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Taking Animals Seriously

Mental Life and Moral Status
David DeGrazia
(ISBN 0-521-56760-2)


"As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: in their behaviour toward creatures, all men were Nazis"
Isaac Bashevis Singer

Most people who approach Taking Animals Seriously will share an unspoken presupposition. This is that animal activists take animals too seriously. They lack a sense of proportion. It's not that gratuitous cruelty to members of other species is morally defensible. Surely it isn't. If pressed, then all but the amoral, sociopathic or philosophically bewitched are likely to grant that wanton animal-abuse is best discouraged. Instead, the pervasive assumption is simply that animal suffering doesn't really matter much compared to the things that happen to human beings - to us. They, after all, are only animals: objects rather than our fellow subjects. Animal consciousness, insofar as it exists at all, is minimal and uninteresting.

        Contrast one's likely reaction on learning that the infant or toddler next door is being abused. Let's suppose that the abuse is being inflicted for fun or profit - or, more broadly, for purposes that can be described only as frivolous. In such a case, then one's intuitions are equally clear. The suffering of the victim has to be taken very seriously. One has a duty actively to prevent it. The interests of the child take precedence over the wishes of the abuser. In extreme cases, the adults involved in persistent abuse may need to be legally restrained or even locked up. Indeed, it is cases of failure on our part to take action to prevent it - or failure to take action by the social services or child-protection agencies - that demand justification. To treat the suffering caused by child-abuse lightly would be to show a sense of disproportion when confronted with the nature of the practices involved - and our capacity to do something about them.

        Yet here lies the crux.

        After Darwin, a huge and accumulating convergence of physiological, behavioural, genetic and evolutionary evidence suggests - but cannot prove - an appalling possibility. This is that hundreds of millions of the non-human victims of our actions are functionally akin - intellectually, emotionally and in their capacity to suffer - to very young humans. In the light of what we're doing to our victims, the consequences of their also being ethically akin to human babies or toddlers would be awful; in fact, almost too ghastly to think about.

        When we're confronted with such an emotive parallel, all sorts of psychological denial and defence-mechanisms are likely to kick in. Undoubtedly, too, animal-exploitation makes our lives so much more convenient. Not surprisingly, in view of what we're doing to them, there is a powerful incentive for us as humans to rationalise our actions.

         Numerous pretexts and rationalisations aimed at legitimating animal exploitation are certainly available; most of them seek to magnify the gulf between "us" and "them". Intellectually, however, they prove on examination to be surprisingly thin.

        Some of the alleged differences between "them" and "us" are entirely spurious: humans alone have souls, we are asked to believe, or enduring metaphysical egos. Other inter-species are genuine. There are the dissimilarities of gross physical appearance; the neuroanatomy of Broca and Wernicke's areas; the capacity of certain mature humans to define allegedly reciprocal notions of right and duty; or perhaps the elaborate network of social relationships in which typical human child-rearing practices are situated. Human babies and veal calves aren't literally carbon-copies of each other. Nor is the development of an individual organism just a fast-forward re-run of evolutionary history. So pace Haeckel, it's not simply the case that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". Yet once one accepts that inflicting readily avoidable suffering per se is morally wrong, then it is questionable how such differences that do exist between human and (at least) advanced vertebrate non-human beings are morally relevant differences.

        This argument isn't likely to sway the radical sceptic about animal consciousness. For in trying to appraise the sentience of other living beings - even one's adult fellow humans - it is notoriously hard to prove anything at all. The price of intellectual rigour, however, is a morally frivolous solipsism-of-the-here-and-now. Without merely begging the question, there's simply no logically compelling ground - just Santayana's "blind animal faith" - for believing that anything exists beyond the contents of this current frame of consciousness. Yet one wouldn't, for instance, let an (ostensibly) floundering toddler drown in a pond on the grounds of one's rational incapacity to penetrate beyond the veil of perception, devise a satisfactory theory of meaning, or prove the veridicality of memory, etc. Nor would one let the toddler perish because one intellectually believed that value-judgements were subjective and ethical claims truth-valueless. For when the consequences of being wrong are so terrible, then ethically one just has to play safe.

         In this review essay, at least, the more radical forms of philosophical scepticism about mind - though not about ethics - will simply be set aside. Such neglect may be justified on the grounds that if one were the proverbial brain-in-a-vat etc, then no harm would come from acting (pseudo-)morally; albeit no good either.

        Instead, rather than attempting to defeat the sceptic, a less counter-intuitive and naturalistic metaphysic will simply be assumed. Reality is indeed outlandishly weird in some of its properties. Yet there actually is a mind-independent world populated by embodied fellow subjects of experience; if there isn't, then one is harmlessly talking to oneself. Within the mind-independent world, there are fellow creatures who suffer, sometimes quite horribly. And granted merely that functionally equivalent young humans do sometimes suffer intensely, it seems overwhelmingly probable [see below] that the non-humans we treat as disposable objects of our convenience suffer horribly from what we do to them as well. If it can defensibly be argued that it's inherently morally wrong to harm and kill small children, then by parity of reasoning it is morally wrong to harm and kill functionally equivalent non-human victims too. To argue otherwise, it would be necessary either to dispute the premise, or alternatively to show that there are morally relevant differences between any human and any non-human which license our inconsistent attitudes and behaviour towards the two groups.

        Radical scepticism again aside, one might still hope, usually on unspecified grounds, that the neurochemical substrates that mediate pain, anxiety and terror in humans may mediate a providentially different texture of experience in our fellow vertebrates - or perhaps some sort of low-grade sentience which we don't seriously have to bother about. Once again, one can't prove that they don't. Perhaps the astonishing evolutionary conservation of neurochemical pathways which underlie nociception ["pain-perception"] construed in a narrowly physiological sense - involving serotonin, the periaquaductal grey matter, bradykinin, ATP receptors, the major opioid families, substance P etc - may amount to a wildly misleading coincidence; or are part of a spooky conspiracy designed to mislead us. Or again, perhaps the kinds of aversive experience that non-humans undergo are still rather dull and dim - akin to some of our own aches or itches. They may be a bit unpleasant, but they're scarcely of deep moral consequence.

        Yet not merely is this type of optimistic - or self-servingly sceptical - perspective radically non-Darwinian. It also violates the principle of the uniformity of Nature. The uniformity of Nature is a principle that admittedly flies under numerous variant formulations. It undoubtedly lends itself to all manner of philosophico-scientific subtleties. Yet complications aside, the existence of some sort of constancy of natural law is an assumption on which any non-sceptical account of human knowledge - or even mutually intelligible discourse - depends. So the onus of proof is on someone who seeks to deny some such basic uniformity - or makes an ad hoc exception just in the realm of the organic physiology of consciousness - to explain why the principle allegedly breaks down precisely at the most morally expedient place for homo sapiens.

        Now the idea that our descendants might regard our treatment of the creatures we hunt, butcher and factory-farm today in the sort of light we ourselves regard the abuse of human infants is - to typical Western scientific minds at least - intuitively absurd. At face value, it just isn't credible. Animal-abusers and child-abusers occupy radically different categories in our scheme of things. Yet this hypothesised gulf rests fundamentally on intuition; not on argument. Over the millennia, it has been genetically adaptive for us to exploit other creatures. Using them as expendable objects has helped strands of human self-replicating DNA leave lots more copies of itself ("maximise its inclusive fitness"). The very "naturalness" and adaptiveness of animal-exploitation, however, serves as a reason for us to trust our moral intuitions and their verbal rationalisations less, not more. For the wells of rationality have been poisoned from the outset. Our capacity for fair judgement is biochemically corruptible and genetically corrupted. Other things being equal, genes promoting a capacity for self-serving rationalisation will tend to get differentially favoured over those promoting impartial detachment. The literally self-centred nature of our individual virtual worlds - for we each live in a self-assembled neuronal VR world grotesquely focused on one egocentric body-image - attests to the technically defined selfish character of DNA-driven consciousness. In consequence of this inbuilt distortion, the 'reflective equilibrium' sought after by fans of ethical common-sense neglects the systematic genetic biases coded into the mechanisms by which our intuitions are formed. Such biases leave our intuitions, and the consequences we extract from them, even less dependable than intuitive folk-physics. Ethically, we simply can't be trusted; or trust ourselves.

        For if several hundred million human toddlers or babies were abused and killed each year - for food, fun, or scientific curiosity - then the compelling moral urgency of the animal issue would be undeniable. We'd find it hard to dispute the moral crisis - unless habit had made us so wholly desensitised to what we were doing that the mass-slaughter of human youngsters, too, had become "natural". In fact, our intermittent moral anguish over the surgical abortion of embryos/foetuses/unborn human children shows we are not always blind to the interests of the weak and defenceless; and our victims within the womb are neurologically and psychologically far less developed than the victims of our last meal. Perhaps the best hope of a revolutionary change in human attitudes to the victims of our ongoing animal holocaust is a dawning recognition on the part of many millions of people. This is that our current ethical stance to non-humans isn't just morally wrong but intellectually incoherent.

        So much for the rationale for this sort of book - and this review.

        David DeGrazia's treatise is an uneasy but impressive mixture of ethics, meta-ethics and scientifically-informed analytic philosophy of mind. It is a work of scholarship in the best sense. Not once, in spite of his obvious intensity of feeling and sense of the moral urgency of the issues, did I notice him slipping into overheated rhetoric or polemics.

        Actually, the issue isn't that simple. Fastidious restraint in one's language is sometimes a mixed blessing, even for the purposes of intellectual comprehension rather than advocacy. This is because moral apathy, the widespread sense that one's victims don't need taking seriously, is always easy if one doesn't really grasp the nature of what one is talking about. Clinically descriptive text is only more faithful to reality than its value-laden emotive counterpart if coolness of prose more accurately conveys to the reader what is really being described. And generally it doesn't. Vivisection experiments in medical journals, for example, are written up with practised, peer-sanctioned deceit. Academic philosophical treatments of animal-abuse are less Orwellian. Nonetheless, they commonly retreat into the abstruse in-house theory of rights and duties. Soon they clog up with dense layers of abstraction. This may be unavoidable; but the trouble with academic formality of language is that its remoteness from the raw immediacies of suffering hides how bad that suffering really is; and the desperate moral urgency of doing something to stop it.

        Our own semantic competence, then, shouldn't be taken for granted. Don't assume that you straightforwardly know what you're thinking and talking about if you assume that the suffering of various categories of other beings doesn't matter. By way of analogy, we'd recognise that someone who has seen only black-and white picture postcards of, say, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, hasn't really grasped the nature of Van Gogh's painting. The difference between a small grey postcard and the original masterpiece is so vast that one couldn't trust the artistic judgement of someone who has only experienced the former to pass judgement on the latter. (S)He wouldn't know what he was saying. Yet we're far more ready to grant that someone can grasp the content of - and thus potentially pass moral judgement on - what is meant by, for instance, 'factory farming', 'slaughterhouse methods', or 'veal crates', even though they've merely read a piece of text (nominally) about it. The morally dangerous presumption of semantic competence is widespread and implicit even though the words of abuse themselves evoke only an inadequate mild unease or distaste. Such rarefied sentiments cannot possibly capture or evoke the felt horror of what takes place from the perspective of the victim.

        For perspectival facts and subjective "raw feels" are an objective feature of Reality; even though we don't scientifically understand why they exist. Without them, nothing could matter - whether to itself or to anything else. If we the abusers could apprehend the horrors we perpetrate on the abused as fellow subjects rather than ill-conceived objects, then we couldn't be so complacent about what we're doing. But the world isn't like that. Worse, the victim's viewpoint isn't a perspective with which most of us even try to empathise - not even for a few seconds. Who cares? Get a life! Alas, the culture of abuse is just too pervasive.

        To a large extent, we are in any case deliberately shielded from what we're paying for. Our willing complicity - and sometimes wilful failure of the imagination - doubtless contributes to the still prevalent sense that what we're doing to other life-forms doesn't in truth matter all that much. So it's worth quoting - however unrepresentative they are of DeGrazia's book as a whole - from the only two pages in Taking Animals Seriously which really begin to hint at what happens in contemporary animal husbandry.

        Since World War Two, traditional family farms have largely gone out of business. They have been superseded by what's blandly known as factory-farming. Factory-farms seek to raise as many animals as possible in the smallest possible space in order to maximise profits. The single-minded pursuit of profit has the corollary that animals are nothing but meat-producing objects. They have been overwhelmingly treated as such. Here is DeGrazia talking about the fate of the 100 million mammals and 5 billion birds slaughtered annually in the USA alone:

"After hatching broiler chickens are moved to enclosed sheds containing automatic feeders and waterers. From 10 000 to 75 000 birds are kept in a single shed, which becomes increasingly crowded as they grow at an abnormally fast rate. Crowding often leads to cannibalism and other aggressive behaviors; another occurrence is panic-driven piling on top of each other, sometimes causing suffocation. Concerns about the possibility of aggression have led many farmers to debeak their chickens, apparently through sensitive tissue. By slaughter time, chickens have as little as six tenths of a square-foot apiece. There is typically little ventilation, and the never-cleaned droppings produce an air thick with ammonia, dust and bacteria."

"Laying hens live their lives in "battery" cages made entirely of wire. Cages are so crowded that hens can seldom fully stretch their wings; debeaking is common practice to limit the damage of the hens' pecking cagemates. For hours before laying an egg, a hen, deprived of any nest, paces anxiously amid the mob; at egg laying time, she must stand on a sloped, uncomfortable wire floor that precludes the instinctual behaviors of scratching, dust bathing, and pecking for food. Unnatural conditions, lack of normal exercise and demands for high egg production cause bone weakness. Some hens undergo forced molting, stimulated by up to twelve days without food. When considered spent, hens are stuffed into crates and transported in uncovered trucks for slaughter; during handling and transport, many (over two thirds in one study) incur broken bones. Laying hens and broiler chickens have the same fate; They are shackled upside down, fully conscious, on conveyor belts before their throats are cut by an automated knife. (Hens' brothers have short lives due to their commercial uselessness. After hatching, they are dumped into plastic sacks and left to suffocate, or ground up while still alive to make feed for their sisters.)"

"Hogs, a highly intelligent and social species, have virtually nothing to do in factory farms except stand up, lie down, eat and sleep. Usually deprived of straw and other sources of amusement, and separated from each other by iron bars in small crates, hogs appear to suffer greatly from boredom. Sometimes they amuse themselves by biting a tail in the next crate. Industry's increasingly common response is to cut off their tails - a procedure that, like castration of males, is usually done without anesthesia. Hogs stand on either wire mesh, slatted floors, or concrete floors - all highly unnatural footings. Poor ventilation and accumulated waste products cause powerful fumes. Hogs are often abused at the loading and unloading stage of transport, particularly at the slaughterhouse. Rough handling sometimes includes the use of whips and electrical 'hot shots'."

"Veal calves are probably worse off than other farm animals. Shortly after birth, they are taken from their mothers and transported considerable distances - often with rough handling, exposure to the elements, and no food or rest. At the veal barn, they are confined in solitary crates too small to allow them to turn round or even sleep in a natural position. Denied solid food and water, they are given a liquid milk replacer deficient in iron (in order to produce the gourmet white flesh), resulting in anemia. Because it is drunk from buckets, rather than suckled, the liquid food often enters the rumen rather than the true stomach, causing diarrhea and indigestion. The combination of deprivations sometimes results in such neurotic behaviors as sucking the boards of crates and stereotyped tongue-rolling."

"Like their veal-calf siblings, many dairy cows, as calves, never receive colostrum - the milk produced by their mothers which helps to fight diseases. More and more they are confined either indoors or in overcrowded drylots (which have no grass). Unanesthetised tail docking is increasingly performed. In order to produce some twenty times the amount of milk a calf would need, dairy cows are fed a diet heavy in grain - as distinct from the roughages for which their digestive tracts are suited - creating health problems that include painful lameness and metabolic disorders, which are exacerbated by confinement. About half U.S. dairy cows at any one time have mastitis, a painful udder. Many cows today are given daily injections of Bovine Growth Hormone to stimulate additional growth and increase milk production (despite a surplus of dairy products). Although their natural life span is about twenty to twenty-five years, at about age four, dairy cows become unable to maintain production levels and are transported for slaughter. Most processed beef comes from them."

"Cattle raised specifically for beef are, on the whole, better off than the other farm animals already described. Many of the cattle get to roam in the outdoors for about six months. Then they are transported long distances to feedlots, where they are fattened up on grain rather than grass. Craving roughage, the cattle often lick their own and other cattle's coats; the hair that enters the rumen sometimes causes abscesses. Most feedlots do not confine intensively. Their major sources of distress are the boredom likely to result from a barren environment, unrelieved exposure to the elements, dehorning (which cuts through arteries and other tissue), branding, the cutting of ears into special shapes for identification purposes, and unanesthetized castration (which involves pinning the animal, cutting his scrotum, and ripping out each testicle)."

"Transporting hogs and cattle for slaughter - which can entail up to three days without food, water, or rest - typically results in conspicuous weight loss and other signs of deprivation. The slaughtering process itself is likely to cause fear. The animals are transported on a conveyor belt or goaded up a ramp in the stench of their fellows' blood. In the best of circumstances, animals are rendered unconscious by a captive-bolt gun or electric shock before their throats are slit."

        This horrible suffering occurs, one has to remind oneself, primarily because we enjoy the taste of meat; and because our appetites are financially profitable.