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The Pain of Wild Animals Is Always Bad (Part II)

By Dustin Crummett
11 Apr 2022
photograph of fox curled in ball

In my last post, I defended the claim that we have an obligation to prevent wild animal suffering, when it is bad, against T. Parker Haratine’s criticisms. In this post, I defend the claim that wild animal suffering is always bad against Haratine’s criticisms. From these two points, it follows that we have an obligation to prevent wild animal suffering. This is a pro tanto obligation, meaning that, in principle, it can be overridden by other factors. But because there is so much wild animal suffering, it is a very very strong pro tanto obligation, which means that it could only be overridden by very very strong other factors.

Haratine distinguishes three types of pain:

Useful pain is, naturally, pain that is useful. E.g., it is useful when sprained ankles hurt, since that encourages you not to walk on the ankle, helping it heal.

Pain achieving is “the pain that can accompany the successful operation of an organism’s natural operation or function.” Haratine provides as an example “the pain a child experiences with growing pains or when growing teeth.”

Useless pain is “is pain that may alert you to an issue but serves no purpose.” Haratine suggests chronic nerve damage, or pain associated with a phantom limb. This pain is useless because it “cannot successfully motivate the individual to react, or because there are no underlying issues or malfunction of the body to account for this.”

Haratine suggests that only useless pain is bad, and that we don’t know how much animal suffering consists of useless pain. But I argue that this is wrong. Useful pain and pain achieving are also bad, in the sense relevant here. Further, if we assume that useful pain and pain achieving are not bad, we should also think that quite a lot of animal suffering is useless pain, and so pain we should alleviate.

Useful pain

Useful pain is useful. That means it has a good effect: the pain of your sprained ankle helps it heal. But it is still bad in itself. It would be best to avoid the sprained ankle to begin with: then you could avoid the pain and have a healthy ankle. So when you can prevent useful pain by preventing the injury that makes the pain useful to begin with, that is good to do. And that’s what I’m suggesting: we should help animals avoid the bodily harm that causes pain. So useful pain is no problem for my argument.

Haratine anticipates this move and suggests that it “does not help us here.” He thinks that it would lead to a morality that is “too onerous,” and that it would require us to treat trivial pains as if they were as serious as intense suffering. But my view does not have these implications: I explained why at the end of my last post.

Pain achieving

Pain achieving is also bad in itself. Suppose we are creating some new species in a laboratory. We have two options. We can make it the case that their mouths are designed in such a way that having their teeth come in is excruciatingly painful: it feels like their gums are being burned with a blowtorch. Alternatively, we can refrain from doing that. Clearly we should refrain from doing that. And surely the main reason is precisely that the pain here is bad. Yet, if we make it extremely painful for their teeth to come in, presumably that is pain achieving: for them, it is the pain which naturally accompanies having their teeth come in. So pain achieving is bad in itself as well.

If pain achieving is not bad, then much wild animal suffering is useless pain

Even if we grant that useless pain is bad, that only means we have little reason to prevent wild animal suffering if not very much wild animal suffering is useless pain. If lots of wild animal suffering is useless pain, then our reasons to alleviate wild animal suffering will still be very strong. In my original piece, I used as an example the New World screwworm, an ecologically useless parasite which causes immense suffering as it eats the flesh of its victims. I suggested that eliminating the parasite and sparing the victims would be good.

Haratine, however, is not sure whether the pain caused by the screwworm is bad, because he isn’t sure whether it is useless pain: “Could the case of the New World screwworm count as an instance of useless pain? Perhaps. But it looks like it can count as an instance of ‘pain achieving’ as well.”

But suppose some human child has a screwworm infection. The screwworms are eating the child’s scalp, and the child is in excruciating pain. Unfortunately, we will not be able to provide a treatment to remove the screwworms for several days. However, in the meantime, we can provide a harmless analgesic cream that lessens the pain caused by the screwworms. Surely we should provide the analgesic cream. But then, surely, the pain must be bad.

If the pain is bad, and the pain is either pain achieving or useless pain, then we can deduce that one of two things must be true: (i) pain achieving is bad after all (at least in this case), or (ii) the pain caused by the screwworm is not pain achieving. Since Haratine rejects (i), assuming he grants that the child’s pain is bad, it seems he must accept (ii). But if the pain caused by the screwworm is useless pain in the child, it will be useless pain in animals, too.

Or consider: would it be okay for us to breed and release large numbers of screwworms, just for fun, knowing the suffering they’ll cause? Surely not. Perhaps causing suffering is worse than merely failing to prevent suffering. Still: causing suffering (by releasing screwworms) can only be bad if the suffering is bad. So the pain caused by screwworms must be bad.

So even if we grant Haratine’s premise that not all suffering is bad in itself, it does not show that we need not intervene to help wild animals. For this very premise, together with other claims that seem obviously true, entail that very much of the suffering faced by wild animals is of the sort that is bad.

Dustin is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He received a PhD from the University of Notre Dame in 2018, and specializes in social and political philosophy, ethics, and the intersection of these two fields and philosophy of religion.
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