Pain, suffering, and language

After discussing the social and cultural implications of his vegetarianism, Michael Pollan addresses the issue of animal suffering and how it compares to human suffering. On this question, he writes,

The animal people claim, however, that there are neocartesian scientists and thinkers about who argue that animals are incapable of suffering because they lack language. Yet if you take the trouble to actually read the writers in question (Daniel Dennett and Stephen Budiansky are two of the ones often cited), you quickly realize they’re being unfairly caricatured. (315)

Pollan doesn’t tell us which “animal people” are guilty of this, but the focus of his debate on animal rights is unquestionably Peter Singer’s work. I simply don’t see this in Singer’s Animal Liberation. Pollan explains the argument of Dennett,

The offending argument, which does not seem unreasonable to me, is that human pain differs from animal pain by an order of magnitude. This qualitative difference is largely the result of our possession of language and, by virtue of language, our ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to imagine what is not. The philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests we can draw a distinction between pain, which a great many animals obviously experience, and suffering, which depends on a degree of self-consciousness only a handful of animals appear to command. Suffering in this view is not just lots of pain but pain amplified by distinctly human emotions such as regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread. (316)

In fact, Singer does give this point some attention. He writes,

[T]here is a hazy line of philosophical thought…which maintains that we cannot meaningfully attribute states of consciousness to beings without language. This position seems to me very implausible. Language may be necessary for abstract thought, at some level anyway; but states like pain are more primitive, and have nothing to do with language. (14)

This comes just a few paragraphs after Singer cites evidence from the British government that animals can experience suffering beyond simple pain:

The committee members then went on to consider forms of suffering other than mere physical pain and added that they were “satisfied that animals do suffer from acute fear and terror.” Subsequent reports by British government committees on experiments on animals and on the welfare of animals under intensive farming methods agreed with this view, concluding that animals are capable of suffering both from straightforward physical injuries and from fear, anxiety, stress, and so on. (13)

While I don’t think it’s fair to say that Singer has misrepresented the argument relating suffering and language, I think the point that Pollan tries to make with Dennett’s argument is valid, though its usefulness may be limited. Pollan explains,

As humans contemplating the suffering or pain of animals we do need to guard against projecting onto them what the same experience would feel like to us. Watching a steer force-marched up the ramp to the kill-floor door, as I have done, I have to forcibly remind myself this is not Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, that the scene is playing very differently in a bovine brain, from which the concept of nonexistence is thankfully absent. (316)

I don’t doubt that a steer and a human will experience death differently, and it’s fair for Pollan to point out that we should keep this in mind. However, we should also keep in mind that when we decide what to eat for dinner, we’re usually not deciding whether to put a human or an animal to death. Rather, the choice might be between a little bit of social discomfort for a human or acute fear and terror for an animal. While those emotions won’t be experienced the same way that we would experience them, they still constitute suffering, and to the extent that they are experienced, they deserve consideration.



  1. Wouter said

    All people say the same things.
    There is no justification to eat animals…
    @”I don’t doubt that a steer and a human will experience death differently, and it’s fair for Pollan to point out that we should keep this in mind”
    Can I have some evidence?
    There is no good evidence to suggest that steers feel pain differently.
    I’m really disappointed that people just say what the general opinion is. What you’re saying is much of Speciesism.


    • Adam Merberg said

      I don’t think it should require any more evidence than the various observable difference between cattle and human brains. That said, different doesn’t mean less intense, it just means different. Richard Dawkins, for example, has argued that other animals may feel more pain more intensely than humans would in similar situations.

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