A Meditation on Pain and Sympathy


From Fairy Tales about Animals, 1973. Illustrations by Lev Tokmakov

by Rhoda Feng

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

– Shylock, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

The question of whether or not it is ethical to eat meat would seem to hinge upon the question of whether or not animals are able to feel pain. If it is the case that animals are incapable of feeling pain, then concerns about their inhumane treatment in abattoirs and farms are decidedly futile. If, however, animals are able to experience pain, then it would be morally wrong to countenance cruel treatment of them. However, there remains a third possibility between the all-or-nothing response to pain: animals experience a different kind of pain than humans do.

Despite its resistance to being expressed in language, pain is the ultimate socializing force. It is the universal human affliction. It is what gave birth to society. Our ability to sympathize with others depends fundamentally on our ability to experience pain. That is, our susceptibility to pain is the bedrock for all our shared emotions. Common experiences of pain will often bind individuals together, as has happened since the dawn of creation, and when the pain can be traced to an active agent, efforts will be made to obviate the cause. It may seem silly to ask this, but it’s worth considering: why are there no such parallels in the animal kingdom? Why don’t we see one animal group revolting against a predatory group? Where are the internecine wars? Why don’t animals have institutions that minister to a population’s pain or even any simple implements like bandages? Even if they are not entirely immune to pain, it seems that animals cannot be pained enough to fully sympathize with each other. And if intraspecific animals do not care greatly for one another, why are we morally obliged to care for any of them in the way we care for fellow humans? Why is it unethical to use them as a source of sustenance?

Suppose we see the word “hi” spelled out one day in a spider’s web. Few of us would be prompted to claim that the spider can actually spell. If a colony of spiders starts spelling “hi,” most of us would still be hesitant to say that spiders have learnt how to spell. To be sure, this case is rather different from cases of animal torture… or is it? Is not there the slightest possibility that animals’ screams are not actually symptomatic of felt pain? Is it not possible that they do not feel pain or at least do not register it in the way humans do? What makes the spider case different from all the cases of animal cruelty is that sympathy is involved in the latter but not the former. The prepotent form of sympathy – the most difficult to overcome – is sympathy for the pain of others. This kind of sympathy makes it nearly impossible for us to see cases involving animal cruelty in a detached manner; to the sympathetic observer, the cries issuing from an animal being slaughtered do not admit of the slightest doubt: the animal must be in pain. Yet, as I’ve tried to suggest, this may be far from the case. For example, it’s possible that over time, animals adopted cries as survival strategies and that apparent manifestations of pain are nothing more than displays.

Pain, more than anything else, gives us humans a sense of our mortality.

Pain – the memory of it, the consciousness of it, and the anticipation of it – drives us to live more or less like Achilles. Animals, on the other hand, live each day in much the same way and without apparent apprehension of mortality, and have done so, with very little variation, for a great many years. Where are their celebrations and songs? Where are their inventions to benefit their species? Where are their consciousness-raising groups? Where are their consciences?

About the Author

Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer who splits her time between New York and Washington, DC.