, I concede that those who insist, earnestly, that they experience experiential suffering differently (namely, in an evaluatively neutral manner) will find it unpersuasive and question-begging. However, there is a severe limit to what philosophical argumentation can be reasonably expected to accomplish, so the fact that opponents will find my argument unconvincing is no great mark against it.
Still, one might think that merely to establish that there is prima facie justification for believing that experiential suffering is intrinsically bad is, in the end, to establish rather little. For, by definition, prima facie evidence is defeasible - some would insist highly defeasible. Moreover, to accept (P2) is to accept that there is prima facie justification for believing false claims: if I am delusional, it might seem to me that I am the Queen of England (if I am more delusional still, it might seem to me that I am the Queen of France). This seeming would justify me in believing an absurdity, provided I was not ignoring evidence that, if attended to, would lead me to regard my own thinking as disordered (such as evidence that my morning orange juice had been spiked with LSD). I think this is the correct result: we can be justified in believing falsehoods; to insist that only veridical seemings are justified is one of the many roads to global, or near global, skepticism.
According to the line of thought I have outlined here, our phenomenology itself should lead us to affirm that
(S) suffering is intrinsically bad.
Establishment of this claim would be significant insofar as it would entail the truth of Value Realism, according to which value attaches essentially to features of objective reality (and is, therefore, not merely a construct of the human mind) - and it is only a short step from Value Realism to Moral Realism (according to which there are objective moral duties); only a short step from “suffering is intrinsically bad” (so that everyone has an objective interest in avoiding suffering) to “one ought not inflict suffering (absent some overriding consideration)”.
I do not expect my argument to convince entrenched moral skeptics, or any number of others besides. However, I think that denial of (or skepticism about) (S) will have to go in tandem with denial (or skepticism about) many non-moral claims having to do with the general reliability of our perceptual and cognitive faculties and, in turn, the judgments these faculties produce. For if one does not take the deliverances of one’s cognitive and perceptual faculties to enjoy prima facie justification, then one will find oneself in a state of agnosticism with respect to a great many claims that people ordinarily take themselves to know.
See Descartes, 1641, Meditations On First Philosophy, Meditation II.
See Augustine, 426, The City of God, Book XI.
See Strawson, 2018, “The Consciousness Deniers”, The New York Review, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/13/the-consciousness-deniers/
As I understand this claim, it is compatible with the conception of badness as a mere absence of goodness (though that is not my own view).
Neil Sinhababu develops an idea along these lines in “The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism” (unpublished manuscript, pp. 28-9).
See Michael Huemer, 2001, Skepticism and the Veil of Perception, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, Ch. 5.
Some iteration of the view seems to trace at least back to Aristotle (see Posterior Analytics, I.3)
See Descartes, 1641, Meditations On First Philosophy, Meditation I.
See Timothy Williamson, 2000, Knowledge and its Limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ch. 5 for a sophisticated and influential discussion of these issues.
See, e.g., Daniel Dennett, 1990, “Quining Qualia”, In Mind and Cognition, edited by William Lycan, Oxford: Blackwell, 519–548.
For an excellent discussion of the limits of philosophical argumentation, see Graham Oppy, 2006, Arguing About Gods, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
tl;dr: I don’t think the concept of pain being intrinsically bad is intelligible, so I’m skeptical it could be a feature of someone’s phenomenology that pain seems intrinsically bad. In addition, I suspect the notion that pain is intrinsically bad is an inference or theory about the nature of reality given one’s phenomenology, but is not a part of the phenomenology itself. As such, people who think that badness “seems” essential to experience suffering may be confused about what constitutes phenomenology. It seems to me that evolution is true, but that this “seems” to be the case isn’t part of my phenomenology; “seems” can be used to refer to non-experiential judgments.
(1) Premise 1 and the impossibility of detecting badness
P1 may be true, but I think these people are mistaken. I’m not convinced that people who claim that when they experience suffering, that they have any kind of direct phenomenological access to “badness” are even having such experiences. Rather, I think they have an experience that is not in itself an experience of badness, and are making an inference *about* that experience, then mistakenly thinking that their philosophical position about their experience is part of the phenomenology of the experience itself.
A simpler explanation is that one only has access to their evaluation of that suffering as bad; they do not have access to “badness,” as though badness is something independent of their evaluation of it being bad.
For instance, if someone eats a piece of cake, and find it tasty, then they may be justified in thinking that they’ve tasted something they consider tasty, but they are not justified in thinking that they have experienced tastiness as some kind of stance-independent evaluative property. That just isn’t something that could be part of one’s phenomenology, as it is a substantive philosophical position about the nature of one’s experiences, not an experiential state itself.
In short: introspection allows one to recognize one’s normative and evaluative judgments about things, which is consistent with antirealism. It does not allow direct access to intrinsic badness.
(2) Concerns about premise 2
Phenomenal conservatism is fine in principle, but it has (a) at least one serious limitation and (b) is vulnerable to misuse.
First, regarding the limitation: phenomenal conservatism may justify belief in realism to anyone who has the relevant phenomenology. But it does not provide significant evidence for anyone who does not share that phenomenology. So if the best moral realists can do is argue that they are justified in being moral realists, that’s a fairly toothless position to take, dialectically, since it has little power to persuade anyone who isn’t already a realist to be a realist.
You acknowledge this just before your conclusion, noting that the same principles could allow one to be justified in believing they’re the Queen of England. This seems to trivialize the position. Whatever defeaters there are for realism, the realist may be unaware of them, mistaken about their epistemic force, or consider them insufficient to overcome their prior for moral realism. If so, the realist is “justified” in being a realist only in the trivial sense that it’s a descriptive fact that they are a realist due to psychological facts about themselves. This adds little to the question of whether realism is, in fact, true.
This brings me to the second problem with phenomenal conservatism: it is easily abused.
I wrote a comment on this elsewhere, so I’ll deploy it here as well:
“[...] *any* belief based on appeal to one’s experiences, isn’t simply a “defeasible belief.” One assigns priors to these beliefs. And so long as one assigns a sufficiently high prior to their beliefs, there is no way to undermine these beliefs, no matter how preposterous they are. Suppose, for instance, I have a near-certain prior that everything is a hippopotamus. No matter what arguments or evidence you present to me, I could say “Yes, that is good evidence that everything is not a hippopotamus. However, my prior that everything is a hippopotamus has a power level over 9,000, so your arguments and evidence are just not adequate to override my confidence in omnihippotamism.”
Huemer explicitly assigns “near-100% prior probability” to a claim (“torturing babies for fun is wrong”) that would entail realism here:
“it seems extremely plausible that: the physical world exists, I have a mind, torturing babies for fun is wrong, 2+2=4, I exist, some people know things, and so on. Each of these propositions, I would say, I assign a near-100% prior probability.”
In practice, anyone relying on phenomenal conservatism can acknowledge that their beliefs are technically defeasible, while simultaneously functioning as though their beliefs are de facto infallible: nothing ever would or could defeat their beliefs, no matter how compelling, simply because of how high the realist’s prior is.
Thus, while phenomenal conservatism is a fine principle on paper, in practice it can serve to stifle substantive discussion, justify epistemic entrenchment, and result in what would be more aptly described as phenomenal dogmatism.”
(3) I reject “(S) suffering is intrinsically bad,” on the grounds that it appears to be unintelligible. I do not know what it means, and I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of what it could mean. I think the general response antirealists should have towards accounts of moral realism which hold that things can be stance-independently good or bad, right or wrong, etc. is not to appeal to metaphysical or epistemic claims, but to directly challenge realism on conceptual grounds: the notion of intrinsic badness may just be a conceptual confusion (which may or may not be due in part to linguistic confusions).
As such, I endorse a quietist position about the kinds of normativity and reasons realists appeal to: I don’t simply think there are no such things, I don’t even think the discourse is coherent, or that there is any subject matter to even talk about.
(4) Finally, you say: “However, I think that denial of (or skepticism about) (S) will have to go in tandem with denial (or skepticism about) many non-moral claims having to do with the general reliability of our perceptual and cognitive faculties and, in turn, the judgments these faculties produce.”
I don’t agree. I don’t think the problem is with P1, which is a descriptive claim about what some people report, or with P2, which I don’t reject. The main issues would be with P3, and the intelligibility of what it is people are reporting in P1.
I accept P1 for the same reason I’d accept it if lots of people said that they had the phenomenology that there were square circles. What I’m accepting is that people report this being the case. What I do not accept is that they actually have such phenomenology.
I think the mistake realists are making in claiming that pain is “intrinsically bad” is an intellectual mistake, not a phenomenological one. They are making the mistake of thinking that their philosophical position is part of their phenomenology. And I am denying this. So I’m not denying that people are mistaken about their phenomenology. I am denying that people are mistaken about what they think their phenomenology is.
I will close with an example. Many people would report that they have rich detail and color in their entire field of view. So if someone were to say “it seems like there is rich detail and color in my entire field of view,” that would be true. I’m not sure if (or how) someone could be wrong about their phenomenology. However, if they were to conclude that, as a matter of fact, there is rich detail and color in their entire field of view, this would be false. Phenomenological reports are a reliable indicator of how things seem, not how things are.
The problem with using phenomenal conservatism as a justification for the claim that things are intrinsically bad because they seem intrinsically bad is that things cannot “seem intrinsically bad,”: this is a substantive inference *about* one’s phenomenology, it isn’t part of the phenomenology itself. There’s a trick in using phenomenal conservatism to support substantive metaphysical theses: one simply smuggles the metaphysical thesis into the phenomenology, then concludes that because it seems like the metaphysical thesis is true, then one is justified in thinking it is true.
Or, as one of my colleagues put it: phenomenology cannot reveal that anything has “intrinsic” properties. This is a category mistake. Phenomenology can only reveal seemings, while claims about intrinsic qualities are inferences.