Pain And Suffering In The Animal World

Published 06 Mar 2017

Table of content


William Buckland, who composed one of the nine Bridgewater Treatises, argues the most critical issue of natural science: if God is compassionate and his creation demonstrates his “authority, insight and righteousness,” then for what reason, pain, suffering, and seemingly pointless cruelty surround us in the animal world? In the past, efforts at refinement were focused primarily on reducing animal pain and suffering. Recent legislation reflects a broader view of refinement as the common welfare of the animals. The Laboratory Animal Welfare Act, as amended in 1985 in Public Law 99-198, and the revised 1991 regulations stress to train the animal-care personnel for supplying soothe, better husbandry and housing, and gentle handling. They require environmental enrichment for primates. Engineering standards specify certain cage size and structure requirements for animal well-being. Performance standards focus on the functional and mental state of the animals, as indicated by their behavioral repertoires and stress indicators.

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Understanding the place of cognition in animals relates to their moral standing and the ways in which humans might best conduct themselves in relationship to them. In one commonly held point of view, it is supposed that provided an entity does not consider itself as an individual or able to feel and reflect on its experiences such as pain and suffering, what have happened to it does not matter ethically. Therefore, an understanding of the cognitive abilities of animals helps to inform the arguments used to justify either including or excluding animals from the protection offered by moral standing.

The strongest reason for the return of talk about animal mind has been moral. Since the 1960s, society has grown increasingly concerned about animal treatment in the areas of scientific research, agriculture, and toxicity testing, and with that concern has come a social emphasis on issues of animal pain, suffering, fear, loneliness, boredom and anxiety, which has in turn forced science to reckon with these notions. For example, federal law passed in 1985 compels researchers to control “animal pain and distress.” Researchers have thus been led to bring ordinary common sense about animal thought and feeling into science. New approaches in fields like cognitive ethology and studies in primate language and animal deception are also leading science back to the Darwinian approach to animal mind and to the use of ordinary common sense.

In 1985, a modification to the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act was included in the Farm Bill and signed into law. This modification was then known as the Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals Act (Public Law 99-189). It requests researchers, involved in biomedical research on animals, to make an attempt to lessen pain and distress that animals face during the test. Additionally, the researchers are requested to check the availability of substitute methods. Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC) in 1986 was set up after this modification.

Behaviorism dominated American psychology for some 50 years (from the 1920s through the 1970s) and spread to many other countries. Behaviorism sent a powerful note to the scientific community that considering any mental states of animals, such as consciousness and feelings, is unscientific and therefore inappropriate. This message was accepted by a number of biomedical and other researchers practicing animal research because it allowed them to take the view that animals were not conscious or did not experience pain or suffering. The influence of behaviorism has decreased because of growing interest in human and nonhuman animal cognition (thinking and consciousness), which caused the growth of the domain of cognitive ethology, the study of animal minds.

Chimpanzees can suffer physical and emotional pain similar to humans, and often for the same reasons. (Some have argued that human awareness of chimpanzees’ ability to know and experience sentiments like humans and humans’ ability to empathize with them in their suffering means that humans have a duty to take care of them with compassion and respect.)
Despite the dismantling of the great hierarchical sequel of being, in our practices and ideas we continue to uphold a radical break between vertebrates and invertebrates. We resist the idea, for example, that insects may feel pain or suffering. More deeply, we deny that insects lead a life that they experience from their perspective. Yet the impersonal and flawless reasoning of the evolutionary perspective would teach us that a discontinuous break between vertebrates and invertebrates is arbitrary and anthropocentric.

Animal rights philosophers also make the further point that most of our killing of animals is avoidable. Killing animals for sport is unnecessary. Most people can live healthy, happy lives without wearing fur or eating meat. Many of the animals killed in education and research are sacrificed for trivial information. Consequently, these philosophers contend that even if the killing of animals lacks the moral dimensions of killing humans, the pain we impose on animals when we slaughter them is unnecessary, and as a result, our routine killing of great numbers of animals is morally objectionable.

Other animal rights philosophers emphasize that even if animals cannot value life itself or form long-range plans, killing them is ordinarily morally objectionable, even if it is done painlessly. When animals are slaughtered, they experience the loss for the rest of their lives. This lack makes killing animals morally disagreeable independent of the issue of pain suffered during the process of killing.

Some animal rights advocates also question the assumption that animals cannot understand and fear death itself. It is difficult to tell whether an animal threatened with death fears death or the pain that ordinarily accompanies dying. Many animal rights advocates also question the assumption that animals cannot form long-range plans. They claim that even if animals cannot formulate plans that are as detailed and long term as human plans, they are not without plans altogether. Birds building nests, beavers building dams, squirrels storing nuts, and dogs waiting for their human companions to arrive home at the expected time seem to be examples of animal planning. If these animal rights advocates are correct, the reasons cited for the common difference in the moral significance of killing animals and killing humans are more a issue of level than a diversity in kind, i.e., a difference based on something humans have but animals lack.


The issue of how humans should treat in relation to non-human animals has been widely discussed by contemporary philosophers. (Singer, 1990) Mostly, this discussion is centered on the issue of what behavior we humans should have towards animals. The issue is frequently raised as if we are the right to use animals for our own intentions or whether we have a responsibility of hospitality for them, which includes what we humans like to call humanitarian attitude, as well as a level of respect for their home. The answer may depend to some degree on whether we pursue Cartesian dualism and consider animals as machines, or whether we see them as less significant but to some extent creatures similar to humans, occupying a place in the great variety of living beings, and able of having aims and senses we can understand and with which we can empathize.


  • Cigman Ruth (1981) Death, Misfortune, and Species Inequality, Philosophy and Public Affairs 10: 47-64
  • Frey R. G., (1983) Rights, Killing, and Suffering (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)
  • Singer, P. (1990) Animal Rights, 2nd edn., first published in 1975 (New York, Random House).
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