Free Research Proposal on Pain:
What exactly is pain? A scientific definition would have it that pain is a “sensation of discomfort that may lead to distress and feelings of urgency resulting from stimulation of specialized nerve endings” (FASS, 20). Few people, though, exclaim, “Oh, my specialized nerve endings!” upon stubbing their toes. More often, people vocalize how and what they are feeling when they are in “pain” from stubbing their toes. For all pain, although sharing the commonality of being caused by “stimulation of special nerve endings,” manifests itself in different ways. “Pain is a perception, not a physical entity” (Carstens, vii). Nobody can be sure that they are feeling precisely the pain of anybody else. Therefore, it is impossible to define one single sensation that every person interprets as “pain.” Each person must determine for himself/herself which of his/her personal experiences and feelings constitute pain.
But because there are standard words used to communicate pain, people can at least convey to each other that they are in pain. The extent of that pain, though, is significantly harder for people to express to each other. So despite a shared language, no one person can precisely understand the pain of anyone else. The inherent incomprehensibility of other people’s pain notwithstanding, most people accept without question that what their fellow humans are feeling is pain. Yet the same allowance is not made for non-human animals. Indeed, many people are unwilling to accept that animals feel pain although they would never doubt the pains of a person.
They claim that the said inability of animals to directly communicate with humans accounts for their disbelief. Of course, the direct linguistic connection is absent, and that missing link does create a barrier between humans and other animals that is not present among humans. Just contemplate the difficulty in attempting to pinpoint if a human is in pain if he/she cannot tell you that he/she is. Then increase the communication barrier by tenfold and truly struggle to understand the pain of the individual who cannot expressly tell you of his/her pain.
Now recognize that these severed lines of communication are the norm between non-human animals and humans. Non-human animals have the dual task of communicating to humans the intricacies of their personal pain and moreover, that they are, in fact, in pain. “Pain is a complex physiological phenomenon; it is hard to define satisfactorily in humans, and it is extremely difficult to recognize and interpret in animals”(Carstens, v).
Pain is in and of itself such an unclear concept that if we do not deny its presence its humans, there is no reason to deny its presence in other species-even if other animals’ lack the recognizable language to tell people that they are hurting. Non-human animals can feel pain and there are other means than the spoken word through which they can express their pain to humans. Yet though a lack of language to convey their pain in the conventional sense empowers some people to assert that other species do not feel pain, this very argument is used by others to attest to the sentient, or, in this case, pain-sensitive, capabilities of animals. Language may be necessary for abstract thought, at some level anyway; but states like pain are more primitive, and have nothing to do with language.
Even if there were stronger grounds for refusing to attribute pain to those who do not have a language, the consequences of this refusal might lead us to reject the conclusion. Human infants and young children are unable to use language. Are we to deny that a year-old child can suffer? If not, language cannot be crucial (Singer, 14-15). That we acknowledge young human pain, although non-linguistically expressed, is more than enough reason not to immediately dismiss the idea that non-human animals feel pain.
Further, that people acknowledge pain in any imperfectly verbal human is reason enough for humans to at least consider that animals might feel pain. “We cannot say that animal emotional life is a closed book for us or that we have no understanding at all of their sensations of pain. In principle the same factors determine the degree of certainty with regard to animal pain as to the pain of the mentally ill and children” (Rollin, 225). Yet despite the fact that people consider it wrong to inflict pain on a baby even though it cannot say “Ow,” they do not necessarily consider it wrong to inflict the same amount of pain on animals.
They simply do not realize that the former is just as “iffy” as the latter, and for the same reasons: if one is considered real without linguistic testimony from the afflicted, it follows that the reality of the other ought also to be upheld. “If we consider it wrong to inflict that much pain on a baby for no good reason then we must “consider it equally wrong to inflict the same amount of pain on a horse for no good reason” (Singer, 16). But not everyone does consider it wrong to inflict treatment on a non-human animal that one would not inflict on a human baby.
For not everybody has enough personal experience with non-human animals to assert that they derive pain from such treatment. And personal experience with animals is becoming exponentially more limited as technology advances. Unfortunately, nothing, lest of all science, perfectly substitutes for personal experience. “Scientific insight has in the last century reaffirmed and expanded much that farmers (and hunters before them) have known all along. The cave paintings of Lascaux were the work of people who knew the form and movements and habits of the animals upon whom their livelihood depended.
Yet as such personal experience became less and less a part of a larger public’s consciousness, formal knowledge in the form of scientific observation and record maddeningly failed to take its place” (Budiansky, 13). Relying on scientific testing is especially faulty because one does not scientifically test for pain and injury when one sees nothing to scientifically test for, and animals often display fewer symptoms of pain than humans.
In other words, animal pain must first be suspected, a suspicion which requires personal experience with the animal, before the animal can be scientifically assessed for its pain, a pain that is often unrecognizable to people who have no experience with animals because it can be unapparent Many animals are stoical and only display behavioral changes which do not immediately suggest that they are in pain. For instance, a cat who has a fractured limb will tend to hide away rather than howl in agony. A dog badly bruised following a road traffic accident may simply be quieter than usual. Of course overt signs of pain are also seen, but the veterinarian must suspect the presence of pain when the conditions, and personal experience, suggest that the animal could be expected to feel pain.
There is no reason for an animal to tolerate pain simply because it does not complain (Rollin, 194). But even if an animal were prone to expressing its pain, it might be experiencing the kind of pain that does not constantly pain it and as such, its complaints might be limited to the very few circumstances under which it is feeling pain. So if one were not to spend an extended amount of time around the animal, one might not be privy to the few instances that cause the animal enough pain for it to voice its distress.
“Pain may not be noticed until a normal physiological act is induced, such as swallowing, coughing, chewing, defecating, or any bodily movement” (FASS, 20). These are not processes that a brief animal passerby would necessarily witness. But if one were to dedicate enough time to observing and, moreover, to personally relating to animals, one would amass enough time with animals to see a full range of their possible actions. Thus, one would learn how an animal displays its pain. Of course, personal experience with animals and people can be fortified with scientific evidence to identify pain in other species.
For many people, though, it is the aspect of personal experience that is especially effective in non-human animal pain identification, because they can compare other species’ actions that they think indicate pain to people’s actions they know indicate pain. “Scientific knowledge concerning pain perception in animals must be obtained by drawing analogies based on comparative anatomy, physiology, and pathology and by inference based on subjective responses to pain experienced by humans” (Carstens, v). Indeed, people do often base what they think animals are feeling on what they know through personal experience that people are feeling when act in the same/similar way(s).
And as most people have more personal experience with other people than they do with other species, there is hardly a way around using human pain as a point of comparison for animal pain. For it is the only pain that humans can ever know through direct, personal experience of the self; thus, humans can with relative certainty be sure of its presence. As such, the reality of non-human animal pain is constantly pitted against the reality of human pain. And this train of thought is sensible.
For while humans can definitely express to other humans the presence of pain, animals cannot, so animal pain remains unknown where human pain is already demystified; therefore, people cannot but judge by their own pain However, not everyone believes that human comparison is a valid point of reference. Such skeptics accuse those who utilize this comparative methodology of anthropomorphizing animals or, to oversimplify, turning them into humans. The cause for this opposing group’s cries of anthropomorphism when others claim to worry about animal pain is that “in circumstances in which humans would be screaming and writhing, many animals show very few signs of extreme pain” (Rollin, 145).
But those who legitimately fear for unrecognized/overlooked animal pain flip the coin by labeling their opposition as the truly anthropomorphic. “Who else besides someone guilty of the greatest anthropomorphism would expect expressions of animal feelings to be precisely like our own, would expect a cow in pain, for example, to run about beating its breast and bellowing” (Rollin, 146). In other words, the argument against using human comparison is that humans act certain ways when they are in pain, and since animals do not, saying they feel pain is like saying they are humans.
But there is no reason to say that animals do not feel pain simply because they do not exhibit the typical symptoms of humans. After all, even within the human species, pain reactions vary. Not every person responds to pain the same way. “Unquestionably, animal pain responses are not always the same as ours-compare a horse’s wincing rather than crying out when hurt-but, for that matter, human pain responses vary across different cultures and subcultures and among individuals” (Rollin, 150). Animals, like people, do not all respond identically to pain.
But since acknowledgment of variation in human pain response is widely accepted while presupposing that people feel pain, humans must first accept that other species feel pain before they can recognize variation in that pain response. For people, many more allowances are made, including the acceptance that the root of pain response, the pain-tolerance threshold, also widely varies per person. For different people require different levels of pain to produce the same reactions.
“Scientists and laypeople have long recognized that the pain-tolerance threshold-that is, the maximum pain that a subject can endure before the stimulus is perceived as unbearable-varies widely from individual to individual, depending on a number of factors. Indeed, it varies widely even in the same individual, depending on the context of the pain, the person’s mood, anxiety level, and so on” (Rollin, 150). Some people are reluctant to acknowledge this variation in other species, though, and thus unwilling to accept that animal pain response is personalized. After all, even a significant number of people who accept that animals feel pain still question whether or not that pain experience varies.
“Debate continues about whether animals of different species perceive pain similarly” (Carstens, v). Charles Darwin, one of the originators in the school of thought that recognized animal pain, did not expressly discount variation in animal pain, but did promote the idea that all animals have a common, fixed range of reactions to choose from.
“An agony of pain is expressed by dogs in nearly the same way as by all other animals, namely by howling, writhing, and contortions of the whole body,” (Darwin, 121). Moreover, though, assuming the existence of pain variation in non-human animals, skeptics question if such pain would even be detectable to other species, presuming that it would not. “It may be objected that comparisons of the suffering of different species are impossible to make. And it is probably true that comparisons of suffering between members of different species cannot be made precisely,” (Singer, 17) said modern-day social and moral philosopher Peter Singer. To Singer, though, acknowledgment of absolute differentiation in animal pain is only very secondarily important to the accepting that animals are firstly capable of feeling pain. “But,” Singer continues, “precision is not essential.
For if it is justifiable to assume that other humans feel pain as we do, is there any reason why a similar inference should not be justifiable in the case of other animals? Nearly all the external signs which lead us to infer pain in other humans can be seen in other species. In addition, we know that these animals have nervous systems very like ours, which respond physiologically as ours do when the animal is in circumstances in which we would feel pain: an initial rise of blood pressure, dilated pupils, perspiration, an increased pulse rate, and, if the stimulus continues, a fall in blood pressure” (Singer, 17).
As some species have nervous systems so like that of humans, the denial of non-human animal pain en masse is to bluntly deny human pain. But skeptics of non-human animal pain never discount the reality of human pain; they “only” discredit the reality of pain in other species, disregarding the fact that they are not so dissimilar to those other animals. However, some people have always contested human likeness to other animals, especially when it comes to the capacity for feeling pain.
One antiquated, yet not quite defunct, reason for speculating that other species cannot feel pain as humans do, was popularized by philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes. In 1637, Descartes deemed animals not to have minds or souls but merely to be mechanized beings that are incapable of feeling pain.
“One can well conceive that a machine may be so made as to emit words, and even that it may emit some in relation to bodily actions which cause a change in its organs, as, for example, if one were to touch it in a particular place, it may ask what one wishes to say to it; if it is touched in another place, it may cry out that it is being hurt, and so on; but not that it may arrange words in various ways to reply to the sense of everything that is said in its presence, in the way that the most unintelligent of men can do” (Descartes, 74). Descartes declared that animals are machines reacting automatically, sans feeling. A contemporary of Descartes observed men who, “Administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference, and made fun of those that pitied the creatures as if they felt pain.
They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that has been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling” (Serpell, 155But while Descartes’ theory that animals are mere machines allowed him and his contemporaries to injure animals without considering that they might be in pain, his theory has today served to disprove itself. “In a dialectical irony” Cartesianism has been its own undoing, by demonstrating more and more identical neurophysiological mechanisms in humans and animals, mechanisms which make it highly implausible that animals are merely machines if we are not” (Rollin, 153). Indeed, some species have been proven much too like humans not to feel pain.
Even fish, which were once thought of even by animal activists as too unlike humans to feel pain in any way that people do, are now considered to have nervous systems too developed not to feel pain. “While researchers are not sure which animals feel pain there is much evidence that animals who many people thought could not feel pain, in fact, do. Fish show responses to painful stimuli that resemble those of other animals, including humans” (Bekoff, 143). Very recently, a British study published in the New York Times concluded that fish feel pain despite a long-term thinking that they do not.
Sneddon and other scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh discovered that the fish displayed “profound behavioral and physiological changes” over a period of time, “comparable to those observed in higher mammals” (Cowell). The fish also seemed to experience “aftershocks” of pain other than the pain derived directly from the initial injections. “After the injections, Dr. Sneddon said, “fish demonstrated `rocking’ motion strikingly similar to the kind of motion seen in stressed higher vertebrates like mammals, and the trout injected with acetic acid were also observed to rub their lips onto the gravel in the tank and onto the tank walls.” (Cowell). All of these tests led to the conclusion that fish pain is reality.
“This indicates, the researchers believe, that fish can perceive pain,” the Royal Society said in a statement” (Cowell). It has even be determined that animals more dissimilar to humans than fish possess aspects of the nervous system that, in people, react to painful stimuli. “Even some invertebrates possess nerve cells that are associated with the feeling of pain in vertebrates” (Bekoff, 143). Moreover, these “lesser” animals actually have some of the same abilities as humans to rectify their pain.
“Endorphins [hormones found mainly in the brain that reduce the sensation of pain] have been found even in earthworms,” (Rollin, 154). In short, animals are conclusively more complex than simple machines, and, in some cases, are even capable of some of the same physiological capacity for pain sensation that people are. The case for animal pain is not only likely, but nearly indisputable without choosing to ignore fact. Too much subjective and objective, quantitative as well as qualitative, evidence supports the legitimacy of animal pain for a logical dispute to exist. Yet one does.
One potential reason for the persistence of the seemingly outdated, null and void argument against animal pain is that people are hard-pressed to witness animal pain when they have limited animal contact, which most people do. But denial of non-human animal pain is also incompatible with non-experiential proof that attests to the reality of pain in other animals. “It is surely unreasonable to suppose that nervous systems which are virtually identical physiologically, have a common origin and a common evolutionary function, and result in similar forms of behavior in similar circumstances should actually operate in an entirely different manner on the level of subjective feelings” (Singer, 12).
Another implausible means by which to disclaim animal pain is to surmise that because they fail to formally communicate to humans their pain, they do not actually feel pain. This argument is flawed because such inability to voice distress is also exhibited in some humans. Though people rarely doubt that babies and mentally handicapped humans feel pain, and they are sometimes less comprehensible than animals, babies, the mentally handicapped and non-human animals are equally incapable of formally expressing their pain.
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