Abstract: My paper challenges an influential distinction between pain and suffering put forward by physician-ethicist, Eric Cassell. I argue that Cassell’s distinction is philosophically untenable because he contrasts suffering with an outdated theory of pain. In particular, Cassell focuses on one type of pain, the interpretation of nociception induced by noxious stimuli such as heat or sharp objects; yet since the late 1970s, pain scientists have rendered both nociception and noxious stimuli unnecessary for pain. I argue that this discrepancy between Cassell’s distinction and pain science produces three philosophical problems for his distinction: first, he frames his distinction too generally, concentrating on only one type of pain (interpreted nociception) to the neglect of others, such as neuropathy; second, it is possible that Cassell’s understanding of pain may include suffering; and third, Cassell gives examples of pain and suffering manifesting independently of each other, but it is possible that these cases may instead exemplify differences between nociceptive and non-nociceptive types of pain. Due to these problems, I conclude that Cassell’s distinction currently lacks a difference. I call for new efforts to articulate the differences, if any, between pain and suffering.
Medical Humanities, 2021
Abstract: Suffering is an important theme in many bioethical debates, yet little historical research is available to contextualize ideas about it. My article proposes a preliminary intellectual history of suffering in bioethics using the field’s most trusted tertiary work, the four editions of the Encyclopedia of Bioethics (1978-2004), later renamed Bioethics (2014). In the first edition, I find suffering roughly conceptualized as either the negation of a good or as a pain. The former acquired a technical connotation beginning in the second edition, when physician Eric Cassell refined the negative aspects of suffering into a full-fledged theory. Now, suffering no longer marked the loss of just any good but instead threatened one’s purpose in relation to that good. Cassell also strongly distinguished suffering from pain which, when combined with his theory of suffering, hardened earlier distinctions between pain and suffering that were present but weak in the first encyclopedia. Both Cassell’s theory and his strong distinction impacted how other contributors moralized suffering in the later encyclopedias, although his influence was not total: utilitarians continued to moralize suffering in ways that still roughly construed it as pain. Consequently, Cassell and the utilitarians conflicted conceptually. Nevertheless, this tension went unfelt in the encyclopedias for reasons I describe. I close by suggesting areas for further historical research and argue for their relevance to bioethical inquiries into suffering.
Abstract: Eric Cassell famously defined suffering as a person’s severe distress at a threat to their personal integrity. This article draws attention to some problems with the concept of distress in this theory. In particular, I argue that Cassell’s theory turns on distress but does not define it which, in light of the complexity of distress, problematizes suffering in three ways: first, suffering becomes too equivocal to apply in at least some cases that Cassell nevertheless identifies as suffering; second, Cassell’s account does not explain what sort of experience suffering is, resulting in theoretical and practical difficulties in distinguishing it from other medical conditions; third, there is good reason to believe that in medical contexts, ‘distress’ just means ‘suffering’ or some cognate concept not yet distinguished from it, rendering Cassell’s theory circular. I consider a rebuttal to my objections and reply, concluding that Cassell’s theory of suffering needs a definition of distress to settle what the nature of suffering really is.
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