As you might know by now, cyborgs & prosthesis ethics are kind of my thing. So when I saw this article last week, I paid attention. Essentially, its a report (and questioning of why this would be researched in the first place) on new prosthesis that can feel pain.
Developments in prosthesis are happening all the time, and there are some amazing innovations going on that are, unfortunately, usually inaccessible for the people that need them most. But this development for me incited a different question that usual.
It made me ask, what types of features do people with disabilities want in their prosthetics? Do they experience suffering because of their lack of ability to feel pain in certain areas of their body?
Pain & Amputation
Most amputees experience some significant pain upon losing a limb, as well as during the recovery process, including “phantom limb” pain. They are well acquainted to it, and for some, it never goes away.
Yet, one of the barriers between prosthesis that exist now and those that would be a “true” replacement for a lost limb is sensory experience: touch, pleasure, pain, etc.
Yet, when we think about ethics, pain is usually a bad thing. In fact, pain is such a bad thing that the existence of pain as a result of an action is one of the reasons we consider those actions immoral *cough* Utilitarianism *cough*.
But in this case, we want to give people pain, add it back into the equation.
Shouldn’t we want to take away pain if we can?
The benefits of pain
In some situations, pain has obvious benefits. Especially in the case of fleeting physical pain, pain is often more of a warning signal than anything else. Getting a small burn on your finger from touching a hot burner, and the pain that this causes is greatly preferable to leaving your hand on a hot burner until the flesh melts away and you have serious functional damage. Pain is our early warning system that helps us keep our bodies safe from irreparable harm.
In other cases, pain is not so simply bad. Some people intentionally and healthily seek out brief pain as a method of cathartic release or sexual foreplay.
In the second case, we can see the benefit (albeit fringe) of creating a prosthetic that has this capability. Though I think it would make more sense for this capability to be something that could be turned on and off at whim, only for the situations in which someone might want to feel pain.
In the first case, however, while it makes sense to have a similar mechanism to warn a user when a prosthetic may have experienced damage or will experience damage, it seems that some kind of alarm or warning system that does not involve pain would be equally efficacious.
Pain as integral to humanness
Some philosophers argue though, that pain is even more broadly useful than this. At times, people interpret pain: both physical and emotional, as something necessary for growth, or for appreciation of pleasure or contentment. They suppose that one can only appreciate good things because of the contrast they provide to bad things.
Thinkers like Francis Fukuyama argue against the eradication of pain, stating that this would decrease the ‘diversity of the human experience’ and that suffering is necessary for many great human qualities such as art and genius. More metaphorically speaking, we see this sentiment other places in toxic ideas such as that artists must suffer to be able to create great beauty. Beyond that, there are individuals and ideologies that place powerful ideological importance on pain and the lessons it can teach us. For example, Dolores, one of the main characters in Westworld, despite being horribly assaulted, raped, and killed repeatedly, when asked if she wants her pain taken away away responds with confusion, stating that pain is all she has left of herself and her family. Pain is at the center of her experience.
This is a sentiment that many people (and I suspect mostly people who have never experienced great pain or suffering, and certainly not chronic pain and suffering) share.
While these questions have been raised by prosthetic developments, I think they are applicable in many science-fiction and future technology developments. For example, in virtual reality, should we be able to feel pain? Should it be a choice?
Is suffering and physical pain integral to our humaneness? We know that our experience is essentially embodied, and we have a hard time conceiving of existence outside of our bodies, but is pain a necessary part of this embodiment?
I would be reluctant to say that is is, especially given that there are human individuals who cannot feel pain due to congenital issues. These individuals would prefer to live differently than they do, as these conditions are highly dangerous, but this is not necessarily connected to the idea that they wish they could feel pain. As stated earlier, in artificial bodies and ways of being we could conceive of a warning system that taught us to keep our bodies safe and ensure they heal or are repaired properly without the physical sensation of pain.
Ultimately, what I think is most important to remember in this discussion is that no matter how we as humans change in our experience of physical pain, pain when talking about ethics and ethical considerations will almost certainly be a consideration. This is why our conceptions of pain are broader than mere physicality.
When developing new ways of being and experiencing the world, as well as developing new bodies we need to be attentive to what are essential aspects of our bodies and experiences, but also consider what we could go without, or what new senses and experiences we could create for ourselves.