10 April 2004


And, welcome to the new philosophy grad student blogs on the block from Brown, Syracuse, and Rochester. Go check them out.

Bad but not bad for?

I've made use of the distinction between a pain being bad and a pain being bad for someone --this can be taken as roughly tracking either the subjective/objective value distinction or the agent-relative/agent-neutral distinction. While there are a lot of issues that this raises (organic unities, harmless bads, Temkin's 'Slogan', Parfit's Mere Addition Paradox, etc), I want to comment on whether a pain can be bad without being bad for anyone as the arguments below claim.

As I've implied, I think ultimately its not possible to have a pain that is bad but not bad for anyone, but there are examples which should give one pause. I've mentioned fetal pain, here's a few others:

Philosophers love the fact that people given lobotomies and leucotomies for chronic pain tend to report that the pain is still present but that it doesn't bother them. We get similar reports with various opiates and strong sedatives.

People adept at meditation and hypnotic analgesia sometimes report that they are disassociated from their pain while in these states --I seem to remember that the Buddha somewhere advises that when one gives up attachment to her pain, the pain does not go away but she no longer suffers from it.

Finally, I've at times been tempted to argue --for various technical reasons having to do with the way I think pains get their objective and subjective badness-- that certain deserved pains are neither bad nor bad for their sufferer. That is, Hitler's pain wasn't bad for Hitler --when he stubbed his toe, nothing bad for him occurred. If such a conclusion held, then it would seem plausible that there could be pains which were themselves bad but not bad for anyone.

These are, I think, prima facie plausible cases of a pain being bad but not bad for someone (in fact, if we add certain Moorean intuitions about the nature of intrinsic badness --esp., the isolation test-- they can be made even more plausible).

Myself, I think that this plausibility turns on several mistakes about what pains are (notably, identifying pain with its sensory component alone) and some related mistakes about the nature of value. Thus I do not believe that there are pains that are themselves bad but not bad for someone.

But this conclusion is harder to come by than it at first may seem.

08 April 2004

More on fetal pain

A correspondent has kindly pressed me on whether we really would want to say that fetuses don't feel pain given that newborn's clearly evince pain-behavior. My earlier post was certainly unclear on the matter, so here's a second pass:

Its certainly the case that newborns and therefore late term fetuses experience pain in at least its sensory components (and probably in some of its other more complex affective and conative aspects as well --but this is an empirical matter). And, I agree that the fetus is connected to its body in a relevant way. In fact, its probably the case that, the fetus/newborn is more connected to its body in the experience of pain than an adult human is to hers, since it doesn't have the sense of self as something above our bodies that we seem to.

My only point (insofar as I have a clear opinion on the proper account --I meant the post to mostly bring out some of the hard issues involved) is that by lacking the higher order capacities that adult humans and even adult housecats do, fetal/newborn pain has a different normative significance than adult human and housecat pain. The extreme version of this claim (which I probably myself don't endorse) is that a fetus being in pain is bad but not bad in a way that is bad for the fetus --its a hard distinction, its roughly the same point as the claim that the fetus feels pain but doesn't suffer.

Now, if this is coherent, inflicting pain upon fetuses is still bad and therefore ought to be avoided. (and presumably this is easy to do via opiates --indeed, from some of the literature on anesthesia during surgery on newborns it seems that low-dose opiates are safe in newborns-- and I suppose safety for the fetus isn't so much a concern in an abortion). What it does deny is the presumption that if the fetus feels pain it ought to be due certain legal protections in virtue of the pain being evidence for the fetus's moral status as a person (though that might be established on other grounds). Since that's the context in which the question of fetal pain usually gets raised, in the post I suggested that the proper (short) answer to the judge's question is no.

In any event, while I've thought a lot about pain and value in general, I haven't thought too much about the specific question of fetal pain (its going to be a section in a later chapter of my dissertation which I haven't yet begun), so its entirely possible that I'm all wrong about this. Still, the topic is hard and interesting; I'll greatly appreciate any further comments.

01 April 2004

Do fetuses feel pain?

Here's a place in the law where some very deep and difficult issues of science, philosophy of mind, and ethics, come out in a courtroom.
A doctor who performs abortions found himself quizzed by a federal judge about whether a fetus feels pain during a controversial abortion procedure and if the physician worries about that possibility. The inquiry, at times graphic, came in U.S. District Court on Wednesday after lawyers on both sides had finished questioning Dr. Timothy Johnson, a plaintiff in one of three lawsuits brought to try to stop enforcement of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.
"Does the fetus feel pain?" Judge Richard C. Casey asked Johnson, saying he had been told that studies of a type of abortion usually performed in the second trimester had concluded they do. Johnson said he did not know, adding he knew of no scientific research on the subject.
The simultaneous litigation centers on the ban of what lawmakers defined as "partial-birth" abortion and what doctors call "intact dilation and extraction" - or D&X. In the procedure, a fetus is partially delivered and its skull is punctured. An estimated 2,200 to 5,000 such abortions are performed annually in the United States, out of 1.3 million total abortions.
Government lawyers say the law protects fetuses from pain during the abortion procedures that usually involve crushing the soft skull or draining brain tissue to shrink the fetus to a size in which it can be pulled from the body.


Behind the question 'does the fetus feel pain?' lies several important issues surrounding pain and the nature of value. Since these are my specialty, let me try to briefly sort out some of them.

The first is the question whether pains are necessarily (intrinsically) bad. Most people believe that this has to be true (indeed, many think it is a conceptual truth about pain). Assume it is true.

It may very well be that late-stage fetuses have the neurology necessary for processing nociception (the signals produced by painful stimuli). If so, and if phenomenological states supervene on neural states, then fetuses plausibly are capable of having the sensory component of pains (roughly, the 'hurting' of the pain). So if something is a pain by virtue of its phenomenology --how it feels--, then it would follow that (a) fetuses can have pains, and (b) the pains fetuses have are bad. (Notice that this is not yet an answer to the judge's question --having pain may be distinct from feeling pain)

The question is then whether the pain is bad for the fetus.

Some plausible interpretations of cases involving patients with leucotomies or otherwise disassociated from their pains suggest that a pain isn't bad for someone unless she identifies with it as hers. Hence a potential difference between 'having pain' and 'feeling pain'. Clearly, a fetus doesn't have the sense of self necessary for identifying with its pain, and so the fetus's pain might be bad, but not bad for the fetus. (If that sounds incoherent, good. I do think we should reject the claim that all putative pains are intrinsically bad; but I'm just trying to organize the issues here.) Thus the law would protect no interests of the fetus in protecting it from pain; no more than proscribing the infliction of pain on chairs.

Above I assumed that we could take x to be a pain in virtue of x having the sensory component of pain. Is that correct?

This again is a hard question. In the famous McGill dog study (references on request), some researchers raised puppies without seeing older dogs react to painful stimuli. When these puppies were grown, they'd do things like lick red-hot heating pipes or repeatedly nuzzle lit matches with very little adverse reaction. Since they had, ex hypothesi, roughly the same neural architecture as other dogs, we can assume that they had the sensory component of pain. This combined with everything we know about the conative and affective components of pain (emotions, disliking the pain, being motivated to escape it, etc), suggests that, if we think that pains are necessarily bad, we should think that there is more to pains than their sensory components. Since fetuses do not have the capacity for these other components of pains, it follows that they do not have pains.

So, I suggest then, that the proper answer to the judge's question is 'no'. But I've only skimmed the surface here of several very important and deeply contentious issues in pain science, philosophy of mind, and ethics, so I don't expect this brief comment to convince many. Indeed, these claims only follow from the assumption that all pains are intrinsically bad.

If readers are interested, I'll return to the issues in more depth and detail in later posts.