How do you really assess animal suffering?

Abstract: Between the sterile positions of the denigration of animal suffering and the human-animal analogism, the truth is that the experience of suffering is strictly individual and connoted “atrocious” according to moral rather than physical criteria. Exacerbated animal suffering is our neglected human suffering.

Pain sensors are universal, not what feels them

How do you judge animal suffering when everyone agrees that only beings experiencing their own suffering can make that kind of judgment? Each inner world is indeed unique, for the animal as for the human. Only in this world can suffering be experienced, represented, evaluated. Any other interpretation is only a matter of analogy between different universes. The analogy becomes crude or even stupid when the universes are radically foreign because the perceptions are processed by nervous systems at very distant evolutionary stages.

The difficulty in finding answers paradoxically tends to make them extremist rather than nuanced. On the one hand, there are the ontologists, whom we no longer hear much today, but who include famous philosophers, initiators of rationalism. Descartes and Malebranche thought of animals as animated machines, incapable of feeling. It was nonsense for them to make the equivalence between an animal cry and a human complaint, simply because the sounds are alike.

They are not entirely wrong. Have you ever heard the cry of the young barn? It makes you think of a baby being slaughtered in the middle of the night, and jumping on your heels the first time you hear it, while the baby bird is only gently asking for its food from the mother who has gone hunting.

The animal mirror of the human reflects… the human

Today it is the “sensitives” who have become omnipresent. The mooing of cows burning alive on a Texas farm is shaking up social media. Animal rights advocates would like to raise them to a level far above that of a majority of contemporary humans. Extreme position contrary to the ontologists. Because the signs of pain are similar in humans and animals, the experiences of suffering are also made equivalent. The “black box” that separates perceptions and the conscious processing space is ignored. Yet it is from this that the entire individual experience of suffering comes.

Between the extremes, Sébastien Moro goes “to the heart of animal emotions and perceptions” in his comic strip ‘Les cerveaux de la ferme’ (in french only). It exhaustively exposes the ontology of animal mental functions, much more sophisticated than we imagined until recently. However, these discoveries should not be made the confirmation of the ‘sensitivist’ bastion on the pretext that they bring animals closer to humans. They only discredit the reductive ontologist bastion. The human is connected to his evolutionary origin. The peculiarities of their mind are no longer sanctuary as in past centuries. Unfortunately, ethological discoveries do not lead to any progress on the problem of consciousness experienced by the activation of mental functions.

By bringing animal sensation back to one’s own, we simplify… humanity

To understand how hasty and unrealistic the function=experience simplification is, one must first realize the incredible diversity of human experiences of pain. While our brains are all built on the same functional anatomy, the processing of painful perceptions results in dramatically different, even opposite experiences. People never prepared for this experience experience it very badly —Cf the child vaccinated without warning, supposedly as indifferent as an adult to this benign pain. Other people have a mental construct that makes them extremely sensitive to all of their sensory cues, to the point that they are experienced as painful even though they remain biologically within normal limits —fibromyalgia, high emotional potential, hyperesthesia.

Conversely, some people are almost insensitive to pain, spontaneously or after training. Suffering is unknown to them, or not very embarrassing, in circumstances that would make hypersensitive people scream and beg. How could each other agree to evaluate their experiences? Let us see how unrealistic it is to make these personal worlds equivalent, even though they are anatomically identical. It even becomes aberrant when the nervous systems have remote degrees of sophistication, designed for contexts completely foreign to human society. It must be kept in mind that within the unique species that is ours, the culture already leads to very different treatments of suffering from one region to another, and this regardless of the emotional intelligence individual.

Synthesis in a universal philosophical language

Synthesis: It is sterile to reduce suffering to exchanges between neurons of perception, as ontologists do, which consists in denying the proven experience. It is equally sterile to make the analogy between human experiences, and even more inter-species. In the terminology of the UniPhiM (Universal Philosophical Method), this means limiting oneself to looking upwards (how things are constituted) or downwards (how things are experienced), without understanding that these looks must coincide. The possible meeting, here, is between the extreme positions of the ontologists and the “sensitives”. Every animal, human or otherwise, experiences things in its own unique, internal way, and any external judgment is at best a rough analogy.

18,000 burned cows are 18,000 different tortures and not a gigantic torture

Of the cows that died in the Texas fire, some suffered far more excruciatingly than others, around an “average” cow’s experience of death, which therefore has no individual significance. It has meaning only for the one who interprets and compares with her own tolerance for suffering. The hypersensitive will exacerbate the feeling by bringing it closer to her in such circumstances, because this experience has an exceptional celebrity in her mental universe, even though it has never been experienced before. The insensitive will dismiss this suffering disdainfully, saying that if she, being of evolved consciousness, is able to endure it, a more rugged animal feels it even less crudely.

Hypersensitive and insensitive, both are seriously mistaken, because they make analogies between qualitatively different worlds, impossible to compare objectively. It is not even possible to argue that they frame the truth, because two analogies do not capture the essence of something. The only way to know someone’s suffering is to ask them, and even then it is knowledge and not shared experience, because language is a crude medium for describing a feeling.

Physical pain and moral suffering, communicating vessels that remain separate

The cry of a wounded animal is such a crude intermediary that it becomes unusable. It is already difficult to form a judgment of human suffering expressed by language. Some suffer atrociously but have no words. Others spout pages of flowery language about trivial annoyance. So how can we compare our impression to that of an animal of which we only hear the primal cry, so brief that we understand nothing. Suffering is not simple in the scale of sensations, it is nociceptive pain that is simple. Suffering is complex. The more the nervous system is sophisticated, integrating an incredibly rich context, the more the suffering is also rich in all these criteria, which makes it appalling, which transforms a simple physical pain into a moral stab.

Even intense, physical pain is bearable when the context is morally acceptable. Think of this Siberian surgeon who operated on himself for appendicitis because no colleague was pointing his nose within 1000 kms around. When the intensity becomes unbearable, fainting extinguishes this signal, which has become useless. Physiology works well. What works badly, more often, is human society, with its moral setbacks, its unbearable injustices. When we fail to solve them, we transpose them to animals. We attribute to them social relations and sensations identical to ours. We find our suffering in theirs, because we fail to have ours recognized. Exacerbated animal suffering is neglected human suffering.


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