Dawkins on Animal Suffering

A few days ago, Richard Dawkins realized that there might be a link between cognitive ability and suffering. I’d like to think that he was inspired by my earlier post on the topic, but probably not, since he got everything wrong.

I can see a Darwinian reason why there might even be be a negative correlation between intellect and susceptibility to pain. I approach this by asking what, in the Darwinian sense, pain is for. It is a warning not to repeat actions that tend to cause bodily harm. Don’t stub your toe again, don’t tease a snake or sit on a hornet, don’t pick up embers however prettily they glow, be careful not to bite your tongue.

It is an interesting question, incidentally, why pain has to be so damned painful. Why not equip the brain with the equivalent of a little red flag, painlessly raised to warn, “Don’t do that again”? In The Greatest Show on Earth , I suggested that the brain might be torn between conflicting urges and tempted to ‘rebel’, perhaps hedonistically, against pursuing the best interests of the individual’s genetic fitness, in which case it might need to be whipped agonizingly into line. I’ll let that pass and return to my primary question for today: would you expect a positive or a negative correlation between mental ability and ability to feel pain? Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why?

Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn’t it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?

At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.

Dawkins’ thinking is hopelessly muddled here, but I will restrain myself to pointing out just one major flaw in his reasoning.

Simply, “pain” is not “suffering”. Not even close. Suffering is a cognitive phenomenon. And even with the simple “brain soup” type of pain that Dawkins is talking about, there is a massive cognitive impact, as Dan Ariely has shown.

Dawkins is sloppily conflating operant conditioning with cognitive learning, and nerve stimulation with suffering. That doesn’t work.

7 thoughts on “Dawkins on Animal Suffering”

  1. Interesting post, and I enjoyed your earlier one as well. One thing:

    “Simply, “pain” is not “suffering”. Not even close. Suffering is a cognitive phenomenon.”

    I’m probably missing something, but I don’t see where Dawkins necessarily conflates the two. He seems to be arguing that mere pain (or neural stimulation) is enough to bestow moral equivalency between animal pain and the pain of human beings. While we have a tendency to think that cows feel pain less than we do, there isn’t a “general reason” to think that this is actually the case.

    Whether or not pain itself warrants moral approbation is another interesting discussion.

  2. He seems to be arguing that mere pain (or neural stimulation) is enough to bestow moral equivalency between animal pain and the pain of human beings. While we have a tendency to think that cows feel pain less than we do, there isn’t a “general reason” to think that this is actually the case.

    The key word here is “feel”. Our evolved moral behavior is based on our subjective feelings of pain, and not on some level of electrical stimulation of neurons. When Dawkins talks about animal pain, he is expecting us to anthropomorphize the animals and imagine that they feel pain the same way that we do. He’s appealing to our subjective “feeling” of pain, and not to some level of nerve stimulation.

    We can be forgiven for anthropomorphizing other humans, but even this has its limits. Two people who experience the exact same level of neural stimulation in pain neurons do not necessarily “feel” the same level of pain (as Ariely and many others have shown). Empirically, people’s “feeling” of pain can vary massively for the same level of neural stimulation, especially due to cognitive factors.

    While it’s reasonable to project our subjective feelings to other humans who are cognitively similar, our level of confidence in our projections should be lower as cognitive similarity is lowers.

    Dawkins is proposing that feelings of pain should increase as cognition decreases, but that seems bizarre and backwards to me. By his reasoning, my roomba robotic vacuum cleaner suffers an immense amount of pain, since its behavior is modified instantly when it hits an obstacle, and the voltage sent to its “brain” upon collision is several thousand times higher than the voltage in a cow’s brain.

  3. “Our evolved moral behavior is based on our subjective feelings of pain, and not on some level of electrical stimulation of neurons. When Dawkins talks about animal pain, he is expecting us to anthropomorphize the animals and imagine that they feel pain the same way that we do. He’s appealing to our subjective “feeling” of pain, and not to some level of nerve stimulation.”

    I would imagine that for Dawkins, the subjective feeling of pain is synonymous with the stimulation of nerves. Now, while this certainly doesn’t indicate that animals experience pain in the same way as us, but I think that this is perhaps not an entirely outrageous proposition.

    After all, our experience observing animals in pain along with our biological understanding of animal pain seems to indicate that it’s not amazingly different from our own physiological experience.

    Although, you are right in pointing out that he doesn’t exactly qualify that leap.

  4. Hi Matt,

    Sorry for the delay in responding. Apparently, my blog software is not notifying me of new comments via e-mail, so I’m just now seeing this.

    I would imagine that for Dawkins, the subjective feeling of pain is synonymous with the stimulation of nerves.

    I agree that this is what Dawkins is assuming, and I agree with you that it’s not really outrageous for him to assume this.

    I do feel that Dan Ariely’s research casts some doubts that Dawkins’ assumption holds across individuals, and I believe there are even stronger reasons to doubt that the assumption holds across differing cognitive levels.

    For example, what if a being with an IQ that is an order of magnitude below a human is capable of suffering an order of magnitude less, while a being that is an order of magnitude higher in IQ would be capable of suffering an order of magnitude more? That seems like a very plausible thesis, and isn’t just a matter of idle philosophical speculation — it wouldn’t be hard to empirically test the theory, at least for people on a range of IQ from 30-200.

  5. @John – Thanks for the comment; those links are fascinating. I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusions, but I appreciate people who have the courage to follow things through to the logical conclusion.

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