Sunday, 6 November 2011

If no one minds, does animal 'suffering' matter?

Someone somewhere must have done some work on this one, but I was discussing the meaning of animal suffering yesterday and the suggestion came up that if there was no-one (e.g. ourselves) to feel disturbed by that suffering it would, by definition, not be a ‘problem’.
The thought experiment this involves is a little tricky, since it involves thinking about a situation where there is no thought. However, that is essentially a key component of the view of the universe taken by many armchair philosophers today. (Is there any other kind of philosopher?)
The universe, on the popular model, is posited to be impersonal in its origins and workings. Cognitive and contemplative persons turn up as a result of those workings, but they turn up some way down the track. Indeed, since such persons are a relatively recent arrival (even assuming there are other persons on other planets, if life follows the same pattern as on our own, they are a late, not early ,development), for much of planetary history we have a universe (or at least worlds) where there literally is no one to think about anything.
Now extend the experiment just a little further, to a situation where persons not only haven’t emerged, but never emerge. (This must, incidentally, also be the only universe for the sake of the experiment, since in a multiverse scenario you could have persons in other universes worrying about this one.)
In the absolute (i.e. ‘eternal’) absence of any person ever, such that nothing and no one ever actually exists to give a thought to the behaviour of animals, is there still a real ‘problem of animal suffering’?
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  1. That is of course, to assume that animals cannot/do not think.
    While the only evidence that they can and do think is anecdotal, why should we believe they do not.
    Presumably, if we were not here, the suffering would be of a different nature, since much of that which animals suffer is inflicted by humans.

  2. Thanks Ray. I think what your reply shows is that I should lose two marks for my headline which used the word 'suffering' where it should have had 'pain' (also in inverted commas).

    It all depends what is meant by 'think'. I have tried to get at this through using the phrase "cognitive and contemplative", but I'm not sure this quite does the job.

    I suggested yesterday, for example, that it is hard to credit ants with 'thinking' in this sense. I doubt there is any cognition ("I am an ant") or contemplation ("This is the meaning of anthood in relation to itself and other things") going on in central nervous system of ants.

    The problem in approaching the subject is our almost inevitable anthropomorphization of the things we contemplate - "Oh look, the poor creature is in pain" - when we are extrapolating (often without justification) our feelings about the situation.

    Absent of ourselves (or something similar), who or what has the 'problem' of suffering and what do we mean by 'problem' anyway?

  3. The classic arguments for the existence of God imply that such a universe cannot exist without a Creator who is also a Person. He would be able to worry about animal suffering. Whether he would worry about it is a different question.

  4. From this clip it would seem that some animals do worry about the suffering of other animals.


    Chris Bishop

  5. Interesting article.

    I would be interested in you pursuing some thinking on this further in this blog.

    There's a good discussion on the subject at

  6. Chris, I think that clip and the responses to it illustrate how huge is the problem of anthropomorphizing, and how difficult it is for us to think outside that particular box (since thought is what makes us human!).

    The phrase that occurred to me when I watched the clip was "dog eat dog". It is only when you overlay an interpretation - "Look at that dog rescuing the other poor doggy" - that it takes on any other dimension.

  7. David, I hope I might continue with the topic, but it lies slightly outside the field covered by the blog to which you referred, being concerned with the more fundamental 'philosophical' questions. In particular, I am asking in what sense pain is a "problem" when we talk about "the problem of pain".

    It is easy to assume the problem is real, but not so easy to explain what that actually means.