Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Right to Inflict Pain: Physical vs. Emotional

People seem more tolerant of causing others emotional harm compared to physical harm. If you punch someone, you're thought to have done something worse than if you were to just insult them with name-calling. But why is this? What's the morally relevant difference between causing someone physical pain versus emotion pain? Is physical pain so much worse than emotional pain that it makes the former permissible but not the other? But certainly there are times where emotional pain feels worse than certain physical pains. If the level of pain is what determines the morality of the actions, then in situations where the emotional pain would hurt more than the physical pain, it would mean that it would be more immoral to cause the victim emotional pain. Perhaps it's because of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech makes us have a right to cause people certain emotional harm, but we don't have a similar freedom that gives us the right to cause people physical harm.

But isn't it still a little odd to have the right to cause some kind of pain to a person but not another kind, especially when emotional pain can feel as bad if not worse than the physical pain that we do not have a right to inflict? What if we had the right to cause pain by punching but not by kicking? Assuming we weren't in the middle of a boxing match, this would seem similarly odd as kicking can cause at least the same level of pain as punching, just as emotional pain can compared to physical pain.

Is it that it is more of the victim's fault for experiencing emotional pain than it is when he experiences physical pain? The victim shouldn't let things bother his mind so mind; he should have a thicker skin. If the victim is hurt emotionally, it's his fault for letting the situation get to him.

But could something similar be applied to argue that it's the victim's fault for experiencing physical pain? If the victim is punched in the stomach, it's his fault for feeling physical pain because he didn't work out to develop strong enough abs to allow him to ignore the punch. Would expecting the victim to have stronger abs be that different from expecting them to get emotionally thicker skin? Maybe getting thicker skin is easier than getting stronger abs, and that is why we can blame the victim for not having thicker skin but we can't blame them for not having stronger abs. This may not be true, but even if it was this would mean that if we could take a pill to instantly give a person super strong abs, we'd be able to blame the victim for feeling pain after getting punched in the stomach. And if it doesn't seem right to blame the victim in that case, then it would not seem to be relevant how easy it is for one to be able to ignore pain in order for it to be the victim's fault for feeling the pain.

Could it be that we are less sure what will cause someone emotional pain as opposed to having a pretty good idea what will cause someone physical pain? It is probably true that usually it is harder to predict when an act will cause emotional pain as opposed to physical pain, but this would not excuse cases where we can be pretty sure that our act will cause someone emotional pain. Further, if in the future we become just as good at predicting when an act will cause emotional pain as we are at predicting physical pain, then this explanation would no longer excuse causing emotional pain.

Maybe there are advantages that come from making it permissible to cause emotional pain but not physical pain. Maybe it's permissible to cause emotional pain because it lets people be more creative without being restrained by hurting someone's feelings.
The problem with that explanation is that while it may make it more permissible in a grand sense to be able to hurt someone emotionally compared to hurting someone physically, it does not seem to make any particular act of hurting someone's feelings permissible. It is like how the loss of life from driving accidents are acceptable because of the benefits that driving brings, but that does not mean that if I kill someone with my car that that was permissible because driving has general benefits.

There may be a significant difference that makes causing emotional pain more permissible than causing physical pain, but it hardly seems so obvious that people are justified in quickly brushing aside and ignoring the possible wrongness of hurting someone's feelings.


  1. I don't think you understand what rights are or how they work.

  2. Yes I do.

    ^Not a very satisfying response I'm sure since there is no argument defending the claim, but your comment did not have one either, so there is not many ways to respond.

    But really, maybe I have misunderstood rights and how they work, but you should at least give an argument for how I've misunderstood rights and how they work, and it'd be best to follow up with claims about what rights really are and how they work (along with an argument, as it won't do the conversation much good to just claim these things without justification to debate about), or else this just seems like trolling.

  3. The issue with this is that it can be very easily exploited to further an unreasonable agenda, or even intolerance. For example what if a white supremacist, finds that a black couple moving-in next door to be "offensive" and a personal threat or that his argument that black people are inferior to the white race being silenced in his child's school and resulted in him being called "racist" hurts his feelings and causes him emotional harm. The same could be said for the drawing of Mohammad, defending "straight marriage" and excluding transwomen from womens' spaces because a particular kind of feminist disagrees that trans* women exist or are valid women or even the "threat of a man in a dress" is too much of a harm to bare for her idea of safety in a safe space that womens spaces meant to be.