The value in pain as valuing being-alive

*This is an essay that I wrote as part of my degree in psychology and philosophy*

The notion of value, or disvalue, being wholly dependent on either pleasure or pain is dependent upon these two resulting states being independent in-themselves, as something distinct from the rest of experience. If this were the case, it would be true that actions performed within life ultimately resulted in either or these two states of being. I will seek to critically evaluate this notion, through the argument that value, and correspondingly disvalue, is justified through supporting existence, life, which necessitates both of these states of being. This criticism will focus on hedonist notions of value and pessimist accounts, which place value wholly on pleasure or the absence of pain, through asserting the value of pain with regards to life. This will involve assessing the relationships between the ideas of philosophers such as Nozick, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Taylor, Spinoza, Smut and Epicurean accounts. These ideas will be reconciled through analysing the problem of painful art in relation to life, experience and aesthetic cognitivism.

Hedonism is the notion that the rational determiner of value that human beings ought to aspire towards as an ideal, as a normative position striving towards a final value, is happiness (Barber, 2014). From this being-happy or striving towards the self and others being-happy is taken as the determiner of value in actions; with it being rational to desire objects that contain the possibility of producing the pleasurable sensations of being-happy. For example, if Sarah cooks food that she and her friends enjoy and subsequently produces a state of being-happy, then both her action of cooking and the food she makes are of a positive value. Hedonism is a welfarist position, given that it asserts happiness as being fundamental in the final value of welfare, but not all welfarism is necessarily hedonist (Barber, 2014). Here I am going to argue that welfarism with regards to life is not necessarily intrinsically tied to being-happy, but rather that there are non-hedonistic features of welfare. This is not to argue that pleasure is not a feature of value, but to defend pain as a feature of value. My argument will not be a descriptive account of what people do value, but will be a normative account of what ought to be valued. Therefore certain criticisms of ahedonist arguments are irrelevant and shall not be covered. The argument shall begin by drawing from the Nozick’s arguments criticising hedonism and placing value on real experience – life.

Nozick uses a thought experiment in his argument that rather than positive pleasurable experiences of being-happy, being-real or real experiences of real life are actually what are of value (Barber, 2014). This thought experiment which I will present now principally asserts that what is of value is being a certain way in the world, regardless of experience; the thought experiment proposes a situation whereby it is possible for the user to connect to a machine that will provide an artificial reality, in which you could spend your entire life free from pain and be happy throughout the entire time you are connected. Nozick argues that this situation is undesirable, as it is not just the experience of certain experiences that are of value but the action of performing them that has value. Furthermore, Nozick argues that to “plug in” to the experience machine is a type of suicide from what we are at the point of being connected to the man-made reality that has no actual connection to what is real (Barber, 2014). Nozick’s argument that this is not of positive value is justified intuitively when we consider the egoistic reason that while being connected to the experience machine for the rest of the users time being-alive, they are unable to improve the conditions of their own life in this situation, those of others, or the world around them (Hewitt, 2010). This is the basic welfarist argument, which I will justify in the following paragraphs. I am arguing this as a rationally egoistic ought rather than a moral ought, for the reason that it simplifies the analysis and removes extraneous features.

Friedrich Nietzsche is another philosopher who is critical of hedonism (Barber, 2014), whose arguments will be given, in their relation to the pessimist position, which argues that being-happy is not a possibility (Belshaw, 2014) and as such are in favour of renouncing life (Dienstag, 2001). Nietzsche’s anti-hedonist position developed through his attempt to form a philosophical affirmation of life, in response to the nihilism (passivity in life) that he viewed as a by-product of Schopenhauer’s pessimist conclusions towards suffering (Dienstag, 2001). Nietzsche was highly influenced by Schopenhauer’s pessimist position, but sought to argue for the value in life, so developed a position he called Dionysian pessimism (Dienstag, 2001). Schopenhauer’s position will be given in relation to two ideas, (1) that being born is a negative (bad) thing and (2) that death is not a bad thing, and critiqued.

A key theme throughout Schopenhauer’s arguments is that life is meaningless and dominated by pain and boredom (Schopenhauer, 1851 [In Cottingham, 2014]) and from this position he adopts the pessimist position that life and being-alive is a bad thing (Belshaw, 2014). From this, what is particularly noticeable is Schopenhauer’s position that human life is ultimately a mistake, as for a human being-alive involves the pursuit of satisfying needs that cannot be satisfied and the understanding that they cannot be satisfied (Schopenhauer, 1851 [In Cottingham, 2014]). This position will be explored in it’s relation to anti-natalist positions, that being born is a bad thing and contrasted with arguments that argue for the positivity in being born and being-alive. The anti-natalist argument that being born is bad for the one who is born can be thought of as a hedonist argument, because it rests on the value or disvalue of pleasure and pain (Belshaw, 2014). This anti-natalist hedonism argues that being-alive is negative in relation to the alternative, due to the differences in the totalities of both pleasure and pain in either situation; being-alive involves both pleasure, which is considered good, and pain, which is considered bad, whereas not being-alive does not include sensations of pleasure, which is considered not bad, or sensations of pain, which is considered good (Belshaw, 2014). This form of hedonist pessimism contains a number of serious flaws. The first of these flaws being that, while we can argue it is true that previously being-alive has involved suffering, this does not necessitate a future world where life involves suffering as life is future directed, which undermines the premise that being born is bad due to future suffering of the one born (Belshaw, 2014). Another flaw is that the argument rests upon the notion of a pre-existive state of being, where the relevant life exists but not within the world as being-alive, which simply makes no sense as life necessitates existence (Belshaw, 2014). Applying these considerations to Schopenhauer’s hedonist position, it reveals flaws in his argument; principally that past desires not being satisfied does not necessitate a future in which they are not and that, even if it is true that life involves the pursuit of satisfying needs which cannot be satisfied, it makes no sense to argue for a different type of being as to exist necessitates being-alive. This follows from the egoistic approach, as the ego, the self, is future driven in this sense and for the ego to exist being-alive is necessary in value, regardless of the pain or pleasure being undergone.

Another aspect needing addressing in response to the pessimist position is to address the negativity of death to the one who will be dead as a result. To the Epicurean death is not negative or bad thing to the one who will be dead, because for the one undergoing death there is nothing to experience, as to experience involves being-alive; a life that ends at the point of death (Belshaw, 2014). This position mistakes though the feature of death that is negative to the one who will be dead. It is not that being-dead will be an experience that is negative, as the existence of a life capable of experience is predicated on being-alive. Rather it is that in being-dead experience is deprived from the experiencer and as such is a negative thing for the one undergoing death (Belshaw, 2014). Someone seeking to argue that death is not a negative event within life could propose that it is our mortality that produces value towards certain experiences; given the finiteness of objects within time and space and propose that an immortal life would be shapeless by this lack of value, with corresponding boredom and apathy as a result (Fischer, 2006). But this world that includes lives that are immortal proposes endless time of being-alive without a corresponding endlessness towards potential valuable experiences, when being a potential infinite would actually necessitate all potential pleasurable and painful experiences (Fischer, 2006). This justification of the negativity of death presents a challenge to the hedonist pessimist arguments being addressed, as it has framed value not in pleasure or pain but in experience and being-alive.

Now that value has been allocated to life rather than pleasure or pain I will focus on the value of pain in relation to being-alive, in an egoistic sense of experiences of pain being valuable to the self, outside of the framework of hedonist values towards pleasure and happiness. This is to argue the position that pain is valuable in the production of local meaning in the narrative progression that is being-alive. This will be done through returning to Nietzsche’s Dionysian Pessimism with regards to local meaning, identifying its relation to the conceptualisation of the self as a progression, and bringing this back to the value in painful experience, specifically the experience of painful art.

For Nietzsche, Dionysian pessimism is the task of setting aside happiness as the ultimate goal in life, which does not mean that all happiness disappears, but is rather to say that painful experience is an unalterable aspect of being-alive (Dienstag, 2001). Nietzsche argues with this that to either strive purely for happiness or to renounce life to escape pain is nihilism, and to overcome this argues for an affirmation of life in favour of strength, or to use Nietzsche’s term will to power, drawn from individual meaning (Dienstag, 2001); local meaning. For life to have local meaning is to say that it has meaning for the one who is alive based in their subjective experience of being-alive (Belshaw, 2014). This local meaning I argue is a progressive process and will state how it is necessary that life has meaning and as such pain has meaning, or value. This argument is that life, as all of existence, contains both pain and egoistic local meaning, or value, and as the one who is being-alive is inseparable from existence, pain has egoistic local value.

Following from the last point, the idea of what it is to be a self that is being-alive needs to be established, in order for this to be brought back to the value of pain to the relevant one experiencing pain. Nietzsche draws from pre-Socratic Ionian philosophies of physicalism in his conceptualism of the self as a physical body that is constantly undergoing change (Dienstag, 2001). This is very similar to Schopenhauer’s conceptualisation of the self as manifestation of the ultimate reality of existence, which he termed as will and is the corporeal reality bound up within natural processes of change and motion (Schopenhauer, 1819 [In Cottingham, 2014]). Schopenhauer’s ideas were heavily influenced by the works of Spinoza (Cottingham, 2014), who presents a physicalist position towards the self, arguing that the mind and body are the same thing, with a position that being-alive involves existences within the natural state of the world (Spinoza, 1665 [In Cottingham, 2014]). This material self is existing in as much as it is a progressive narrative through time, due to its temporal depth through change (Taylor, 1989 [In Cottingham, 2014]). This is noticeably Nozick’s basis for meaning in life, seeing being-alive as a process bound by the progression of the natural world (Nozick, 1989 [In Cottingham, 2014]). Drawing from these related positions of the self, I argue that the self is a physical body necessarily bound by the natural features of existence, in particular time. With this I argue that, given that the experience of pain is a natural aspect of being-alive, it is naturally valuable in an egoistic sense, both with regards to strength as Nietzsche argues and, as Spinoza argues, that being in harmony with the natural state of existence is rationally beneficial, in a welfarist sense, to the one being-alive (Spinoza, 1665 [In Cottingham, 2014]). This is because the one being-alive is not separate from the natural state of existence. I also argue that this conceptualisation of the self and meaning in being-alive as a process of narrative reveals the extent to which life is only meaningful or valuable with the sensations of pain as a means of producing strength.

This argument towards the production of local meaning in life is that pain is instrumentally valuable in the narrative of being-alive. This point follows from certain arguments in aesthetics regarding the problem of painful art, which argue that the painful art is instrumentally valuable due to its serving to remind the one experiencing it that the potential in life to overcome such struggles, horrors and tragedies is possible (Smuts, 2007). In the experience of painful art, it is this understanding brought through the experience that is satisfying and is what holds value (Chappell, 2014). This follows from Nietzsche’s arguments regarding pain and the will to power in his Dionysian pessimist position, as it is the empowerment through pain that produces meaning in the experience of painful art (Smuts, 2007). Painful art is then valuable through the empowerment brought through the knowledge that is gained via the painful experience. It could be argued that painful art could be an example of a experience-machine-like-thing, which would be problematic for my argument, but due to the fact that in an experience machine the experiencer is believing falsely in the experience of an event, which is not analogous with the experience of pain from art where the experiencer knows it is art, I retain this is not an issue.

Critics of this aesthetic cognitivist position I’ve argued could argue a number of further critiques to the position; particularly that it could be argued an indirect means of bringing the understanding to the experiencer, that this is a preachy position and all it presents are trivialities (Chappell, 2014). To the first and last of my examples of criticisms, the response seems simple; there are forms of emotional knowledge that are radically different to propositional knowledge, are not trivial to the experiencer and require a medium capable of bringing this knowledge to them (Chappell, 2014). To the second criticism, it seems that this criticism only follows from a subjective property of the experience, not an objective one, so this is only relevant to individuals and differs based on taste and temperament; what Sarah finds preachy might be radically different to that of what Tom finds preachy, but this doesn’t mean that either of them are wrong or right, as its truthhood is bound up specifically with their experience.

This argument will be developed through two examples in film; the horror film Martyrs (2008) and the psychological thriller film Fight Club (1999). These serve as both as examples of painful experience being valued through the empowerment gained through the pain, though fictional examples, and as examples of art that can be considered painful.

In the film Martyr’s the character Lucy is systematically tortured by a cultish group, who are attempting to bring about a transcendental wisdom that they believed they could not attain without her arriving at it through the torture. In her childhood she manages to escape them after a long period of torture, only coming back to them in later life through her seeking revenge and completes their process for her. What is noticeable about the film is it concludes with her attaining the desired philosophical knowledge that they desired for. This film serves as an example of Nietzsche’s value of pain for strength, albeit an unnatural immaterial one, as it reminds the viewer that through the experience of great suffering knowledge and wisdom can be derived, serving as an example of this in-itself.

Whereas in Martyrs the value is an immaterial unnatural value, Fight Club’s value in painful experience is derived from an egoistic welfarist desire to bring being-alive back to a natural state, freed from the trappings of consumer culture. In this film pacified men seek to regain meaning and value in their nihilist lives through a support structure of group therapy through pain. This ultimately results in a revolutionary organisation that seeks to destroy the consumerist culture that denies them these sensations of pain, value and meaning. Within the film, pain serves as a form of emotional knowledge, like that brought within aesthetic cognitivist arguments towards painful art, and as a means of producing socio-political change. Outside of the film, the viewer undergoes the process of watching these men enact brutal physical violence on each other repeatedly and overcome it becoming stronger each time, reminding the viewer of the strength to overcome pain within the narrative of being-alive.

From the arguments I have presented, the value of painful experience as a feature of life is apparent. This is derived from both a notion of the self and being-alive as physical and natural, as well as an understanding of painful experience as a natural feature of our existence. Within the narrative progression of life pain is an important part of deriving meaning, as without it being-alive would be meaningless. This has been evidenced through an aesthetic cognitivist account of painful art, which have identified how people draw out emotional knowledge through the experience of pain. So the response to the hedonist account of value through pleasure is that value cannot be wholly dependant on pleasure, as pain is an important aspect of meaning in being-alive. “Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing” Tyler Durden in Fight Club (1999).




Chappell, T. (2014) Truth in Fiction. Milton Keynes. The Open University

Barber, A. (2014) Reason in Action. The Open University, Milton Keynes

Belshaw, C. (2014) The Value of Life, The Open University, Milton Keynes

Cottingham, J. (2008 [1996]) Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell

Dienstag, J. (2001) Nietzsche’s Dionysian Pessimism, In The American Political Science Review, Vol 95, No 4, pp 923-937

Fischer, J. (2006) Epicureanism about Death and Immortality, In The Journal of Ethics, Vol 10, No 4, pp 355-381

Hewitt, S (2010) What do out intuitions about the experience machine really tell us about hedonism?, In Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol 151, No 3, pp 331-349

Nozick, R. (2008 [1989]) The Examined Life, In Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell

Schopenhauer, A. (2008 [1819]) The World as Will and Idea, In Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell

Schopenhauer, A. (2008 [1851]) Parerga and Paralipomena, In Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell

Smuts, A. (2007) The Paradox of Painful Art, In The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol 41, No 3, pp 59-76

Spinoza, B. (2008 [1665]) Ethics, In Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell

Taylor, C. (2008 [1989]) Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, In Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell





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