Asking if Animals Can Feel Pain Isn't Really About Science

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Scientists argue over whether some animals have the brains for suffering.

Scientists have been "wondering" whether fish can feel pain a good deal over the last few years. Recently, the Guardian published a story on the subject that's been making the rounds.

"Yes, my fish jerked from the hook’s jab, but that could be merely reflexive," ponders the author. The piece looks at recent scientific evidence suggesting that fish, indeed, feel pain. The author even wonders if fishing makes him a sociopath. Still, other scientists claim fish can't feel pain since their brains are structured differently than human brains.

“It doesn’t feel like anything to be a fish,” wrote Brian Key, an Australian neuroscientist, in his essay "Why fish do not feel pain."

Alright, I'm going to say something unscientific here: Of course fish can feel pain. Animals need pain so they don't walk into fires or bang their heads on rocks. Maybe fish don't remember their pain the way humans do, but the idea that they can't feel it is just ... well ... I'm not saying it's impossible, but you'd really have to prove they CAN'T feel pain to convince me, not the other way around. Human babies have underdeveloped brains; does that mean they don't suffer?

But this isn't really about whether fish can feel pain. It's about people trying not to feel guilty for eating animals. Does anyone doubt that cows can feel pain? What about pigs? Or dogs? The bottom line is, everyone knows animals feel pain, but people also want to eat them.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. Life eats life to survive. Death yields more life. That's how life on Earth has worked since day one. Our cells are clones of one microbe that ate another microbe. Humans, like plenty of other omnivores, have a long history of eating other animals. Even vegans support the agricultural industry, which devastates wildlife. People can fool themselves all they want, but our very existence means suffering for other life.

A mitochondrion, a part of a human cell that produces energy. Some scientists think the first mitochondrion was an independent organism, until a larger cell ate it. (Photo: RAJ CREATIONZS/Shutterstock)
© A mitochondrion, a part of a human cell that produces energy. Some scientists think the first mitochondrion was an independent organism, until a larger cell ate it. RAJ CREATIONZS/Shutterstock

But there's a happy medium between constantly feeling guilty and becoming a sociopathic predator bent on believing only humans can feel. People can view eating not as an unforgivable evil or pain-free lark, but as a sacrifice.

People don't have to feel bad about eating plants, and perhaps even animals. But they can acknowledge and appreciate the being that gave its life to feed them. For some people, perhaps eating an occasional chicken sandwich is for the best. But devouring bacon for breakfast, hamburgers for lunch and salmon for dinner is excessive and incredibly damaging — to the animals, the planet and even humanity.

The idea that animals can't feel pain is an excuse for truly sociopathic behaviors, like stuffing cows into factory farms and forcing them to lead lifetimes of suffering. If people acknowledged that animals suffer, they probably wouldn't stop eating animals. But they might stop forcing them to lead lives of constant torture.

Yes, animals feel pain. Let's stop kidding ourselves and treat eating animals as what it is: a meaningful sacrifice.