There are many nonhuman animals who can feel pleasure and pain. This is because, like humans, they are able to have experiences. Many experiences are neutral, that is, they are not positive or negative, as when we see something we don’t particularly like or dislike. However, there are other experiences that are not neutral, but rather are positive or negative. They can differ greatly; for instance, they can be experiences of sensations, such as tastes, sounds, or smells we like or dislike. A special instance of this has to do with physical sensations commonly related to effects on our tissues, such as pain or physical pleasures. In addition, we have all the experiences that are not related to the senses, but rather to thoughts and emotions, such as joy, fear, distress, and satisfaction.
All these experiences are very different, yet we can group them together and distinguish between the positive and negative ones. We can do this because, diverse as they are, all these experiences have in common something very simple that we have already seen: they affect us in ways that are good or bad for us.
Broadly speaking, positive experiences can be referred to as “pleasures”, while negative experiences can be called “suffering.” We can use this terminology if we remember that it isn’t supposed to mean only good and bad physical sensations, but rather all kinds of positive and negative experiences.
Suffering is bad by definition even when it leads to something positive
By definition, then, if it is in some sense bad for someone to have a certain experience, then that experience is a negative one. And it is the same with positive experiences.
Of course, one can have a negative experience, such as a pain, that may be good in some instrumental way. For instance, it may help to feel the pain of an injury so that it can be addressed. However, if it is a negative experience at all, it must be because it also affects the one who has it in some negative way. In fact, pains are instrumentally good in the way mentioned above precisely because they are unpleasant (if they weren’t, we might not bother to take care of the injury).
The pain of a burn from a stove is useful because it causes a person to automatically withdraw their hand from the danger. Although the pain itself is negative, the outcome is positive and in the person’s best interest. Pain is still intrinsically bad, but it can be instrumentally good because it motivates someone to get out of a situation that is bad for them.
The same happens with positive experiences. It may be that something pleasant is also bad in some way. For instance, a tasty meal may be unhealthy because the ingredients are unhealthy or because it may contribute to overeating. The positive aspect, its tastiness, can tempt us to overeat, even if we know that overeating is instrumentally bad for us.
So we see that there can be something good about a negative experience if it prevents other negative experiences or promotes additional positive experiences. There can also be something bad about positive experiences if they lead to bad experiences or reduce the prospect of more positive experiences.
The significance of all types of suffering
Some people believe that in order to experience real suffering an individual must be human. Yet this belief has no real basis. There is no evidence and no sound arguments to deny that there are many nonhuman animals who suffer just as humans do; all that we have discussed above applies to nonhuman animals just as it does to humans. There is an argument that claims that human suffering is the only significant kind, or at least that it’s much more significant than the suffering of other animals, because it involves psychological suffering. Those who defend this argument assume that human psychological suffering is much more important than the physical pain that nonhuman animals suffer.
But is that really true? Does the psychological element of pain and suffering make it more significant for humans than for other animals? We must first note that many nonhuman animals are capable of having positive and negative emotions, and pleasant or unpleasant thoughts. That is, they are capable of psychological enjoyment and suffering. However, this is not the main reason why the argument fails. The main reason to reject the argument that human pain and suffering is more significant than nonhuman animal suffering rests on something we can all see within ourselves. That is, we don’t value our psychological experiences more than our physical experiences. Why would it be different for how nonhuman animals experience things? Terrible physical torture isn’t more bearable than grief, distress, or fear (just as physical pleasures such as eating, having sex, and dancing aren’t less nice than more psychological or intellectual pleasures). Therefore, nonhuman animal suffering must be taken into account, just as we would like our own sufferings to be taken into account.
Dawkins, M. S. (1980) Animal suffering: The science of animal welfare, London: Chapman and Hall.
DeGrazia, D. & Rowan, A. (1991) “Pain, suffering, and anxiety in animals and humans”, Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 12, pp. 193-211.
Edelman, D. B.; Baards, B. J. & Seth, A. K. (2005) “Identifying hallmarks of consciousness in non-mammalian species”, Consciousness and Cognition, 14, pp. 169-187.
Elwood, R. W. (2011) “Pain and suffering in invertebrates?”, Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources Journal, 52, pp. 175-184.
Fossat, P.; Bacqué-Cazenave, J.; de Deuerwaerdère, P.; Delbecque, J.-P. & Cattaert, D. (2014) “Anxiety-like behavior in crayfish is controlled by serotonin”, Science, 13, pp. 1293-1297.
Gentle, M. J. (1992) “Pain in birds”, Animal Welfare, 1, pp. 235-247.
Seth, A. K.; Baars, B. J. & Edelman, D. B. (2005) “Criteria for consciousness in humans and other mammals”, Consciousness and Cognition, 14, pp. 119-139.
Smith, J. A. (1991) “A question of pain in invertebrates”, Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources Journal, 33, pp. 25-31 [accessed on 25 december 2013].
Sneddon, L. U. (2009) “Pain and distress in fish”, Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources Journal Journal, 50, pp. 338-342 [accessed on 12 January 2014].
Weary, D. M.; Niel, L.; Flower, F. C. & Fraser, D. (2006) “Identifying and preventing pain in animals”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100, pp. 64-76.