No Pain, No Sympathy

Which living things have rights? Do animals? Human embryos? Plants? Is it consciousness or complexity or being human or the capacity for pain that makes an individual life worth our empathy?

The debate over animal rights has reinforced one ancient measure of an organism’s worth. An organism that shows signs of experiencing pain is said to be entitled to live without that pain. These sentient beings include cats and dogs and most of the animals that we eat or use for clothing or experiment on. Insects, with their minimal nervous systems, are on the margin of the sentience line.

Below the line are the simplest animals such as sponges and jellyfish, along with plants and single-celled bacteria and other microbes. These don’t experience suffering and have no awareness of a kind that we would recognize. They may have value collectively as part of the environment, but a single jellyfish or an individual plant has no standing for human commiseration.

diseased tree (

Although I understand its role in the cause of animal rights, I find this sentience distinction unsatisfying. If an organism appears to be “feeling” a disease or injury, we give its condition more weight and urgency than we would if the organism—a plant, for example—was one that did not consciously experience such a condition. A tree may be attacked by insects or suffer other life-threatening conditions, but if we are accustomed to imagining the terror of a pig going to slaughter, we probably won’t empathize much with the stress on the tree as chemical messages sweep through it.

When we feel compassion for another being that is in dire straits, what are we feeling sympathy for, exactly? Is it for the possible loss of an individual life? Is it for the dangerous condition that is attacking the organism? Or is it for the pain that the organism is enduring? I think it is the last, if only because the evident pain in an animal reminds us of our own discomforts. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that non-sentient beings, though without visible torment, may struggle, crave, and weaken as relentlessly as sentient ones.

To me, the persistence of life over 3.8 billion years endows all living things, both with and without awareness, with value, if only because that history includes ourselves. I’m not recommending the ludicrous extreme of not killing plants; we, like all animals, can not survive without eating other living things, either plant or animal. But I am suggesting that we heighten our awareness of the sentience distinction that cleaves the living world in two and can diminish our connection with non-sentient life.

Suicide and Evolution

Where does suicide fit in the course of human evolution? Has natural selection been, so to speak, against suicide, or accepting of it, or indifferent to it?

We might hope that evolution is gradually finding suicide to be disadvantageous and is pushing it aside. That seems reasonable because suicide appears contrary to evolution’s prime directive to pass on one’s genes or to assist one’s kin in doing so. As Cornell anthropologist Meredith Small has put it in “Why Doesn’t Evolution Discourage Suicide?” “When young people kill themselves, their genes are eliminated from the gene pool; when adults kill themselves they can no longer care for dependent children; when elderly people kill themselves, they, too, abdicate the role of caring parent for the next generations.” At every age, suicide interrupts genetic continuity.

But—apart from the fact genetic change rarely happens quickly—unfortunately suicide shows no signs of slacking off. (Recently in Russia, an average of five adolescents killed themselves every day). One obstacle is that suicide is not traceable to a single trait that can be selected against. Moreover, some of its key components are very desirable traits, such as sensitivity to the opinions of others and the ability to imagine the future.

If natural selection has not been selecting against suicidal individuals, perhaps it has been selecting in favor of them for some reason, or did so for the tens of thousands of years prior to our historical era. Perhaps, at a reproductive level, the suicidal person’s relatives were in some ways better off after he or she was dead.



One version of this thesis was that of Denys deCatanzaro in the 1980s. As summed up by  Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering, the idea is that “Human brains are designed by natural selection in such a way as to encourage us to end our own lives when facing certain conditions, because this was best for our suicidal ancestors’ overall genetic interests.” Which conditions? A person might believe, rightly or wrongly, that he or she is a burden to the family, will not have children of his or her own, or can not make any positive contributions to the family or society. Such people, the theory goes, would all be most prone to suicide and their family in the long run would be better off as a result. Perhaps such self-selection was true enough for long enough in the past that it still operates today.

A difficulty with this theory is that suicide is linked not just to family and reproductive issues but to a wide range of mental, physical, and social problems. The list of conditions correlated with suicide is long: addictions, imprisonment, chronic pain, unemployment, brain injury, most mental disorders, abuse as a child, suicidal parents, peer pressure, post-traumatic stress disorder, low serotonin. While many of these conditions might limit one’s capacity to contribute to others, they don’t point noticeably towards a family being better off as the result of a suicide.

Natural selection’s third option concerning suicide, and possibly the most likely, is indifference. Perhaps, on the whole, the killing of the self out of misery neither harms nor improves the fit between humans and their environment. And the number of suicides has probably not been large enough to make a difference in our long-term development as humans, for one thing.  Moreover, isolated, sickly and self-destructive thoughts and acts are the products of the same brains that make an individual happy and healthy. Suicidal moods have been likened to very destructive weather: the same atmospheric forces that create an exquisite day can, in the right combination, result in a disastrous one. After all, we all have the capacity for the acute sense of social failure along with the intense preoccupation with the self that sets the stage for suicide.

The Walkers

Sometimes when I’m waiting in a lobby or near a sidewalk, I’m drawn for a few moments to imagine that all the people strolling by me are doing so even though I have died and am not actually there. I’m imagining that even without me alive and present, the people around me are doing just what they are doing right now. Some audiences like to watch the zombies on The Walking Dead. My preference is for watching the walking living.

This mode of people-watching seems a bit morbid, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s reassuring—for reasons I don’t fully understand. It’s a reminder that all these other lives will carry on easily without me, and that’s a cheering thought. It does of course have a sad side—I’ll be missing out on the life that others still enjoy. But for me, the idea of death comes with a twinge of anxiety about obliteration, about a calamitous end-of-everything. Watching others walking seems to relieve that. Maybe it’s because walking is so sustained and purposeful (even for zombies).

Most of the time, when I’m feeling reasonably healthy and upbeat, it is extremely difficult to believe that I will die. I can contemplate the constancy of change and the brevity of life all I want, but a gut-level conviction of my mortality does not come easily. And I’m not sure I really want it to. I think most living things are geared for staying alive, for “not going gently into that good night,” for resisting death. But I can raise my level of acceptance a little as a ghost watcher of the walking living.