This may sound like a silly question but how can you quantify events that are indefinite in nature? Statistically speaking ALMOST ALL creatures perceive pain negatively but how can we call it fundamentally negative when there are exceptions like masochists who perceive pain positively?

In such a scenario where common sense would dictate that pain is a negative emotion because the majority of the humans and other animals feel it negatively, is it okay to say 'pain is negative' as a fundamental truth of all human life, if not the universe? Is there a term to describe such events which hold true for most parts and obey the laws of common sense but not universality?

  • No, it is not even capable of being true or false, the subject-predicate form of the sentence is superficial. As Wittgenstein put it, "the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it", and crying is neither true nor false, it is just an expressive act.
    – Conifold
    Sep 26, 2018 at 22:28
  • Well, usually (in everyday language, not neuroscience) when speaking about various animals, when they constantly try to avoid something, we conclude that this something is painful. Thus we call pain something that is subjectively undesirable. Therefore, from this definition, pain is subjectively bad.
    – rus9384
    Sep 26, 2018 at 22:39
  • Pain is... By an large.. the stimulus most prevalent in animals for causing 'reaction'. I think yes.
    – Richard
    Sep 26, 2018 at 23:58
  • Two counterarguments to the premise: (1) Masochists enjoy pain as part of their sexual experience; and (2) Pain is a valuable signal. Imagine how dangerous life would be without any sense of pain.
    – user4894
    Sep 27, 2018 at 0:14
  • 2
    On those occasions when I actually exercise, I can wind up with muscle aches that "hurt good". Sep 27, 2018 at 18:23

4 Answers 4


The main priority of living beings is to survive.

Pain is not bad: it is unpleasant. Like a red light on the semaphore, you don't like it, but the light is imperative. Pain is the main physiological signaling mechanism that warns us that our probabilities of survival are decreasing, as Newtonian Newton states. The mechanism is not bad. It is imperative.

But our survival is not controlled only by such mechanism. In fact, we have stronger mechanisms that determine our persistence in time. Consciousness, for example. And consciousness could decide to stop living. That's what suicidal people do. And what people who self-inflict pain intentionally.

Now, why do some people seem to enjoy pain? We have the stoics, people who enjoys tattooing for the mystical experience, writers who tell how do they decide to suffer, or even the MTV Jackass stars.

A paradox of survival is that the more an individual suffers, the better he becomes. The simple reason is that the body and the mind learn how to become stronger, so to be immune or at least resistent to a new attack like the one that caused suffering.

We have several examples of this.

  • Nietsche stated that what doesn't kill you make you stronger, and that is literally true. If you break an bone, the bone becomes stronger after cured. If you practice rugby, you become iron.
  • Physiologically, this is similar. For example, it's good to eat vegetables, because among other positive facts, they are aggressive against our body. They have toxins (that's the reason children don't like them, because a children can get intoxicated with them). They don't break, so the intestinal surfaces get stronger.
  • People with important deseases, dead relatives, victims of human rights violations, etc. learn how to deal with such problems and usually become leaders helping others to improve life while suffering, and get back their lifes.
  • A personal example. I've got kidnapped. Had to do psychotherapy for a couple of years (luckily, my therapist was also a philosopher, and a really good one). But I'm completely sure I've never got where I'm now without such traumatic experience. It might sound weird, but I'm really grateful of such experience.

So, some individuals could consciously self-inflict pain, in order to improve as persons, or physically. An ascetic life, like buddhists or franciscans is not far from it.


Focusing only on what you actually asked, it depends a lot on the definitions you are employing. But, contrary to what @Conifold commented, the statement "pain is unpleasant" does indeed have a truth value.

For example, in common speech, most people would define pain generally as suffering or unpleasant sensation. Then "pain is unpleasant" is true by definition, applied to life on earth or in any other context, as that definition is not context dependent. I am not familiar with the details of the physiological formulation of pain, but to the extent that "pain" is generalized to "signal to the brain", the statement would be false without also generalizing "unpleasant" to "causes urges" or something similar, as the resistance of urges is not always unpleasant.

As to whether this truth is fundamental of life on earth, that depends on if you mean life in the biological sense or the social sense (for lack of better terminology), as the fundamental elements of each are different. In the biological sense, life has as its fundamental elements cells and chemical processes. Pain is an emergent phenomenon in this context, made up of many processes in systems made up of many cells, and truths regarding pain are not fundamental. In the social sense, life has as its fundamental elements agents and their experiences. Pain is an experience, so in this context it is fundamental, and truths regarding pain are also fundamental.

  • That's very helpful! The reason I brought this question up was because I've always been confused as to how one may label a 'collectively subjective' facet of society such as pain, for example.
    – user25854
    Sep 29, 2018 at 1:12

Pain is just pain, a certain set of biological reactions designed by evolution to have certain properties. Positive and negative are judgements, an entirely different category. We might choose pain from surgery, or from risking life for others, as part of a 'greater good'. We might even observe that with no pain we don't develop and learn, we would have to be protected from all things that might burn us to never viscerally experience the danger of getting burned. A Christian argument goes that suffering is part of god's plan because of how it helps us fully develop.

Utilitarians tend to take pain and pleasure as unequivocally definable external measures of good and bad. It's hard to defend that, given the frequent human preference for what is meaningful over what is pleasurable, like us talking here instead taking up our most sybaritic options. David Benatar takes pain and pleasure as external values, and draws from this in what seems fairly inevitable fashion if you accept those premises, that we should cease having children because of the negative value of potential suffering vs the neutral quality of potential pleasure.


We feel pain when the probability of our survival decreases. Pain basically is the medium through which your body tells you that something is wrong, so that you can fix it and keep living. Since everyone has a different genome and different perspective to perceive the physical world, different people react differently to the perception of pain.

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