A quick thought on pain and suffering

It is common for theorists to distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain is generally associated with nociception, a very primitive chemical detection system that responds to cellular damage signals. Suffering, in contrast, is usually defined as the minding of pain, sometimes called the “affectivity” or “unpleasantness” of pain. In humans and monkeys, the pain system and the minding system can be teased apart.  Such a distinction has considerable moral implications for how we treat nonhuman animals. Many philosophers think that it is only the minding of pain, and not pain itself, that deserves moral consideration. Thus, any creature who only has nociception but does not mind pain will not fall under the full umbrella of moral consideration. Moreover, the minding system has been associated with having an Anterior Cingulate Cortex. All mammals have an ACC. Therefore, this seems like a good reason to grant all mammals moral status.

But I propose to make a further distinction between the minding of pain and the introspective awareness that you mind pain. It is unfortunate that the term “minding pain” seems to imply a kind of higher-order awareness since “minding” sounds like a cognitively sophisticated capacity reminiscent of introspection. But if a rat can mind pain, how complex could it really be? Such an capacity doesn’t strike me as all that fancy. And I am skeptical that in humans we have really teased apart minding from introspective awareness of minding. Do we really know that what “bothers” humans is the minding shared with rats or the introspective awareness of minding? More experimentation will be needed to tease this apart, but it is difficult because the verbal reports necessary to determine minding levels seem to be confounded by introspective awareness.

Don’t take me the wrong way. I’m not arguing that only introspective awareness of minding is deserving of moral consideration. Otherwise, I’d be left with the conclusion that we can treat newborn babies as mere objects, a conclusion I obviously reject. It seems plausible that the ability to merely mind pain deserves some moral consideration. But the crucial question is, how much? It seems plausible to me that we have good reason to want to reduce all instances of minding pain in the universe. But it also seems plausible to me that we have good reason to prioritize the reduction of the introspective awareness of minding over the mere minding. This line of reasoning includes nonhuman mammals into the moral sphere, but does not place them on an equal status with well-developed human beings capable of introspective minding.


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Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

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