Painism is a term coined by Richard Ryder in 1990, being a refinement of his term sentientism.
Painism became the principle upon which Ryder bases his ethics.
He argues that any individual, human or other, who can experience pain, has moral standing.
Such painience can be assumed in most species of animal on Earth and may be a capacity elsewhere in the
universe among, for example, intelligent aliens, or even in highly developed robots and other machines.
Intelligence and painience are not necessarily associated, so Ryder insists.
It is possible that there are highly intelligent beings who can feel little or no pain and, vice versa,
highly painient creatures who lack intelligence.
Ryder defines pain as ìany form of suffering or negative experience, including fear, distress and boredom,
as well as corporeal pain itself. Such things as injustice, inequality and loss of liberty naturally cause pain.
Pain, so Ryder says, 'is the great evil, and inflicting pain upon others is the only wrong.'
Ryder, of course, rejects speciesism, arguing that many species are painient.
He cites three types of evidence to support this: the anatomical evidence of effective nervous systems,
the behavioural evidence of avoidance (and other) behaviours and the neurochemical evidence of substances
known to be associated with the transmission of pain. Thus the scope of all moral systems should be extended
to cover all painient things and not just the human animal, Ryder claims. This is the neglected moral
implication of Darwinism. 'Pain is pain regardless as to who or what suffers it' Ryder says. 'X amount of pain
in a dog or a cat matters just as much as X amount of pain in a human being. It is the pain that matters,
not the species.'
Where Ryder's theory of painism takes a creative step away from Utilitarianism is in his rejection entirely of the
Utilitarian practice of calculating morality by 'adding-up' the pains (and pleasures) of all those individuals
affected by an action. A Utilitarian moralist (and hence many politicians and others in the world today) could,
theoretically, justify gang rape if the pleasures of all the rapists are found to add up to more than the
sufferings of the victim. This, of course, is absurd. But, for Ryder, this is the huge flaw in Utilitarianism
and much of Western moral thought, it is also the main problem with democracy, for example, and its 'tyranny by
the majority'. (See Richard D Ryder: Putting Morality Back into
Politics, Imprint Academic, 2006). Ryder argues that ìpain, to be pain, has to be experienced and,
because nobody experiences those 'added-up' totals of pains the Utilitarians play with, then such totals are
clearly meaningless. Ryder proposes instead that the pains of each individual matter, and that the badness
of an action can be judged by the level of pain felt by the individual who suffers the most by it the
'maximum sufferer'. Each individual experiences only their own pains.
Ryder's theory of painism does offer a way through some of the clashes between the two main secular moralities
of the modern world ó Utilitarianism and Rights Theory. 'Painism can deal with the principal problems of both of
the old theories' Ryder says 'with the meaningless addings-up of Utilitarianism and with the problem of
conflicting rights in Rights Theory.' Rights can only be based upon pain ó there is no other basis that makes
Although painism rejects the 'addings-up' of Utilitarianism it does not reject the principle of 'trading-off'
the pains of one individual against the pains of another. This is the other great problem for all ethical systems,
whether it is called 'conflicting rights' or 'cost-benefit'. Should we cause unconsented-to pain to A in order to reduce
the pain of B? Ryder's answer is 'sometimes'. He looks at ideas of consent and innocence, and at the
probability, intensity, agency and duration of pains. One of theproblems of painful animal experimentation,
for example, is that the pain is certain but the alleged benefits are uncertain and in the future.
While acknowledging that all such cost-benefit issues are riddled with difficulties Ryder nevertheless suggests
that the language of painism can help to find a way through them.
Ryder has worked out and applied this theory of painism to politics
(Richard D Ryder: Putting Morality Back into Politics ,
Imprint Academic, 2006) and more generally (Richard D Ryder:
Painism: A Modern Morality,
Opengate Press, 2001), claiming some advantages over Rights Theory.
Ryder developed his theory of painism partly when he was working as a psychologist in Oxford
and partly when he was Mellon Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Tulane University.