“The question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk? but can they suffer?”
For centuries, animal sentience has been the topic of political, cultural and philosophical debate. Seventeenth century French philosopher Descartes, viewed animals as incapable of suffering, a stance entirely opposed to that of evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin who believed animals were cognitively complex and capable of self-consciousness.
Today, research favours the Darwin Camp, evidencing that animals can feel pain and in much the same way as humans. Like humans, animals show an increased pulse rate, a change in blood pressure, and pupil dilation when experiencing pain. Much like we do, animals will cry out, wince and attempt to avoid the source of pain.
We now have a whole body of research, dedicated to animal welfare science. A field which, built upon the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, asks questions like: what do animals want to eat, and when? Is a particular experience causing them to suffer? Which (certainly on the surface) seems like a great advancement in animal welfare, right? Sure, who wouldn't want better welfare for animals?
Yet, while all of this seems promising, Jessica Pierce in her chapter of the book "Why We Love and Exploit Animals", argues that animal welfare science helps to uphold what is fundamentally a broken system. Animal welfare science is about what an animals experience, within the status quo. A true animal welfarist would argue that there can be no welfare, no freedom, nor humane use of an animal within a system that is design to exploit their bodies for financial and commercial gain. Even with this apparent development in our understanding of animal pain, approximately 96% of the world’s animals live captive in farms, zoos or aquaria and 70 billion animals are subject to slaughter each year for food.
So, while it may seem that we have made some advancement in our understanding of animal suffering, ultimately this understanding is constrained within the current system of oppression.
At the individual level, it is not uncommon for people to express the belief that animals are incapable of suffering. The denial of animal pain is a common dissonance reduction strategy used to reduce the internal discomfort we feel when confronted with the reality that our actions, like the consumption of meat, cause animals to suffer.
Psychologist, Steve Loughnan, has demonstrated this phenomenon in some of his research. In one particular experiment, Steve invited his participants to eat either dried beef or dried nuts. His findings indicated that those participants who ate the dried beef perceived their obligation to show moral concern for animals as lower, than those who ate the nuts. Beef eating participants also rated the perceived moral status of cows as lower and denied the animal the mental states necessary to experience suffering. These findings were the first to indicate that the denial of animal suffering may be a motivated reaction to dissonance reduction.
Further, research has shown there to be a direct correlation between the amount of meat a person consumes and how likely they are to endorse beliefs that disregard an animals sentience. Specifically, the more meat a person consumes, the more likely they are to endorse statements like: “animals don’t really suffer when being raised and killed for meat” and “animals don’t feel pain in the same way that humans do”. This research was the first of it's kind to suggest that our tendency to deny victims the capacity to suffer, rests on the extent to which we feel a personal responsibility for that suffering.
As consumers, it is easy for us to fall into this trap of denial, simply because the animals we eat conveniently remain outside of our consciousness. We rarely interact with farmed animals throughout their lives and we are almost never around to see them when they die. But, for those who work in close proximity with farmed animals, denying them the capacity to suffer seems much more difficult. In recent research by Rachel Penden, pig farmers do not ascribe their animals a diminished capacity to suffer. In fact, they recognise that pigs as having an enhanced capacity to experience hunger, in comparison to other farmed and companion animals.
It seems that on the front line of the animal agriculture industry, animal suffering is simply undeniable. In a post to Reddit, an ex-slaughterhouse worker wrote: “Cows do think and have emotions. I worked the largest slaughterhouse on the planet, Iowa Beef (now Tyson Foods). We killed 200 cattle an hour. They would weep, crying with big tears trembling with fear. Cows have emotions, just like your dog or cat."
Denying victims, the capacity to suffer is not a new phenomenon, nor is restricted to our relationships with animals. Denying other humans the capacity to suffer, especially those outside of our own in-group, is something that can be seen all throughout our history. Denying others humans the capacity to suffer, underpins the process of dehumanisation.
Although a controversial comparison, many writers, philosophers, animal advocates and holocaust survivors themselves, have drawn parallels between the treatment of animals in the animal agriculture industry, to the victims of the Holocaust.
Jewish holocaust survivor and animal rights activist, Alex Hershaft, stated, "My first hand experience with animal farming was instrumental [to becoming a vegan animal rights activist]. I noted the many similarities between how the Nazis treated us and how we treat animals, especially those raised for food. Among these are the use of cattle cars for transport and crude wood crates for housing, the cruel treatment and deception about impending slaughter, the processing efficiency and emotional detachments of the perpetrators, and the piles of assorted body parts – mute testimonials to the victims they were once a part of."
German Philosopher, Psychologist and Sociologist Theodor Adorno once said: “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals”. And Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, made similar comparisons in a number of his stories. For example, in his short story, The Letter Writer, he writes: "In relation to animals, all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka."
Recognising our propensity to deny an individual the capacity to suffer will be integral in advancing farmed animal welfare and potentially, the cornerstone for creating peace between humans.