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Adam Swenson

General teaching






Pain for Philosophers


Pain's Evils

The traditional accounts of pain’s intrinsic badness assume a false view of what pains are. Insofar as they are normatively significant, pains are not just painful sensations. A pain is a composite of a painful sensation and a set of beliefs, desires, emotions, and other mental states. A pain’s intrinsic properties can include inter alia depression, anxiety, fear, desires, feelings of helplessness, and the pain’s meaning. This undermines the traditional accounts of pain’s intrinsic badness. Pain is intrinsically bad in two distinct and historically unnoticed ways. First, most writers hold that pain’s intrinsic badness lies either in its unpleasantness or in its being disliked. Given my wider conception of pain, I believe it is both. Pain’s first intrinsic evil lies in a conjunction of all the traditional candidates for its source. Pain’s second intrinsic evil lies in the way it necessarily undermines the self-control necessary for intrinsic goods like autonomy.

Utilitas Vol. 21 No. 2 June 2009

Pain's Evils (pdf)


Privation Theories of Pain

Most modern writers accept that a privation theory of evil should explicitly account for the evil of pain. But pains are quintessentially real. The evil of pain does not seem to lie in an absence of good. Though many directly take on the challenges this raises, the metaphysics and axiology of their answers is often obscure. In this paper I try to straighten things out. By clarifying and categorizing the possible types of privation views, I explore the ways in which privationists about evil are—or should or could be—privationists about pain’s evil.

International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (2009)
DOI: 10.1007/s11153-009-9202-4
The final publication is available at

Privation Theories of Pain (pdf of proofs)



Squaring Autonomy and Fair Play's Obligations

Philosophical Anarchists like Robert Nozick and R.P. Wolff have argued that fair play based political obligations are incompatible with respect for autonomy. On their view, an obligation is legitimate if and only if the autonomous person endorses it. On a principle of fair play, the fact that a person has benefited from the cooperative efforts of others entails an obligation to contribute whether she wants to or not. Thus the Philosophical Anarchist claims that, necessarily, the fact that a person has benefited from a government’s services cannot entail an obligation to obey or contribute to it. These arguments have been widely accepted. But they are wrong. The conflict only arises in rare cases in which a person has a particular set of substantive preferences. While an autonomy-respecting principle of fair play cannot impose political obligations on this limited group of citizens, such exceptions are too uncommon to threaten fair play as a ground of political obligation. Thus, even on the Philosophical Anarchist’s extremely strict conception of autonomy, fair play and autonomy only conflict at the fringes of pluralistic society. That is no problem for fair play based accounts of political obligation.

Please note: I've more-or-less abandoned this project. Some very helpful reviewer comments from Social Theory and Practice helped me realize that this isn't really a paper about political obligation. It started as that but evolved into an account of how even the most stringent conceptions of autonomy are not conceptually in tension with our having myriad tacit obligations to each other. Political obligation became at best a central example and at worst a distraction. I haven't found time to rework it accordingly. If you should want to quote or cite this paper, please describe it as ‘Unpublished’ and link to a version containing this explanation of the status.

Squaring Autonomy and Fair Play's Obligations (pdf)


Hurts So Good: What's bad about masochistic pain?

Presented to the California State University, Northridge Center for Sex and Gender Research
24 April 2009

Text of the paper
Accompanying Power Point slides


Pain and Value

Complete version

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Intrinsic value, pain, and method

Chapter 3: Contexts versus kernels

Chapter 4: Pains as usurpers

Chapter 5: Pain and the nature of intrinsic value

Chapter 6: Out of the harbor


All chapters © Adam Swenson 2006
Please contact me for appropriate citation information





25 Apr 09


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