American shadows

Back in the 1700s lots of people who seem to have been rather thoughtful and well-intentioned were blind to the immorality of slavery.  Think about a George Washington, or a Thomas Jefferson.  I often wonder which of our practices that we overlook today will horrify future generations.  Perhaps it will be the way we turn away millions of desperately poor people who wish to immigrate here.  Maybe it will be our factory farms, or our lenient abortion laws.  Perhaps the way we sedate millions of young boys so that they will be docile as cattle when in school.  I honestly don’t know, indeed other than immigration I actually don’t have strong views on the list I just provided.

But one area where I do have strong views is pain.  I find it hard to imagine a more unambiguous evil than pain.   Perhaps there’s some silver lining—making us more stoic, more able to see the blessings of life.  But when I’m in the dentist chair being operated on without painkillers, I have trouble seeing the silver lining.  (I haven’t had that experience since I was a child—thank God we are getting a bit softer.)

There are two referenda on the Massachusetts ballot that will allow our residents to show they’ve risen a bit above the savagery of their Puritan ancestors; medical marijuana and the “right-to-die” without suffering excruciating pain.  Here’s Marcia Angell:

The good cop was Dr. Timothy Quill, an internist in Rochester, New York, who in 1991 published in the New England Journal of Medicine a moving account of his decision to help a patient end her life.7 His patient, whom he called Diane, was a forty-five-year-old woman with leukemia. Without a bone marrow transplantation, which would entail much discomfort and was unlikely to be successful, she would die. Diane decided to refuse the transplantation and, with the support of her husband and adult son, asked Quill for a prescription to bring about death if and when she chose. He agreed, gave her the prescription, and she ultimately ended her life by taking it, after first asking her family to leave the house for an hour or so. Quill, who had been Diane’s physician for eight years, concluded his account by asking “why Diane, who gave so much to so many of us, had to be alone for the last hour of her life.”

At the time, I was executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and was aware that if we published Quill’s article, he might be at some legal risk. Like thirty-five other states, New York had banned assisted suicide. When I phoned Quill to ask whether, in light of the risk, he wanted to reconsider his request to publish the account of Diane’s death, he took a few days to think about it, then said he wanted to go ahead. Almost immediately after publication, the county district attorney brought him before a grand jury to indict him for manslaughter, but the grand jury refused.

The public generally has better judgment than our elected officials, which is why we have to rely on referenda (and jury nullification) on questions like medical marijuana and the right-to-die.  Obama did indicate that he would allow individual states to set their own policy on medical marijuana, but he lied.  Both parties are pro-pain, and against allowing people the freedom to decide for themselves when the pain is unbearable.  It’s a scandal that makes the Bush administration’s torture policy (which was disgraceful) seem trivial by comparison.  The pain we are talking about here can be an order of magnitude worse than “water-boarding.”

I saw a poll indicating that Oregon voters are likely to reject marijuana legalization.  It seems there is very strong opposition among women voters, many of whom will presumably vote for Obama, and support his draconian drug laws.  I’m sure they are generally well-meaning people, just as Thomas Jefferson was on the whole a well-intentioned individual. I’m not going to claim that locking up 100,000s of young black men for the “crime” of using drugs is on par with slavery, but I can’t imagine that future generations will look kindly on our policies toward pain and incarceration. The arrow of history is in the direction of utilitarianism.

I hope people will vote against pro-pain laws in all the various state referenda.  As for myself, I care much more about these referenda than I do about which candidate becomes president.

About the post title.  When I was young a 1977 book called “Chinese Shadows” had a big impact on my worldview. It was a beautifully written portrayal of how western travelers to China were blinded by visits to a carefully orchestrated series of “Potemkin villages.”  Not only did it show the sad reality behind Chinese propaganda, but it also mercilessly exposed the bankruptcy of western leftist thought, circa 1977.  At that time, all the exciting ideas were coming from the right. Today that seems like a different century, even a different millennium.

And it was.

PS.  I reread the entire book last night looking for a wonderful passage that I still remembered after 35 years.  I never found it.  Did I simply imagine the anecdote? No, I’m not that creative.

(The book is still a great read.)

PS.  I have an endorsement for tomorrow’s election that I’ll post this evening.  (Not that anyone cares.)


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48 Responses to “American shadows”

  1. Gravatar of Kevin Dick Kevin Dick
    5. November 2012 at 12:31

    Even minor pain is an issue. If you integrate over all the minor pains people experience due to lack of OTC opiates, it may be as bad as end of life pain.

    For instance, my wife burned her hand this weekend. It looked like it was probably just 1st degree, possibly minor 2nd degree. But the pain was pretty bad. OTC analgesics were insufficient, so she had to suffer over night.

    I already have to show my ID at the pharmacy to get decongestants, which the government tracks to make sure I’m not buying enough to cook meth. Surely, I should be able to show my ID and get a few doses of Vicodin, which the government could track to make sure I’m not an addict (to the extent one believes that not enabling addicts is a legitimate government policy).

  2. Gravatar of SG SG
    5. November 2012 at 12:35

    Great post.

    Off topic, but the gas shortages post-Sandy are an EXCELLENT example of the virtues of price-gouging after a disaster.

    From Washington Post (via James Taranto)

    New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced that temporary fuel trucks provided by the U.S. Defense Department would be placed at armories across New York City and Long Island to serve emergency vehicles as well as the public. Cuomo said that 8 million gallons of gas had been delivered by tankers and an additional 28 million would move into the city over coming days.

    “Fuel is on the way. Do not panic,” he said, adding that the gas not only would be available, but also would be free.

    In Brooklyn, motorists waited up to five hours to get 10 gallons of gas from a temporary station at the Bedford-Union Armory. Pedestrians, who carried two- and five- gallon canisters, waited just as long.

    And I, for one, am on the edge of my seat waiting to hear who you endorse for tomorrow.

  3. Gravatar of Typhoon Jim Typhoon Jim
    5. November 2012 at 12:44

    Vermin Supreme, obviously. He is, after all, the Tyrant you can Trust.

  4. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    5. November 2012 at 12:45

    SG:

    Is this not a textbook example of the state creating a problem (price controls -> shortages) and then “solving a problem” created by itself and swooping in pretending to be a savior (“free” gasoline)?

  5. Gravatar of johnleemk johnleemk
    5. November 2012 at 12:56

    Back in the 1700s lots of people who seem to have been rather thoughtful and well-intentioned were blind to the immorality of slavery. Think about a George Washington, or a Thomas Jefferson. I often wonder which of our practices that we overlook today will horrify future generations. Perhaps it will be the way we turn away millions of desperately poor people who wish to immigrate here. Maybe it will be our factory farms, or our lenient abortion laws. Perhaps the way we sedate millions of young boys so that they will be docile as cattle when in school. I honestly don’t know, indeed other than immigration I actually don’t have strong views on the list I just provided.

    I wholeheartedly agree. On that note, an interesting blog about immigration (which, full disclosure: I write for) is Open Borders: http://www.openborders.info

  6. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    5. November 2012 at 13:10

    Healthcare practitioners are really between a rock and a hard place when it comes to taking care of pain. And when someone who is chronically ill can’t get adequate access to pain relief, their overall symptoms sometimes increase till it practically becomes impossible to tell what is causing what. But then you get the “irreponsible” individuals who live to escape through pain killers, and the end result is doctors and nurses who are punished for being “too kind”. I knew one sympathetic doctor who lost his license to practice. Depending on the state, plenty of doctors feel they have little choice but to let patients suffer.

  7. Gravatar of Jon Biggar Jon Biggar
    5. November 2012 at 13:11

    Pain, like every other sensation, emotion and desire that humans experience comes with good and bad aspects. Ask anyone with Hanson’s disease if they are happier that they don’t feel pain when they get a paper cut. Without pain, the human race wouldn’t last very long.

    While I get your point that allowing people to needlessly suffer is clearly wrong, calling “pain” evil is a poor choice. Let’s reserve “evil” for deliberate choices that people make knowing that it will cause avoidable harm to other people.

  8. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    5. November 2012 at 13:20

    I rather enjoy more philosophical posts because they address the foundations of one’s worldview, and why people have the more superficial ideas that they do.

    This comment:

    “But one area where I do have strong views is pain. I find it hard to imagine a more unambiguous evil than pain

    is highly revealing. If pain is as an unambiguous evil, then of course pleasure as an unambiguous good is implied.

    A philosophical foundation of “pleasure good / pain bad”, which is often called ethical hedonism, invariably leads, whether it is intended or not, to moral codes that must be considered blind pieces of natural mechanism, rather than rational codes of conduct wherein pain (under certain circumstances) is permitted and pleasure (under certain circumstances) is avoided, due to holding certain behaviors as more valued than bodily pleasures.

    For example, I know that feeling pain the day after yesterday’s work out is a good thing, because it means I pushed myself and now my body is healing and becoming stronger. If I don’t feel pain, I conclude that I have to work harder the next time.

    If pain really is the ultimate evil and pleasure really is the ultimate good, then Sumner must hold that a universal eradication of pain whereupon everyone is connected to pleasure dream machines, such that we only think of pleasurable experiences, would be the ultimate good.

    This thought experiment, called “The Experience Machine”, as developed by Robert Nozick, is perhaps the most well known critique of ethical hedonism.

    He posed the following question:

    If you had the choice between being connected to the experience machine wherein you will never feel pain and only feel pleasure, or, staying awake and feeling occasional pain in everyday life, then which would you choose, and why?

    Nozick showed that if you any have reason not to plug into the machine, then you have abandoned ethical hedonism, and you would be holding pain and pleasure as something other than unambiguously evil and good, respectively.

    Nozick himself proposed three reasons why he would not want to be plugged into the machine:

    1. He wants to DO certain things, not just feel them.

    2. He wants to BE a certain person, not just a blob in a machine.

    3. The machine would limit him to man-made realities, and cut him off from the wider “natural” reality.

    —————–

    If Sumner truly held pain to be the ultimate evil, then Sumner would have to be against his own monetarist ethic, since the state threatens people with pain if they do not willingly consent to the fiat money system, by either peacefully resisting the payment of US dollar taxes to the IRS on any non-US dollar (e.g. gold) earnings they make, or peacefully marketing their own currencies (e.g. Liberty Dollar producers were robbed of their warehouse at the threat of pain, and they were arrested at the threat of pain).

    Of course, that would imply consistency, which of course is absent in “pragmatism”.

  9. Gravatar of Nick Rowe Nick Rowe
    5. November 2012 at 13:24

    The Potemkin village reminded me of recently reading this by Theodore Dalrymple (a visit to a North Korean department store): http://blog.skepticaldoctor.com/2010/01/15/classic-dalrymple-the-wilder-shores-of-marx-excerpt-1991.aspx

  10. Gravatar of Adam Adam
    5. November 2012 at 13:27

    This is excellent, and it’s a shame more people don’t agree with you.

  11. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    5. November 2012 at 13:28

    With the slavery issue, it’s worth noting that American opinions actually became worse over the following few decades, at least in the South. Slavery in the 1700s had no real moral justification except expediency, and the major slave-owners among the Founders (Jefferson included) admitted that rather uncomfortably, and thought it would die. Opinions on a number of subjects might actually become what we would consider morally worse in the future.

  12. Gravatar of Barrilete Cosmico Barrilete Cosmico
    5. November 2012 at 13:30

    On a marginal note, I’d like to point out that the villages shown by Potemkin during Catherine the Great’s visit to the southern ends of her empire were in all likelihood not shams at all, at least according to her biographer Robert Massie.

  13. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    5. November 2012 at 13:51

    Adam:

    This is excellent, and it’s a shame more people don’t agree with you.

    Which part?

  14. Gravatar of Cthorm Cthorm
    5. November 2012 at 13:56

    I have an endorsement for tomorrow’s election that I’ll post this evening. (Not that anyone cares.)

    I hope it’s for Gary Johnson. A protest gesture to be sure, but by no means a waste when you consider this statement: Both parties are pro-pain, and against allowing people the freedom to decide for themselves when the pain is unbearable.

    PS. You might save yourself a lot of time getting familiar with Google Books. I know rereading an old favorite has a lot of enjoyment value in it, but Google Books is invaluable when “that quote” is on the tip of your tongue. You can use it to search the text of specific books.

  15. Gravatar of Wonks Anonymous Wonks Anonymous
    5. November 2012 at 14:13

    Jefferson was not “blind”, he wrote about its immorality. It would be more accurate to call him a hypocrite.

    Consider California. Do you still have faith in referenda? You have identified as a “right-wing liberal”, and as such I would expect you to favor gay marriage. It has a 0-32 record with referenda, with much better legislative & judicial luck.

    Not that many people are in prison for USING drugs, the real biggie is “with intent to distribute”. Acts of capitalism between consenting adults. That’s why mere decriminalization may not make much difference.

  16. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    5. November 2012 at 14:46

    So after I vote for Barack Obama and Scott Brown, I can also vote for an end to pain? I guess I should pay more attention to the ballot questions…

  17. Gravatar of johnleemk johnleemk
    5. November 2012 at 14:47

    Wonks Anonymous:

    Yeah I think that’s a fairer assessment of Jefferson. As for Washington, he’s avoided a lot of flak on this count because he at least freed all his slaves in his will (and provided for their care), while Jefferson consciously chose to have almost all of his slaves auctioned off to pay for his debts. There’s also evidence that Washington was, at least relative to other Virginian slaveholders, unexpectedly sympathetic to emancipation — and his revolutionary army was probably the most racially integrated army until WWII.

    Of course, he was also hypocritical on some other counts, notably doing his best to prevent his slaves escaping or otherwise being liberated by operation of the law (e.g. rotating his slaves in Philadelphia to ensure none of them were resident long enough to be freed by Pennsylvanian law) — but still at least more willing to put his money where his mouth was on emancipation, compared to Jefferson.

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. November 2012 at 14:53

    Everyone, Thanks for all the good comments. Nick’s link is great–everyone should take a look.

    Wonks, California is way too big. Support for gay marriage is rapidly growing–it’s only a matter of time. Overall I trust the voters more than I trust unelected policymakers like judges. Sometimes you’ll get a Platomic king, but the sad record of the world’s dictators suggest we are better off relying on the wisdom of crowds.

    Lots of people in jail for selling drugs are users, not drug dealers. They sell a bit to a friend and get caught up in the criminal justice system. Then their lives are ruined. Right now 400,000 people are in jail for drugs–how many are big-time drug dealers? A few hundred? A few thousand? Then there is the disparity in the sentences for “white” drugs like cocaine, and “black” drugs like crack. We all know what’s behind that inequality.

  19. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    5. November 2012 at 15:56

    Do you mean pain or suffering? An athlete might appreciate pain as a satisfying signal that they’ve tried hard; that doesn’t seem evil. However, people experiencing pain as a result of cancer are suffering and this is an evil thing. Even more evil is that their right to prevent this evil is being denied.

    “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” A good basis on which to run a society. If people have the right to pursue happiness, then a fortiori they have the right to avoid misery.

  20. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    5. November 2012 at 15:56

    MF

    “If pain is as an unambiguous evil, then of course pleasure as an unambiguous good is implied.”

    No, this is not a logical implication.

  21. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    5. November 2012 at 16:01

    For a free extended account of someone who spent a whole year in North Korea with little effective covering up of how bad things were (and this at the peak of North Korean society in 1989) see “A Year in Pyongyang” -

    http://www.aidanfc.net/a_year_in_pyongyang_1.html

  22. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    5. November 2012 at 16:04

    Doug M,

    Agreed. Pleasure and pain are not on a spectrum.

  23. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    5. November 2012 at 16:05

    (And even if there were, that wouldn’t imply that one had the opposite moral properties of the other. As Aristotle noted, foolhardiness is the opposite of cowardice, but foolhardiness isn’t a virtue despite the fact that cowardice is a vice.)

  24. Gravatar of David R. Henderson David R. Henderson
    5. November 2012 at 16:15

    Dear Scott,
    Diane’s full name was Diane Trumbull. She was one of my students at U. of R. in the late 1970s. We were friends then, although I lost touch with her.

  25. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    5. November 2012 at 16:15

    Sumner,

    You go to far when you say that Washington and Jefferson blind to the evil of slavery. You could say that they were conflicted. Jefferson particularly had a complex and evolving attitude toward the morality of slavery. It appears that he knew that it was evil but had great fears of what would come if slaves were emancipated.

  26. Gravatar of Wilbur Wilbur
    5. November 2012 at 16:18

    Absolutely lovely post.

    On referenda — I think the problem is that they give everyone an equal say on issues that effect some people more than others. On the other hand, representative democracy forces people to prioritise different issues when selecting between different candidates’ bundles of policies — this means that issues that effect a minority more than the majority (like same-sex marriage) get dictated by the minority that prioritises that issue.

    Of course, representative democracy is still imperfect, as some people should be given greater consideration on all issues than other people, but it’s still better than referenda.

  27. Gravatar of Devan Devan
    5. November 2012 at 17:06

    Regarding those sort of passages that stick in your mind forever, there’s a particularly haunting one that I always remember. It was from a letter home written by a German officer during Operation Barbarossa, during the battle for Stalingrad and later published verbatim (in English) in a military conflict history about the campaign. Absolutely a blood-chilling description of war at its worst and could describe nearly any war.

  28. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    5. November 2012 at 18:22

    Doug M:

    “If pain is as an unambiguous evil, then of course pleasure as an unambiguous good is implied.”

    No, this is not a logical implication.

    Actually, it is, thanks.

    W. Peden:

    Pleasure and pain are not on a spectrum.

    (And even if there were, that wouldn’t imply that one had the opposite moral properties of the other. As Aristotle noted, foolhardiness is the opposite of cowardice, but foolhardiness isn’t a virtue despite the fact that cowardice is a vice.)

    Then by logical extension, you are saying pleasure and pain are two evils because they are two extremes.

  29. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    5. November 2012 at 21:34

    Um, they weren’t blind to it …

    Why trash your blog with glaring & obvious factual inaccuracies that make you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about?

    Scott writes,

    “Back in the 1700s lots of people who seem to have been rather thoughtful and well-intentioned were blind to the immorality of slavery. Think about a George Washington, or a Thomas Jefferson.”

  30. Gravatar of Greg Ransom Greg Ransom
    5. November 2012 at 21:35

    “Back in the 1700s lots of people who seem to have been rather thoughtful and well-intentioned were blind to the immorality of slavery. Think about a George Washington, or a Thomas Jefferson.”

    Which raises the question, do you know anything at all about these men?

  31. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    5. November 2012 at 22:08

    MF,

    That does not follow, since (a) I explicitly said that pleasure & pain are not on a spectrum and (b) the analogy with cowardice/foolhardiness was only to illustrate how one extreme of a spectrum being evil doesn’t necessarily imply that the other extreme is good, which is still logically compatible with spectrums sometimes having extremes as being good & evil respectively e.g. liberty versus coercion.

  32. Gravatar of Major_Freedom@hotmail.com Major_Freedom@hotmail.com
    5. November 2012 at 23:17

    W. Peden:

    That does not follow, since (a) I explicitly said that pleasure & pain are not on a spectrum and (b) the analogy with cowardice/foolhardiness was only to illustrate how one extreme of a spectrum being evil doesn’t necessarily imply that the other extreme is good, which is still logically compatible with spectrums sometimes having extremes as being good & evil respectively e.g. liberty versus coercion.

    If you believe that pleasure and pain are not on a spectrum, then I don’t see how the cowardice/foolhardiness spectrum can even serve as an analogy that can cast doubt on my argument that pain being an evil implies pleasure is a good by way of spectrum logic.

    Your argument by way of that analogy does not exclude a pain/pleasure spectrum. At best, your analogy would only be an argument for excluding pleasure as necessarily being a good, the same way the opposite of cowardice, namely foolhardiness, is not necessarily “good.”

    That leaves your argument as assertion (a), and is at this moment rather undefended, because you kind of just, well, asserted that pleasure and pain are not on a spectrum.

    I think they can legitimately be put on a spectrum, each at one of two extremes. Virtually every ethicist and philosopher does this. I thought is was obvious. Perhaps you can explain why you think they are not on a spectrum?

    The reason I think they are on a spectrum is because I hold that humans each have unique, but similarly structured, value scales that consist of alternative ends that are ranked in terms of ordinal utility. These ends are ranked from highest valued (what we observe people do) to lowest (what people had the opportunity to do but didn’t because they did the highest ranked alternative instead).

    Bodily feelings would be ranked as well, where each form of experience would be ranked differently than every other, but they all would be in the same ranking scale for each individual. In this sense, bodily experiences are on a singular spectrum from good (highest) to evil (lowest). We can imagine that if someone holds pain as relatively low on their value scales, than I don’t think it is a fallacious leap to imagine that this implies they hold pleasure relatively higher on their value scales.

    If pain as evil does not imply that pleasure is good, then what is pleasure if not good?

  33. Gravatar of Sade Sade
    5. November 2012 at 23:50

    Entire modern ethic/philosophy/social order built on proposed pain=bad axiom. It was the bedrock of Bentham’s utilitarianism – So not surprising Sumner equates pain with evil. Me, I’m not so sure. I certainly wouldn’t choose a life without pain, though I agree with Scott’s point in the post. There are of course other philosophies of pain. For a fun one – and an understanding of why your wives are reading 50 Shades check out the Marquis de Sade’s writings on the subject.

  34. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    6. November 2012 at 00:51

    Well said.

  35. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    6. November 2012 at 00:52

    I find it hard to imagine a more unambiguous evil than pain.

    Are you just talking about physical pain, or are you with the Transhumanists who want to abolish all psychic suffering?

  36. Gravatar of Conservative Investor Conservative Investor
    6. November 2012 at 04:37

    Major Freedom, pain and pleasure are not opposing sides of a spectrum. The appropriate opposition to pain would be the absence of pain. For example, if a neurologist could somehow turn off your ability to feel a sense of relief, it does not follow that you have lost the incentive to be free of pain. There is no assumption of the primacy of pleasure in the avoidance of pain.

    Separately, Nozick’s book is very thoughtful, but it didn’t necessarily address ethical hedonism. Keep in mind that someone supporting the hedonistic view would also include the experience of deciding between real and virtual worlds. The subject of Nozick’s scenario is still weighing his pleasure incentives while considering the offer. The virtual world is not truly all encompassing because of the requirement that the decider be aware of the alternate realities at the moment of decision.

  37. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    6. November 2012 at 06:51

    Greg, Would you have owned slaves in the 1700s, if you knew then what you know now about the evils of slavery? Obviously not. Nor would I, or anyone I know. That means they weren’t as enlightened as we are. They were more blind to the horrors of slavery. QED.

    Jefferson was probably smarter than you and I; we are simply more enlighted about morality because we live in a more enlightened age.

    Saturos, I don’t know the optimal amount of pain, which makes me think our elected lawmakers are also ignorant. Better left to individual decision, much less chance of an error that produces enormous and unnecessary suffering. If an individual screws up, they hurt themselves. If a lawmaker screws up, they hurt millions.

    Everyone, I should have said “unnecessary pain.” We all agree that the pain from touching a hot stove is useful. I’m talking about the pain from things like cancer.

  38. Gravatar of Floccina Floccina
    6. November 2012 at 08:30

    I once asked a lot of people if drugs should be legalized and almost of the people against legalizing were women. So rather that a war against women perhaps…

  39. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    6. November 2012 at 11:23

    “Jefferson was probably smarter than you and I; we are simply more enlighted about morality because we live in a more enlightened age.”

    Jefferson lived during the enlightement.

  40. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    6. November 2012 at 11:24

    MF,

    I guess you aren’t into S&M.

  41. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    6. November 2012 at 12:11

    I guess you aren’t into S&M.

    To S&M fetishists, “pain” IS pleasure.

  42. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    6. November 2012 at 12:50

    Conservative Investor:

    Major Freedom, pain and pleasure are not opposing sides of a spectrum. The appropriate opposition to pain would be the absence of pain.

    Absence of pain is not a positive concept as is pain. It is not a positive description of someone’s disposition. It merely tells us what someone is not. That is not sufficient for calling it an “opposite” of pain. Opposites are not zeros or nils. They are a duality morphism, or structure preserving, property of a universal concept.

    The opposite of man is not absence of man. It is woman. The opposite of cold is not absence of cold. It is hot. The opposite of black is not absence of black. It is white. And so on.

    The opposite of pain is not absence of pain. It is pleasure. Lexicographic conventions have established a whole list of binary pairs that we call opposites.

    For example, if a neurologist could somehow turn off your ability to feel a sense of relief, it does not follow that you have lost the incentive to be free of pain. There is no assumption of the primacy of pleasure in the avoidance of pain.

    There was no initial assumption of mere avoidance/absence of pain!

    Separately, Nozick’s book is very thoughtful, but it didn’t necessarily address ethical hedonism. Keep in mind that someone supporting the hedonistic view would also include the experience of deciding between real and virtual worlds. The subject of Nozick’s scenario is still weighing his pleasure incentives while considering the offer. The virtual world is not truly all encompassing because of the requirement that the decider be aware of the alternate realities at the moment of decision.

    According to his own writings, Nozick’s experience machine was intended to be a counter-argument to the logical conclusions of utilitarianism, as found in his book “Anarchy, State and Utopia”:

    “Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose. For, unacceptably, the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility.”

    and then

    “Utilitarianism is notoriously inept with decisions where the number of persons is at issue. (In this area, it must be conceded, eptness is hard to come by.) Maximizing the total happiness requires continuing to add persons so long as their net utility is positive and is sufficient to counterbalance the loss in utility their presence in the world causes others. Maximizing the average utility allows a person
    to kill everyone else if that would make him ecstatic, and so happier than average. (Don’t say he shouldn’t because after his death the average would drop lower than if he didn’t kill all the others.) Is it all right to kill someone provided you immediately substitute another (by having a child or, in science-fiction fashion,
    by creating a full-grown person) who will be as happy as the rest of the life of the person you killed?” – pgs 41-42

    This is ethical hedonism.

    Then, in the very next section, Nozick offers the “experience machine” thought experiment, to show that mere experience of pleasure (again, ethical hedonism) is not sufficient for establishing a just moral theory.

    Ethical hedonism is the term I used to describe the “utility monster” as described by Nozick. Utilitarianism, taken to its logical conclusion, implies “utility monsters”, i.e. ethical hedonism. It is quite clear that Nozick’s thought experiment was intended to be a counter-argument to ethical hedonism.

    Not sure why you think “ethical hedonism is not necessary” is a rebuttal to anything I said.

    Just step back and ask why Nozick would have created that thought experiment. Why would he set up a pure pleasure inducing machine, and then list his reasons why intrinsic pleasure is insufficient? He obviously wanted to make an argument against the ethical hedonist principle “pleasure is good.”

  43. Gravatar of Conservative Investor Conservative Investor
    6. November 2012 at 14:43

    It is black, therefore it is not white. He is a man, therefore he is not a woman. It is cold, therefore it is not hot. It is painful, therefore it is not pleasurable.

    One of those statements should not match the others. Human psychology isn’t so unmalleable as to justify the claim that pain and pleasure are opposing points. If we devise a way to remove the biological Woman category, then the Man description has lost a point of reference. He is a man… but as opposed to what? On the other hand, if you take away the ability to feel pleasure, or even the concept of pleasure, you still have the concept of pain.

    MF, in my initial statement about the experience machine, I said: “The subject of Nozick’s scenario is still weighing his pleasure incentives while considering the offer. The virtual world is not truly all encompassing because of the requirement that the decider be aware of the alternate realities at the moment of decision.” In passing on the machine, the agent is referencing his incentives, which presumably include his “pleasure” after considering his options.

    Take the blue pill and imagine that Nozick’s agent is ALREADY in the experience machine. He is on his Nth iteration of this choice. Does Nozick’s argument still hold? At what point does he step away from his his pleasure incentives to make a decision that directly refuted ethical hedonism?

  44. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    6. November 2012 at 16:08

    Conservative Investor:

    It is black, therefore it is not white. He is a man, therefore he is not a woman. It is cold, therefore it is not hot. It is painful, therefore it is not pleasurable.

    It is black, there it is not white, nor brown, nor yellow, nor up, nor down, nor elephants, nor pizzas. Thus, according to your logic, all these things are all “opposites” of black, since, after all, not black is the opposite of black. Not A is allegedly the opposite of A.

    One of those statements should not match the others. Human psychology isn’t so unmalleable as to justify the claim that pain and pleasure are opposing points.

    Human psychology, while not as clear cut as black and white, as in opposing points, nevertheless still has a particular structure. Nobody would suggest that pain is the opposite of fear, or that pleasure is the opposite of love. You seem to be moving towards a “it’s all too complex!” justification, which essentially means your argument is untenable.

    Before, you were all sure that the opposite of pain was absence of pain. That was clear cut to you. Yet that was an “opposing points” conceptualization of human psychology, which you now say is unjustified. Why is it correct for you to use opposing point logic, but it was incorrect for me to do it? You are contradicting yourself.

    If we devise a way to remove the biological Woman category, then the Man description has lost a point of reference.

    One could “refute” ANY argument by simply denying the existence of the logically antecedent (supporting) premises. There is no reason why one should devise a way to remove the biological concept of woman. You are starting from the wrong end. You seem to want to refute the idea that man is opposite to woman, and then you rationalize how it can be done, and then, aha, let’s eliminate woman altogether. Then man can no longer be said to be opposite to woman!

    If you agree that the opposite of black is white, then would it make any sense to say “That isn’t right, because if we remove black from existence, then white could not be called an opposite any longer.” No, it wouldn’t, would it? But that is what you are doing here.

    He is a man… but as opposed to what?

    A woman.

    On the other hand, if you take away the ability to feel pleasure, or even the concept of pleasure, you still have the concept of pain.

    Nobody said anything about removing any concepts, colors or psychological dispositions, from discussion! Why do you feel compelled to “take away” a concept from conceptual existence?

    Absence of pain in the empirical sense over a period of time does not mean pain as a concept does exist in the ontological sense for any time.

    Saying the opposite of pain is pleasure does not mean that should pain as an ontological concept be eliminated from reality then pleasure can no longer be considered an opposite. It only means that the dual morphism of pain, that retains the structure, i.e. ontological existence, is pleasure, rather than mere absence of pain.

    A is not the opposite of non-A. The opposite of A is that concept which retains the structure and acts as a dual morphism. If A is black, then the opposite is white. If A is cold, then the opposite is hot.

    However, when we go from concrete concepts, such as black, man, etc, which rely on the existence of other concrete concepts to give them their meaning, when we move to metaphysical concepts such as “existence”, then there is an “existence / non-existence” binary pair opposite. This is because the concept of existence and the concept of non-existence give the other their meaning, in which existence is on a higher ontological plane than non-existence (as opposed to being on the same plane, as in some Eastern philosophies).

    This is not about eliminating existing concepts, as if they even can be eliminated. This is about your initial claim that pleasure and pain cannot be put onto a spectrum to describe a particular class of human experiences, which has yet to be justified.

    MF, in my initial statement about the experience machine, I said: “The subject of Nozick’s scenario is still weighing his pleasure incentives while considering the offer. The virtual world is not truly all encompassing because of the requirement that the decider be aware of the alternate realities at the moment of decision.” In passing on the machine, the agent is referencing his incentives, which presumably include his “pleasure” after considering his options.

    This is not the same concept of pleasure that either myself, nor Nozick, nor ethicists are referring to when we talk about “pleasure”.

    Yes, Nozick did argue that the experience machine is “not all encompassing” (since it can only ever give a person man-made experiences), but he did not generalize “pleasure” to include the disposition one gets from choosing no machine. He restricted pleasure to purely nominal experiences, including the experience that would replicate the belief that one is NOT in the machine and that one chose reality instead.

    The experience machine is all encompassing when it comes to replicating HUMAN experiences. If you want to argue that choosing reality over the machine can induce a sense of human pleasure in its own right, then you have to then assume that the experience machine can replicate that human feeling of pleasure, by creating a simulated experience of you choosing reality and feeling pleasure because of it. Now make a choice of whether you want to be connected or not.

    Nozick is saying that there are some things that cannot be replicated, such as BEING a human in the real world as opposed to being a blob, and so on.

    Take the blue pill and imagine that Nozick’s agent is ALREADY in the experience machine. He is on his Nth iteration of this choice. Does Nozick’s argument still hold? At what point does he step away from his his pleasure incentives to make a decision that directly refuted ethical hedonism?

    Nozick offered three reasons why someone would not choose the machine in the first place. He did not imagine any exit/enter option once in the machine. He argued that because he would rather experience all of reality, not just mad made reality, and that he would rather be a human being in the real world than some organic blob hooked up to a machine, and that he would rather actually do things, instead of just feeling the corresponding feeling, that these reasons serve as counter-arguments for the moral justification of the logical conclusion of utilitarianism, i.e. ethical hedonism. That’s his argument. It was to critique utilitarianism.

  45. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    6. November 2012 at 22:00

    MF,

    “It is black, there it is not white, nor brown, nor yellow, nor up, nor down, nor elephants, nor pizzas. Thus, according to your logic, all these things are all “opposites” of black, since, after all, not black is the opposite of black. Not A is allegedly the opposite of A.”

    The paragraph you quoted doesn’t imply that. “If P, then not Q” implies “not if P then Q”, but “not if P then Q” does not imply that “if P, then not Q”, because “P and Q” disproves the latter but not the former.

    So the fact that nothing can be brown all over and black all over does not imply that brown is the opposite of black, but the fact that something can be shiny all over and black all over does imply that shininess is not the opposite of blackness.

    Hence asking to what extent pleasure and pain are compatible is a test of whether pleasure and pain are opposites (such that pure pleasure is incompatible with pure pain) but simple incompatibility is not a test of whether two things are opposites.

    Also, as a historical note: utilitarians don’t have to be ethical hedonists, though they traditionally are so. They can be preference utilitarians- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preference_utilitarian . The most famous utilitarian alive today is a preference utilitarian (and also very consistently wrong).

  46. Gravatar of Conservative Investor Conservative Investor
    7. November 2012 at 00:30

    Major Freedom, if you look back at my post, you will see that your interpretations of my statements are wrong on every count. You literally took the first quote and created a straw man. I ignored your first misunderstandings in a previous quote fest, but clearly this is your deliberate tactic.

  47. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    7. November 2012 at 09:16

    MF,

    Frequently, when we term things as oppostites they have more in common than they have diffences.

    You say that woman is the opposite of man. But, they men and women have far more that is common than, say, men and rocks.

    What else is the opposite of man? — boy, God, beast… Oposites can be ambiguous.

    Statement: I don’t like the cold!
    Does that mean that I like the heat? maybe.. 120 degrees? Too hot!

    As this is an economics blog… Suppose, I am in pain. Marginally decreasing my pain / increasing my pleasure has utility. Further increasing my pleasure has diminishing returns. There may point at which marginal utility becomes negative. i.e. there may be a maximal point.

    “If pain is as an unambiguous evil, then of course pleasure as an unambiguous good is implied.”

    Do you see where your logic is failing you?

  48. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    8. November 2012 at 18:01

    W. Peden:

    “It is black, there it is not white, nor brown, nor yellow, nor up, nor down, nor elephants, nor pizzas. Thus, according to your logic, all these things are all “opposites” of black, since, after all, not black is the opposite of black. Not A is allegedly the opposite of A.”

    The paragraph you quoted doesn’t imply that.

    It does imply that. It was said that the opposite of A is non-A. Well, if A is black, then non-A is non-black. Non-black is anything not black. It can be white and brown and yellow and up and down and elephants and pizzas. Thus, if the opposite of A is non-A, then the opposite of black is pizza. Reductio tells us the opposite of A is not in fact non-A, as I originally argued.

    So the fact that nothing can be brown all over and black all over does not imply that brown is the opposite of black, but the fact that something can be shiny all over and black all over does imply that shininess is not the opposite of blackness.

    I know. That’s what I have been saying. That’s why I have been saying that the opposite of black is not non-black. It is not an empty negative.

    Hence asking to what extent pleasure and pain are compatible is a test of whether pleasure and pain are opposites (such that pure pleasure is incompatible with pure pain) but simple incompatibility is not a test of whether two things are opposites.

    Indeed, hence my discussion of dual morphisms. Pleasure and pain are treated as opposites by virtually all ethicists. Not that this in any way serves as a valid justification for my view, it’s just that I want to remind you that you’re going against the most commonly accepted view.

    Also, as a historical note: utilitarians don’t have to be ethical hedonists, though they traditionally are so. They can be preference utilitarians. The most famous utilitarian alive today is a preference utilitarian (and also very consistently wrong).

    Preference utilitarianism does not exclude ethical hedonism, the same way orthodox utilitarianism does not exclude it. The logical outcome of preference utilitarianism is also ethical hedonism. Instead of pleasure and pain being inherently moral and immoral, a preference utilitarian can replace pleasure as inherently good and thus actions based on pleasure as just, to preferring pleasure as inherently good, and thus actions based on preferring pleasure as just.

    Preference utilitarianism can be summed up as “the more that people get what they prefer, the better.” Well, the more people that prefer to kill redheads, the more moral such an action becomes according to preference utilitarianism.

    Conservative Investor:

    Major Freedom, if you look back at my post, you will see that your interpretations of my statements are wrong on every count. You literally took the first quote and created a straw man. I ignored your first misunderstandings in a previous quote fest, but clearly this is your deliberate tactic.

    Nonsense. You should cease conflating having your views challenged with your views being misinterpreted. If you look at my posts, you will see that I did not make a single incorrect interpretation. You should just be more careful about what you think and don’t blame me.

    Doug M:

    Frequently, when we term things as oppostites they have more in common than they have diffences.

    I tend not to think in those terms. But I get your point. What you are saying is what I am referring to when I said that the “structure” is preserved.

    You say that woman is the opposite of man. But, they men and women have far more that is common than, say, men and rocks.

    Indeed.

    What else is the opposite of man? — boy, God, beast… Oposites can be ambiguous.

    Can be? Or are they?

    Statement: I don’t like the cold!

    Does that mean that I like the heat? maybe.. 120 degrees? Too hot!

    You do like heat though. That’s what not liking the cold implies. It’s not necessary to consider 120 degrees, or any other intolerable heat.

    As this is an economics blog… Suppose, I am in pain. Marginally decreasing my pain / increasing my pleasure has utility. Further increasing my pleasure has diminishing returns. There may point at which marginal utility becomes negative. i.e. there may be a maximal point.

    Notice how you are moving away from pain towards pleasure, rather than pizza. Why?

    Yes, pleasure has diminishing marginal returns, but remember that includes the assumption that some important factors are held constant. Just like punches to the stomach have diminishing negative returns, assuming certain factors are held constant.

    “If pain is as an unambiguous evil, then of course pleasure as an unambiguous good is implied.”

    Do you see where your logic is failing you?

    No. But I do see how you are arguing in a way that is consistent with what I have been saying. What does that mean?

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