Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Jeremy Bentham in the Lab

I've got a colleague who does pain research (and, no, there is no truth to the rumor that my 8 am logic class is one of his experiments). He studies physiological issues related to pain. Where pain is usually the result of an undesirable change to the body, he conducts clinical studies employing a quite incredible machine that is able to stimulate pain receptors causing in his volunteers pain from the mild throb to "MOMMY!!!!!" But the instant the machine is turned off, the pain immediately goes away and there is no lasting effects, no damage or healing necessary.

I've been thinking about this research and Jeremy Bentham popped to mind. Bentham was a thinker at the turn of the 19th century who formulated an ethical system called utilitarianism. Consider sitting on a park bench minding your own business when a person you don't know walks by and hands you a fresh baked, home-made chocolate chip cookie for no good reason. A few minutes, again, for no good reason, someone walks by and punches you in the nose. Bentham argued, quite in line with our intuitions, that the first act was morally good and the second is morally wrong because the first created pleasure and the second, pain. Your acts have real consequences in the real world and morality is about helping to make the world around us the best place for everyone in it. An act is good if it brings about the most pleasure and least pain and morally wrong if it causes more pain or less pleasure than otherwise might have been. Morality is based on consequences and the relevant consequences are the pain or pleasure experienced by real beings (Bentham saw no reason that any being who felt pain or pleasure should be excluded from moral consideration).

These ethical calculations, of course, are to take into account the sum total of pain and pleasure, so the fact that my colleague's research could lead to advances in pain management means that the research is not immediately to be condemned on utilitarian grounds. The long term benefits to potentially a large number of people certainly outweigh the short term discomfort of a few test subjects as long as he is conducting his research in good faith, which he is.

But now consider a fictional colleague in Health and Human Sciences doing pleasure research, Dr. Whippet, who instead of the pain machine, administers a shot of nitrous oxide, providing her test subjects with a short period of intense pleasure to study the same sort of physiological responses. Suppose that her research has the same potential for medical usefulness, but in different applications (assume that some pain research of this sort is also necessary).

Bentham would have to consider her research to be morally superior. If you were a student who had to pick a senior project director, you would be morally obliged to choose her pleasure research over his pain research even though both projects are necessary (assuming that your senior project will not make huge advances in either research project). That seems a bit counter-intuitive to me. Would Bentham be wrong here? Is pain itself really morally relevant?