Philosophical Texts on Pain and Suffering
January 15, 2013 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Which philosophers have written cogently on the quantifying of suffering? I don't mean the value of suffering, like Nietzsche and the will to power or Kierkegaard and the path to understanding or extreme utilitarianist like Pearce, arguing for the eradication of suffering. I mean texts which consider the problems of how to value and quantifies degrees of suffering. Thanks!
posted by crush-onastick to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Bentham's felicific calculus maybe? It is designed to measure both pleasure and pain, using the units of hedons and dolors. Even if that doesn't suit, it would probably be a good starting point just to see who is referencing it more recently.
posted by drlith at 11:40 AM on January 15, 2013

Not really a formal philosophical text, but you may find Sontag's Regarding the pain of others an interesting read.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 11:48 AM on January 15, 2013

Seconding Jeremy Bentham, and possibly adding Peter Singer (thinking specifically about Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation)?

This article suggests the work of Daniel Dennett may be another useful resource.
posted by divined by radio at 11:59 AM on January 15, 2013

Less philosophical, more practical: look at medicine. Doctors struggle with this sort of thing, and I believe there are loads of studies on the subject.

I know I've read a few longform articles linked here on metafilter on the subject, but I'm unable to find them.
posted by jsturgill at 12:29 PM on January 15, 2013

Warning: Bentham is almost a reductio ad absurdum of quantification. The his list of pleasures includes "pleasures of malevolence... pleasures resulting from the view of any pain supposed to be suffered by the beings who may become the objects of malevolence: to wit...Other animals." So, if you enjoy kicking puppies, the pleasure you get from that activity is good. That activity is to be frowned upon only because it will produce an outweighing quantity of pains to the puppy and "pains of benevolence" in your less sociopathic neighbors, not to mention the various pains your neighbors will inflict on you in punishment.

To me it seems that looking for other pleasures and pains that outweigh the joy of puppy-kicking is the wrong approach. Kicking anesthetized puppies on a desert island would be hard to condemn by Bentham's calculus. A neo-Aristotelian could say that feeling that kind of pleasure only indicates that you are a bad person, and I find that appealing, but brute quantification can't get you there.

J.S. Mill on higher pleasures might help a utilitarian avoid this problem, but that's not obviously quantificational either.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:58 PM on January 15, 2013

Great question!

The value and quantification of happiness and suffering is one of the central concerns of utilitarian philosophers. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are its earliest proponents, so if you like beginning from first principles, begin there.

Peter Singer is of course the most articulate and well-known contemporary utilitarian, and is specifically concerned with suffering and how to reduce it. Check out Practical Ethics, as divined by radio said, which encapsulates his thoughts on why suffering is important, the nature and moral worth of animal suffering, suffering of humans in extreme poverty and the obligation to assist, among other issues.

David Benatar's Better Never To Have Been discusses the harm of existence and argues that it is unethical to bring children into a life of suffering.

Utilitarian Essays by Brian Tomasik is concerned with why and especially how to reduce suffering and includes essays specifically aimed at quantifying and comparing different kinds of suffering.

Some of the perennial debates of utilitarianism directly concern the value and measurement of suffering and happiness. For example, average vs total utilitarianism and Derek Parfit's
Repugnant Conclusion. Or negative utilitarianism -- the exclusive focus on reducing suffering rather than increasing happiness, famously advocated by Karl Popper -- and its objection, the Pinprick Argument.

As jsturgil said, medical science also quantifies suffering (pain scales). So do health planners, in a way: check out DALYs and QALYs, which measure the burden of disease.

For more information and references, check out the utilitarian community at Felicifia.
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:15 PM on January 15, 2013

Boethius has you covered. Text here.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:38 PM on January 15, 2013

You might find some of the research on the psychology of pain interesting as it often requires explicit operationalization of the specific issues you are interested in.
posted by srboisvert at 4:44 PM on January 15, 2013

The most recent work of which I'm aware is this book by Duke professor Matthew Adler, which is all about interpersonal comparisons of well-being, and no doubt cites all of the state of the art literature on these measurement and comparison questions. (The book is also making big waves, people are taking it really seriously.)
posted by paultopia at 6:03 PM on January 15, 2013

I came here to say Peter Singer as well. He is all about quantifying suffering (although he does want to eradicate as much suffering as possible).
posted by Nattie at 9:30 PM on January 15, 2013

Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain has a long examination of how the nature of pain makes it difficult to express and quantify. You can read the introduction on Amazon if you want to have a look at it.
posted by felix grundy at 7:05 AM on January 16, 2013

Alphonse Daudet's In The Land of Pain is memoir about dying of syphilis, not philosophy strictly speaking, but does have many keen things to say on this subject. Plus it's a quick, delightful read.
posted by tsmo at 7:48 AM on January 16, 2013

Thanks, everyone, so far. There's some good stuff here. Looks like I have to go back to the Utilitarians, which I never read closely enough to begin with, but Singer and Alder look promising.

What I'm looking for, just to flesh out the inquiry, is this: We accept the truth in human interaction that "everyone worst day is their worst day" and yet we feel it's correct that to believe that the woman who has lost her greatgrandmother's mourning locket with her greatgrandfather's hair in it is not suffering as great a loss as the woman whose child has just died.

I'm looking for the structures that permit us to quantify suffering in this way. How is it, from a formal logic perspective, acceptable (for instance) to compare the school shootings to the civilian child deaths from US drone strikes as a means of shaming political opponents or as a call to action? Is such quantification appropriate, metaphysically?

Dalia Lithwick recently wrote that "Scoring your own side’s suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone—absolutely everyone—is suffering and sad and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either." So who are the philosophers who consider the structures for quantifying suffering? And how do they order pain? And what basis do they offer that those valuations are moral?
posted by crush-onastick at 7:59 AM on January 16, 2013

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