Friday, November 25, 2005

pain, suffering, and kittens

Xrlq points with approval to this article about a woman who was being punished for abandoning some kittens. Her sentence was a night out in the woods without sufficient clothing or shelter. Xrlq and some of his commenters think justice was done. They think that the woman's suffering is similar to what the kittens suffered, but this is because they are making the mistake of attributing human morality to animals.

I pointed out that the woman will suffer but that the kittens did not suffer. A commenter responded by asking me if I was drunk when I wrote that. The answer is, "No". I had just taken a shot of of ice-cold peppermint schnapps in celebration of the holiday season (great stuff, by the way), but I wasn't dunk.

Animals do not suffer. They can be in pain, but animals do not have the necessary moral sensibility to suffer. That is a good thing because otherwise nature would be one huge awful torture chamber: otters eating fish tail-first, lions killing zebra colts by strangling while their mothers watch, alligators killing cattle by drowning, adult chimps tearing baby chimps away from their mother to kill and eat them.

Animals are innocent; they have no sense of right and wrong. That means in particular that they cannot feel that something is wrong when they are in pain. Suffering is a moral sense, not a physical sense. It is caused by pain or loss, but pain or loss alone is not suffering. You have to respond to the pain or loss with a moral sense of outrage, rejection, or hopelessness in order to turn it into suffering.

I used to get spankings from my father. These punishments caused me great suffering as a child. Then one day my mother got irrationally angry at me and insisted that my father spank me for no good reason (this only happened once; I don't mean to give the impression that my mother was a harridan because she wasn't). My father knew that the spanking was unfair, but he felt he had to do it to keep peace in the family. I knew that it was unfair and I understood why my father was doing it.

For the first time, I reacted to a spanking not by rejecting it, but by accepting it. I could tell how badly my father felt, so I decided to not cry and fuss because I didn't want him to feel even worse than he already did. I accepted the spanking. I volunteered to take the pain. And you know what? I didn't suffer. For the first time, I took the lashes and I realized that it was only pain. I didn't have to suffer if I chose not to.

My father never spanked me again. He realized that I was past the point where I could be effectively punished with a spanking. I had learned the secret of suffering: it is a choice.

People feel pain and loss all the time and don't suffer when they have chosen the pain or loss. Giving a thousand dollars to charity does not cause suffering, but having a hundred dollars taken by a mugger does. Policemen regularly subject themselves to mace as part of their training and many soldiers attend simulated prison camps where they are roughly treated and abused. But many of these people don't suffer from the mace and the abuse. They don't suffer because it was their own choice. They accepted the pain.

Now I don't mean to imply that not suffering is always an easy choice. It is much harder to chose not to suffer when the pain or loss is great and when it is not by choice. I don't mean to imply that I could be tortured and not suffer; I couldn't. We all have our limits, and my own limit is well south of having my fingernails pulled out.

But animals don't have such limits because they do not have the capacity to suffer at all, no matter what happens to them. They just do not have the moral sensibility to feel outrage or rejection or hopelessness. Animals are morally innocent, and that innocence protects them from suffering.

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