A common picture of value determination with respect to pains, pleasures and other such mental states seems to be the following: the intrinsic value of such states is determined by their phenomenological character. Thus, some people hold that all pleasures are intrinsically good, and all pains intrinsically bad. (Call this the straightforward theory.) Of course, straightforward theorists can allow that some pleasures are extrinsically bad, and some pains extrinsically good. The enjoyment of another’s suffering can lead the malicious to harm others in the course of seeking out such pleasure; the pain of punishment, on the other hand, may prompt the wicked to reform. Straightforward theorists will insist, though, that the phenomenological character of the mental state is the fundamental, if not the only, determinant of its intrinsic value.
Certain sorts of ethical baggage tend to come along with such views. For instance, many people think that since pain is always intrinsically bad, there is always at least some moral reason to eliminate it. Similarly, some people think that there is always at least some moral reason to promote or increase any particular (potential or actual) pleasure.
Some people accept a slightly more complex axiological theory than this, allowing that at least some pleasures (pleasure in another’s suffering, for instance) might be intrinsically bad. A few are even willing to say that some pains (like the deserved punishments of the wicked) are intrinsically good, though my sense is that it is far more common to hold that these pains are bad in themselves, but extrinsically justified.
I think that the proponents of more complex theories are moving in the right direction, but that we must go still further. We must recognize that there is a greater variety of counter-examples to the straightforward theory than is commonly appreciated (I’ll describe a couple in a moment), and that the landscape of value is thus significantly more complex than has been realized. And more fundamentally, we must reject the idea that the phenomenological character of a mental state is the primary determinant of its intrinsic value.
The theory I’d like to propose to replace the straightforward theory is the following. The primary determinant of the intrinsic value of a mental state is the question of its appropriateness. That is, a mental state is justified, and intrinsically good, if it is appropriate; it is unjustified, and intrinsically bad, if it is inappropriate. Where a state is neither appropriate nor inappropriate, its phenomenological character may then determine its intrinsic value. Thus, a pain that is neither appropriate nor inappropriate, but simply the brute result of a causal mechanism in the world, can be considered bad because it is unpleasant to experience, but only after the prior question of appropriateness has been settled.
There are many varieties of (in)appropriateness. Let me mention just a couple of examples to help bring out the flavor of the theory. As mentioned above, the deserved sufferings of the wicked are sometimes allowed to be intrinsically good. The most straightforward explanation of such a view, I think, is that such suffering is appropriate. But we need not concentrate on punishment, or the wicked, to find such an example. Suppose Gordon’s friend has died, and Gordon is grieving. Grief is clearly a species of suffering, as anyone who has experienced it will know. But, while it is surely unpleasant, it is not clear that it is intrinsically bad. The world is not a worse place for its happening (though it is, of course, a worse place for the event which triggered the belief.) And the idea that there is (at least some) moral reason to eliminate this suffering seems implausible. (Imagine I had a pill that would wipe out Gordon’s grief altogether. Would I be morally obliged to offer it to him? Would there be any moral reason to do so? It seems not.) Grief, then, is a kind of suffering that, where appropriate, is both justified and intrinsically good precisely because it is appropriate. (Inappropriate grief, of course, is neither justified nor intrinsically good.)
One other example. As mentioned above, it is sometimes allowed that pleasure in another’s suffering is intrinsically bad; it is, after all, malicious. However, we can imagine situations in which this is not the case. Suppose that Anne is suffering from grief as a result of her father’s death. Jill, Anne’s mother, who had worried that Anne was so self-centered that she literally did not care whether her father lived or died, might be glad to see that Anne is in fact grieving. The pleasure that Jill takes in Anne’s response is not in any way malicious. In fact it is quite appropriate, given that Anne’s response is itself an appropriate response. So we should have no moral qualms about the existence of Jill’s pleasure, any more than we should have moral qualms about the existence of Anne’s pain. What matters here, in terms of intrinsic value, is not the phenomenological character of the mental states but rather their appropriateness as responses to events in the world. Moreover, I claim, this is at least implicitly true with respect to any mental state: where such a state’s phenomenological character is relevant, it is only as a secondary matter, and only because the state is neither appropriate nor inappropriate. The latter sort of consideration, where present, always trumps.
Finally, I want to mention one advantage of such a theory, which is that it might help contribute toward a unified theory of intrinsic value with respect to mental states and actions. Actions, obviously, do not have a phenomenological character the way mental states like pains and pleasures do; so if we stick to the straightforward theory with respect to the latter, we will need a different sort of account for the former. However, actions, like these mental states, may be appropriate or inappropriate. This seems to me somewhat promising – though this suggestion, I should say, is quite off the cuff. But I’d like to know what people think of it.