The Journal of Ethics

, 15:425 | Cite as

Animal Pain: What It is and Why It Matters



The basis of having a direct moral obligation to an entity is that what we do to that entity matters to it. The ability to experience pain is a sufficient condition for a being to be morally considerable. But the ability to feel pain is not a necessary condition for moral considerability. Organisms could have possibly evolved so as to be motivated to flee danger or injury or to eat or drink not by pain, but by “pangs of pleasure” that increase as one fills the relevant need or escapes the harm. In such a world, “mattering” would be positive, not negative, but would still be based in sentience and awareness. In our world, however, the “mattering” necessary to survival is negative—injuries and unfulfilled needs ramify in pain. But physical pain is by no means the only morally relevant mattering—fear, anxiety, loneliness, grief, certainly do not equate to varieties of physical pain, but are surely forms of “mattering.” An adequate morality towards animals would include a full range of possible matterings unique to each kind of animal, what I, following Aristotle, call “telos”. Sometimes not meeting other aspects of animal nature matter more to the animal than does physical pain. “Negative mattering” means all actions or events that harm animals—from frightening an animal to removing its young unnaturally early, to keeping it so it is unable to move or socialize. Physical pain is perhaps the paradigmatic case of “negative mattering”, but only constitutes a small part of what the concept covers. “Positive mattering” would of course encompass all states that are positive for the animal. An adequate ethic for animals takes cognizance of both kinds. The question arises as to how animals value death as compared with pain. Human cognition is such that it can value long-term future goals and endure short-run negative experiences for the sake of achieving them. In the case of animals, however, there is no evidence, either empirical or conceptual, that they have the capability to weigh future benefits or possibilities against current misery. We have no reason to believe that an animal can grasp the notion of extended life, let alone choose to trade current suffering for it. Pain may well be worse for animals than for humans, as they cannot rationalize its acceptance by appeal to future life without pain. How can we know that animals experience all or any of the negative or positive states we have enumerated above? The notion that we needed to be agnostic or downright atheistic about animal mentation, including pain, because we could not verify it through experience, became a mainstay of what I have called “scientific ideology”, the uncriticized dogma taught to young scientists through most of the 20th century despite its patent ignoring of Darwinian phylogenetic continuity. Together with the equally pernicious notion that science is “value-free”, and thus has no truck with ethics, this provided the complete justification for hurting animals in science without providing any pain control. This ideology could only be overthrown by federal law. Ordinary common sense throughout history, in contradistinction to scientific ideology, never denied that animals felt pain. Where, then, does the denial of pain and other forms of mattering come from if it is inimical to common sense? It came from the creation of philosophical systems hostile to common sense and salubrious to a scientific, non-commonsensical world view. Reasons for rejecting this philosophical position are detailed. In the end, then, there are no sound reasons for rejecting knowledge of animal pain and other forms of both negative and positive mattering in animals. Once that hurdle is cleared, science must work assiduously to classify, understand, and mitigate all instances of negative mattering occasioned in animals by human use, as well as to understand and maximize all modes of positive mattering.


Animal pain Animal distress Animal happiness Negative mattering Positive mattering Scientific ideology 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA

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