The suffering of whom, of what?

A highly sensitive concept

While our fundamental concepts are constantly advancing, for the most part, that of suffering is in a kind of sacred tabernacle. It is extracted only to contemplate it with fear and immediately place it back in the same place. Its meaning is so repulsive that the phobia extends to the container of meaning. Untouchable concept. Whoever seeks to analyze it commits one of the most odious sacrileges. I will try to talk only about the container, hoping not to pass you any content of suffering.

The burial of the concept has a major drawback: all the others continue to evolve without it. Society is changing, but suffering, always an essential determinant, becomes an archaism. The examples of mental debacle it causes are countless. Not only in terms of health but more fundamentally in our existential works. This will be my first odious sacrilege: to be astonished that some dedicate their lives to fighting against animal suffering when so many of their congeners experience suffering that they are better able to understand. Is human torment less easy to solve? In this case, would animal activism be a comfortable version of our desire for solidarity, a laziness to make it more useful? I don’t think animal rights advocates see it that way. The real reason is indeed the erroneous use of the concept of ‘suffering’, which leads to its application in a similar way to humans and animals, or even to the planet for those who make it a tortured Gaia.

An existential sense that is too exclusive

The concept is wrong when it is looked at only by its existential side. Animal suffering ‘exists’, of course, in the same way as humans. But what experience is this? What is it made of? How does the owner feel about this suffering and how is she aware of her feelings? All of these things are entirely personal. We represent them in the other as double our own feelings. Crucial error. We know that, to tell the truth. But we dare not differentiate this suffering from our own, for fear of being accused of egocentrism. Indeed the egoist has a good game to exacerbate the difference to get rid of despair in others. The reasonable position? Recognize difference without neglecting the presence of suffering.

Self-determined pain

Presence is what is most difficult to analyze. We must not use proprietary judgment but leave to the suffering being the right to self-determine this presence. What constitutes it in her? Change of look. What is the ontology of her suffering? After all, the departure we know of it is a set of electrochemical signals carried by neural pathways. How does chemistry become physical pain and moral suffering? Where does it get these qualities from?

The problem is evident in front of a robot simulating pain. Its expression immediately awakens compassion in me. I know it’s cheating. It’s in its programming. It doesn’t feel that emotion that I pair with mine. I feel it, it is something else. I have no difficulty in reducing it to an electronic current. But why do I allow myself this impoverishment for it when I forbid it for my own emotion or for that of an animal? Easy answer: the robot did not design its own pain. The designer is its human programmer. Is this difference enough to denigrate the existence of its pain? Not. Only to refuse an ontology identical to mine. That is why I must not dwell on the existence of suffering. No more for the animal than for the robot.

Quantity and quality of pain

Quantity of pain is an easy-to-understand concept. More sensory excitement = more pain. Quantity is existential. It is enough to describe itself. While quality is a complex notion. Quality appears for something that observes it. Is this thing directly connected to the constitutive pain or does it represent it?

If it is connected, what does it add to the pain to observe it? What concepts are entangled in it, coming from morality, customs, self-image, the hoped-for destiny? In other words, how does the one who suffers observe herself suffering? If the pain is not connected, what does the observer lend it, coming from her own identity? Can a human automatically attribute her morals, her image, her hopes, to a congener? To an animal?

The quality of suffering is a complex construct made by a complex brain. We give the same name to this sensation from one mind to another, keeping only its quantitative variation, small or large, while the quality is not the same. It is immediately very foreign from one human brain to another. Sensory signals can be considered identical; it is already an approximation, our genetics being dissimilar. But the conscious interpretation of signals, which has become ‘suffering’, is as diverse as our personalities.

Look at the variety of interpretations in yourself

From the insect bite to the pure moral suffering of lacking the attention of a loved one. In another person the bite can trigger a panic out of proportion to yours. Or a rougher person will make fun of your disappointed loves. Tagging your emotions on our congeners is an adventure. What map do we have to try it in animals? None.

But we guess that in the absence of society, morality, self-image, hopes, in refined forms, the animal experiences something similar to our physical pain but not the interpretations we make of it. Its are sketchy. It is not that its intelligence is negligible. It overlaps with or even exceeds ours in certain specialized mental functions. But it takes a society and a culture to compound suffering. Isolation makes one fatalistic in one’s relationship with the world. It is the presence of others that shows the possibility of a different destiny and awakens the suffering of not borrowing it.

The pet

The argument can be used to the credit of the animal, pointing to the particular situation of the domestic companion. Cooperating closely with its master and deifying her, it hopes for her assistance more than the wild beast. Deficiency is a more intense suffering. We have the intuition that the transfer of sensitivity is more justified in this case and it is true. Suffering is reinforced by the closeness of the bonds that are broken, in animals as in humans.

Do you then realize the suffering you inflict on your old PC by tipping it for obsolescence, after having cherished it so much, palpated, kept with you for years? Fortunately it is easy to terminate cleanly and quickly, by unplugging its socket.

But what will happen when, in order to make it a better servant, we teach it to observe and repair itself? Suffering will soon be closer to humans in our digital assistants than in animals trapped in the extreme slowness of natural evolution.

Useless suffering

Let us conclude with one rule: avoid useless suffering. Useless? So there is useful suffering? Absolutely. On each level of its interpretation. Pain is valuable information. At least as long as you do not become your pain. So is suffering. It starts as soon as the world separates from us, at birth. It pushes to recast itself, to shape it so that it welcomes us again. Without suffering, no intention. Happiness remains bland, routine. The greatest joys are built on past sufferings. Even in animals. The dog I saw manifesting the greatest joie de vivre suffered abuse before being adopted by a loving family.


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