Animal Suffering: Philosophy and Culture

November 22, 2012

Do we really need a book like this? Isn’t it perfectly obvious that animals suffer, and that their suffering matters? Well, hardly. In fact, it may instead seem obvious that most animals - insects, molluscs, worms - don’t suffer at all, and about millions of others suffering is moot. Elisa Aaltola fully recognises this, of course, and focuses mostly on bigger prey - the things that we hunt, eat and wear.

Even here, however, suffering hasn’t been obvious. Notoriously, Rene Descartes put it about that animals are kinds of soft-bodied automata, with nothing going on inside. And not a few people listened. Only with Jeremy Bentham did animal suffering become more properly acknowledged. This isn’t to say it is now simply a given: there remain serious questions about such suffering, with some reputable thinkers still unpersuaded.

Does this suffering matter? Bentham insists that it does, and probably most people today, or at least most of us, will agree. The pertinent disputes are about extent. It is easy enough to say, for example, that other things being equal, we’d be rid of animal suffering. But if we suppose that things are not equal whenever we want the hamburger, the shampoo, the leather shoes or the new motorway (for we need to recognise the price paid by animals because we travel at certain speeds on roads that we want built, in cars whose manufacture eats into nature, powered by fuel that in various ways plays havoc with land and sea), then the suffering will go on.

So how much does it matter? Aaltola here treads familiar ground, complaining - in spite of Bentham - that utilitarianism sells animals short and that rights talk is too abstract to have real purchase. Yet move beyond the debates about factory farming, animal experimentation and the like, and there are more interesting questions to be pursued. Suffering is one thing, death another. Allow that a sudden, painless, premature death is typically bad for one of us - is it the same with animals?

Perhaps a painless death is rare. I shoot a rabbit less than cleanly and it suffers before it dies. This looks like a bad thing. But what happens to the rabbit if I don’t shoot it? Don’t the pains it would otherwise suffer elsewhere - when it is caught by a bird or fox, or develops some disease, or both - need to be factored in? Arguably not. We might, with animal-rights theorist Tom Regan, bid for separate spheres, holding that we ought systematically to adjust what we do, but that we should “let nature be”. But is there, in today’s world, any unsullied nature? And suppose there is, should we simply stand aside?

Aaltola gives considerable space to such questions and offers satisfyingly nuanced discussions. Even so, it isn’t hard to see that she has a definite pro-animal agenda. Fair enough, but this does lead, apparently, to some cutting of corners and some reluctance to follow the argument where it goes.

Much of this discussion falls within broadly analytic philosophy. Yet Aaltola doesn’t want to stop there, and in later chapters ventures into neighbouring fields. This is less satisfying. For a book that advertises itself as concerned with culture, there is disappointingly little attempt to understand the appeal of fox hunting, bullfighting, the circus and other contentious areas of the human/animal interface.

And then there is some play made for an “entirely new” approach to the whole subject, with emotions, empathy and intersubjectivity playing key roles. We are told here that we are likely to be more concerned about animal suffering if we see it, rather than read about it. We hear as well that not only have we changed animals’ lives, they’ve also changed ours. Can we get from such stuff to something interesting? Aaltola doesn’t show us how.

Animal Suffering: Philosophy and Culture

By Elisa Aaltola, Palgrave Macmillan, 264pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780230283916
Published 31 July 2012

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