Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Painism, a useful pre-algonomic deviation

Richard Ryder’s book Painism — A Modern Morality figures in Precursor Works for an Algonomy because it proposes “the theory that moral value is based upon the individual’s experience of pain and that pain itself is the only evil” (page 26). Even if I think the theory is false, as every other all-encompassing ethical view based on a single most cherished value, the book for me has still a pro-algonomic usefulness because it shows in simple terms how the moral value of suffering, at least from one point of view, is second to no other value.

The book has only three chapters, the first on “Ethics So far”, the second on painism as a new approach to ethics, and the third on “Some Applications” of painism. I believe Ryder was looking for a way to apply very generally the idea that the reduction (or we could say more sophisticatedly the sufficient collective mastery) of pain is a supremely important thing, and he thought ethics might be an appropriate way. However, an historical review might show that without an algonomy, which is specifically, universally, and exclusively about pain, no way of managing pain can be 'appropriate'. Until now, every solution to suffering has been inappropriate, every well-intended solution has been actually a deviation or a wandering from pain into something else. Ryder’s book is more about morality than about pain. As a consequence, it suffers from a dual focus that is blurring an otherwise clear matter. Pain has an importance so great that it cannot be conveyed by way of ethics: pain requires its own proper specific exclusive whole universal domain, second to none. And ethics cannot be reduced to pain without being pervertedly impoverished (v.g. p. 65: “Pain, broadly defined to include all forms of suffering, is the only evil. All other moral objectives are means to reducing pain.”).

The author formulates some 42 rules for painism. Most of them seem to me less wise than they should be. Ryder’s manner of dealing ‘quantitatively’ with pain is, in my opinion, so clumsy or half-baked that it defies serious criticism! He may recognize rightly that “the severe suffering of one individual is a more serious matter morally than the mild suffering of millions” (page 2), that “pains cannot be aggregated across individuals” (page 27, reminiscent of a C.S. Lewis’ saying), or that “our first moral concern should always be with the individual who is the maximum sufferer” (page 29, reminiscent of an Abbé Pierre’s saying, and of a John Rawls’ principle — incidentally pp.19-21 and 92-94 are excellent about Rawls), but he still lacks the more sophisticated concepts that would prevent him from uselessly presenting “provocative and controversial results” (back cover). Especially, I guess, he is lacking the concept of a categorical distinction of INCOMMENSURABILITY between mild (more sophisticatedly: non excessive) suffering and severe (excessive) suffering. For instance, Ryder might say that an event causing 100 units of pain to a thousand individuals is worst than an event causing 10 units of pain to a million individuals. We might agree with that, but then, according to the same logic, we should agree also that an event causing 100 units of pain to a thousand individuals is worst than an event causing 99 units of pain to a million individuals. The problem is that concepts like mild suffering, severe suffering, aggregation of pains, and maximum sufferer have to be defined much more explicitly than Ryder does.

It must be said in his defense that, as a former animal experimenter and a former chairman of the Royal SPCA council, Ryder has been much concerned with the number and the suffering of animals used in laboratories. That is perhaps why his perspective is so peculiar. In any case, algoscience should collect every ethical view that gives a prominent place to suffering or to the relief of suffering. Ryder mentions some names in this connection: Epicurus, Bentham, Mill, Singer… We might add to those names that of Richard Ryder, Karl Popper (who proposed a negative utilitarianism), Erich H Loewy (Suffering and the Beneficent Community), Jamie Mayerfeld (Suffering and Moral Responsibility), Henri Atlan (Le plaisir, la douleur et les niveaux de l'éthique)…

There is one more point in Ryder’s view of pain that seems important to me. He quotes on page 121 an author who, like many others, suggests that there may be “no shared mental quality” between various painful states, such as nausea, a stubbed toe, existential angst, or frustration from not being able to walk around. On page 27 Ryder writes also that “The pain of A is as different from the pain of B as is a piece of chalk from a lump of cheese.” On page 121 however he writes: “But surely — their painfulness is shared. Their causes may differ, and so do their emotional and cognitive attributes, but at some basic level these states are all painful.” An on page 35: “Sooner or later, brain research will show that all pleasures (…) share some common cerebral mechanism. The same will be said of all varieties of pain.” I concur heartily. Suffering is a specific real phenomenon. It is a concrete thing sticking to the bodies of individuals who suffer. It exists in space and time, in a given number of nervous systems. It reacts to actions applied to it, it can be reduced, it can be stopped, it can be prevented.

(Text has been somewhat modified on 2009-09-10)


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