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Pain's remains

The tension in the auditorium was palpable as the doctor donned his mask and gloves and prepared to take his needle and thread to the conscious patient's strapped-down leg. As he pushed the needle through the flesh, the patient let out an almighty cry of pain. But once the needle had passed through, he seemed unnaturally calm.

“How was that?” asked the doctor.

“Fine,” replied the patient, to gasps from the audience. “It's just as you said, I remember you putting the needle through me, but I don't remember any pain.”

“So do you have any objection if I do the next stitch?” “Not at all. I'm not at all apprehensive.”

The doctor turned to the audience and explained: “The process I have developed does not, like an anaesthetic, remove the sensation of pain. What it does is prevent any memory of the pain being laid down in the patient's nervous system. If you are not going to remember your momentary pain, why fear it? Our patient here shows this is not just theoretical sophistry. You witnessed his pain, but he, having forgotten it, has no fear of repeating the experience. This enables us to conduct surgery with the patient fully conscious, which in some instances is extremely useful. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some more stitching to do.”


Political philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that when thinking about the moral rights of animals, 'the question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but rather, “Can they suffer?'” But what is it to suffer? It is often assumed that it is just to feel pain. So if animals can feel pain, they deserve moral consideration. That is because to feel pain is bad in itself, and so to cause any unnecessary pain is to increase the sum total of bad things for no good reason.

It does seem unarguable that pain is indeed a bad thing. But how bad is it? This thought experiment challenges the intuition that pain ip itself is a very bad thing; it separates the sensation of pain from the anticipation and memory of pain. Our patient, because he does not remember his pain, does not have anything bad to associate with his imminent pain, and thus does not fear it either. Nevertheless, at the moment of feeling the pain, it is intense and very real.

Although it would still seem wrong to inflict any pain on the man for no reason at all, since at the moment of its infliction something unnecessarily bad would be going on, it does seem that causing such a pain is not a terrible wrongdoing. This is not least because the person feeling the pain neither fears nor remembers it. What makes causing pain usually so wrong, then, must be something to do with the way in which it scars us in the longer run and creates fear. Perhaps this is how we should understand suffering. For example, a sharp, momentary pain in a tooth is unpleasant, but it passes and doesn't affect our lives much. But if you have such a pain regularly, you really do suffer. It is not so much that the pains add up. Rather, the repetition of the pain, the knowledge that it is to come again and the way in way each pain leaves a trace in the memory and colours the past with its negativity: all these factors link the individual instances of pain into a connected ongoing pattern which constitutes suffering.

If this is right, to answer Bentham's question about animals we need to know not only whether animals feel pain, but whether they have the memory and anticipation of pain that is necessary to suffering. Many animals surely do. A dog that is constantly mistreated does seem to be suffering. But less complex animals that live only in the moment arguably cannot suffer in that way. Could it be that a fish, for example, hanging from a rod, is not really suffering a slow and painful death, but is merely experiencing a series of disconnected painful moments? If so then, like our doctor, we may not feel there is anything terribly wrong about inflicting these fleeting pains.

from The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten by Juian Baggini

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