In one episode, Doctor Who finds out he's trapped on a horror-like island and he finds out his time machine he could escape with is frozen in the hardest rock on earth. He also finds out that every time he dies, some kind of machine makes another copy of him, a copy with no memories of those findings. Every time he realizes that, he runs to his time machine and hit the rock with his fist a few times, just seconds before the monsters get him.

From the constellation of stars, he finds out he had been there, dying and replicating, for some billion years.

Now, from the utilitarianistic point of view, a torture lasting for billion years is the worst thing that can happen. And that makes sense from the physicalistic perspective because if we sum all the feelings of all the Doctors throughout the billion years, there's a hell lot of measurable (physical) stress hormones reliesed.

But this statement assumes that pain + pain = 2 pains. That sounds quite reasonable but is the billion pains the Doctor had gone through really so much worse than a single one when the Doctor doesn't have memory of what happend before?

My point is, is there some kind of "model of pain" that makes sense from the perspective of a physicalist, other from utilitarianism? (it doesn't need to be a moral model necessarily)

Is there another way of materialistically evaluating a morality of something without simply adding and contracting pains and pleasures?

  • 1
    Sure, Nietzsche's or existentialism as in late Sartre. Physicalism/materialism is an ontological position, so it is compatible with any ethics whatsoever, there is no logical connection between facts and values. Many physicalists like to explain morality away altogether with something like evolutionary "ethics":"morality could be understood as a phenomenon that arises automatically during the evolution of sociable, intelligent beings... as a useful adaptation that increases the fitness of its holders by providing a selective advantage."
    – Conifold
    Apr 11, 2017 at 19:48
  • @Conifold Sure, physicalism doesn't lead to any particular philosophy, but it disqualifies many of them. For instance, I myself am both religious and physicalist but I can't accept any religion moral system since that would set the goals outside the physical universe. Also, I cannot accept any ethics that would rely on unphysical qualities. It seems amazing to me that it's actually so hard to define such system.
    – Probably
    Apr 11, 2017 at 20:05
  • That is not really true. You can go to someone like Jung, and see the religious system as the culmination of evolutionary and developmental forces, and deduce that the goals embedded in it metaphorically serve the human interests of the people who developed and espouse them, or the religion would be different. Then accepting the broad strokes of the religion is entirely consistent with a physicalist view except when there are more logical known physical explanations for the things they entail.
    – user9166
    Aug 10, 2017 at 3:39

3 Answers 3


I have argued elsewhere that this notion of a global metric for morality is doomed https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/26553/9166. But, being a hypocrite, I still have a favorite one, which I feel is physicalistically motivated.

Any vote for a physicalist version of utility could not really be tied to human pleasure. We do not play any special role in physics, so there does not seem to be a basis for any physics-based system that provides us in particular with a special role. A genuine distinction requires a difference.

You could argue for a utility that marks a genuine difference between the living and the non-living, but living does not require a sense of pleasure. Amoebas live. One doubts they suffer, the Buddha not withstanding.

So among singular criteria for ethics that have been prominently proposed, we are reduced to a range from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. Utility has to be in survival value or in the overall ability to shape one's own circumstances. To my mind, what these have in common relative to physics, is that they are about information. Survival involves creating genetic copies that maintain the information already here, power involves inserting information that is specific to you into the environment.

I would vote for this as an approach to utility, and adopt Terrence McKenna's 'Theory of the cosmic giggle'. What is good is what overall produces the greatest opportunity for novelty. To me this suggests a sort of quanititative, evolutionary Kantianism. As the process that produced us, evolution, not just the biological form, but the overall process of elaborating information, is in itself good. It is not just our cause, it is what we are here for.

Autonomy should be respected not as some force of truth, but as the conduit for beings to attribute novelty to the world. And that means that it is not an absolute inviolable quality -- but other than that, I think Kant has the basic principles right.

We cannot know what kind of autonomy will lead future evolution, so destroying or unnecessarily directing it is an unnecessary risk. At the same time, we are made of autonomy, and limiting ourselves pointlessly is an equal risk. That leads into something like the means-ends version of the Categorical Imperative, as the measure of utility that makes for a world where information is served. More equality is better, more variety is better, more complexity is better, as long as it is natural. Survival and a certain level of comfort is necessary to contribute, among members of most species, so approximate rule-utilitarianism, with a bias to weigh pain over pleasure, is a vague corollary.

I think the inborn human concern for fairness in social competition is not an idiosyncratic attribute we have as a primate species with given social goals. I mean, it is, but it also expresses something more general, and we can rely upon that instinct to point out a more general principle of which it is basically a local variant.

  • This is a nice model but I think it's still not perfect, it pretty much falls into the category "growth arguments" see reddit.com/r/changemyview/comments/6wq5z1/comment/dmafi95
    – Probably
    Sep 9, 2017 at 12:01
  • In the post, I also state why I'd have a big problem accepting the "evolution is good" philosophy (that's naturalistic fallacy) and why don't I think we'd just be better if we went for the survival strategy - I think it's better for all of us that the developed populations stop exponentially grow.
    – Probably
    Sep 9, 2017 at 12:07
  • But I came to the same conclusion that those categorical imperatives we established are good for the society as a whole (that's what I mean by social contact there)
    – Probably
    Sep 9, 2017 at 12:09
  • Either way, I'd consider this a type of utilitarianism :)
    – Probably
    Sep 9, 2017 at 12:11
  • The fact it is partly Kantian means it explcitly does not add pains and peasures. Also variety is not pleasure, and does not face the same pitfalls: if it pleasing to favor your race exclusively, for instance, you shouldn't, the measure is exernal so there are no 'monsters', it favors balance over optimization. etc. It is a single measure, but that measure is not pleasure. You definitely do not say anything about evolution in the post. What is physicalist without being naturalistic?
    – user9166
    Sep 9, 2017 at 15:22

There are 3 pain values that we would like to evaluate here:

Let A = the pain endured by Doctor Who undergoing this pain exactly once.

Let B = the pain endured in the situation you described. i.e. he undergoes this pain billions of times, forgetting his previous experiences each time.

Let C = the pain endured in the situation you described, less the amnesia. i.e. Dr. Who dies billions of times, and remembers each and every atrocity

We can all agree that ABC. What we would like to show is that A < B < C.

To show B < C, we need to consider a rational thinkers "pain utility function." Your postulate:

pain + pain = 2 pains

would assume that this function is linear. However, I think upon further examination we can agree that this is not the case. I believe most people's pain utility function is, in fact, some sort of convex function. That is, as pain increases, the total negative utility of each successive unit inflicted gets worse and worse. For even the most trivial types of pain, there is a certain hell to the idea of having to endure it for an extended period of time. In your example, since Dr. Who forgets the atrocities of his previous death every time, this compounding effect is not a factor. Thus it's pretty clear that the amnestic situation is preferable.

For A versus B, I believe that a utilitarian would actually say that these two are equal. Utilitarians try to optimize the well-being of an actor. Because the previous experiences are erased from his memory, they would not affect his well-being.

  • Ok, I get your point but I think it's quiet controversial. If someone's tortured for million years and than someone slaps him, it's very different from slapping a child and if you have million bananas, a milliononeth banana isn't really that awesome. But what this debate doesn't take place on the grounds of philosophy because you'd get the same results from measuring the amounts of negative and positive emotions in the brain and subtracting them.
    – Probably
    Apr 11, 2017 at 19:05
  • 1
    If pain + pain ≠ 2 pains, I think there's an additional factor you don't include - the pain of the knowledge of feeling pain.. And I think I can't relate with you on that well-being consists of your memories. Sure, the universe could have been created just seconds ago together with all our memories - from this perspective, all that matters is the present. On the other hand, we all are gonna die and all the present becomes past, so isn't the only difference between a pain you remember and a pain you don't remember the "PTSD"?
    – Probably
    Apr 11, 2017 at 19:12
  • The point is that the utility function is clearly non-linear. Sure, it's probably not some nice exponential convex function, but you asked for a model that explains the fact that pain + pain ≠ 2 pains, and this is that. Apr 11, 2017 at 19:19

tl;dr - There is another way. it's called utilitarianism.

Okay, that was a bit too glib, but let me explain. Utilitarianism is a term with multiple meanings. On the one hand, it's a view espoused by Jeremy Bentham and then a related non-identical view espoused by J.S. Mill. On the other hand, it's a contemporary ethical position when used as a synonym for consequentialism with respect to pain and pleasure.

Part of the reason the word has this multi-dimensional definition is that Mill's version leaves some important questions unsolved. Here are a few :

  • What exactly is the pain we are trying to avoid (is it mental or physical?) And then more broadly how does the problem of pain relate to consciousness?
  • How does time and intensity relate to our calculus? (can someone trade screaming agony for a few minutes for dull pleasure for eternity?)
  • Is something good insofar as it promotes pleasure or is it good insofar as it achieves pleasure? (is it intention or success that makes it good? Or alternately, am I required to evaluate things perfectly to make good choices?)
  • Can Mill's claim about altruistic sacrifice be made to work in a Utilitarian framework? (at one point, Mill says we should sacrifice our personal pleasure to reduce the great suffering of others).
  • How should the temporal distribution of pain/pleasure be integrated (surely, it makes sense that exercise[let's assume that's painful] is good despite the pain, because it leads to more pleasure overall for the person)

There's several other issues that people have thought of with respect to this. And to address the above, there are now several variants of utilitarianism. A philosopher named Hare worked on what we call rule utilitarianism vs. act utilitarianism which suggests that the task in individual cases is to follow rules which are designed to optimize pleasure (rather than calculating what is most pleasant every time de novo).

With this background in mind, let's return to your claim:

Now, from the utilitarianistic point of view, a torture lasting for billion years is the worst thing that can happen. And that makes sense from the physicalistic perspective because if we sum all the feelings of all the Doctors throughout the billion years, there's a hell lot of measurable (physical) stress hormones reliesed.

Here you've made quite a few assumptions about what utilitarianism supposedly must be. For one, you've assumed something about the relationship between the calculus and time. For another, you've identified pain with certain hormones.

But this statement assumes that pain + pain = 2 pains. That sounds quite reasonable but is the billion pains the Doctor had gone through really so much worse than a single one when the Doctor doesn't have memory of what happend before?

I think the contemporary question with respect to the sort of example you raise would be about memory. Are pains that we can't remember of equal value to pains that someone can remember? This is not a question the original definition of utilitarianism answered -- it's a question contemporary utilitarians can pick answers on.

A second issue is that some more subtle forms of utilitarianism (and perhaps Mill's own) can see the optimization problem as total amount of pain divided by total amount of sentient beings -- so rather than just adding pain for each new doctor, they can see the average pain level as not really moving.

To sum up, I think you're hitting on a problem for one species of utilitarianism and through this moving / upgrading your version of utilitarianism to solve these problems in a way you find attractive.

All of that being said, physicalism does not necessarily entail utilitarianism. Kant's ethics and Aristotle's are both compatible with a physicalist understanding of the universe. The same can be said for several views in the East as well.

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