Richard Dawkins on vivisection: “But can they suffer?”

The great moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, famously said,‘The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but rather, “Can they suffer?” Most people get the point, but they treat human pain as especially worrying because they vaguely think it sort of obvious that a species’ ability to suffer must be positively correlated with its intellectual capacity.


Nevertheless, most of us seem to assume, without question, that the capacity to feel pain is positively correlated with mental dexterity—with the ability to reason, think, reflect and so on. My purpose here is to question that assumption. I see no reason at all why there should be a positive correlation. Pain feels primal, like the ability to see colour or hear sounds. It feels like the sort of sensation you don’t need intellect to experience. Feelings carry no weight in science but, at the very least, shouldn’t we give the animals the benefit of the doubt?


I can see a Darwinian reason why there might even be be a negative correlation between intellect and susceptibility to pain. I approach this by asking what, in the Darwinian sense, pain is for. It is a warning not to repeat actions that tend to cause bodily harm. Don’t stub your toe again, don’t tease a snake or sit on a hornet, don’t pick up embers however prettily they glow, be careful not to bite your tongue. Plants have no nervous system capable of learning not to repeat damaging actions, which is why we cut live lettuces without compunction.

It is an interesting question, incidentally, why pain has to be so damned painful. Why not equip the brain with the equivalent of a little red flag, painlessly raised to warn, “Don’t do that again”?

[...] my primary question for today: would you expect a positive or a negative correlation between mental ability and ability to feel pain? Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why?

Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn’t it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?

At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.


Imagine a being so vast and powerful that its theory of mind of other entities would itself be a sentient entity. If this entity came across human beings, it might model those people at a level of resolution that every imagination it has of them would itself be conscious.

Just like we do not grant rights to our thoughts, or the bacteria that make up a big part of our body, such an entity might be unable to grant existential rights to its thought processes. Even if they are of an extent that when coming across a human being the mere perception of it would incorporate a human-level simulation.

But even for us humans it might not be possible to account for every being in our ethical conduct. It might not work to grant everything the rights that it does deserve. Nevertheless, the answer can not be to abandon morality altogether. If only for the reason that human nature won’t permit this. It is part of our preferences to be compassionate.

Our task must be to free ourselves . . . by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.

— Albert Einstein

How do we solve this dilemma? Right now it’s relatively easy to handle. There are humans and then there is everything else. But even today — without uplifted animals, artificial intelligence, human-level simulations, cyborgs, chimeras and posthuman beings — it is increasingly hard to draw the line. For that science is advancing rapidly, allowing us to keep alive people with severe brain injury or save a premature fetus whose mother is already dead. Then there are the mentally disabled and other humans who are not neurotypical. We are also increasingly becoming aware that many non-human beings on this planet are far more intelligent and cognizant than expected.

And remember, as will be the case in future, it has already been the case in our not too distant past. There was a time when three different human species lived at the same time on the same planet. Three intelligent species of the homo genus, yet very different. Only 22,000 years ago we, H. sapiens, have been sharing this oasis of life with Homo floresiensis and Homo neanderthalensis.

How would we handle such a situation at the present-day? At a time when we still haven’t learnt to live together in peace. At a time when we are still killing even our own genus. Most of us are not even ready to become vegetarian in the face of global warming, although livestock farming amounts to 18% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.

So where do we draw the line?