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Worlds That Matter

"The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withheld from them but by the hand of tyranny...a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything that breathes..."
Jeremy Bentham

Chapter One of Taking Animals Seriously contains a concise and extremely useful view of the recent scholarly literature. Perhaps it would be a good idea if future editions included a potted cross-cultural and historical context too. This background would be helpful lest the unwary student suppose that the moral status of animals was the discovery of a far-sighted bunch of Anglophone analytic philosophers twenty-five years ago.

        DeGrazia divides recent scholarly output into two generations. This schema is not entirely convincing, but it's still convenient:

  • 'First generation' work on animal ethics was written by utilitarians, most notably Peter Singer (Animal Liberation 1975 rev. ed. 1995); and animal rights theorists, most notably Tom Regan (The Case for Animal Rights; Berkeley: University of California Press; 1983).

  • 'Second generation' scholarship, characteristic of authors such as Mary Midgley (Animals and Why They Matter Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983) and S.F.Sapontzis (Morals, Reasons and Animals Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987) the latter abandon system-building and previous efforts to ground ethics in reason-derived ahistorical norms. Also forming part of this 'second generation' scholarship are Rosemary Rodd's scientifically sophisticated contribution (Biology, Ethics and Animals: Oxford, Clarendon 1990); and, rather incongruously, philosopher Peter Carruthers' The Animals Issue. Carruthers advances the thesis that the mental states of animals are all non-conscious.

Taking Animals Seriously itself seeks to transcend the old utility-versus-rights debate. It aims throughout to explore the mental life and moral status of animals in an empirically-informed manner. DeGrazia deploys the non-foundationalist "coherence-based" methodology of ethical justification that he develops in Chapter Two to argue that many kinds of animal do - and many don't - have moral status. He takes great pains to explain what the crucial but disastrously ill-named principle of equal consideration of interests for animals actually means; and, no less relevantly, what it doesn't. DeGrazia spells out (p 37) that "giving as much moral weight to human interests as we give to relevantly similar human interests does not entail:

  • identical rights for humans and animals
  • a moral requirement to treat humans equally
  • the absence of any morally interesting differences between animals and humans
  • "

        Drawing on a wide range of ethological research, DeGrazia sets out the principled grounds on which morally relevant similarities and differences can be identified in potential bearers of moral status. He argues, convincingly, that a very diverse range of animals have feelings, desires and beliefs. Intriguing and disconcerting evidence is presented that a whole repertoire of mental properties, and even language, are not, as many non-Darwinian-minded philosophers have claimed - all-or-none properties peculiar to humans.

        DeGrazia also offers a good discussion of the contemporary academic literature in animal physiology and ethology. With plenty of complications and some exceptions, modern research suggests that the distinction between vertebrates and non-vertebrates - by itself, under such a description, an ethically trivial distinction - may in fact serve as a rough-and-ready marker for much more profound and morally important differences altogether.

        Admittedly, all non-humans might have been radically unlike humans and still commanded moral status. Or rather the issue would still need to be argued, not just presupposed. After all, one day insentient silicon robotic isomorphs of organic life may have ostensible functional analogues not just to pain, but to morals, meta-ethics, and even to traditional religious casuistry; though perhaps silicon theologians overtax our imagination. So it still needs to be spelt out why insentient objects, artefacts or life-forms - whether amenable to functional description or otherwise - don't merit genuine moral status; and why they have don't have any interests which need to be taken into account. [This sweeping statement disguises a contentious assumption: that only organic systems have unitary experiential manifolds as distinct from discrete and fleeting specks of consciousness. We are such manifolds because only organic minds have a functional architecture based on the extraordinary and unique valence properties of the carbon atom. Carbon's functionally unique attributes are indispensable to the formation of the "warm" quantum coherent states which hypothetically mediate unitary fields of experience. This QM-invoking solution to Sellars' notorious "grain problem" of consciousness is discussed in my review of Chalmers. It's worth noting that organic functionalist arguments for moral carbon chauvinism are scarcely received wisdom; and must rank as speculative]

        As it happens, however, the neo-Darwinian synthesis confirms the fact that human and non-human vertebrates are similar where not type-identical in the category that matters most. This is the category that grounds, and gives rise to, our very notion of mattering in the first instance - the pleasure-pain axis. A universe without any kind of feelings in its ontology would be a universe in which nothing mattered or had any importance; and in the realm of phenomenology, appearance and reality are one-and-the-same. Things which are felt intensely matter more. If your pain - or an animal's or extra-terrestrial's pain - doesn't matter to me, that it is because I have failed to apprehend it. For it is a different, anaemic experience or spuriously objectified third-person fact which I have in mind instead.

        If we could apprehend the real first-person agonies of a member of another species, or even acknowledge that such agonies are part of the real ontology of the world, then we might be less callous in our treatment of non-humans. Unfortunately - doting pet-owners apart - we find cross-species empathy very hard; and for the sake of our victims, if not always perhaps good ethological method, it might be better if we actually "anthropomorphised" more, not less. Although not logically sound, the best way to promote the desperately needed revolution in our treatment of other life-forms may well be to convince people that in the relevant respects non-humans are just like "us" - or possibly reshape our notions of just who we are. This mode of persuasion is more likely to be effective simply because it consists in forcing us to think through the full implications of what we already believe. It doesn't ask us to revise our basic values and presuppositions. This would be a far harder task altogether. Precepts such as "act so as to minimise needless suffering" are, for sure, infuriatingly imprecise. Yet their unexceptionable woolliness helps to command assent and lays out a minimum of common ground needed to take the argument forward.

        Ethical utilitarians explicitly focus on our shared capacity for pain and pleasure: the sovereign nice-nasty axis construed in the broadest sense. Unfortunately, the DNA-driven "encephalisation of emotion" makes many of us grant greater moral weight to a high nominal IQ than emotional well-being. IQ is an ill-defined and ideologically-disputed notion bound up with the vaunted human capacity to churn out logical inferences. As traditionally conceived, the notion ignores our shared capacity for feeling and "emotional IQ" altogether. And it is the quality and intensity of feeling which determines whether - and how much - those logical inferences, or anything else, actually matters to anyone at all. To some extent, I fear, DeGrazia's otherwise admirable and extensive discussion of animal cognition encourages this tendency to focus on intentional objects [this further "essentially contested" term is philosophy-speak for what we think etc "about"] rather than why these objects do - or don't - have any significance. This preoccupation with the "cognitive" is both a shame and a danger; for to focus on animal minds interpreted in a narrow intellectualist sense is to focus on an area where in many respects they are demonstrably inferior to least most mature humans; whereas in the case of their ethically crucial capacity to suffer, the evidence is at best mixed.

        So next, granted some minimal principle of the uniformity of nature, it's worth briefly exploring the biochemical substrates of two particularly distressing modes of aversive experience. Where are they found, and where are they absent, within the phylogenetic tree? How should their absence or prevalence lead us to re-examine our traditional ideas of the moral status of members of other species; and, crucially, to the way that we behave towards them?