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Is Pain “Good”?

There is a commonly held view, particularly amongst christians, that “pain is good”. Whilst suffering has value, the view that “pain is good” is overly simplistic and potentially dangerous as it overlooks some important distinctions.

Physical pain is often used to illustrate the point: pain tells us that something is wrong with our body or a certain part of our body so we can do something about it (stop what we’re doing and/or seek medical attention), therefore it is good.

There is, however, a difference between an object’s intrinsic characteristic and its utility.

Physical pain is still intrinsically a physical evil. It is simply not pleasant. No one, other than a masochist, would want to be in pain if given the choice.

It nonetheless is useful and the above illustration actually proves the point. If one is touching something hot and feels pain and if pain is good, then why retract one’s hand? If pain is so good, then why not leave the hand on the hot object and get more injury and more pain?

That is, of course, absurd. Pain is not intrinsically good. Pain is only useful (and perhaps one could consider it relatively good) insofar as it helps avoid bigger pains.

We have sayings like “No pain, no gain” which recognizes this to a degree but even then, one must be careful. As a physical evil and even with good intent, it should still be avoided or at least minimized given the circumstances. I will use two examples.

  1. You don’t necessarily sue your doctor for malpractice just because his recommended treatment causes you some pain. This assumes his intent is good (he is trying to heal you), that the treatment has a reasonable probability of healing you, and the pain caused by the treatment does not outweigh the pain of your condition.

  2. Parents aren’t necessarily guilty of child abuse for making their child go to a hard school. This assumes the parents’ intent is good (they want their child to develop skills to do well in life), that the school can sufficiently help the child, and the difficulties at school do not outweigh the child’s abilities even if the child hates it for now.

Obviously, the intent is subjective and decisions may require some guessing. But note that the examples do involve authority figures, which demonstrates that inflicting pain can only be justified for a good reason and in very narrow contexts by people with the authority to act and who are familiar with the situation to keep the pain to a minimum. (And with authority comes the corresponding responsibility.)

A doctor should not go around inflicting pain just because he’s a doctor. That’s just called assault. He may only do it in the context of treating a patient for a condition that he knows about. Parents may only send their own child who they know well to a hard school. They’re not allowed to send someone’s else child.

As for the (potential) sufferer, it is not morally wrong to avoid or minimize pain provided that such actions do not inflict greater pains on oneself and/or others.


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