Suffering is not subjective

NOTE HXA7241 2020-08-22T09:36Z

Suffering is objective, so morality is not tied to consciousness / sentience.

The bottom line for morality is often taken to be suffering: actions causing it should not be done, and conversely what cannot suffer cannot prompt moral concern and restraint.

But how do you know you are suffering?
– “It is obvious! I know when I am in pain!”
But what makes it pain?
– “It hurts! Is not its character clear in itself?”
No. It is a distinct, odd, feeling, but what makes it more than merely that?
– “It is something I do not want.”
And what does ‘do not want’ mean?
– “I recoil from the cause, and avoid it thenceforth, and so on.”
Here we reach an important insight: you can only understand it by what you do with it.

Imagine you close your eyes, and hold your arm in some random way, and you feel it is in a particular position. Then you open your eyes, and find that your arm is not in the position you expected. Do you decide that it is your eyes that are wrong, and the feeling right? No, you accept that your feeling was erroneous. Because, what does that inner feeling of position feel like? Could you know what it means, as a position, without looking or checking with other senses? Surely you could not know what it means in terms of other senses without having learned by reference to those other senses. Your senses would be trained to match. Could you have an odd feeling? But it is all odd feelings at first, before you learn what they indicate.

It is as if we tacitly imagine the nerve impulses come labelled as ‘pain’, but of course not. And even if they did how would we know what that label meant? So must not the pain-ness be in the message, or the feeling, itself? But how? What is a feeling made of? How can it have pain-ness in it? The only thing anything – including a feeling – can have intrinsically is itself: what it is. It alone cannot mean anything else, and any talk of it cannot be recognised by anyone else except by referring to external facts.

Is a feeling ‘of’ something, or just itself alone? If it is ‘of’, you must have learned about the thing it points to, and that is the important thing. Otherwise, alone, it must have no meaning. The appearance of a cloud, the texture of a wall ‒ what do those mean? They are just themselves. Do you want to say pain is not like that, but why? How is it not just an odd particular feeling, like any other? What does suffering mean when you purify it of everything but the texture of the feeling itself? Saying you do not want it is to add something else. To say what a feeling means is to look at something external to the feeling.

So for suffering, what at first was taken for granted as a matter of something inner – consciousness or sentience – now turns out to rest more upon outward features and actions that we can all see. And in not being a matter of internal magic (consciousness), it need not be confined to possessors of such. Is it not now possible that we could straightforwardly empirically find somewhat similar responses in non-human, non-animal things? (Hence panethicism).