There is a latent assumption that is built into our views of morality: pleasure is good and pain is bad. At first blush, this may seem also tautological, as if “pleasure” and “good” are exact synonyms and “pain” and “bad” are exact synonyms. However, while there is a relationship between these terms, it is important to make a distinction between the two. “Pleasure” and “pain” are physiological experiences of our body in interaction with the world and with itself. They are signals that come from the body. “Good” and “bad” are evaluative terms; we deem something beneficial or deleterious. It is the higher cognitive judgments we make about something. This is different from the physiological signals. In thinking about it, it is important to distinguish between the physiological signal and the cognitive judgment.
For instance, chemotherapy may cause pain and suffering, but we evaluate it as good because it can get rid of cancer. What is the basis for this intuitive judgment? Physiological signals of pleasure and pain are very specific to a particular experience at a particular point of time. Meanwhile, cognitive judgments will consider other factors than just the specific cause of the pleasure or pain. While the chemotherapy produces pain, it also will hopefully kill the cancer cells that can take the person’s life. Cognitive judgments of good and bad can consider a wider range of outcomes and future experiences than physiological signals. Furthermore, cancer at the early stage may not produce noticeable pain or ill effects, Nevertheless, despite the lack of pain, we will evaluate cancer as bad because we are aware of what it can do in causing future pain and eventually killing a person From this one example, we see that pleasure is not the same thing as being good, and pain is not the same thing as being bad.
However, there is clearly an intuitive relationship of pleasure with goodness and pain with badness. When we experience pain, we can say there is something bad that has happened. If I come down will an illness that causes me to throw up, the discomfort I experience indicates to me that there is something wrong/bad about the situation. However, the discomfort along does not lead me to identify what is bad about the situation. Is it the flu? Is it food poisoning? Did something just not agree with my stomach? Did I eat too much? Pain lets me know something is wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily tell me what it is that is wrong.
However, the pain will lead to know something is wrong, both of which combine motivate me to do what I can to get better. I can go to a doctor. I can look up information of the website. I can take medicine. I can ask a family member or friend to help take care of me. Etc. It is in this case that the physiological signal of pain is both good and bad, but in different ways. Pain is bad in that something is wrong that causes pain, but the pain is good in that it activates my body to take the necessary adaptive behaviors and guides my mind to identify what specific behaviors I should do. In other words, pain is a cause of something bad but pain then causes something good. Meanwhile, the reverse can be true. Pleasure can be caused by something good, but can then cause sometihng bad. For instance, the pleasure of the elite class often times makes them blind to the pain and suffering of those who have little, thereby making them unempathetic towards suffering.
The point is this. Pleasure can be both good and bad. Pain can be both bad and good. The difference roots down to the order of causation. Pleasure and pain is caused by something which can be good or bad and pleasure and pain can be a motivational cause to do something which is good or bad.
However, the complexity of this point is often times not realized in our common, day to day thinking. We are not creatures who naturally do a good job of imagining good and bad at the same time, because our bodies typically do not experience both pleasure and pain at the same time. There are rare instances where a person may experience mild versions of pleasure and pain at the same time, but these are experiences of ambivalence and rarely do we understand ambivalent experiences; they can be quite confusing if one seeks to understand them. The end result is that we tend to oversimplify our view of pain or pleasure to fit with the pragmatism of the moment. When I feel pain, I don’t go through a conscious, reflective analysis of what is good and bad about my experience of pain. Rather, I instinctively think something is bad, because that is all that is needed to motivate my change of behavior to do something good. My awareness of the goodness of my pain is not necessary for the positive effects of pain to come about.
Now, in most cases, this pragmatic view of pleasure and pain is perfectly fine and suitable to guide our behaviors. However, the problems comes in when we go beyond reacting to pleasure and pain, and instead trying reason about pleasure and pain. If we use the pragmatic notion that pleasure is good and pain is bad, I will be unaware of the complex realities that surround pleasure and pain. Once we start to build ethical rules and principles, our pragmatic understanding pleasure and pain can dramatically mislead us. In a chemotherapy example, one hypothetical judgment that could be inferred that because pain is bad, therefore chemotherapy that causes pain is bad, therefore I should not take chemotherapy. Or, to employ a different intutiively wrong example, because: pleasure is good, and recreational drugs bring pleasure, therefore I should take recreational drugs.
I employ these two examples to make a point: pleasure and pain are not in of and themselves purely good or purely bad. To treat them as such will lead us to take actions that all of us would recognize has some problematic consequences. However, we are frequently tempted to think this way. For instance, we can treat the positive emotions that bring pleasure as “good” and the negative emotions that bring pain as “bad.” This fails to recognize the adaptive signficance of our emotions. The emotional experience of mourning and grief that comes with pain allows me to detach from those things I can no longer rely on, whether it be due to death of a loved one, loss of an important relationship, losing something significant, or a change of circumstance; the process of deattaching is a process that can then allow me to adapt to the new circumstances I find myself in. Shame over my bad actions can motivate me to make amends to the person I hurt, thereby repairing a relationship to prevent losing those relationships that would cause me to mourn. Guilt can motivate my taking of responsibility for my behavior. While these emotions do bring pain and when these emotions take permanent residence within out heart (excuse the metaphor) they can makes our life worse, not better, the emotions do serve a good adaptive purpose. Likewise, the joys of hedonistic practice can lead us to act in bad ways by taking little concern for the negative consequences of one’s actions. A college student who spends all day laughing as they watch NetFlix but does not study will as a consequence get worse grades.
The relationship between pleasure and pain with good and bad is complex. While we do not always need be aware of this complexity when we in the middle of are dealing with the specific situations that cause pleasure and pain, we need to be careful to not oversimplify our understanding of pleasure and pain, otherwise it can lead us to bad results as we fail to recognize the good that is caused by pain and the bad that is caused by pleasure.
It is this insight that segues well into the nature of the Gospel as it pertains to our lives: what the world judges as bad because of the pain, such as the shame and powerless of Jesus’ crucifixion, can be something God chooses to use for good. But this isn’t because we have simply reversed things so that pain is good and pleasure is bad in some masochistic fashion. Rather, there is the simultaneous recognition of the injustice of the cross and the blessing of the cross of Christ. However, even this complex reality of the simultaneous goodness and badness of pain is not simply some generic rule we apply to all experiences of pain and pleasure, as if we should find positive significance in every brutal act of injustice, such as in murder, rape, abuse, etc. God knows how many of the attempts to justify such events in search of a theodicy can cause more problems than they solve. Rather, the goodness of the cross of Christ is defined by the action of God to make it good, despite its simultaneous badness. Pain brings eternal joy because God makes it so. While certainly, pain and motivate something temporal good, we only trust in God to make pain be the seed of lasting goodness. As a result, we do not treat suffering as an ultimate good itself, but allow it to be a penultimate good.1
Thus for us as Christians, we allow two different forms of goodness that comes from pain. There the circumstance goodness that comes from human adaption that pain motives. Then, there is the lasting goodness that comes from the pain that God uses. Nevertheless, we recognize that pain means there is something bad and evil, although we can not always clearly identify the causes of evil or even which causes we know of that should be considered evil. But we do not treat the specific experience of pain separate from its causes itself as evil. This would be to go in a somewhat gnostic direction, where the body that God created is not good itself, but that the reality of pain in and of itself that comes from the body God created is something to escape rather than the things causing pain.
Thus, a robust view of the goodness of creations means we must accept the goodness of pain. Simultaneously, a theology of redemption means we should recognize the badness that pain is a signal of that God is changing. Therefore, Christian theology entails a complex view of pain, and also pleasure, as being both good and bad, depending on the circumstances and the action of God.