Value of Suffering Project

With David Bain and Michael Brady as joint PIs, and Jennifer Corns as postdoctoral fellow, the Value of Suffering Project (funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation) ran September 2013 - May 2016. The VOS project was a large, international, and interdisciplinary research project investigating the nature, role, and value of pain, suffering, and affective experience more generally. Its core team comprised philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, and clinicians, based in Scotland, France, Norway, and the United States. As well as a postdoctoral fellow, an international PhD student was involved. Running from 2013 - 2016, the project comprised numerous workshops and conferences and resulted in articles, a monograph, an edited collection, and numerous outreach activities. Here's a summary ...

Executive Summary

Value of SufferingIs suffering good? Encompassing both physical pain and emotions such as grief and disappointment, suffering is almost universally considered bad. But it also has value. Hence we aim to illuminate the complex and frequently neglected ways in which suffering is also good.

We will investigate suffering’s role, its place in our rational lives, and its conscious phenomenology, thus illuminating the value of suffering and of affective experience generally—not just suffering, but pleasure too.

Important to us all, suffering also lies at some fruitful disciplinary intersections. So our project centrally involves an international, multidisciplinary team, expert in neuroscience, psychology, clinical practice, philosophy of mind, value theory, and philosophy of religion.

Our activities will include six workshops and three major international conferences over 33 months. Building on interdisciplinary engagement at our workshops, team members and other experts will produce important papers on our core questions for dissemination at our conferences and in our edited collections.

In addition to the two edited collections issuing from this interdisciplinary collaboration, our core team (comprising two Principal Investigators, a Postdoctoral Fellow, and a PhD Student) will produce a monograph and ten journal articles. Reaching beyond the academy, we will also give public lectures, write popular articles, and maintain a project website featuring an interactive blog. Drawing on the networks we build, our longer term objective is a Centre for Affective Experience in Glasgow: a world-leading hub for interdisciplinary research, collaboration, dissemination, and public engagement.

In all these ways, we aim to enhance the profile and understanding of suffering and affective consciousness—this crucial, neglected dimension of human experience—within and beyond the academy, not only during the project but long after its completion.

Core Questions

Our project will address the following questions: How should we understand suffering’s role and value? What place has suffering in our rational lives? And what is the significance of how suffering feels? In addressing these questions, pleasure is also key, since we aim more generally to illuminate affective experience (experiences that feel positive or negative), and to question whether suffering and pleasure are simply symmetrical cases.

1. Suffering and Reason

What is suffering’s place in our rational lives? Contrary to the traditional idea of suffering as an impediment to reason, we will investigate the idea that, in fact, suffering has an important role to play in supporting and assisting rational activity. We think it crucially provides reasons for action and belief, but we also aim to explore a further, neglected possibility: that suffering might respond to reason.

In complex ways, our emotions respond to beliefs and other cognitive states. And empirical evidence shows that even physical suffering—its intensity and unpleasantness—can be thus influenced. As mentioned, emotions can be appropriate and inappropriate; so might it even be that suffering is sometimes rational or irrational? What, in sum, is its place in our rational lives?

2. Suffering’s Role and Value

What is suffering’s role and value? Physical suffering motivates injury avoidance; but empirical results continue to suggest many other, neglected roles that suffering plays. Hence we will ask: How does suffering bear on attention, memory, deliberation, problem-solving, and social cooperation? And how does recent evidence of hedonic “tagging” of neural signals illuminate suffering’s pedagogical role?

Turning to emotions, while evidence of its neural overlap with pain is burgeoning, emotional suffering surely plays distinctive roles too, e.g. in moral knowledge and virtuous behaviour. Emotions can be appropriate and inappropriate to the circumstances; so might it even be that emotional suffering is sometimes intrinsically valuable?

Finally, what can we learn about the role of suffering from its putative opposite: pleasure? And how do our results illuminate the value of affective experience in general?

3. Suffering’s Phenomenology

What is the significance of how suffering feels? Remarkably, it is often neglected that suffering also has a “phenomenology”; that is, it feels a certain way, typically unpleasant.

Could physical and emotional suffering have played their crucial roles—could they have had the same motivational force, for example—without feeling unpleasant?

Here it will be important, first, to compare affective and non-affective experiences (e.g. pain and visual experiences) and, second, to compare suffering and pleasure. This will provide much-needed illumination of the nature, the role, and indeed the very idea of phenomenology, and of the similarities and differences between suffering and pleasure.

Our project’s three strands are interwoven. Part 1 explores the place of suffering in our rational lives, in particular whether suffering might not only provide reasons, but respond to them. Part 2 concerns the value of suffering in respect of memory, problem-solving, and attention. And Part 3 considers the bearing on these questions of the ways suffering feels.

Together, these strands converge on our central focus: how we might understand the value of suffering, and of affective experience more generally.

Core Aims

The Value of Suffering Project hopes to achieve the following three aims:

1. To address significant holes in our understanding and knowledge of suffering

While interest in suffering is growing in the sciences and humanities. There is increasing philosophical interest in the motivational aspect of pain, and the rationality of emotion. Neuroscientific investigations of affect, in particular punishment and reward, are flourishing. And psychologists are engaging with the similarities between physical and emotional suffering. But while such work provides a fertile research environment for our project, ignorance remains about the core questions our project will address.

2. To bring to the study of suffering and affective experiences the cross-disciplinary integration that is so badly needed

Suffering, pleasure, and affective experience in general lie at important and fruitful interdisciplinary intersections, both between and within philosophy and science, bringing together philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and value theory, on the one hand, and neuroscience, psychology, and medicine, on the other.

And yet, to this point, much of the work that has been undertaken in this area remains compartmentalised within these disciplines. Hence a key objective of ours is for our interdisciplinary methods, and the cross-disciplinary engagement facilitated by our workshops, conferences, and publications, to produce something hitherto lacking: integration of our knowledge and understanding of suffering and affective experience across the various disciplines.

3. To engage with a universal type of experience that has profound intrinsic and practical importance

Recognising the deep importance of suffering to us all, we aim that our investigation into suffering’s positive dimensions will prove valuable beyond the academy. We intend that our public lectures and articles, website, and blog will disseminate important research and generate useful networks among the general public, especially those who are suffering. Through rigorous, interdisciplinary, and collaborative research, we also hope our project will contribute over the long term to improvement in both the understanding and treatment of suffering.

In sum, we hope that our engagement with our core questions in the interdisciplinary and collaborative way we propose will have a lasting effect on how those within and those outside the academy think about and understand this profoundly important aspect of conscious life.

The Team

The Value of Suffering Project currently has ten members, divided between our core and wider teams. Members have been selected so as to ensure the excellence of our project’s activities and produce significant outcomes.

Core Team

The core team comprises joint PIs, David Bain and Michael Brady, a postdoctoral researcher cum project manager, Jennifer Corns, and a PhD student, Abraham Sapién-Córdoba, all based in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.

Dr. David Bain is a philosopher of mind who has published extensively on pain. He has been a leader in debates in the philosophy of pain, and is currently articulating an evaluativist conception of pain.

Professor Michael Brady is an accomplished moral philosopher whose principal research area is in the philosophy of emotions. In particular, he has been a leader in exploring the relations among emotion, reason, and value.

Dr. Jennifer Corns is a philosopher specializing in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. In 2012, she received honors for her PhD, “Pain is Not a Natural Kind”, and has begun publishing on pain and affective experience.

Abraham Sapién-Córdoba is a PhD student in philosophy interested in the nature of affective experiences. In 2013 he completed his Masters, “Masochism: on how to like pain,” at the Institut Jean Nicod, and now undergoes a joint PhD supervision both in Paris-Sorbonne and at the University of Glasgow.

Wider Team

The wider team are drawn from numerous disciplines and are a crucial part of the international network of researchers we will assemble during the project. They will participate in, and present work at, our multidisciplinary workshops and conferences. With our core team, they will be available for ongoing discussions and feedback on one another’s work.

Professora Laura Ekstrom is a philosopher of religion and ethics, and metaphysician, at the College of William and Mary, who has published widely on agency and philosophical theology, including recent publications on compassion for those in pain and the value of suffering.

Dr. Michael Serpell is a distinguished clinician with research interests in and publications on both acute and chronic pain. Having served numerous posts in the pain science community, he is currently a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow, Chairman of the Neuropathic Pain SIG (British Pain Society), and Secretary of the Galsgow and West of Scotland Society of Anaesthetists.

Dr. Siri Leknes is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oslo who has published on pain and pleasure, and investigated the connections between pain, relief, and threat.

Dr. Frederique de Vignemont is a philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist at the Institut Jean-Nicod, Paris, who has published widely on bodily awareness and social cognition. She is interested in pain, affective touch, and empathy.

Dr. Clare Allely is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Salford and an affiliate member of the Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Centre at Gothenburg University. Her recent projects include a systematic review of pain in individuals with autistic spectrum disorder and another investigating the neurodevelopmental profile of serial killers.

Dr. Brock Bastian is a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales who has published on the psychological benefits of painful experiences.


In addition to public talks and further outreach and impact-focused events, the VOS Project's core research events were as follows:

Suffering and Normativity (Workshop 1). University of Glasgow, 18th January 2014. Our first workshop, Suffering and Normativity, was held at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow on 18 January, 2014. This workshop focused on the research of the following presenters: Brock Bastian, Manolo Martinez, Tom Johnstone, and Jonathan Cohen and Matthew Fulkerson.

Suffering and Cognition (Workshop 2). Maison de la Recherche, 25 April 2014. Our second workshop, Suffering and Cognition, was be held at Maison de la Recherche on 25 April, 2014. This workshop focused on the research of the following presenters: Michael Brady, Marcel Brass, Jennifer Corns, and Stephane Lemaire.

Suffering and Reason. (Conference I). University of Glasgow, 4-6 July, 2014. Our first conference, Suffering and Reason, was held at the University of Glasgow from 4-6 July, 2014. This conference focused on the research of the following presenters: Marilyn McCord Adams, Fabrizio Benedetti, Michael Brady, Giorgio Coricelli, Jennifer Corns, Matthew Fulkerson, Manolo Martinez, Stephane Lemaire, Donna Lloyd, Kevin Reuter, and Adina Rusu.

Suffering’s Valuable Functions (Workshop 3). University of Glasgow, 31 January, 2015. This workshop focused on the valuable roles and functions of suffering and other affective experiences. It will focus on the research of the following presenters: David Bain, Giandomenico Iannetti, Morten L. Kringelbach, Colin W. Leach, Michael Serpell, and Fabrice Teroni with discussants Martin Dunbar and Gustavo Ortiz-Millan.

Emotional and Physical Suffering: Roles and Values (Workshop 4). Ruhr University, Bochum, 16-17 April, 2015. This workshop focused on the respects in which emotional and physical suffering are similar and different, neurologically and functionally. It will focus on the research of the following presenters: José Araya, Hagit Benbaji, Michael Brady, Jennifer Corns, Katherine Meadowcroft, Albert Newen and Ulrike Bingel, Kevin Reuter, Tobias Schmidt- Wilcke, Timothy Schroeder, and Markus Werning.

Suffering’s Role and Value (Conference II). University of Glasgow, 4-6 July, 2015. On suffering’s role and value, this conference brought together researchers from throughout phase 2 and was the culmination of research presented at its workshops. It focused on the research of the following presenters: David Bain, Michael Brady, Jennifer Corns, Frederique de Vignemont, Richard Gray, Colin Leach, Kevin Reuter, Timothy Schroeder, Tasia Scrutton, and Fabrice Teroni. With discussants Fiona Macpherson, Myrto Mylopoulos, Paul Noordhof, and Carolyn Price.

The Role of Phenomenal Consciousness (Workshop 5). University of Glasgow, 24 October, 2015. On understanding what phenomenal consciousness is and what it does. It focused on the research of the following presenters: Ben Bramble, Pete Mandik, Olivier Massin, Maja Spener, and Michael Wheeler.

The Feeling of Suffering (Workshop 6). Macquarie University, 18-19 February 2016. On the significance of how it feels to suffer, and the relationship between that feeling and suffering’s roles. Access the programme here. This workshop was hold at Macquarie University Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics (CAVE). It focused on the research of the following presenters: David Bain, Brock Bastian, Michael Brady, Jennifer Corns, Cindy Harmon-Jones, Julia Hush, Laura Ferris, Jolanda Jetten, Colin Klein, Lorimer Moseley, Wendy Rogers, and Luke Russell.

Suffering and Phenomenal Consciousness (Conference III). University of Glasgow, 11-13 May 2016. On the significance of phenomenal consciousness and, in particular, the nature and role of the feeling of suffering on suffering’s role and value. This conference will bring together researchers from throughout phase 3 and will be the culmination of research presented at its workshops. It focused on the research of the following presenters: Murat Aydede, David Bain, Michael Brady, Ben Bramble, Havi Carel, Jennifer Corns, Brian Cutter, Hilla Jacobson, Olivier Massin, Tom McClelland, David Pereplyotchik, Maja Spener, and Mike Wheeler. With discussants Tudor Baetu, Luca Barlassina, Andy Clark and Fiona Macpherson.