TCS Daily

The Purpose of Pain

By Micha Ghertner - March 16, 2004 12:00 AM

We usually think of pain as a bad thing. Utilitarian ethics, for example, prescribes maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Even those who do not consider themselves utilitarians recognize that pain should generally be avoided when possible.

What if we could eliminate pain altogether? Wouldn't our lives be considerably better -- perhaps much more enjoyable than they are now? It seems plainly obvious that if we could choose between a life without pain and our current life, only a fool would choose to the latter.

But consider the case of Gabby Gingras. Gabby was born with a rare genetic defect -- the nerve fibers that are supposed to record pain and send a signal to her brain do not work. She literally feels no pain.

Because Gabby can't feel any pain, she has no protective mechanism that would normally prevent her from harming herself. She no longer has any teeth; some she lost from biting on toys, others were removed to prevent her from biting her tongue and mouth. She scratched her eyes so badly that one is blind and the other is severely damaged. She has broken her bones and suffered second-degree burns as a result of her condition.

What at first looked like a rare blessing is in fact a severe misfortune. Only through the ad-hoc efforts of her family and doctors will she be able to live a relatively normal life.

It's not polite to use specific people -- especially not severely disabled children -- to make an ideological argument. But Gabby Gingras's condition sheds some light on the importance of pain in our own lives, and makes us thankful for something that we usually take for granted.

To an economist, pain can be quantified, and like many other quantifiable things, we can put a price on it. In this sense, pain is treated as a cost -- something we wish to avoid. But even though we generally try to minimize costs wherever possible, as Gabby's condition illustrates, costs, like pain, are useful for sending important signals. The pain we experience when we touch a hot stove discourages us from repeating that particular action, and this signal protects our skin from severe burns. So too, the costs of doing business -- say, selling umbrellas to desert dwellers -- discourages us from engaging in unproductive efforts and wasting resources which could be put to better use elsewhere.

The market is somewhat like a living organism in this sense -- self-regulating, self-perpetuating, and self-correcting. Prices are akin to biological signals sent to different parts of the body, telling each part what needs to be done and what should be avoided. This is not a conscious or intentional process -- we don't have to think about making our heart beat. In fact, with rare exceptions, we don't even have conscious control over many of these biological processes. Imagine how difficult -- no, impossible -- our lives would be if we had to consciously regulate each and every biological process occurring in our bodies at all times.

Sometimes these signals can be distorted. A virus, for example, or a rare genetic disease can cause our body to misread these signals, and actively work against itself. Homeostasis is disrupted; we can no longer maintain internal equilibrium. Sometimes we recover on our own -- nature takes its course, the virus passes. Other times we require outside intervention in the form of medicine, or in Gabby's case, protective prosthetics. And unfortunately, sometimes there is nothing that can be done, and we die.

Similarly, market prices can be distorted. When a government imposes price controls, prices no longer serve the short-term rationing function or long-term resource allocation function. This results in shortages or surpluses, to the detriment of the very people those price controls were supposed to help. When a government inflates the money supply, we do not become wealthier; instead, some people may benefit while many others lose. Austrian economists argue that when the government controls the money supply and sets the interest rate at artificial levels, the price of investment capital does not reflect the real demand. Because capital is misallocated, the business cycle is a periodic correction of this distortion, just as a fever is the human body's way of dealing with threats to its own internal balance.

Many people dream of a world where humans need not experience any pain, a world with no costs and no need to made difficult decisions about how to allocate scarce resources to meet our unlimited desires. Alas, we do not live in such a world. Nor can we ignore the facts of reality.

If we could take a pill that would mirror Gabby's condition, knowing what we know now, none of us would take it. We realize how dangerous the absence of pain can be to our lives, no matter how attractive it may seem.

If we could simply ignore the costs that prices signal to us -- and, indeed, many societies have tried and continue to try this, including our own -- our lives would not be any better. We would still have the same limited resources and the same allocation problems -- only we would be without the signals necessary to guide our actions. Our lives would be that much more difficult and chaotic, despite whatever ad-hoc measures we might use to try to simulate market signals.

Pain is at times unfortunate, but necessary, as are costs. We cannot simply wish either of them away, nor would we want to if we could.

Micha Ghertner is a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, studying economics and philosophy. He is a regular contributor to This is his first article in TCS.


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