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.


  1. kural says


    I am surprised that Dennett is resorting to the self same ideas such as consciousness, self, and such like that he otherwise spends so much time on refuting their reality. What we call the mind or consciousness can be mapped on to specific brain states. Animals either have these brain states or don’t. Why should even consider non-empirical entities such as consciousness?

    I am puzzled that I enjoy flesh, fish, and fowl although the memory of the only time I saw a goat being killed continues to haunt me.

  2. Cindy says

    I think this is the first time I’ve read your blog and really not understood what you’re saying. How does brain complexity enter into this argument? There’s an argument about animals qualitatively feeling the same kinds of pain as humans, and cautioning that we don’t really know what animals feel and listing why qualitative differences in what humans or animals can do as important differences.

    But I personally have 3 orders of magnitude more neurons than a cat, 4 more than a mouse, 7 more than an ant, and 9 more than a C. elegans. Obviously neuron count isn’t the whole story, since I believe we should save a human life before 10 million ants. So being arranged in more complex circuits, as opposed to sitting unconnected firing at random in a vat makes neurons merit more ethical treatment. But in Singer’s argument, something must merit different treatment among more complicated brains, or else I become crippled in my inability to walk down a sidewalk without smushing bugs.

    So in what circumstance should say, a human and a mouse have “equal consideration of interests” regarding pain? Obviously, in any circumstance the vast majority of people believe that the simple fact that the mouse can experience pain should be taken into consideration whenever a decision has to be made. But it sounds like you’re arguing that the qualitative similarity of that interest means that we should take it into account in an “equal” way. So, if you have a train on the tracks heading towards a person (with a fully functional brain) or a mouse or a cat, what is unequal about them that merits the decision to flip a switch and go with the human?
    I really feel like I’m misunderstanding something. Dawkins raised the same argument about the animals rights movement being similar to the abolitionist movement, which seems very out of place since he’s also written a giant volume about evolution which is the fruit of over a hundred years of animal research, so I’m guessing he shares my “meat=lots of animals and suffering=bad”, and “medical research=few animals suffering far less=good” reasoning. But you’d think he’d mention it. (In either book really.) We also probably won’t have a Children’s Liberation movement any time soon, since a four year old is actually incapable of handling the same rights and responsibilities as an adult. Whereas an African slave, or female suffragette can reach precisely the same levels of achievement and handle the same responsibilities as a white male adult so I always find this comparison weird.

  3. kongming says

    I do not see pain avoidance as being a useful measure of whether or not I choose to kill and eat members of a species.

    Pain avoidance is a remarkably simple behavior. For one thing, there are insects that will struggle to avoid things that are damaging them, despite having very simple nervous systems and lacking complex intelligence. Few would argue that insects possess anything similar to a self-aware stream of consciousness the likes of which humans do. (Full disclosure: the author of this comment is a human.) Going one step further, we have the capacity right now to construct a “soft” robot that could sense damage to itself and try very assiduously to get away from anything damaging it.

    To take the opposite case, some relatively intelligent animals do not try to avoid pain as much as one might expect them to. One can watch nature documentaries to see some remarkable examples of animals playing dead while being bitten by a predator in the hopes of escaping if given the chance. Pain avoidance is simply a programmed reaction that improves evolutionary viability in certain circumstances, depending upon what types of predators a creature must deal with.

    One can see a similar case with which animals give displays that humans easily identify and empathize with as suffering when in pain. Animals that cannot expect assistance from other members of their species do not make such displays, even if relatively intelligent. The behavior is a strategic one with a practical purpose.

    If I may propose an alternative criterion on which to decide whether or not to eat members of a species, I would opt for intelligence in general, and for self-awareness in particular. The behavior of lobsters is very simple, and their “consciousness” resembles a simple set of algorithms as much as it does human consciousness. I thus have no qualms with killing lobsters for food. On the other hand, in addition to being highly intelligent, chimpanzees display some signs of having a rudimentary awareness of their own existence in the third person; for example, a chimpanzee seeing something on its face in a reflection will remove the offending item from its face. As such, I would not kill a chimpanzee for food unless necessary to my survival, and I would only kill a chimpanzee in the name of research if it had significant, direct practical applications.

    In the previous blog entry (food-4), the use of intelligence as a criterion is dismissed on the grounds of the fact that most humans do not eat profoundly mentally retarded humans. While I grant that the average chimpanzee is more intelligent and self-aware than some severely brain damaged humans, I object to this objection on two grounds.

    First, whether or not current behavior is consistent with a possible ethical principle is immaterial to whether or not that principle itself is consistent. Agreement with current behavior is a practical consideration and not an ethical one; it would seem sensible to start with the ethical determination and then try to apply it. If the purpose of ethics were to pat oneself on the back for what we are already doing, then there would seem little point in bothering. (On a related note, I do consider it appropriate to criticize the inconsistency of strict vegetarians who kill or enlist others to kill pests in their own homes. They are failing to practically apply their own ethical principle.)

    More importantly, there is another consideration regarding the consumption of the profoundly retarded. In the interest of humans maintaining a productive and harmonious society, and in the interest of enjoying the full depth of social experiences open to humans, it is necessary for humans to be able to relate to and empathize with other humans deeply. Killing and eating other living people would make the cultivation of such empathy difficult, and so I do not kill other humans for food. I do not require strong empathy with lobsters, however, and my associations with lobsters are sufficiently separate from my associations with humans that killing lobsters does not interfere with my empathy for humans.

  4. says

    Cindy and kongming,

    The reason that you may not be able to perceive what I am driving at is that unlike in most of my posts, I am not quite sure what my own position is or should be, and so am exploring the topic, “thinking out loud” as it were.

    At most, I have the vague sense that I should act in such ways that minimize the harm to others. But how it plays out in actual situations, as you both point out, can be difficult to determine.

    I am trying to present as fairly as I can the various arguments even though I am not completely convinced by them. I hope that someone who is truly committed to the animal rights cause and has thought about it a lot more than I have will chime in to address some of your concerns.

  5. A Nonny Mouse says

    Banality ahead.

    I am confused as to what this has to do with evolution and the biological view that all currently living species are at an equal stage of development. If it did, wouldn’t that mean that we shouldn’t kill fruits & vegetables to eat as well?

    This appears to me correctly discussed as a moral debate.

    Regardless, this is an interesting concept, and I thank you for reviewing some of the arguments about it. Though I largely view them as specious for my personal life, I cannot convince myself they are incorrect.

  6. says


    You are right that some lines have to be drawn to determine what we can eat and this issue is addressed later in the series.

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