Thursday, 5 April 2012

Animal suffering

A cat suffering through a bad pun

A common argument for awarding animals moral rights is based on the notion of animal suffering. Since animals can suffer pain, some argue, they have moral rights. Thus we are morally obliged to prevent animal suffering. This conclusion is often directed at supporting the animal rights movement, and opposing the maltreatment of animals in the production of meat for human consumption, or animal testing.
Arguments such as this raise interesting questions surrounding how we view the relationship between humans and animals. Due to considerations surrounding human consciousness (see previous post - the Explanatory Gap), it might be tempting to place human beings in a fundamentally different category to animals, and use the fact that we are intellectually, morally and sociologically ‘transcendent’ as evidence for this. However, many supporters of the above argument (most notably Peter Singer) swing to the opposite extreme. On account of our common evolutionary origins, Singer argues, we are fundamentally just highly developed animals and nothing more. To discriminate against animals thus amounts to ‘species-ism’ - something analogous to racism. It is on these grounds that animals should be awarded moral 'rights'.
Perhaps Singer is right, and only through a misplaced sense of worth do we assume that we have transcended the evolutionary order. However, consider an unwelcome consequence of this reductive view. It would seem to follow that, since animals have moral rights on account of their ability to suffer, we have a duty to do all in our power to prevent animal suffering (apart from in extreme cases, where there are over-riding moral grounds not to do so). This would include actively intervening in nature to prevent one animal causing another animal to suffer. On this basis, we might accuse David Attenborough and his team of gross moral indecency for not intervening when sitting back and watching a lion hunting an antelope.

The advocate of animal rights cannot appeal to the old dictum ‘let nature run its course’ here to rule out this case, as on their view, human beings are as fundamentally part of the natural order as lions or antelopes. Since we have an obligation to prevent animal suffering, why not intervene? The case is especially forceful if one argues that, on the whole, there is more suffering overall in the (non-human) animal kingdom than good.

I (and I’m sure many others) don’t agree that we are morally obliged to intervene to save antelopes from lions - it’s a bizarre and impractical thing to suggest. But since we would ordinarily feel morally obliged to help a suffering human in need, and given Singer’s view that there is no fundamental moral difference between humans and animals, where and how can we draw the line?



  1. I have an exam on speciesism and animal rights in may - this is a really concise bit of writing, so I've sent it round my tutor group. Thanks tom!

    In addition to those you have mentioned, one of the problems I have with Singer is that I'm not sure that things are as black and white as he makes out (or rather, needs?). After all, in order for his argument to be compelling, the comparison of interests cannot become so complicated as to become less 'practical ethics' and more 'impractical ethics' (sorry)

    For example, Singer's argument against eating battery chicken ( whilst I do not buy battery farmed produce myself, I am not sure I would argue that persons buying it are immoral) is a simple one: Suffering VS enjoyment/positive preference - our enjoyment does not justify the suffering and we cannot sacrifice a major interest for a minor one.

    But perhaps here is a problem, it seems to me there are a lot more interests concerned here than just the eater and the eaten. Surely we must consider the interests of the workers at that farm in having a job, the interest of their family in being fed, educated etc, the suffering from the redundancy that might be caused if we accepted that battery chicken is immoral and perhaps even the interest of the customer in buying value chicken. If an interest is an interest, where do we stop, and how to we prioritise?

    Singer says that precision isn't important, but I am not sure of the extent that chickens can feel mental anguish - surely this is critical to working out whether they indeed constitute a 'major interest'. If our goal is reduce net suffering surely we must consider the broader range of preferences above to ensure we are not accidentally increasing.

  2. Every creature suffers throughout life.
    Every creature dies.
    Why should we be morally responsible to prevent something that cannot be prevented?
    The only true mercy is a quick, painless death.

  3. You geniuses need to realise that there's a distinction between 'pain' as a physiological process involving, but not limited to, the production and reception of current at various points in the body, and 'suffering' as a kind of *experience* of pain - a conscious recognition that the body is undergoing this process, and an associated discomfort of the conscious mind. As a human, we automatically associate the former with the latter. This may not be true for animals.

    If I stab a human (let's assume in a minor context, such that no permanent damage is done to its tissue or organ systems), then yes, pain receptors are activated in the skin, and yes, this triggers a flow of current around various neurons. So what? What differentiates this from one of the multitude of other physical process that occur in the human body? It is the mental state of the human - the ability to recognise that it is in pain, which inherently requires a degree of self-awareness, and self-reflection. Any organism can experience the physical process behind pain, but to *suffer* - that is, to experience pain on a conscious level - it must *be* conscious. For an organism to register that it is in pain, it must register that it exists.

    Noone can really assert whether animals are self-aware in this way, due to the complexities of the animal brain. But consider that I program a robot, that nominally looks like a small animal. I install a sensor on the robot which identifies when damage is inflicted on its outer casing. I install a set array of responses to identification of such damage, such as the robot making whining noises, or running away from the identified source of the damage - whatever. I then inflict damage on the robot, and watch as it hops around and squeals and runs away.

    Is the robot suffering? No, it's following a script. Consider now a small animal. Consider inflicting pain on the animal. Observe how it responds. What makes you believe that this animal is not a glorified robot - an organic robot, evolved rather than designed, but still essentially programmed to act in a certain way at certain times. Humans can be demonstrated to be different - having a concept of self, a subject consciousness, this differentiates them from robots. But animals? Particularly primitive animals? Think again motherfuckers.

    P.S. On trying to post this comment for the first time, I was required to prove that I am not a robot. Good humour.

  4. Bad bad logic. Analogy only works if you equip the robot with active functional nerves, so that it FEELS the pain.

    Much more to contravene in your argument, but life is too short. And I must escape the pain of this sophistry.

  5. Then equip a robot with active functional nerves (as opposed to the inactive and non-functional variety). Google how nerves work - they're just logic gates. Google logic gate. Google logic.

  6. Jeff McMahan wrote an article for the NY Times a couple years back that you might find relevant:

    Also a couple of quick thoughts.

    This doesn't strike me as a major problem for anyone who believes that we ought to do what makes the outcome better, and accepts that animal suffering is bad. If I am walking down the alley behind my house and see a dog viciously attacking another weaker dog, and if stopping the attack results in the best outcome, then I ought to stop the act. Now, if rather than another dog, it is an adult lion attacking, chances are my intervention will make the outcome much worse, because I will surely be killed. If I had a gun this might change. It seems like a pretty easy problem in straightforward cases like this. What you're suggesting is that we have an obligation to manipulate nature in toto. We are obligated to seek out predators and stop them, but again this is assuming that it will make the outcome better. I'm quite certain that this will make the outcome much worse than other available actions. The time and resources required to do anything of that sort in a systematic way would be much better spent elsewhere. The fact of the matter is that factory farming creates many times more suffering than what occurs in natural predation, and is a much easier problem to affect individually and as a whole.

    Also someone can accept the weaker claim that we do not have an obligation to prevent suffering, but we are obligated to not cause undue suffering. If someone accepts this weaker claim then they only have to mind their causal agency in a positive way, and can ignore it in the negative way (stopping things from happening outside of your own activity). So they could say they have no obligation to stop the dog fight, but are obligated to not buy factory farmed eggs. This might be a specious claim though, as it almost just sort of seems like word games.

    I'm not sure how compelling either of these rejoinders are, but they might serve as food for thought!

  7. I think the important point here is that for each of us, human or non-human, the desire to remain alive is equal. This is a commonality of the self-preservation required for successful evolutionary development. We are all programmed to 'see' the continuation of our own lives as paramount, even if this may often only be subconscious.
    If we accept this truism, it follows that irrespective of the value we may or may not assign to the chicken, the chicken herself will 'see' the continuation of her life as being of as great importance as we see the continuation of ours..

    We can prove this by comparing with what we already know. We could find a human with the same mental capacity as the chicken (a severe retard for example) and say, as with the chicken, that they probably don't have the same awareness of their life 'deep and hence their life matters less than ours. However, we surely agree that to make such an assumption in this case would be unreasonable. We can see that if any of us were to suffer brain damage and become retards tomorrow we would not want others to decide the 'worth' (and even the continuation) of our lives. Admittedly one we had become the retard we may not consciously think about it either way but we would wish to continue or self autonomy in anticipation of ever having to become one
    Why would it be any different for the chicken?

    Importantly both the chicken and the retard have interests to not die, irrespective of self awareness, and it is these interests we are morally obliged to respect.
    This is explained much better in this article...


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