by Brian Tomasik
First written: 2006; last update: 15 Mar. 2016
This page gives some links to depictions of real human and animal suffering. While general terms like
suffering can sometimes feel abstract and detached, this material is a reminder of what they really mean -- and why our efforts to reduce suffering are so important.
Note: If you're at risk of being triggered by distressing images, don't watch the videos on this page.
- "ISIS burns hostage alive" (skip ahead to 18 mins). This is a haunting video depicting maybe the worst suffering I've ever seen a real person endure.
- "16-year-old girl beaten & burned alive by mob"
- a woman is stoned and burned alive
- Brazen bull
- "10 Most Frightening Torture Techniques from the Middle Ages"
- "List of China Modern Torture Methods (slideshow)"
- piglet sacrifice in Nepal
- fish eaten alive
- eels skinned alive
- slowly cutting off a chicken's head
- breaking a chicken's neck
- ants killing centipede
- live peeled frogs
- frog eaten by piranhas
- Lion Eating Antelope Testis When It's Alive
- pig screaming while its throat is slit
- Mercy for Animals investigations
- factory-farming videos via Vegan Outreach
- halal slaughter of cows and lambs (halal meat is being sold in some conventional restaurants because it circumvents conventional animal-welfare standards).
- Tyson chicken slaughter -- this video shows that when stunning goes down, birds end up being scalded while conscious
- Indonesian ritual slaughter.
The depictions underscore the fact that animal slaughter in the developing world is likely far worse than in factory farms.
A verbal account
A pointed me to Irukandji syndrome. From the article:
The severity of the pain from an Irukandji jellyfish sting is apparent in the 2005 Discovery Channel documentary Killer Jellyfish about Carukia barnesi, when two Australian researchers (Jamie Seymour and Teresa Carrette) are stung. Even under the "maximum dose of morphine", Teresa remarked she "wished she could rip her skin off", and is later seen writhing uncontrollably from the pain while lying on her hospital bed. [...] Jamie said he wished that he was stung by Chironex fleckeri, instead, since "the pain goes away in 20 minutes or you die".
On the television program Super Animal, a woman compared her pain from childbirth to her experience with Irukandji syndrome: "It's like when you're in labor, having a baby, and you've reached the peak of a contraction -- that absolute peak -- and you feel like you just can't do it anymore. That's the minimum that [Irukandji] pain is at, and it just builds from there."
Physical vs. mental pain
Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase of pain. Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes [...].
--George Orwell, 1984, Part 3, Chapter 1
The point conveyed by Orwell's quotation is powerful, even though technically the statement isn't correct. For one thing, pain doesn't always feel bad, and for another thing, physical pain may not be the worst form. Both of these complaints are cavils in my opinion because they don't change what Orwell was trying to say. Of course he meant the "bad kind" of pain when he said "pain," and the distinction between "physical" and "mental" pain is fuzzy and ultimately unimportant.
Sometimes pain can be satisfying. Hard work -- in the "no pain, no gain" sense -- can be rewarding not just afterward but even in the moment, partly due to endorphins and partly due to a "spiritual" sense of a will to continue persevering against challenge. This is not the same as suffering. Suffering refers to unpleasant, aversive experiences, whether in the form of physical pain, anxiety, depression, fear, or even philosophical distress. Its mild forms are tolerable and might suggest that suffering isn't that bad, but its worst forms can be so awful as to blow everything else out of the water.
I often hear people say that mental pain is worse than physical pain, and in my own life, that's probably true, but I think this says more about the conditions in which I live than it does about possible magnitudes of pain for the human nervous system. We in rich countries basically don't have much physical pain, until we develop a severe ailment or break a leg or undergo childbirth, but we still have plenty of anxiety, depression, social conflict, etc. However, if you actually experienced the full magnitudes of possible pains, I'm pretty sure the physical sort would be much worse. I would rather be depressed for months or years rather than burn at the stake for one minute. I haven't experienced Irukandji, but maybe I would feel similarly about that. Some things are just so bad they make everything else seem trivial.
I think similar factors lead people to underestimate the badness of extreme pain (e.g., being burned alive) relative to mild pain. Most of us have never experienced anything as bad as being burned alive, but we do experience plenty of minor pains on a regular basis. Minor pains tend to be most available in our minds, while we tend to forget how bad the most extreme pains we've felt were.