Suffering and anguish

David Snoke’s presentation at last week’s Christian Scientific Society webinar added a useful thought to my treatment of animal suffering in God’s Good Earth. This question plays a large part in the kind of theodicy tangles that Evolutionary theologies tend to get into, deep time being held to build up an immense “debt” of suffering for God to requite, and evolution itself (apparently) being grounded on senseless and wasteful suffering.

David distinguished between “suffering,” which is common to men and animals, and “anguish,” which is an entirely human affair, because it has to do with understanding the meaning of suffering. “Meaning” here is about “implications,” not the philosophical interpretation of suffering as some kind of good, which is a whole extra human layer, though an important one.

Human beings can deal successfully with quite high levels of pain. What causes most distress is anguish, the realisation that this pain means the loss of life, or livelihood, or relationship and so on. This distinction is very much at the heart of the hospice movement, which I discovered when I had quite a lot to do with our local hospice during my career, as it was first being set up.

The management of pain is, of course, central to hospices. But even when good pain control is not possible in terminal illness, the most important work of the hospice can still be done in bringing peace and acceptance, healing of relationships, and spiritual hope. In this way, even the inability to deal fully with pain can nevertheless result in a “good death” for the patient and their relatives.

Even the old, and largely discredited, way doctors had of managing fatal illness had this understanding at its core. You didn’t tell the patient how ill he was, and a patient who was not aware of the seriousness of their condition suffered less than the person dreading death, loss of control and all the rest. The problem with the policy, apart from its dishonesty, was that patients often knew more about the seriousness of their condition than the doctors – but they could not speak through the wall of denial, and so suffered more, rather than less.

Animals are different, as even family events this week show. My daughter noticed a gash on her puppy’s back the other afternoon, and realized that he must have hurt himself scrambling under a barbed wire fence that morning. No doubt it had hurt, but Sammy had just got on with his walk until, back home, he started licking the damage. If one of her small daughters had suffered even one tenth of that injury, there would have been wailing, tears and that odd mixture of a need to be cuddled simultaneously with being left alone. Children, even at a young age, have a sense of, I suppose, loss of bodily integrity, or fear of something worse, which animals simply lack.

A recent video I saw seems to confirm this. It pointed out how hunters more often than not, after firing a fatal shot, nevertheless have to chase the stricken beast through field and thicket until it actually dies. By contrast, in battle conditions, or during violent crimes, a person who is shot or stabbed will more often than not drop to the ground immediately. Not uncommonly, realising that they appear not to be badly hurt, they may then get up and run away or fight on, as the case may be.

On the other hand, victims of unexpected attacks may experience a serious stab wound, at first, as a blunt blow, and respond appropriately actively until, seeing the nature of the injury, they fall down.

There are of course exceptions to this, like the adrenaline-charged soldier who scarcely notices major wounds as he fights to save himself or others – many medals for valour have been won that way. Likewise, reports from battle veterans from events like the Normandy landings report severely injured comrades wandering around aimlessly, swearing, and actually getting in the way. But even this differs from wounded animals, which tend either to wait passively for death, or struggle, or flee to a quiet spot if the adrenaline rush is sufficient.

In God’s Good Earth I pointed out the obvious fact that one needs a sizeable central brain to be able to suffer at all (something which lower animals, and those organised segmentally, lack). I even included the deeply mysterious question of what animal “consciousness” might be, compared to the human consciousness that depends on an unusual concept of “self” gained through relating to others as “selves” during childhood, partly through language.

But examples like those above show that simply ascribing human-like “sentience” (whatever that means) to animals tells us very little about their actual experience of suffering. Such observations explain the universal finding from country-dwellers actually involved with animals in the wild or on farms that animals do, indeed, experience things very differently from us.

To treat them compassionately, especially in matters like slaughter, is important in compensating for our inability to know fully what they suffer. We do not engage in Cartesian speculation about “mere automata” to justify cruelty, especially in the name of science. But as I point out in my book, compassion to animals also lessens our likelihood of treating other humans as if they, too, lacked that spiritual capacity for anguish.

There are of course exceptions to this…

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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