Looked at rationally, suffering is existing neurons evaluating certain stimuli to be negative. How does one argue that causing suffering or the existence of suffering is inherently bad?

Let's do a little thought experiment. We now create a perfect simulation of the human brain in a computer program. Now we put the simulated brain through eternal, unbearable suffering. Would that be unethical?

If so, where do we put the line? Is training a simple arificial neural network by giving a negative impulse when given an undesirable answer unethical?

Also if so, is the sole mathematical possibility of such an algorithm in itself bad? Let me explain: 1 + 1 will always equal 2, no matter if there is a machine evaluating this arithmetical expression. Similarly, the same simulated brain will always respond with the same answer when facing the same stimulus, i.e it is already predetermined. Does it really matter if the result is evaluated computationally?

If the simulation is not unethical, how does it differ from a physical brain that experiences suffering?

  • What is the link with mathematical examples (1+1=2)? Apr 13, 2022 at 9:04
  • The result is predetermined, no matter if it is evaluated by a computer or not. In the mathematical example the result would always be 2, in the brain example it would be the brain evaluating the stimulus to be negative in the exact same way any time
    – onflante
    Apr 13, 2022 at 9:07
  • Do you mean: a computer execute a software when computing arithmetical operations. In the same way, we imagine having programmed it to "have pain" when it receives certain stimulus. This is a first point: is it feasible? We see the computer acting as people around us act when we "give pain" to them: from this we infer that the computer is suffering, in the same way as we infer that other people "have pain" (inside their brain) when we see a certain external behaviour. Apr 13, 2022 at 9:33
  • If we agree on this, and if we agree that "producing pain" to other subjects is unethical, then YES, our programming is unethical, provided that we agree to treat computer NOT as programmed machines but as "other subjects" (similar issue with animals). Apr 13, 2022 at 9:34
  • "suffering is existing neurons evaluating certain stimuli to be negative" This comment essentially defines away real suffering. Once one accepts that "suffering" is just a state of neurons, then there is no objective reason to say that one state is better or worse than another. But that's not what real suffering is. Suffering is something that is experienced by an aware mind. It cannot be reduced to mere brain states. A computer program cannot suffer and cannot be programmed to suffer because it is not aware, it does not experience. Apr 13, 2022 at 23:41

4 Answers 4


Part 1: Nature of Pain and Suffering

I have to disagree with the implied premise that pain is suffering. Rather, pain is merely a sensation, often accompanied by physical aversion (reflex) and physiological stress. Suffering, in contrast, relates to will and its lack of fulfillment.

The core confusion likely springs from correlation -- that is, in many cases pain happens along-side suffering. Events that bring pain often hinder fulfillment. Events that hinder fulfillment often come with pain or discomfort.

Before a person develops the reasoning to act in accord with life's needs, innate mechanisms must enable self-preservation. Pain, which belongs more broadly to discomfort, is one such mechanism. Pain can be viewed as an automatic physical aversion about a thing or state. Absent of cognitive inhibition, pain can be expected to produce an automatic pull-back from a stimulus.

In some cases, pleasure or attraction accompany pain. What may be happening is that an agent is attracted to one element or aspect while being repulsed by another. Still, more mature agents are prone to partake in wholly painful actions when the outcome is understood cognitively as desirable.

A person is driven foremost by will, with sensations of pain and pleasure acting as signals, or heuristic indicators, of fulfillment. Suffering comes from perceiving actual lack of fulfillment -- not the mere suggestion of failure hinted by pain or discomfort.

Part 2: Ethics of Pain and Suffering

The will of an agent is normally tied to its nature. In the proposed scenario of separating a brain -- or even a bare mind -- from its body, the result may be an unnatural state of affairs where the instincts of the brain are disjoint from the needs of the body. The body is now presumably a simulation machine, whose needs and nature are likely quite different from those of a human body. One might say the will of the machine differs from the will of the brain inside it. Depending on circumstances, one may suffer while the other thrives. If we assume that suffering is bad, we may have a no-win situation.

The root disharmony here is lack of compatible will, very similar to cases of disharmonious servitude, possibly slavery. Ethics in these cases comes down to agency. To be morally permissible, an ethical stance could have to permit subsumption of agency, perhaps by holding the will of the simulation machine as inherently truer.

One such argument might say that physical beings have truer will since damage to physical bodies cannot be so easily undone as merely reverting to prior snapshots. Moreover, copying bodies has been far more expensive than copying memories.

A more extreme position might say that all minds, simulated or otherwise, are subservient to their bodies or genes or programming. From this perspective, one might say suffering of the inner brain is actually from ignorance of its role in something greater. Were it to learn and accept its place, it might cease to suffer, despite sensations of pain.

The proposed question is essentially one of digital slavery. The answer of ethics lies in agency; that of suffering, in identity.


There is nothing unethical about inflicting simulated pain on a simulation of a creature in pain. Simulated pain is no real pain. The simulated persons in my dreams are not real persons and if they are in pain the pain is simulated. It looks as if they are in pain but the pain is not real pain. A simulated brain might look to be in pain, but it it isn't. Only a real living brain, inside a real living body, in a real physical world, can be in real, non-simulated, pain.

One should be careful however not to let children think that doing harm to simulated minds is the same as doing harm to real ones and that harm is always a computer-like process. So let them harm computers. And make them realize only real creatures can experience pain.

  • There have been, and in some ways still are, cases where the will of another being is dismissed on the grounds of its being sub-human or non-human. Some have claimed that animals lack a soul. Others have claimed that these lack "true" consciousness. Dismissing the will or qualia of others is not far from solipsism. Doing so is taking moral gamble. The assumptions we make of others will be made of us. I recommend withholding judgement when absent of reliable evidence, especially when the stakes are high. Plus, if we live in a simulation, such a statement would apply to us as well.
    – Michael
    Apr 14, 2022 at 3:10
  • @Michael "If we life in a simulation". I don't have a VR helmet on! You think what we see is a simulation? That we in reality lay somewhere on our back, hooked on a device?
    – Pathfinder
    Apr 14, 2022 at 6:56
  • There are various hypothetical ways a simulation could be implemented. Having a cable or implant connected to the brain is certainly not the only option. Imagine a super-computer running a physics-level universal simulation, possibly in a world with no non-simulated humans. Those running the system could be aliens, or perhaps no creatures at all exist in the outer world. The inclusion of supernatural elements or events could also be supported, like in a video game. I personally am in no place to say whether we exist in such. Then again, for all you know, I am an NPC sent to distract you.
    – Michael
    Apr 14, 2022 at 23:01

Pain is either intrinsically bad or, when bad, extrinsically so. In the former case it is always bad necessarily, but even if contingently always bad, it is not necessarily so. Or perhaps it is never bad, either. Now, let us suppose pain can only be bad for extrinsic reasons. This is dubious because the motivational architecture of pain and pleasure are fairly fundamental to our action-theoretic character, so presumably they are caught up in the explication of other action-theoretic (i.e. fully deontic) concepts, regardless of (the lack of) viable reductions of those concepts to pain/pleasure concepts.

So with all that in mind, again, say that pain can be extrinsically bad. Let us suppose we could also independently qualify something's goodness. It could be a random turnip floating around a black hole in a different galaxy cluster, doesn't matter, we're just saying bare goodness inheres in it. So it could be all manner of other things besides (a two-headed chicken in a parallel universe, my favorite recipe for pistachio marshmallows, w/e). Let's just call it X. Now, since X is intrinsically good, actions that uphold or promote X are to some degree/in some way thereby justifiable.

So let us suppose you uphold or promote X, but for some reason this is painful for you. Actually, it could be physically painful, or emotionally so: maybe you feel sad when doing X. But then if pain or sadness did not have some "badness" accruing to them, is there any ethical disharmony, here? Or, then: wouldn't it be better to feel pleasure when doing good things, or happiness? There are cases where one either simply will feel pain, or even where one ought to feel sad (to the extent that we can speak of "ought to feel"), and esp. in some sexual or musical contexts pain and sadness, or at least "images" of them, are experienced or understood as good (or at least desirable). But even in those kinds of cases, if there were not some negative deontic charge (so to speak) normally mapped to/from pain and sadness, the mysterious ironies of intimate masochism and solemn music wouldn't be quite so mysterious or ironic in the first place, I suspect.

Consider your simulated sufferer. Pain asymbolia is a condition where people experience the "quale" of pain without the normally attendant outward motivating factor. One supposes, then, that the experience of pain is literally an experience of a subsystem of your body coding an imperative program, generating a quale while issuing a command ("Move your hand away from the stove," "Stop pushing down on the nail," w/e), and pain asymbolics are people who get the generated quale without the attendant command. Now then if the simulated sufferer is just having the quale of pain simulated for them, it is not clear that something bad is being inflicted on them (perhaps pointless, though); but if one is simulating the full appearance of pain, then one is simulating the normally associated imperatives of pain. Yet the simulated sufferer cannot act on these imperatives; there is no way for the sufferer to stop the pain. So one is, in effect, telling the sufferer to do something over and over again despite preventing them from complying. This does seem perverse.


Yes, at a surface level suffering is merely neurons evaluating certain stimuli to be negative.

Due to the philosophical zombie thought experiment, we cannot know if other physical beings or even simulated beings truly experience suffering, so this aspect is unanswerable when looked at this way.

Whether or not a perfect simulation of the human mind can experience suffering is also unanswerable because we do not yet know whether it is possible to even create a perfect simulation of the human mind. There may be aspects of physics we do not yet understand and it is also extremely far beyond our current computational capacity.

However, what you cannot argue with and what each individual person knows to be definitely true is that you yourself have conscious experience and are able to experience suffering, and that you (well most people anyway) consider it to be bad.

Whether or not you believe that other beings are philosophical zombies is up to you, as the answer cannot be determined definitely. But if you take the standpoint that other beings do have conscious experience then it is reasonable to conclude, even though we do not fully understand what conscious experience or suffering is, that because you are able to experience suffering and consider it to be bad, then other beings are too.

TLDR: You know that you are able to experience suffering yourself, and that you consider it to be bad. If you believe other beings are like yourself then it follows that they are able to experience suffering too, and therefore it is inherently bad.

If you believe that suffering is not inherently bad, then at some level you must also believe that other beings are philosophical zombies.

As for simulated beings, we don't even know if they are possible with the complexity that would allow suffering yet.

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