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Do Animals Feel Pain?

  • Peter Harrison (a1)


In an oft-quoted passage from The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Jeremy Bentham addresses the issue of our treatment of animals with the following words: ‘the question is not, Can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ The point is well taken, for surely if animals suffer, they are legitimate objects of our moral concern. It is curious therefore, given the current interest in the moral status of animals, that Bentham's question has been assumed to be merely rhetorical. No-one has seriously examined the claim, central to arguments for animal liberation and animal rights, that animals actually feel pain. Peter Singer's Animal Liberation is perhaps typical in this regard. His treatment of the issue covers a scant seven pages, after which he summarily announces that ‘there are no good reasons, scientific or philosophical, for denying that animals feel pain’. In this paper I shall suggest that the issue of animal pain is not so easily dispensed with, and that the evidence brought forward to demonstrate that animals feel pain is far from conclusive.



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1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 310f. n. 1 (XVII, 1, iv).

2 Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation (London: Cape, 1976), 16.

3 Thus Dennis and Melzack: ‘The appropriate behavioural response to overt damage may be inactivity; pain arising from trauma should presumably promote such behaviour. However, the appropriate behavioural response to threat may be vigorous activity; pain arising from threat should therefore promote this sort of activity. Thus the overt expression of pain sensation may actually be a combination of inherently contradictory processes and behavioural tendencies.’ Dennis, S. and Melzack, R., ‘Perspectives on Phylogenetic Evolution of Pain Expression’, Animal Pain: Perception and Alleviation, Kitchell, R. L. and Erickson, H. H. (eds), (Bethesda: American Physiological Society, 1983), 155.

4 See, e.g., Melzack, Ronald, The Puzzle of Pain (Ringwood: Penguin, 1973) 93103, 162f.

5 Thus Theodore Barber reports of individuals chronically insensitive to pain that for most, if not all, ‘no distinct localized damage exists in the central nervous system’. ‘Toward a Theory of Pain’, Psychological Bulletin 56 (1959), 443. It is true that Barber cites no evidence from autopsies, and that more sophisticated scanning apparatus has been developed since this publication, but the fact that this insensitivity to pain can be reversed without surgical intervention would support Barber's observation.

6 See Paterson, David's article of the same name in World Medicine 3 05 1980, 2124. Also see Nelkin, Norton, ‘Pains and Pain Sensations’, The Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986), 129148.

7 On ‘Hindsight’ see Weisenkrantz, Larry, ‘Varieties of Residual Experience’, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 32 (1980), 365386; Natsoulas, Thomas, ‘Conscious Perception and the Paradox of “Blindsight”’, in Aspects of Consciousness, III, Underwood, Geoffrey (ed.), (London: Academic Press, 1982), 79109.

8 Weisenkrantz, Larry, ‘Trying to Bridge some Neurophysiological gaps between Monkey and Man’, British Journal of Psychology 68 (1977), 431435.

9 On the possibility of ‘non-conscious experience’, see Carruthers, Peter, ‘Brute Experience’, The Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989), 258269.

10 This is also suggested by Carruthers, ibid., 266–269.

11 The Philosophical Review 83 (1974), 435450.

12 Ibid., 442.

13 Colin McGinn has made a similar point from a different perspective. He argues that the mystery of our mental life arises out of the fact that we simply do not possess the cognitive faculties necessary to solve the mind-body problem. ‘Cognitive closure’ prevents our ever having access to that vital natural link which presumably exists between brain states and conscious states. See McGinn, Colin, ‘Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?’, Mind 98 (1989), 349366.

14 On congenital insensitivity to pain see Melzack, , The Puzzle of Pain, 15f.

15 McFarland, David, ‘Pain’, The Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour, McFarland, David (ed.), (Oxford University Press, 1981), 439.

16 Quoted in Boakes, Robert, From Darwin to Behaviourism (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 40. This dictum is actually a version of the Aristotelian principle, ‘Nature does nothing in vain’, couched in evolutionary terms.

17 Meditations II.

18 Descartes' clearest explanation of the matter comes in a letter to the English Platonist, Henry More. See Descartes, , Philosophical Letters, Kenny, Anthony (ed.), (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 243245.

19 It may seem that Morgan and Descartes are making the same point, but they are not. Morgan's canon was virtually a biological application of the second law of thermodynamics, asserting that a complex biological system would not evolve if a simpler one could perform the same function. Of course, in applying this canon to ‘psychical’ functions, Morgan seems to have committed himself to the view that more complex mental states require a more complex physical apparatus.

20 Thus Descartes admitted in his letter to More that his thesis about animals was only probable. Philosophical Letters, 244.

21 Quoted in Weisenkrantz, Larry, ‘Neurophysiology and the Nature of Consciousness’, Mindwaves, Blakemore, C. and Greenfield, S. (eds), (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 309.

22 The terms ‘intentional stance’ and ‘design stance’ are D. C. Dennett's. See his Brainstorms (Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1978), 322.

23 Meditation IV (HR I, 192) my emphasis. Cf. Norton Nelkin, who states that pain is an attitude not a sensation. ‘Pains and Pain Sensations’, 148.

24 See Milgram, Stanley, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (London: Tavistock, 1974).

25 Summa theologiae, 1a, 2ae. 102, 6.

Do Animals Feel Pain?

  • Peter Harrison (a1)


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