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Is Pain a Moral Good?


Here’s an absolutely fascinating article, “The Day Pain Died,” about the first medical operation to use anesthetic.
Can you guess what year it happened?
The answer is 1846. But within that answer lies a bizarre history.
The article is by Mike Jay, and is drawn from his new book called The Atmosphere of Heaven.
The gist is that anesthesia itself was hardly new in the 19th century, but that a moral objection prevented its use. Why? Because pain was considered an integral and necessary part of life, and the removal of pain was the work of either a charlatan or a Satan:

As far back as 1525, the Renaissance physician Paracelsus had recorded that it made chickens “fall asleep, but wake up again after some time without any bad effect,” and that it “extinguishes pain” for the duration. …
Before 1846, the vast majority of religious and medical opinion held that pain was inseparable from sensation in general, and thus from life itself. Though the idea of pain as necessary may seem primitive and brutal to us today, it lingers in certain corners of healthcare, such as obstetrics and childbirth, where epidurals and caesarean sections still carry the taint of moral opprobrium. …
Most doctors still believed it was only pain that kept patients alive through the trauma of operations. System failure due to shock was a frequent cause of death during surgery, and the loss of sensation was believed to make it more likely. A screaming patient, however tormented, had a better prognosis than a limp and lifeless one. …
Despite its successes, resistance to the idea didn’t vanish overnight. Until the end of the century, some doctors would maintain that pain had a necessary role in the preservation of life, but from 1846 onward they were outnumbered by those who insisted that it was the job of a physician to inflict as little of it as possible. Some religious voices would hold out for a good deal longer: Pope Pius XII would confirm that “the Christian’s duty of renunciation and of interior purification is not an obstacle to the use of anesthetics” only in February 1957.

I learned of this article via Market Design, the blog of the always-interesting Al Roth. His headline was striking: “Anesthesia Was Once Repugnant.” There’s no way, I thought, that he could be right on this one (even though he has always been right in the past). But after reading Jay’s article, I was thoroughly convinced. Like most good arguments, it is not only convincing but humbling: how could we not have seen this earlier?
Even more interesting to me is that, the widespread use of anesthesia aside, there still seems to be a prominent streak in modern humanity that continues to see pain (or suffering, or angst, or call it whatever you want) as an elemental property that we must embrace, not just endure. For the record, I am not down with that. Just because life can be full of pain does not mean that it should be categorized as a moral good any more than, say, warfare should be considered a moral good simply because it has been an inevitable result of human interaction.