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Pain and Nature

Environmental ethicist J. Baird Callicott has argued that welfare-based ethics are mistaken to treat pain as bad. Pain, he says, plays an important functional role for the organism, and hence for the larger ecosystem -- it shows it what not to do. As he puts it in Earth's Insights (praising the Hua-Yen Buddhist idea that everything is what it is because of everything else, and hence nothing that exists is bad):

In nature, pain and death are facts of life at the heart of evolutionary and ecological processes. ... pain is necessary to the survival of an animal organism, however, unwelcome as it may be. A genetically anesthetized animal would have as lethal a birth defect as one born blind or deprived of some other vital sensory function. ... Attempts to extend standard Western ethics to nonhuman natural entities and nature as a whole have proved counterproductive from an ecological point of view... Standard Western approaches to ethics, extended simpliciter to nature, would require us to divide our fellow creatures into good guys and bad guys and condemn the very soul of ecological processes -- trophic relationships -- as inherently evil, since ecological processes inherently involve pain and death.

But Callicott's argument isn't really about pain, it's about the capacity for pain. Pain would not achieve the function he attributes to it unless the organism considered the pain to be a bad thing and strove to avoid it. Doing something damaging, feeling pain, and then avoiding that activity is still worse than not doing the activity in the first place, so the hedonist aim of reducing pain remains intact.

Indeed, the fact of ecological interdependence means that properly applied, Western hedonist ethics do not lead to the conclusions Callicott attributes to them. The hedonist can recognize the fact that ecological processes require some pain, and accept that pain as necessary for achieving the greater good (indeed, hedonism's propensity to accept such tradeoffs is exactly what deontologists condemn it for). Ecology could only be condemned as "inherently evil" if there was an alternative that would achieve all the good of our present ecological system with less pain. Were such an alternative available (and I don't imagine it is or will be in the forseeable future), and setting aside the problem of getting there from here, it's hard to imagine what -- aside from a conservative-Nietzschean celebration of the nobility and grandeur of (other entities') suffering (a la Holmes Rolston III, IIRC) -- would justify retaining the present ecology.

Callicott's argument does suggest a rebuttal to the idea that pain is the fundamental bad thing, since he takes it to be functionally related to some deeper bad thing that it's steering you away from. One would then need to establish on independent grounds what makes that deeper bad thing bad, in order to be able to judge the usefulness of different pain responses. Simply relying on evolution to have calibrated our pain responses to match the underlying bads is inadequate, since 1) evolution is always a work in progress that may not have caught up to our current environmental conditions (a point often overlooked in attempts to ground ethical duties in evolutionary outcomes), and 2) much human pain is socially learned, not biologically programmed (such as the distress I feel when considering the many states with DOMA laws versus what a homophobe feels when considering Massachusetts).

As a side note, I suppose one of the reasons this blog gets only a handful of readers a day is that I tend to write responses to arguments and debates that most of my handful of readers have never heard about or care about. On the other hand, one of my primary motivations for blogging is to be able to jot down ideas like this for my own intellectual benefit, so trying to blog in a way that would boost my audience would lead to less blogging. C'est la vie.


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