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Royal Institute of Philosophy

Harrison on Animal Pain


Author(s): Ian House
Source: Philosophy, Vol. 66, No. 257 (Jul., 1991), pp. 376-379
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of Royal Institute of Philosophy
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3751688 .
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Harrisonon AnimalPain
IAN HOUSE

In 'Do Animals Feel Pain?' Peter Harrison arguesthatthereare no good


reasons to thinkthat animals feel pain, that there are good reasons to
thinktheydo not feelpain, and thattheyshould be treatedwell in order
to promotenot animal, but human, welfare.1This is a provocative,and
implausible, thesis. It has succeeded in provokingme, to rage and to
rejoinder,but it has failedto convince me thata monkeyshriekingas it
is mutilated is not feeling pain and that feelings of concern for the
monkeyshould play no part in my attemptto stop the mutilation.
Harrison reviews and rejects three argumentsforthinkingthat animals feel pain. The firstis that the behaviour of some animals when
confrontedwithnoxious stimuliis similarto thatofhuman beings when
confrontedwith noxious, and admittedlypainful, stimuli. He points
out that avoidance or the production of shrill cries, which have the
effectof bringingassistance, are adaptive behaviours which in themselves imply nothing about mental states. First, such behaviour is
sometimes displayed by animals fakinginjury and, conversely,is not
displayed by injured animals when such display would increase the
chances of furtherinjury. It is worth pointing out, as Harrison does
not, that faking either pain or its absence is a not unusual human
activity.Secondly, he argues, pain-likebehaviour can be displayed by
appropriatelyprogrammed robots and by organisms which lack the
capacity to feel pain. This is true, but it is hardly important,since
no-one believes that, if an organismcannot feel pain, it does. It shows
only that the firstargumentfor thinkingthat animals feel pain (they
sometimeslook and sound as thoughtheydo) needs to be coupled with
the second argument (some can).
Harrison believes that the factthat some animals have some or all of
the neural hardware that allows human beings to feel pain does not
show that animals can feel pain. In the firstplace, he argues, mental
states cannot, logically, be inferredfrom physical states. But this, if
allowed, surelyproves more than he would be happy to have proved. If
the argumentcounts foranimals, then it counts forhuman beings also.
On this view, not only do I have no reason to believe that dogs and
1 Peter

Harrison, 'Do Animals Feel Pain?', Philosophy66, No. 255 (January

1991), 25-40.
376

66 1991
Philosophy

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Discussion

monkeysfeel pain but I have no reason to believe thatthe human


victimsoftorturedo so.
In the second place, he argues that mentalstates cannot, conbe inferredfromphysicalstates.This is odd in viewof his
tingently,
earlierassertionthatrobotsand primitiveorganismscannotfeelpain
because theylack the necessaryneuralstructure.He recitescases of
to pain, of peoplewho feelpain in
injuredpeople who are insensitive
of
who
have
mentalcapacitieswithoutpossessphantomlimbs, people
associated
withpossessionof those
of
the
brain
standardly
ing parts
mentalcapacities,and of animalswhichhave capacitieswithoutposassociatedwithsimilarabilitiesin
sessingpartsofthebrainstandardly
humanbeings-e.g. birdscan see, buttheirbrainslacka visualcortex.
Some of theseexamplesare irrelevant;devianthumancases have no
obviousbearingon whatmaybe thestandardanimalcases; indeed,like
so muchin Harrison'spaper,theycould be turnedagainsttheascriptionofpaintohumanbeings.Some oftheexamplesareinvalid:thefact
thatbirdscan see (or 'see') withouta visualcortexhas no tendencyto
show that possessionof a visual cortexwould not be evidenceof a
capacityto see. Animalscan move withoutlegs, but the factthatan
animalpossesseslegs is a reasonforthinking
thatit can move.
thatwe can
In thethirdplace, Harrisondrawson Nagel'sargument
neverknowwhat experienceis like fornon-humananimals(such as
bats).2But Nagel's argumentis based on the possessionby bats of a
non-humancapacity:perceptionof the externalworldby sonar.The
factthatI cannotknowwhatitwouldbe liketofindmywaythrough
the
worldbysonardoes notshowthatI haveno ideawhatitwouldbe liketo
neuralequipment,
be a non-humananimal,withsome human-type
in
a
caught
trap.
thatsomeanimalsfeelpainis their
The thirdargumentforthinking
to
human
evolutionary
proximity
beings.Anycase forhumanuniqueof
nessneedstobe established.For humanbeingspainhasthefunction
behaviour
that
human
welfare
and
of
establishing
promotes
eliminating
behaviourthatdoes not. Arguingthatthebehaviour,notthepain, is
theadaptation,Harrisonarguesthat,foranimals,the'middleman'role
of pain is redundant.Appropriatebehaviourmay be broughtabout
mentalstates.This
eitherdirectlyby stimulior throughindifferent
leavesmuchbehaviourcompletely
How, forexample,can
mysterious.
I
occur?
wish
Fido
ever
to
prevent
conditioning
enteringthe sittingroom.Everytimehe seeksto do so, I thumphim,butnothardenough
to injurehim. Sooner or laterhe resignshimselfto stoppingin the
kitchen.How, on Harrison'sviewofthematter,does thishappen?
Thomas Nagel, 'What is it Like to be a Bat?' PhilosophicalReview 83
(1974), 435-450.
2

377

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Discussion

Then Harrisonbringsin a Cartesianargumentforradicaldoubt


about animals'possessionof minds.Whateverthe value of thisarguto thecase beforeus. The questionis notwhether
ment,it is irrelevant
or notsomeanimalshavemindsbutwhetheror notsomeofthemfeel
pain. To answerthatyou cannotfeelpain unless you have a mind
merelybegsthequestion,at leastin theabsenceofanyaccountofwhat
itis to havea mind.Actually,possessinga minddoes notevenlooklike
an either/or
matter.Does 'a dog, a horse,a rat',a mouse,a spastic,a
man faradvancedin Alzheimer'sDisease have a mind?Yes and no.
They have some mentalcapacitiesand notothers.
Harrisonrecognizesthatthesethreearguments(fromsimilarity
of
of neurophysiological
and from
behaviour,fromsimilarity
structure,
evolutionary
proximity)are strongerwhentakentogetherthanwhen
takenseparately.That is whyhe takesthemseparately.The argument
is notthatanimalsfeelpainbecause(1) theylookas thoughtheydo and,
(2) theycan and,separately,
(3) theyarerelatedtocreatures
separately,
thatdo feelpain. None ofthesearguments
is initselfsufficient
oreven,
itmaybe agreed,persuasive.Rather,theconjunction
ofthearguments
thatfeel
is, at theleast,persuasive.Some creaturesrelatedto creatures
have
the
in
themselves
for
pain
equipment feelingpain and, appropriate circumstances,
appearto do so; so, we conclude,theydo.
Harrisongoes on to arguethatwe have good reasonnotto ascribe
pain to animals. Animals lack freewill and are not moral agents.
Noxious stimulido not need to be represented
as unpleasantmental
statesforthe behaviourof animalsis fullydeterminedcausally; for
humanbeings,paincounts,as onereasonamongothers,fororagainsta
particularcourseofaction.This is notthecase withanimals.It makes
no senseto say ofa dog: 'The pain becameunbearable.He criedout.'
Harrison'sargumentprovesonlythatanimalsdo nothavereasonsfor
as one
acting,notthattheydo notexperiencepain. Pain has a function
of the causes of theirbehaviour.So a perfectly
clear sense can be
attachedtotheforbidden
utterance:thebeating(or,as we maysay,the
pain) has notyetreacheda certainlevelor Fido has beentrainednotto
cryoutevenwhenbeingbeaten(or,as we maysay,wheninpain); now
he does cryout because, in a causal sense,thepain is unbearable.
Throughouthispaper,Harrisonwritesintermsofa mind-body
split
and locatespain in themindin orderto makeitsascriptionto animals
less plausible. Not everyone,one may mildlyremark,will sharehis
confidencein dualismor hisbeliefthatDescartesis partoftheanswer
ratherthana good deal oftheproblem.
In conclusion,Harrisonsuggests,we should treatanimals well
because theyare aesthetically
pleasingmachines,theyformpartof a
delicatelybalancedeco-systemto whichwe too belong,and theyare
meansbywhichwe can learnand practisekindnesstohumanbeings.If
378

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Discussion

animalsdo not feelpain, at least in the sense of experiencing


states
whichare unpleasantto them,thensuch arguments
wouldhavesome
force.Since, however,thereare good reasonsto thinkthatanimalsdo
feelpainand no good reasonstothinkthattheydo not,we mayfeelthat
on theseaestheticand anthropocentric
exclusiveconcentration
considerationsis likelyto reduce and pervertour moralsympathiesrather
thanto extendand refinethem.
LeightonPark School,Reading

379

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