Why Not Be Cruel?
“For liberal ironists, there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’”. In quoting this statement by philosopher Richard Rorty, Thomas G. West’s The Political Theory of the American Founding (p. 14) describes a common enough view. It is by no means restricted to ‘liberal ironists’, and I myself have tacitly, and reluctantly, accepted it in the past. What it means is that, because suffering is subjective, it is a completely arbitrary criterion for deciding what is right and wrong. It is merely a matter of personal preference. Put crudely, the fact that cruelty feels bad doesn’t make it wrong.
This view is wrong in two basic ways. First, the subjectivity of suffering is not itself grounds for dismissal, and in particular does not reduce its significance to mere personal preference. And second, far from arbitrary, a foundational place for suffering as a moral criterion is actually determined by an inescapeable fact about our means of knowledge. The discussion that follows explains this fully. To help make this explanation as clear and simple as possible, it focuses specifically on physical pain. But it also applies, not just to pain or suffering, but to positive and negative experience generally.
Is Pain Real?
The simple fact of pain illustrates why we should abandon any single-minded insistence on objectivity. There are two fundamentally different ways of understanding and defining pain. One is pain as a physiological process. This is our scientific understanding, rooted in the nervous system. It’s what the doctor means when she says “your pain isn’t real, it’s in your head”. The other is pain as experienced. This is what we actually feel, regardless of what’s going on biologically. It’s these two perspectives that can, for all intents and purposes, be labeled ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’.
This concept of objectivity derives from our general acceptance that we are part of a real world where some things are true regardless of what anyone believes. If something is true in this sense, we say it is objectively true. Basically, objective actually means true or real. And to understand what is true we must be objective in our approach. With modern technology, a subjective measurement could have fatal consequences. This makes objectivity seem like a general gold standard, tempting us to regard the subjective with a certain contempt.
But this is all in the context of the ‘real world’. Subjective experience hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s not in any necessary way unreal or untrue. This is because there is no a priory reason to say that one is more real or true than the other. That is to say, to define real or true as physiological or physical is ultimately arbitrary. At the outset, the two are equal.
Not only is subjective experience real in its own right, it is, for all intents and purposes, a matter of certainty. To understand why, we must understand the reason uncertainty exists in the first place.
In strict logic, a statement is arbitrary unless justified in terms of other statements. Anyone can blow smoke at my (or any) argument by singling out my assertions and asking “why?” I can’t always answer, because some statements simply require the listener to see and understand for themselves. And that includes this one: a sensation like pain is not a statement, it’s an immediate experience. To call it arbitrary like a statement is nonsensical. The justification requirement and the uncertainty and infinite regression that follow do not apply.
More straightforwardly, any belief we have about the real world could possibly be wrong. This applies both to its mere existence, and to any part thereof. Just because you see an object doesn’t mean it’s there, as a good mushroom will demonstrate. But it’s specifically the existence of a real object that is questionable, not the fact of seeing one. Perception is our medium for accessing objective truths. It does not have or require a medium of its own.
Reasonable uncertainty is a product of the middleman that stands between us and the truth. We normally obtain the truth indirectly, via logic or evidence. But this is only true beyond our immediate experience. There is no mediating factor standing between us and the truth of this experience, threatening to drop the ball. Not even a necessary concept. For this reason, it is unnecessary, and somewhat idiotic, to be skeptical of one’s own existence. Or the existence of one’s sensations and perceptions in the present moment, including pain.
Nor can subjective experience be dismissed as outmoded or irrelevant. However we try to spin it, it’s the reason we believe in a real world in the first place. Just as a biologist can’t disqualify the eyeball by looking into a microscope, we can’t use objective knowledge to disqualify the perceptions that permit us to access that knowledge in the first place. Scientific objectivity may take us much further than subjective experience can, but it remains eternally dependent on it. Subjective experience is the final authority from which we could never escape.
When investigating the real world, objectivity is a must. But this principle doesn’t carry over into subjective experience. Here ‘subjective’ becomes a hollow and illusory criticism, because you can’t belittle subjective experience by refusing to define it as real, or by treating it as questionable or superfluous. To the best of our justifiable knowledge, our subjective experience will always be a hard and fast fact, whereas the ‘real world’ remains hypothetical in comparison. It’s real in its own right, and the ultimate foundation of everything we believe.
Is Pain Really Bad?
So far, the focus has been on the sheer fact of pain. We now turn to the basic defining quality of pain. The most descriptive term for that quality is ‘unpleasant’. Henceforth, I will refer to it as ‘badness’. Although this is used strictly as a convenient synonym, the semantic shift from ‘unpleasant’ to ‘bad’ obviously implies a certain claim. This claim will be made explicit later. It is also obvious from these statements that we are considering the common experience of pain. Edge cases like masochism are a different matter, and are therefore outside our focus along with other forms of pleasure or suffering. We’re talking about pain that is unambiguously unpleasant.
We have discussed subjectivity in a general way that falls short of the main issue: that the badness of pain might seem subjective in the sense of personal preference. This idea fails to distinguish between the badness of pain and a judgement of badness. This is easy enough to see when the onset of pain is sudden and severe. Judgement may add its own sort of badness, but it takes time and will only kick in after the badness of physical pain has already been felt. That badness is instantaneous and won’t simply be neutralized by some prior evaluation. You will truly experience a punch in the face as bad well before you find the presence of mind to judge it as bad. The badness of pain is an intrinsic quality that precedes cognition.
A judgement can be subjective in the worst sense of the word, as in a matter of personal taste. I find the sight of one person dominating another sickening. While I might be able to justify this judgement, in itself it doesn’t make the behavior wrong. Recall that the existence of a perception is necessarily true, whereas the object of that perception may be false. The relationship between an emotional reaction and actual right and wrong is the same. Just because the emotional experience is bad, like pain, doesn’t mean anything else is. And that is how subjectivity can invalidate a claim of badness, the same way it can invalidate any other claim about the real world.
The problem with using ‘subjective’ as a criticism is this: unless someone is conflating subjective experience with something beyond subjective experience, like an object or an objective wrong, the criticism is empty. The last section used the simple fact of pain to illustrate this. I have now applied it to the badness of pain, which is ultimately just as real.
But how exactly do we understand this ‘badness’? The technical term is ‘unpleasant’, but how do we even justify calling it bad? There is a trap here. The trap is to try and conform our definition of ‘bad’ to a disembodied abstraction, an illusive ‘ought’. It might seem that I’m even trying to sneak that in by using the word. But that would be looking for something unnecessarily lofty. ‘Bad’ doesn’t need to mean anything more than unpleasant. In fact, in the context of subjective experience, there’s no meaningful distinction between the two words.
Yet, there is a reason to say that pain is bad, not in an abstract way, but nevertheless in the truest way possible. A badness that no principle or God could negate. What do I mean by ‘bad’? What is this reason? Funnily enough, I can’t tell you. Why? Because it’s impossible to verbalize. Recall the point about strict logic. It asks us: “what is the statement that explains why pain is bad?” There isn’t one. The question cannot be answered with a statement because the answer cannot be contained in a statement. The answer exists, and can only exist, in the experience itself. To truly comprehend the truth and meaning of ‘bad’, that truth and meaning must be experienced directly.
It turns out there is an answer to the question ‘why not be cruel?’, it just doesn’t take a verbal form. When we experience pain, we experience the reason that pain should not be inflicted needlessly. I can’t demonstrate it verbally, I can only point to where it is demonstrated. The fact that this answer cannot be articulated might be falsely taken to mean that it doesn’t exist at all. As a consequence, the true badness of pain is deemed unfounded. But once we move past this statement calculus, it’s completely vindicated. This isn’t some esoteric mysticism, it’s just recognizing the limits of language and reaching further, into the full organic depth of experienced reality.
Does Pain Really Matter?
Up until now, the discussion has focused specifically on the experience of pain. It’s time to step outside of subjective experience and consider the matter more broadly. I have been casually referring to the issue of our means of knowledge. The general term for this is ‘epistemology’, and our discussion has approached it in a very particular way, which can now be explained more formally. This will reveal that experiences like suffering are, in fact, predetermined as primary moral criteria.
The best way to explain this approach has already been touched on. Imagine a biologist dissecting a human eyeball and observing it with a microscope. Now imagine that the purpose of this observation is to determine whether information obtained by the human eye is valid. That would be logically impossible, because the validity of such information is already presupposed by the method used to determine it. Science, however we define it, is completely dependent on sight. Therefore, it has no power to challenge its validity. It can only, and does, question the reliability of sight. It is in this sense that sight is a dependency, and that is our key concept.
Dependency is the ultimate way of cutting the entire epistemological landscape at its joints. Because dependency relationships are the joints, which precede any conceivable alternative. What is more, they are hierarchical, master and slave, which enables vertical orientation like a family tree. This tree will cut right through any other that tries to compete with it. And if we follow the trail of dependencies to the point where no further dependency exists, we arrive at an inescapable starting point: subjective experience. That’s the dependency of our very belief that the world exists, including each other.
And the really interesting thing about this foundation is that it happens to possess a positive/negative polarity, like the charges in an atom. We call this polarity pleasure and displeasure, and we don’t even need to understand the true badness of pain in order to see the natural orientation of the positive and negative. This is the formal proof that subjective experience is not an arbitrary place to try and pin right and wrong, because it’s the starting point of all knowledge, and contains its own positive/negative axis. It’s the most logical place to start.
But let’s make no mistake, subjective experience is only the start. Whether and when pain is ultimately bad in the grand scheme of things is another matter. Indeed, pain serves an essential purpose. The lives of those rare individuals who lack the function might be comfortable, but they’re not long. Pain is the necessary price of life. Its intrinsic badness has been established, but how do we apply this premise?
The most simplistic approach would be to focus exclusively on minimising subjective bad and maximising subjective good. This is an example of what we call ‘playing God’, an intervention that no human is qualified to make. Nobody is smart enough to conquer the immense complexity and uncertainty involved. Much less so anyone ignorant enough to imagine otherwise. And the necessary means to apply this completely is the acquisition of absolute power. The problem is that the process of acquiring power does not select for rightness or qualification, but resources and craftiness. The greater subjective good is an infinitely less likely outcome than the unbearable dictatorship of utopian mediocrities.
Because subjective experience is the one area of certainty, it’s the one irrefutable basis we have. But it’s by no means the only basis. It does nothing to preclude alternative perspectives like religion. Our general method for distinguishing right from wrong remains an open book. Even if we make subjective experience our sole axiom, that still does not determine our broader moral code. It’s possible that the way we proceed from that axiom is necessarily arbitrary. That much at least is open to debate.
The experience of pain, including its inherent badness, is subjective. But that fact in itself doesn’t diminish its significance or render it arbitrary as a moral criterion. It’s a meaningless criticism. Rather, the true wrongness of pain is a fact that is proven by the experience. The only issue is that the proof can’t be translated into language. It is there nonetheless. It also happens to be located at the true foundation of epistemology, making it foundational in an objectively logical way.
We began with the proposition that there is no answer to the question ‘why not be cruel?’ With respect to that proposition, the key conclusion to be drawn from the argument summarised above is this: at the very least, ‘do not be cruel’ must be our default policy, barring other considerations. And that is sufficient to contradict the proposition in question.