It shouldn’t matter if we can ever truly know if lobsters feel pain

Switzerland recently banned the boiling of live lobsters. However, the debate still rages: do they actually feel pain? We broadly think that animals closely related to us can. This extends to mammals, and to a lesser extent birds. But the issue is murkier with the rest of the animal kingdom. It begs the question of when and in what species did pain evolve? Or, if it evolved multiple times, is there more than one lineage that contain animals which experience something like pain?

I think that there is something it is like to be a lobster. Perhaps I am taking it as an article of faith. Although I would counter that by saying that denial cannot be a more accurate hypothesis than mine. Neither hypothesis can ever be empirically known. As Thomas Nagel (who I would imagine isn’t too revered around these parts) writes in What Is It Like To Be A Bat:

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.

If anyone is inclined to deny that we can believe in the existence of facts like this whose exact nature we cannot possibly conceive, he should reflect that in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martians would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. The structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed, but we know they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us: that only certain general types of mental state could be ascribed to us (perhaps perception and appetite would be concepts common to us both; perhaps not). We know they would be wrong to draw such a skeptical conclusion because we know what it is like to be us.

Bats are one thing – they, like we, are mammals. For contemporary organisms in the arthropod phylum, we are even further away from having a common ancestor, probably by around 500-600 million years. For lobsters in particular, if there is something it is like to be one, there are even less means of conceptualizing what those experiences are like than there are for bats. One idea was put forth by Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka. They theorize that primordial inner states were akin to being suffused in white noise:

The unavoidable consequence of all the sensations that result from the incessant and persistent neural stimulation of the animal’s external and internal sensors is a global by-product of neural activity we call “overall sensation.” We suggest, by way of metaphor, that it is a kind of “white-noise sensation”—a weak, completely functionless, and meaningless side-effect of an interconnected sensory-motor system, which is dynamically processing electrical and chemical signals triggered by sensors, communicated to effectors, sent back to sensors again, and so on.

They stress that this “white noise” is initially functionless, but could be the “raw material for the first types of experiencing.” This is, of course, imperfect, as white noise contains both visual and auditory components, neither of which were available to early life in the time period they discuss. But one can theorize what attempted predations and other injuries produced in these nascent inner states – perhaps it is akin to a jolt of electricity that disturbs the relatively static background. Current species of lobsters have evolved from these ancient experiencers for as long as we have temporally. Neural networks are continually refined and integrated, and perhaps they experience something more than the “white noise” of their ancestors.

Just as I think there is something it is like to be a lobster, I also believe they experience their own form of pain. An either/or conception of nonhuman pain is possibly inaccurate, but I’m going to take it as a given: either they do or don’t experience pain. As I wrote in an earlier blog, every living organism – sentient or nonsentient, conscious or nonconscious – is an entity comprised of molecules that resist entropy. The resistance of entropy doesn’t entail that pain is felt by every biological entity, especially if we attempt to fit the concept of pain into parameters defined by human experience. While we may hypothesize correlates given that we are evolutionarily related to every organism, it’s truly something we can never “know.” Indeed, one can never “know” the person sitting next to them experiences pain – the only pain internally experienced is one’s own.

Most animals experience nociception, a recognition of tissue damage, that sometimes includes reflexive actions. This is not the same thing as pain, but they are related. Pain can be described as nociception combined with an inner state, such that the experiencer feels stress that is particular to that organism’s genetic and neurological design. One could also go further and attempt to connect nociception and pain to suffering, but I’m content to stop at pain.

Again, granted my belief that there is something it is like to be a lobster, is there a noetic distinction between its internal state when it’s hanging out in its natural habitat, as opposed to being subjected to nociception, like being placed in boiling water? If one accepts that lobsters have some kind of inner life, I don’t see how the answer can be anything but yes, since different environmental stimuli leads to different behaviors that can readily be observed. I don’t think it’s too wild to say one state is probably “better” for the lobster than the other and, moreover, that they have an internal preference that is influenced by pain.

The amount of research that’s been performed to answer the question of pain, and whether or not different animals experience it is kind of mystifying to me (Descartes is an eminently worthy scapegoat). While human observations can lead to evidence-based conjecture, we can never truly know. It seems like a waste of time, and pretty cruel when experimentation involves harming animals. However, research that provides evidence for pain may lead to a large-scale shift in attitude. For example, Victoria Braithwaite’s research on fish entails cruelty, which is something I don’t really care for, but could lead to less overall suffering by changing cultural attitudes. Maybe. I’m a bit skeptical. On a personal note, when I purchased Braithwaite’s book, Do Fish Feel Pain?, the person who checked me out had a good laugh at the mere idea. So there’s probably a ways to go.

Some people couldn’t care less whether nonhuman animals feel pain, but some may. For the latter group, I don’t get why one wouldn’t err on the side of caution and do what they can to mitigate causing potential pain to another organism they’re utilizing (as distinct from causing pain as a byproduct of a conflict with another organism). If it is true they do not feel pain, then the efforts to lessen pain don’t matter. But since we’ll never know, and there’s a nonzero chance that they DO experience pain that is specific to each species, maybe we should try to stop being assholes. For lobsters and other aquatic organisms whose populations are continuing to be decimated by overfishing and climate change, the least we can do is give them relatively painless deaths in the service of feeding our insatiability.


  1. says

    Back in the ‘enlightenment’ people used to subject dogs to horrible tortures, claiming that Descartes had argued that they cannot feel pain and have no souls so it doesn’t matter. It’s sad that we’re still having basically the same discussion.

    To paraphrase Mill: if the lobster tries to climb out of the hot water, it is probably trying to get out because it’s suffering. As animals that are conscious and self-aware we preference what we are; it’s difficult to come up with an argument that says we’re deserving of consideration but “lesser” creatures aren’t.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    It always bothered me that many vegetarians and vegans I knew seemed to always dwell on absolutes — as if they wouldn’t eat meat even if they were on a desert island about to starve to death. That seemed silly — but many of their other arguments were convincing. So here is the statement I came up with: “It is not ethical to cause another creature to suffer unless there is a compelling reason to do so.” Of course, that begs the question, what exactly is a compelling reason?

    Obviously, in the example above of starvation, of course that would be a compelling reason. If I was living in subsistence conditions and needed materials like hide and bone to make tools and clothing that I couldn’t make from other available materials, that would also be a compelling reason.

    But of course, neither of those conditions apply to me. So then I must ask, is “It tastes yummy” a compelling reason? Again, maybe two hundred years ago when there were few other sources of protein, it might be. But nowadays, there are many other sources of protein, and some of them are almost indistinguishable from meat in taste and texture.

    Sure, there are some social reasons why being a vegetarian sucks — sometimes people look at you strangely, or there isn’t anything to eat at a pot luck dinner. But is that a compelling reason? I concluded that it was not. And with that, I became a vegetarian.

    • says

      “It always bothered me that many vegetarians and vegans I knew seemed to always dwell on absolutes — as if they wouldn’t eat meat even if they were on a desert island about to starve to death.”

      That reminds me of a day trip my wife and I took to Greenland. One of the things we saw was a bunch of dead seals. Our guide told us how so many douchebags were aghast to the point being offensive about it. Not that any or all of them were vegetarians/vegans, but that they’re so divorced from what it would be like to live a subsistence lifestyle (not to mention an arrogant lack of cultural respect) that they were unable to understand why they had to kill those beautiful seals. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of similarities between the stereotypical militant vegan and condescending asshole atheist.

      “But nowadays, there are many other sources of protein, and some of them are almost indistinguishable from meat in taste and texture.”

      Fuck yea, Beyond Burgers!

  3. Raucous Indignation says

    It’s quite simple to dispatch a lobster and I think they even steam a bit faster. And then you don’t have to listen to them trying to escape the pot where clearly THEY ARE NOT FEELING ANY PAIN while they are LITERALLY COOKED TO DEATH BY HOT STEAM.

    Besides, how often do you get the chance to bisect a living armoured cranium?