The ethics of food-5: Pain and suffering

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Philosopher and advocate of animal rights Peter Singer is sometimes accused of going out of his way to make deliberately outrageous statements. From what I have read of him, this charge seems unjust. He strikes me as a very thoughtful philosopher who is not being merely a provocateur but is skillfully using the argument from marginal cases to show us the consequences of carrying the often glib justifications we use to justify our treatment of animals to their logical conclusion. The end result often makes us uncomfortable, which may explain the somewhat heated responses he generates.

Singer is not arguing that all animals be treated just like humans. He accepts that we do differ in morally significant ways. What he is asking for is that we not judge purely on the basis of this or that quality but on the equal consideration of interests.

Equal consideration of interests is not the same as equal treatment, [Singer] points out; children have an interest in being educated, pigs in rooting around in the dirt. But where their interests are the same, the principle of equality demands they receive the same consideration. And the one all-important interest that humans share with pigs, as with all sentient creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain. (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan, p. 308)

Singer and animal rights philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the utilitarian school of ethics, argue that it is the capacity for pain and suffering that should determine whether an animal has interests that deserve to be considered.

The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in a meaningful way. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 35.)

As an example, we can say that it is acceptable to kick a stone down the road because the stone feels no pain and thus has no interest in not being kicked. But a cat does have an interest in not being kicked, because it has the capacity to feel pain.

Pain is a fairly straightforward phenomenon that we can usually see directly. It is not hard to say when an animal is in pain. In fact, slaughterhouses in the US are supposedly now designed to kill animals quickly without them experiencing undue pain, though how one judges whether one is successful in this goal is problematic.

Suffering is more complicated than pain because of the presence of additional components such as language, and consciousness. Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) summarizes the arguments of philosophers Daniel Dennett and Stephen Budiansky, who argue that it is likely that humans feel these things differently from other animals because of this heightened awareness.

[H]uman pain differs from animal pain by an order of magnitude. The qualitative difference is largely the result of our possession of language and, by virtue of language, our ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to imagine what is not. The philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests we can draw a distinction between pain, which a great many animals obviously experience, and suffering, which depends on a degree of self-consciousness only a handful of animals appear to command. Suffering in this view is not just lots of pain but pain amplified by distinctly humans emotions such as regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread. (p. 316)

It is possible that animal suffering is sometimes lessened by their “inability to experience the same dread of anticipation as human beings, or to remember the suffering as vividly.” So the suffering associated with having to undergo surgery may be greater for humans because they know it is coming and know that things can go horribly wrong.

But it is not necessarily the case that the presence of language and consciousness always increases the sense of suffering. Humans will likely find the pain of a visit to the dentist more bearable than a nonhuman animal does simply because we are aware of the visit’s purpose, know that it will be of limited duration, and can look forward to future benefits. An animal cannot know any of those things and so dental work could well cause much more suffering.

As Singer points out, animals also cannot always discriminate based on intentions. A human prisoner captured in war and read their Geneva Convention rights can at least be assured that they will be released at the end of hostilities and this makes their captivity easier to bear. But “A wild animal cannot distinguish an attempt to overpower and confine from an attempt to kill; the one causes as much terror as the other.” (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 42)

While we should not project onto animals the full range of emotions that humans might feel, we should not be too quick to dismiss their ability to possess more subtle emotions either. Pet owners especially might well dispute Dennett’s claim that feelings such as regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread are ‘distinctly human’, and argue that their pets do feel at least some things like shame and dread and guilt, though maybe not to the same extent as humans.

Quantifying suffering so that we can try and minimize it is not easy. For example, if our goal is to minimize individual suffering, it could be argued that we should prefer medical research to be done on a terribly brain damaged, but still alive, human being who had lost all capacity to suffer pain or had any awareness even, rather than be done on (say) a normal chimpanzee, because the animal is likely to experience more pain and suffering than the brain-damaged human. But we don’t, again raising the charge of speciesism.

Suppose we go beyond just individual suffering and also take into account also the suffering of the community around them. I think we can agree that the relatives of the brain-damaged person are more likely to suffer from such an experiment than the relatives of the chimp, simply because they are aware of what is going on. So while taking into account the suffering of relatives seems like it provides a means of preferring humans, Singer counters by arguing that in practice we would privilege even an orphaned permanently brain-damaged infant over a fully sentient chimpanzee that had a family.

It is hard to set about quantifying pain and suffering in difficult cases such as these. But in those situations where there is no doubt, using the criterion of minimizing pain and suffering seems like a reasonable moral yardstick.

Next: Can we avoid speciesism?

POST SCRIPT: Mere brutes?

Those who think that animals cannot feel complex emotions might change their minds after seeing this remarkable video.

For more on this story, see here.