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The morality of pain

By Thomas Pool

According to the famed bioethicist Peter Singer, “Pain and suffering are in themselves bad and should be prevented or minimized, irrespective of the race, sex, or species of the being that suffers.” There is near unanimous agreement that race and sex have nothing to do with discussions of human pain. Yet there are many people in the world who still view human pain and animal pain very differently.

Socrates stated that the only harm in life comes through our own wrongdoing. That is, the things other people do or say to you cannot damage your soul or your character. Only you can do that. That damage is accomplished only by your actions or failure to act. There should be a basis for all of our actions – a reason for what we do or choose not to do.

Is there a basis for judging that an innocent person is inherently less deserving of consideration where pain is concerned? What about age, intelligence, education, speech, income? Are there any other traits that would qualify? Clearly not.

Why should it be different for animals? What is the basis for that difference? Is it chromosome count? Down’s Syndrome children have a different number of chromosomes than the rest of us. Can we ignore their pain? What about the ability to speak and sign contracts? Many humans and all babies, cannot do that. Is it moral to ignore their discomfort? Would it by morally correct for a superior alien race to torture humans?

As a veterinarian, allow me to assure you that animals experience pain just as we do. If there is any difference in their suffering, 40 years of clinical practice have not revealed it to me. Is it morally right for a child to kick a can on the way home from school? I think so. They can experience no pain. Kicking a dog on the way home is wrong because the dog can experience pain. The dog has the same moral right to be free of unnecessary pain that you have.

The goal of the animal welfare movement is to grapple with the moral implications of recognizing that other animals feel pain like we do.

A tiger cannot kill a goat without causing pain, but the tiger is not a moral agent and kills for survival. The tiger does the best she can.

As humans, with our big brains and manipulative physiology, we have many more options. The ability to do better carries the obligation to do better. There is no moral justification for causing unnecessary pain to any creature that can experience pain. When you cause that pain or allow it to happen, are you not polluting your own character, your own soul? If not, why not?

I am not vegan. My family has raised and butchered cattle for over 100 years. We do it humanely. We are highly conscious ranchers. We strive to minimize stress and eliminate pain at slaughter. We do not brand or dehorn our cattle. We protect those cows and bulls every way we can for the eight to 11 years of their lives. None of us get out of this life alive, but what we experience, what we endure, makes all the difference.

I am now the senior veterinarian for two animal welfare organizations: Animal Wellness Action and The Center for a Humane Economy. Last summer I helped write an amicus brief for the U.S. Supreme Court in a case by certain agribusiness interests to overturn a ballot measure that bans immobilizing breeding sows in crates barely larger than their bodies. In practical terms, the voter-approved ballot measure seeks to give pregnant sows another 18” of lateral space in their gestation pens to allow them to stand and perhaps turn around. We hope to know the court’s decision by March. It is a small change for humans, but a huge change for the sows.

There is a very clear trajectory in the egg industry when it comes to more humane housing for laying hens, that for decades were jammed into tiny cages with six or eight hens forced to live shoulder to shoulder in a single tiny cage.

Hens cannot stand erect or flap their wings. Imagine living in a small elevator with seven other people for the rest of your life. That has been the reality of egg production for too long. Times are changing, albeit slowly, with less than a third of laying hens in America living in cage-free environments.

Last month my two organizations got Congress and the president to pass the FDA Modernization Act so that companies are no longer required by law to test all human drugs on animals, as they have since the 1930s. Almost 90 percent of the drugs that pass animal testing still fail human testing, and all of those hundreds of thousands of animals each year suffered needlessly. No more.

The day is coming when unnecessary pain in animal agriculture and research is vanquished. To do otherwise is immoral. That will be a triumph not only of human compassion and mercy, but also creativity and innovation. We have the ability through reason to deliver better outcomes to animals, and every one of their lives should matter to every one of us.

Dr. Thomas Pool served as Guam’s territorial veterinarian for 17 years. He is currently a senior veterinarian at The Center for a Humane Economy, and adjunct professor for the University of Guam and the University of Wyoming School of Pharmacy. Send feedback to

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