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Pain versus suffering: a distinction currently without a difference

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 I argue that Cassell’s distinction is philosophically untenable because he contrasts suffering with an outdated theory of pain.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.

  • end-of-life
  • general medicine / internal medicine
  • pain management
  • palliative care
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