new book: ‘Animal Suffering: Philosophy and Culture’

Posted on November 22, 2012


Today (22nd November), an item was posted on titled ‘Animal Suffering: Philosophy and Culture’; this is a review of a book with that title, written by Elisa Aaltola and published July 2012. The review was written by Christopher Belshaw, Senior Lecturer in Philosopy at the Open University.

‘… Do we really need a book like this? Isn’t it perfectly obvious that animals suffer, and that their suffering matters? Well, hardly. In fact, it may instead seem obvious that most animals – insects, molluscs, worms – don’t suffer at all, and about millions of others suffering is moot. Elisa Aaltola fully recognises this, of course, and focuses mostly on bigger prey – the things that we hunt, eat and wear.

Even here, however, suffering hasn’t been obvious. Notoriously, Rene Descartes put it about that animals are kinds of soft-bodied automata, with nothing going on inside. And not a few people listened. Only with Jeremy Bentham did animal suffering become more properly acknowledged. This isn’t to say it is now simply a given: there remain serious questions about such suffering, with some reputable thinkers still unpersuaded.

Does this suffering matter? Bentham insists that it does, and probably most people today, or at least most of us, will agree. The pertinent disputes are about extent. It is easy enough to say, for example, that other things being equal, we’d be rid of animal suffering. But if we suppose that things are not equal whenever we want the hamburger, the shampoo, the leather shoes or the new motorway (for we need to recognise the price paid by animals because we travel at certain speeds on roads that we want built, in cars whose manufacture eats into nature, powered by fuel that in various ways plays havoc with land and sea), then the suffering will go on.

So how much does it matter? Aaltola here treads familiar ground, complaining – in spite of Bentham – that utilitarianism sells animals short and that rights talk is too abstract to have real purchase. Yet move beyond the debates about factory farming, animal experimentation and the like, and there are more interesting questions to be pursued …’

Read the review in full and add your comment online at


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