- Which nonhuman animals experience conscious pain? This question is central to the debate about animal welfare, as well as being of basic interest to scientists and philosophers of mind.
- Nociception – the capacity to sense noxious stimuli – is one of the most primitive sensory capacities. Neurons functionally specialized for nociception have been described in invertebrates such as the leech Hirudo medicinalis and the marine snail Aplysia californica (Walters 1996). Is all nociception accompanied by conscious pain, even in relatively primitive animals such as Aplysia, or is it the case, as some philosophers continue to maintain, that conscious experiences are the exclusive province of human beings? What philosophical and scientific resources are presently available for assessing claims lying between these extremes?
- These questions are of practical as well as theoretical concern.
- The first section of this essay describes the practical issues both as they relate to weaknesses in current animal welfare law and as they relate to the insufficiency of existing philosophical work on pain to support the development of more adequate regulations.
- In the second and third sections I evaluate recent philosophical arguments for and against the attribution of conscious pain to animals, and explain how scientific work on humans and other animals undermines these arguments.
- The final section on the biological functions of pain argues that philosophical work in this area has relied on overly simple ideas about the functions of pain. Recent scientific work suggests a more nuanced view about the functions of pain, and provides us the best hope for progress in understanding the nature of pain and its distribution in the animal kingdom.
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