Sentience and Suffering

Do animals feel suffering – emotional pain, depression, fear – in the same way that humans do? And if so, what does that mean for us?

This conversation topic, of course, originates from a lot of the vegan moral philosophy that has occurred for quite a few decades now. Personally, I don’t really care too much about the eating thing – I just eat animals because they taste good – BUT I think there are plenty of interesting quandaries to consider here outside of any vegan v. meat-eater debate, and that’s why I’ve decided to write about it.

As to the first part of the first question I post in the intro, the answer appears to be unequivocally yes. And of course, it’s understandable – suffering as an emotion exists for evolutionary purposes. Fear makes us take fewer survival risks, depression is the flight in fight-or-flight, emotional pain gives us an incentive to avoid pain, etc. etc. But the second part begins to jinx things up: in the same way that humans do.

Well, that’s hard to say. First of all, the thing that separates humans from other animals is level of abstraction. So animals might feel suffering if they’re maltreated, but they aren’t going to do any uniquely strange human behaviors like watching Come and See so they can voluntarily give themselves a good deal of suffering. Well, the reason humans do that is because we can introspect on our emotions and abstract them out to a less real, more philosophical equivalent. We can define and quantify suffering – animals cannot. In fact, my question at the beginning of the article is a uniquely strange human question. Animals can feel pain but they can’t understand it.

That can be hard for us to get, since understanding things is of course a core part of our DNA. Let me hit at this from another angle, to hopefully make it easier to digest. You’ll notice of course that humans and animals both get physical illness. Duh. But here’s something that’s interesting: animals don’t get mental illness.

Sure, there are some weird caveats here. Dogs can get PTSD, but only if they were maltreated heavily in the past. Bugs can go insane, but only if a parasite invades their skull. These are more biological mental illnesses than, well, mental mental illnesses. On the other hand, you don’t see a cat that just gets depressed, or a crab suffering a midlife crisis, or a bird that is suicidal (well… in a traditional sense). 

“But wait!”, I hear you say. “You literally just said all these things animals felt. You literally said that animals get depression, but now you’re saying there’s no such thing as a depressed cat? What gives?”. Well, pay closer attention to the words at play. I said that depression is a natural evolutionary response in fight-or-flight – but fight-or-flight only occurs during an attack! If a cat isn’t under active assault, is there any reason for it to be depressed? As far as we know from our body of research, most likely not. 

The lesson here is that other animals think of things in the binary. When they feel pain by X, they understand that X is bad – but they don’t really stop to consider why. When humans feel pain by X, we always consider why. This is why we have long-term anxiety over things and we don’t – we think about future consequences, they live (mostly) happily in the present.

So if you don’t want to eat meat because you’re afraid it will make animals feel bad, then you’re right – it does. But if you dive deeper into the essence of the question, you can begin to understand what truly makes us human.

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