In praise of speciesism

by John Quiggin on August 12, 2005

Nicholas Gruen at Troppo Armadillo is unimpressed by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Nicholas argues that the whole idea is an unnecessary and unhelpful, since we can justify concerns about animals suffering from the simple observation (the basis of Jeremy Bentham’s argument for laws against cruelty to animals) that animals suffer. He says

What does the term ‘speciesism’ add to this? If Oscar Wilde had nothing to declare but his genius, Peter Singer’s book and its central concept of speciesism had nothing to declare but its circumlocution.

I haven’t got a fully consistent position on all this, but I think that, however ugly it is as a word, speciesism is a meaningful concept, and I’m in favour of it. That is, in opposition to Singer’s views on the subject, I’m in favour of treating all human beings, from birth to brain-death as having specifically human rights, simply by virtue of the fact they are humans, and whether or not they are self-aware and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals. I’d argue for this on rule-utilitarian grounds, which I understand to be Singer’s general viewpoint, though the same conclusion could be reached in other ways.

It seems to me any alternative position requires a dividing line to be drawn between those humans who are, or aren’t self-aware. I don’t believe this is possible. Moreover, any attempt to do so obviously creates the possibility of further divisions between people with different levels of self-awareness. On the other hand,as Nicholas points out, there’s no reason to think any non-human animal is self-aware in the kinds of ways that would make it wrong for us to (for example) painlessly kill them for our own purposes.

Of course, this position still involves dividing lines at birth and brain-death, and both of these are highly controversial. In the case of brain death, even though there are always going to be hard cases at the margin, I think the dividing line is clear enough for most purposes. The issues surrounding abortion are much more complicated, and mainly to do with who counts as a separate person and who gets to decide. It seems unlikely that society is going to reach agreement on these questions any time soon, but this doesn’t, to my mind, have much relevance in evaluating Singer’s argument.

Anyway, I’m sure there are readers who’ve thought more carefully about all this. I’d be interested in their views, and so, I’m sure, would Nicholas.

{ 46 comments }

1

Glenn Bridgman 08.12.05 at 11:11 pm

Isn’t the issue what it means to be human? “specifically human rights, simply by virtue of the fact they are humans” strikes me as leaning towards the tautological.

2

Brian 08.12.05 at 11:35 pm

On the other hand, as Nicholas points out, there’s no reason to think any non-human animal is self-aware in the kinds of ways that would make it wrong for us to (for example) painlessly kill them for our own purposes.

What? There seems to me like lots of reasons to think that other primates are self-aware in just this way, both from their biology and their experimental behaviour. Is there something I’m missing here?

More generally, there’s an important point here that is meant to be made by the denial of speciesism. Singer thinks (as perhaps you don’t) that animals have interests beyond pleasure and the absence of pain. (They have an interest in staying alive for example, and perhaps an interest in the welfare of their children.) The anti-speciesist thinks that we should respect those interests, just as we respect human interests, even if their satisfaction or otherwise makes no different to what suffers.

3

Strange Doctrines 08.13.05 at 1:05 am

Birth is an impossibly arbitrary starting point to impute “human” right. (What moral difference does the local geography of the womb make?) It seems to me that what elicits our moral concern are certain behavioral characters–the markers that tell us (so we think, anyway) that “someone is home.” Unfortunately, this leaves us without tidy, binary categories like pre- and postnate to hang our ethical hats on. But then this means we’re left to make just those hard distinctions along the continuum from nonconscious organism to full-fledged “person” that Singer says we must.

4

Juke Moran 08.13.05 at 1:12 am

There’s a cultural trope at work at the heart of the “speciesism” argument that builds from the concept of human-ness as fixed and basically immutable. This is inconsistent with rudimentary evolutionary theory, which says that what the species is now is not what it was last week or 10.000 years ago. And more importantly what it will be tomorrow. Somewhere on the timeline of our shared genetic heritage with the chimpanzee is a carrier of what we are now, an ancestor whose attributes would be virtually indistinguishable from its cousins. Your grandmother, many times removed. That this essence-in-potential is impossible to isolate, and thus impossible to legislate for, makes it a serious obstacle to codified moral pronouncement. But it’s there nonetheless.

5

Shelby 08.13.05 at 1:26 am

Chimps aren’t aware in a way that makes it wrong to kill them for our own purposes, but serial killers are? I realize this may sound outrageous, but I mean it. Why should it be OK to kill a sophisticated non-human intelligence for science, but not OK to kill a vile, lethal human one for self-defense, or punishment, or deterrence?

Perhaps it comes down to requiring a clarification of “our own purposes.” Any further thoughts, John?

More generally, what does your conception of “speciesism” mean for, say, barely-self-aware people as compared to smart-for-their-species dolphins or great apes? Why? Robert Heinlein wrote that (I paraphrase) he didn’t understand why it was OK for beavers to build dams for beavers’ purposes but not for humans to build dams for buman purposes. If your view differs from this, how?

I agree this is an important area to explore, but I think John fails to point a direction for the discussion.

6

Zed Pobre 08.13.05 at 1:39 am

I don’t think there’s really any difference between noting the termination of brain activity and noting its beginning. The science is fairly clear either way; there aren’t even synapses until 25 weeks of gestation, so that puts a hard demarcation on when there can be any kind of awareness, and although the mere presence of synaptic connections is insufficient to imply consciousness or self-awareness (in fact, obviously with only two neurons to click together, it’s going to be much later), I think most people would be willing to extend protection that far just to extend the benefit of the doubt.

7

Quentin Crain 08.13.05 at 1:48 am

Seems contradictory to me:

It seems to me any alternative position requires a dividing line to be drawn between those humans who are, or aren’t self-aware. I don’t believe this is possible.

and

Of course, this position still involves dividing lines at birth and brain-death, and both of these are highly controversial.

(“Of course” does not resolve the contradiction; of course.)

Singer believes (as I interpret him) that there is no line but a spectrum, between individual humans and humans and animals. No easy bright lines but a difficult position requiring thought.

8

bad Jim 08.13.05 at 2:13 am

The notion that other animals are not “self-aware” isn’t intuitively obvious. I’ve known some fairly bright dogs who invent their own games and employ reasoning skills in the traditional games of chase and stealing toys or treats (X was just chewing a treat in the other room, but now he’s here, which means there’s a free treat in the other room), and perhaps even make plans for future games (searching out hiding places, for example). They display a range of emotional states and at least some communication skills. They’re hardly the mindless automatons described by the original behaviorists.

As to whether it’s wrong to eat them, abundant evidence suggests that humans should eat red meat in moderation, if at all.

9

fjm 08.13.05 at 2:50 am

The importance of Singer’s ideas is to move from paternalistic care for animals, in which we can decide that we know best what’s good for them (think zoo environments), to regarding them as having their own interests and judgements and hence their own rights.

Singer’s arguments do not overwhelm the fact that we are exploitative animals living in a food chain, but they do change the way we think about tht and how we make decisions. I still eat meat, but now only eat the meat I positively like. I accept medical experiments on animals but oppose cosmetic experiments. I still put humans first, but accept that this is because it is in my interests, not because humans are the only sentient animal.

No one who has ever lived with an animal would regard them as automatons. My cat spent two days howling at us when her brother died. She still exhibits what in humans would be described as “distress” and which idiots describe as distress like behaviour”.

10

Aeolus 08.13.05 at 2:58 am

There are many non-human animals who are mentally more sophisticated than many humans (young children, the severely mentally handicapped). To say that less sophisticated humans should be better treated than more sophisticated non-humans “simply by virtue of the fact they are humans” is going to require fancier footwork on your part than you’ve so far demonstrated. In any case, since almost all the suffering and death we impose on sentient (and even self-aware) non-humans is quite unnecessary for our own welfare, the burden of proof is on those who wish to carry on as usual.

11

Richard 08.13.05 at 4:05 am

Interesting topic.

I would have to say that, in principle, one’s species doesn’t matter a hoot. If a chimpanzee is more cognitively (incl. emotionally, etc.) advanced than a mentally disabled human, then the interests of the former have greater intrinsic moral weight.

But perhaps indirect utilitarian considerations would recommend that we overlook this principle, instead clumping organisms into rough species groups, and weighing everyone in a group according to the average moral weight of the species’ members. That would mean that, in practice, we should show greater moral concern for human vegetables than chimp geniuses. But this conclusion depends on the empirical claim that such generalizations are what really would serve to maximize utility (better than any alternative practical rules we might come up with).

John, in light of your appeal to “rule utilitarianism”, would you agree with me so far?

One final note: I think even the speciesist practical rule advanced above would still require us to give greater weight to the interests of many animal species than we currently do.

12

Wrong 08.13.05 at 5:14 am

“The liberation of the animals must be the work of the animals themselves.”

The importance of Singer’s ideas is to move from paternalistic care for animals, in which we can decide that we know best what’s good for them (think zoo environments), to regarding them as having their own interests and judgements and hence their own rights.

Doesn’t that show up the contradiction in Singer’s position, though? If Singer were really putting a non-paternalist case for animal liberation, wouldn’t it make sense to, for instance, to argue for animal-led struggle? But Singer’s argument, I think, still remains directed towards persuding us to be nice to animals.

I suppose Singer might resolve the inconsistency by denying that self-determination is important in human liberation struggles either, and that might come out of his utilitarian framework. That would just persuade me that utilitarianism is incapable of understanding liberation struggles, though.

13

Dan 08.13.05 at 6:24 am

I think Singer engages in this kind of dialogue:

—-
Carnivore: But animals can’t feel pain in the same way that human’s feel pain. They don’t really understand what’s going on. People who worry about animal suffering are making the mistake of anthopomorphising – thinking about the animals as if they’re human. They’re not, and it’s wrong to think of them that way.

Singer: Fair enough. But let’s think about a human whose capacity is diminished to the point where he no longer capable of feeling pain in a “human” way. Specifically, imagine a human who has only the cognitive capacity of a cow. There are plenty of examples of humans like this in mental institutions and nursing homes. Would you think it was okay to needlessly cause these humans to suffer, in the same way as we needlessly cause the cow to suffer? If not, then your argument is inconsistent.
—-

If I read you correctly, John, what you’re saying is that it would, in fact, be okay to cause that incapacitated human to suffer, if not for the problem of differentiating between incapacitated humans and non-incapacitated ones. Safer by far to treat all humans as if they were fully capable of self-awareness etc, just to be sure, and to save ourselves the hassle of having to rule arbitrary lines below which people lose moral rights.

With animals, though, it’s different – we can be sure that they always fall below that line delineating self-awareness (or whatever the criterion is), so it’s okay to cause them to suffer needlessly.

I’ve got two thoughts about this. One is that the sorities problem that you identify can apply equally to animals. We can’t climb inside the mind of a cow or a pig to know how they experience suffering, any more than we can climb into the mind of an infant or a coma patient. If you’re happy to give humans the benefit of the doubt, why not animals?

There’s another point, though, which I think is more important. Even granting that it’s desirable to treat incapacitated humans as having full capacity even when it’s certain that they don’t, we can still imagine how we might choose to treat them if their incapacity was (for some reason) to be taken at face value. We can imagine a world where every person was treated strictly according to his interests, and acknowledge that those interests would vary. A comatose patient might lack an interest in stimulating reading material, much as I lack an interest in being regularly catheterised. A newborn infant has no interest in being allowed to watch the Ashes test, just as I have no (or at least marginal) interest in breastfeeding.

In this context, we can imagine a person who, for whatever reason, had only two broad interests: an interest in food and drink, and an interest in living a pleasant, pain-free life. It seems to me that, even completely ignoring the construct of human rights, we ought not to cause this individual avoidable pain. Similarly, we should not ignore similar interests when they arise in an animal. Just because animals don’t happen to fall under that precautionary umbrella where they need extra protection just in case they happen to be fully human, it doesn’t mean that their interests can just be ignored. The fact that we might justifiably opt to maximise possible interests (even to the point of ridiculousness) in the case of the human doesn’t mean that we should minimise possible interests in the case of the animal. At the very least, we should take them at face value. So it is still wrong to actively participate in the suffering of an animal (by eating meat, for example), even if one has to construct the sense that it would be *more* wrong in the case of a human with a similar (but theoretically potentially greater) range of interests.

I think this is what Singer was getting at. He compares like interest with like interest and expecting them to be treated identically. It’s easy enough to disagree with him about abortion or infanticide or euthanasia, but that’s only disagreeing with his assessment of human rights – it says nothing about animal rights. I also don’t think that Singer would describe your position and its justification as speciesism. You’re not saying that human pain is intrinsically more important or more significant than animal pain. You’re only allowing for certain uniquely human interests which may or may not be there. You’re not saying something along the lines of “Humans are the dominant members of the animal kingdom. Animals are inferior and thus it is appropriate that they should suffer on our behalf”.

14

Dan 08.13.05 at 6:27 am

(Sorry about formatting problems … Textile got the better of me).

15

Robert Wiblin 08.13.05 at 6:41 am

You seem to be in total contradiction. First you say that:

“It seems to me any alternative position requires a dividing line to be drawn between those humans who are, or aren’t self-aware. I don’t believe this is possible.”

but then you’re totally happy to dismiss any possibility that chimpanzees or gorillas or dolphins are self-aware simply on the basis that you’ve haven’t seen enough evidence in their favour:

On the other hand, as Nicholas points out, there’s no reason to think any non-human animal is self-aware in the kinds of ways that would make it wrong for us to (for example) painlessly kill them for our own purposes.

Well, I strongly recommend going out and living with some chimpanzees and looking for some evidence before deciding their death is of no consequence at all. There’s plenty of reason to think that they and other animals are self-aware. For a start their brains are similar to humans and evolutionarily they are very closely related. And obviously the behaviour of many suggests very strongly they are self-aware. At the very least then the onus is on you to prove that animals aren’t self aware rather than me to prove that they are.

This is somewhat relevant: John Webster, professor of animal husbandry at Bristol has said: “People have assumed that intelligence is linked to the ability to suffer and that because animals have smaller brains they suffer less than humans. That is a pathetic piece of logic, sentient animals have the capacity to experience pleasure and are motivated to seek it, you only have to watch how cows and lambs both seek and enjoy pleasure when they lie with their heads raised to the sun on a perfect English summer’s day. Just like humans.”

16

Richard 08.13.05 at 7:24 am

Webster’s anecdote by itself is of course woefully insufficient to establish that the “cows and lambs” have any conscious experience of pleasure (or anything else). For the record, I’m not unsympathetic to his conclusions. But to get there Webster employs an even more “pathetic piece of logic” than that which he was bemoaning. (But then, his speciality is animal husbandry, not philosophy of mind.)

17

Richard 08.13.05 at 8:17 am

Also, Robert, I think within the present context John was using the term ‘self-aware’ to mean having a concept of the self, rather than capable of phenomenal conscious experiences (since he was happy to grant that animals can suffer, etc.). I’ve heard that there might be some evidence of the former in chimps, but it’s controversial even for them, and pretty implausible for ‘lower’ mammals. So, assuming that one must have a concept of the self in order to have any deeper ‘interests’ (beyond the merely hedonistic), one could reasonably argue that animals aren’t harmed by painless death.

(I wonder if the assumption holds, though? There is at least a sense in which, say, a ewe has an interest in raising her lambs, even if she doesn’t have any concept of self, nor the ability to reflect on these ‘goals’. But maybe this sense of ‘interest’ is merely one of biological function. The morally relevant sense might require a deeper psychological basis.)

18

Jos Angel 08.13.05 at 10:31 am

“Self-awareness” as a criterion for civil rights may do for analytic philosophers; actual criteria are far more variable, according to cultures, circumstances, historical periods… There can be no abstractly coherent criterion to settle the issue, because we are discussing such matters in a given context, with a given history much of which we carry along, and living in the same world with other people whose priorities are not always the same as ours but with whom we have to share some working ground. So, no neat solutions, anywhere: perhaps yes, for a given jury on a given case; but never in a fuzzy forum like the one here.

19

Aeolus 08.13.05 at 12:11 pm

Good post (13), Dan. These issues (self-awareness in animals, the wrongness or not of killing them) and others have been debated by philosophers, etc. in scores and scores of books and articles over the past thirty years, and those who are interested are advised to search out the relevant material. Singer’s preference utilitarianism is only way one of defending animal interests; there have been deontological (Tom Regan), feminist, virtue-ethics, and even contractarian (Mark Rowlands) defences. I think the concept of self-awareness is pretty slippery, but regardlesss of how many non-humans may be self-aware to a morally significant degree, my point again (“the argument from marginal cases”) is that many humans have less self-awareness, rationality, emotional sophistication, capacity for autonomous behaviour than many non-humans. So if cows, squirrels, or baboons aren’t harmed by a painless death, then it would seem there are many happy, physically healthy humans who would not be harmed by a painless death either. The culinary possibilities are endless.

20

Quentin Crain 08.13.05 at 1:25 pm

The problem aeolus is that you just do not know what it is like to be a cow, squirrel, or baboon.

The most one can say is that because of physiological similaries, it is likely that they (eg. many “higher-order” animals) feel something similiar to our basic physical experiences (pain, pleasure, etc). But as for “self-awareness, rationality, emotional sophistication“, it is just impossible to know. Just because you ask your dog a question and it tilts its head does not mean it is pondering (however much I agree w/ Singer and co).

21

Jake 08.13.05 at 1:28 pm

As regards Richard’s comment #17, there’s some interesting research that suggests that chimps who have been trained in some kind of signing speech have a more developed theory of mind than untrained chimps do, although they never reach the level of an adult human.

That is, trained chimps are better capable of understanding deception, both its practice on them and its use with respect to others. This is hardly rock-solid stuff, of course; the data set is very small. But it further provokes this notion of responsibility towards animals: should we attempt to make chimps more self-aware, if it turns out we can?

22

Aeolus 08.13.05 at 6:51 pm

It’s true I haven’t a clue what it’s like to be a bat or a whale; I would say I do have a clue about baboons, but perhaps not much more. Nevertheless, there’s been a lot of research done on animal intelligence. Although the claim that non-human apes can acquire some grasp of language is controversial, I think it’s less controversial that many animals can, as Darwin believed, reason abstractly (count and decide which bag has more apples in it, deduce which objects or signs must be sorted into which categories in order to get a reward, and so forth). We aren’t completely in the dark about the inner lives of many non-humans, and science is tending to confirm the “common sense” intuition that your dog thinks, has an emotional life, and experiences pain and pleasure. (Descartes was wrong.) So what’s for dinner tonight?

23

Richard 08.13.05 at 8:25 pm

The implications of comment #22 are going to depend a lot on our theory of consciousness. The mere fact that an animal is capable of discriminating certain stimuli, or solving some particular problem, does not mean that these cognitive processes are occuring at the conscious level (or even that the animal in question has any consciousness at all). After all, I could write a computer program that can “reason abstractly” in a few simple respects. But that alone doesn’t mean the computer has any “inner life” that accompanies these computations. So this raises the crucial question: what more do we need in order to be justified in ascribing conscious awareness to an information processing device (whether biological or mechanical)?

24

Quentin Crain 08.13.05 at 9:59 pm

Aeolus: … science is tending to confirm the “common sense” intuition that your dog thinks, has an emotional life, …

Have any citations and/or links? (I will be surprized that scientists have finally agreed on definitions for thinking, consciousness, emotion, etc., but have also created a model of these against which hypotheses may be formulated and experiments devised to test those hypotheses.)

PS: Chicken — yummy!

25

Quentin Crain 08.13.05 at 10:37 pm

Dan on [August 13th, 2005 at 6:24 am] makes a number of points I am sympathetic with, but I am going to have to ask a number of “whys?”:

If you’re happy to give humans the benefit of the doubt, why not animals? But why? What is the moral/ethical reasoning and why should I have it?

Similarly, we should not ignore similar interests when they arise in an animal. Ignoring that afaik it is impossible to recognize or know similar interests in animals, but why? What is the moral/ethical reasoning and why should I have it?

it doesn’t mean that their interests can just be ignored. Why can I not just ignore it? What is the moral/ethical reasoning and why should I have it?

doesn’t mean that we should minimise possible interests in the case of the animal. Again, ignoring how I can know any animal’s interests, why should I care about them? What is the moral/ethical reasoning and why should I have it?

At the very least, we should take them at face value. Why? What is the moral/ethical reasoning and why should I have it?

While I total agree with Singer (and seemingly you), I do not understand the defense for:

He compares like interest with like interest and expecting them to be treated identically.

How do we recognize “like interests”? And further, why should it? Why should I care?

26

Aeolus 08.14.05 at 12:48 am

Quentin: I didn’t say that “scientists have finally agreed…” But the ground has shifted significantly away from the animal-as-machine model. For an overview, I recommend David DeGrazia’s Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status (Cambridge University Press, 1996). And here’s a link to a talk by Marc Hauser:
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/hauser/hauser_index.html
As for your question to Dan — why should you care about the interests of animals? — I think it comes down to your own view of ethics. Why should you care about anyone’s interests? A contractarian in the Hobbes mould would say, “Don’t, unless there’s something in it for you.”

27

Nicholas Gruen 08.14.05 at 6:44 am

I am grateful to John for having linked to my piece, but I think it has been misrepresented. I have tried to explain in a subsequent post that’s available here

28

John Landon 08.14.05 at 1:38 pm

The definition of the human species is one thing for modern science, quite another in the shadow worlds of Sufis, Hindus, Buddhists, those shadow worlds being quite shadowy and comprising persons not reputably apart of those traditions, shark sufis, warring Tibetan lamas, and dangerous occultists.
Many of these people might play by your rules, against you. Fan of Nietzsche? Kiss your ass goodbye. Slave, torture and death is your just fate, genocide OK because it feeds the higher level. Great Chain of Being? Man is not yet man, but animal, hence ‘food’ for Real Man (who?) Implications? Be awfully wary of the disciple route in the guru game.
The only upside to this is that people who exploit in this fashion are rare, so excessive paranoia is not indicated, but… The worst offenders are the Western occultists, figures like Aleister Crowley or Gurdjieff types on the prowl for victims of a special kind.
Quite dreadful.

A lot of kids raised in the naive science culture even now are falling into these traps in the various New Age movements.
These possibilities are what drove the Buddhists and others to apply compassion universally to all life, to be done with the matter. Most Buddhists now are not even vegetarians anymore, so decayed is their tradition. But in principle ‘taking refuge’ was important to be able to start development instead of being milked like a cow in some shadowy scheme with a pious front. Buddhism is too decayed to honor this tradition, and quite to the contrary the occult promotion of genocide has actually been laid against the sangha by such figures as Rajneesh who tried to stage a fast getaway from all these corrupt traditions.

I can’t say that being a vegetarian will save you from all this, but it’s the idea that counts, I guess.
I would suggest to Nietzsche fans and groupies a close review of his actual texts, and also a good (critical) review of the Kantian ethical issues of the categorial imperatives, etc… Kantian ethics isn’t very popular in these pragmatists times, but in essence I had always thought Kant was on the right track, where Nietzsche was just a neo-romantic burn out.
Your move. Reflect carefully on your next Big Mac.

29

Alan Bostick 08.14.05 at 2:02 pm

In the discussion of food, the trouble with recognizing other animals as aware creatures worthy of being on the receiving end of moral treatment is that many, many animals are carnivorous, and cannot live without killing and eating other animals. If other animals are moral peers to humans, then either (1) carnivorous animals live under a moral imperative to stop killing and therefore starve themselves; (2) killing and eating other animals is simply not immoral; or (3) it is somehow moral for some other animals to kill and eat other animals, but there is something special about the condition of humanity that demands living under moral strictures that do not apply to other animals, and accordingly it is not moral for humans to kill and eat other animals.

But if the third proposition is true, then humans are in a unique moral category with respect to other animals. But this is the shape of the issue we are addressing here — all that is different are the details of the moral differences. If we posit that humans and other animals are, overall, the same kinds of creatures with the same overall kinds of experience, from where does the moral difference arise?

Proposition (2) is an absurdity — do natural carnivores really inherently deserve starvation and death? What remains is proposition (1): as it is for a Bengal tiger, it is morally acceptable for me to eat other animals. Mmmmm, chicken….

30

Alan Bostick 08.14.05 at 2:03 pm

oops, in the final paragraph, exchange propositions (2) and (1).

31

smart shade of blue 08.14.05 at 5:46 pm

By your definition, it´s quite probable that an autist person should not be considered as an human being.

regards,

32

Chris 08.15.05 at 12:43 am

Warning – long post (actually, an article ["A small claim for Speciesism"] on the topic published some while ago in the Monash Bioethics Review)

Peter Singer has stated that “I do not claim, of course, that all animals, human and nonhuman, have the same interests, only that those interests are not to be discounted merely on the grounds of species. The interests of beings with different mental capacities will vary, and those variations will be morally significant. If we are forced to choose between saving the life of a being who understands that he or she exists over time, has plans for the future and wants to go on living, and a being who is not capable of having desires for the future because its mental capacities do not allow it to grasp that it is a ‘self’, a mental entity existing over time, then it is entirely justifiable to choose in favor of the being who wants to go on living. This is a choice based on mental capacity, and not on species membership (as we can see from the fact that the former may be a chimpanzee, and the latter a human with profound brain damage)” (Singer, 1997).
Singer would suggest, then, that

1. there is no morally significant difference between a chimpanzee (as a ‘self’) and a human without profound brain damage (as a ‘self’)
2. there is a morally significant difference between a chimpanzee (as a ‘self’) and a human with profound brain damage (as lacking ‘self’)
3. there is no morally significant difference between a human with profound brain damage (as lacking ‘self’) and (say) a sea snail (as lacking ‘self’)

The first proposition is taken as being supported by the logical consequences of the last two. While I agree with the first, I believe that the second and third are true only in the trivial sense that if the phrase ‘a person with profound brain damage’ is given a new definition that incorporates the requirement of lacking ‘self’ then the propositions are definitionally true.

I would argue that if the words in the proposition are given their ordinary real-world meanings then there is an important difference between an actual human with profound brain damage and an actual sea snail, and that difference has moral content. We can be sure that all sea snails are sea snails. Not only cannot we be certain that all humans with profound brain damage lack a ‘self’, we cannot be sure that any given human with profound brain damage lacks a ‘self’.

It is certain that a considerable number of humans who have been described as having profound brain damage (in particular, people diagnosed as being in Persistent Vegetative State) have following that diagnosis demonstrated that they have selves, insofar as such a quality is capable of demonstration. The most recent study, for example, found that “Of the 40 patients referred as being in the vegetative state, 17 (43%) were considered as having been misdiagnosed; seven of these had been presumed to be vegetative for longer than one year, including three for over four years …. All patients remained severely physically disabled, but nearly all were able to communicate their preference in quality of life issues – some to a high level.” (Andrews et al, 1996) It should not be assumed, on the basis of the evidence, that 43% represents the theoretical maximum for the demonstration of awareness in patients with profound brain damage; for reasons I have given elsewhere (Borthwick, 1996) I do not believe it possible, even as a thought experiment, to establish beyond query that a particular person is in fact incapable of thought. I would suggest that while the arguments of ethicists can perhaps provide thought experiments, setting up hypothetical cases where [treating people with profound brain damage as 'lacking-self'] would be appropriate, these arguments are not adequate to establish the congruence of these hypothetical cases with any situation in the real world (Borthwick, 1995).

If the arguments in this area were conducted on the basis that theoretical constructs such as ‘humans who have profound brain damage’ were simply counters in logical propositions, as one might discuss whether unicorns were mammals, then the arguments would present no moral dimension of their own. They would also, however, be pointless. The force of the argument depends on there being in the real world people who are lacking ‘self’.

The use of the argument therefore contains the proposition that such people exist, and therefore that any given person with profound brain damage may be one. The wide advertisement of that proposition is likely to have, and probably has had, physical consequences for actual people who have been diagnosed as having profound brain damage. These consequences can include both untreated pain – “The PVS patient may ‘react’ to painful stimuli, but he or she does not ‘feel’ pain in the sense of conscious discomfort of the kind that doctors would be obliged to treat or of the type that would or should seriously disturb the family “(Mitchell, Kerridge, & Lovat, 1993). and uncomfortable death – “Several medical societies and interdisciplinary bodies have asserted that surrogate decision makers and patients acting through advance directives have the right to terminate all forms of life-sustaining medical treatment, including hydration and nutrition, in adult patients in a persistent vegetative state. These organizations include the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Behavioral and Biomedical Research (1983), the Hastings Center (1987), the American Academy of Neurology (1989), the American Medical Association (1990), and the United Kingdom Institute of Medical Ethics Working Party on the Ethics of Prolonging Life and Assisting Death (1991)” (Multi-Society Task Force, 1994).

I am not, either in theory or in practice, opposed in every case either to doctor-assisted suicide or to non-consensual euthanasia. I am aware, too, that such ethicists as Singer do not recommend passive euthanasia, such as the termination of food and water, as against active euthanasia involving no pain or discomfort. I nonetheless believe that there are moral implications in ethicists effectively authorising such terminations, as not extinguishing a self, in the knowledge that the known prejudices of others, added to that authorization, will involve starving people to death who cannot be demonstrated to be insentient.

The arguments of ethicists such as Singer are in this regard either without influence, and thus useless, or influential, in which case some responsibility must surely be accepted for the consequences that flow directly from them.

Characterizations of humans as insentient tend, too, to overflow their boundaries. Singer may intend, by his use of the term ‘profound brain damage’, to signify (correctly diagnosed) ‘persistent vegetative state'; it is not what he in fact says. Other formulations of the same argument are even looser. “Take, on the one hand, a massively retarded, physically disabled human being, unable to maintain itself alone in life … incapable of language, unable to communicate its needs and wants intelligibly. Take, on the other hand, a fully-grown ape, alert, apparently intelligent, very well able to communicate and manage its needs and wants … Why would you use the alert, aware, communicative, responsive, ape as a subject for medical research rather than using the unalert, unaware, uncommunicative, unresponsive disabled human?” (Daws, 1982, p 30-31) This extract comes from materials prepared at Deakin University for the undergraduate course HUW209 Nature and Human Nature. It was brought to my attention by a student with cerebral palsy, who found herself characterized earlier in the same text as “A profound mental retardate. Someone so mentally retarded that they cannot walk or talk, and have to be fed like a newborn baby.” (Daws, 1982, p 13). Theoretical issues of self have here been translated, as in the real world they tend to be, into concretely observable criteria such as ambulation and speech.

I accept without question that Singer, and probably Daws, believe that the moral distinctions involved are activated only in the case of that subset of retarded, physically disabled, human beings unable to maintain themselves alone in life, incapable of language, and unable to communicate their needs and wants intelligibly who are also in addition to these morally irrelevant features ‘lacking self’, and that these distinctions are not intended to apply to (for example) the student concerned. The content of the argument, once abstracted, points to this conclusion. It is dangerous, however, for these issues to be discussed in the abstract, as in the Singer article, because the circumstances that activate the moral equivalences argued for are then not required to be specified in any detail, and it is even more dangerous to discuss them in hypothetical cases, as in the Deakin example, where the illustrative detail that is included is intended to be morally irrelevant.

If I believed, for whatever reason, that there was a morally significant difference between people with red hair and others that justified different entitlements, I would still be liable to censure if I propagated my belief in terms that allowed people who accepted my views to provide lesser services to anyone who was not black-haired. If I believed that there was a morally significant difference between that subset of people with red hair who were lacking selves and others, I would be liable to censure if I expressed myself in terms that could be mistaken as implying that all people with red hair were lacking selves.

It might also be true that even if in the latter case I made my actual views plain beyond the possibility of misunderstanding I would be contributing to a general atmosphere of prejudice against people with red hair, and that if these people were a historically disadvantaged group holding little power, suffering severe discrimination, struggling for recognition of their rights, and already liable to be used for medical experimentation without their consent, I might consider whether another analogy was preferable.

It may be that the benefits to chimpanzees flowing from the propagation of the self/lacking-self distinction outweigh the harm flowing to people with brain damage. It may be that the argument could be saved, or at least the harm reduced, by the introduction of appropriate caveats to the comparison. I have yet to see, however, any indication from any ethicist who has used this argument that any moral implications at all are involved in its use. This disturbs me.

I accept that recognition of the rights of chimpanzees is morally right. I do not accept that doing justice to the rights of chimpanzees must necessarily involve a casual attitude to the rights of other disadvantaged groups. I do not believe that ethicists have hitherto treated this issue with the respect that is justified.

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Brackdurf 08.15.05 at 1:57 am

The arguments are difficult here, but in terms of the actions we all have to take every day based on these issues, the burden of proof is clear. Obviously it is much worse to have killed or “tortured” animals if those animals turn out to have had a similar status to humans, than it is to eat bland vegetables if you later decide you could have morally eaten meat. A similar argument holds for environmental protections, pets, experimenting on animals, etc. It doesn’t affect the philosophical debate, but from the point of view of action in the world right now, you better be damn confidant that animals are okay to “torture” and kill, because being wrong on this is pretty bad. Not only should the burden of proof be on the side of proving something is NOT worthy of moral rights, but this burden should be quite high. I myself am confident that ants don’t have what it takes, and am just about sure enough with frogs, but anything “higher” in mental capacity I’m not so certain of, and until I am very confident in my beliefs, it is much worse to do something morally equivalent to killing a human, than it is to suffer though bad food or slightly delayed drugs.

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Dan 08.15.05 at 2:41 am

Quentin (#25):

The “why should I care” response can pretty much apply to any ethical reasoning – it’s effectively a way of retiring altogether from ethical debate. Which is valid, I guess, but wrong, in my view.

As to why it’s wrong, I guess it comes down to this: my ethical reasoning is based around considering interests, whether those interests are held by people, or by animals. One can argue about whether or not animals have interests – to me, the evidence is there in abundance, but people will make their own assessment of that. (Impartiality might be an issue if one is particularly fond of veal etc).

So assuming that they exist, why are interests important? Why should I care? Simply put, because it gives me the best chance of living a good life. In case you’re wondering, I don’t mean that my life is better because I can take a holier-than-thou attitude towards people who eat meat. My idea of a good life is pretty straightforward – it is simply a life where one is able to get the most out of the fleeting opportunity to exist as a human.

How does considering animal interests improve my ability to make the most out of my 80-odd years in existence? Simply put, it allows me to be happier. As a human, I’m capable of reflection on my actions. I’m capable of telling right from wrong (or at least providing arguments about which is which). It’s true to say that, taken in the long run, it’s not going to make any difference. The earth is going to be swallowed up by the sun and no-one will give a damn about whether or not I ate meat billions of years ago. I’m not about fulfilling some cosmic order. I’m just about being happy and being at peace with the way I live my life. It’s impossible for me to do that while maintaining the fiction that animals don’t have interests.

Does that provide a good reason for you or anyone else to accept my arguments? The majority of people obviously feel differently to me, or they wouldn’t still be hoeing into quarter pounders. I guess I’m arguing that they are consuming some kind of existential poison alongside their triglycerides. An obvious response is that most people just don’t think about it, and to that extent, it probably makes no difference to them whether they eat meat or not. But I’m of the view that a life without self-reflection isn’t being lived to the fullest anyway. They’d be better off if they did some self-examination, and when they did, they’d find that they were better off as vegetarians.

Nihilists and cynics, of course, might never accept that ethical consistency is desirable or even meaningful. They’re right, actually, as I mentioned above. But to go through life obsessed with the meaninglessness of it all is not, in my view, the best way to while away 80 years.

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Jean Lepley 08.15.05 at 3:20 am

Why do we have to invoke “self-awareness” to justify what has always seemed to me a very simple recognition of one’s own kind, whether we’re talking about humans or wolves, whales or whatever. Yes, we see rare and wonderful interactions between species, and yes, we humans, like other animals, squabble among ourselves. So do families squabble, to the point sometimes of deadly violence, but the very ugliness of that violence reflects the special closeness for which we need make no apology. I’m happy to agree with Orwell here; he argues (in his essay on Gandhi) that a “love” which encompasses all humanity, with no special feeling for “near and dear,” may well be saintly but it is not an aspect of sainthood to which most of us aspire. Which is not to knock Gandhi — but the concern for “humanity” surely springs, for most of us, as an expansion of a closer, more particular love, starting with family and moving out…… Yes, I know it doesn’t always work that way, and yes, there are monsters among us. I do not see human beings as all that different from other animals — at least, not as different as we think we are; I don’t think we know to what degree other animals may share our gifts. But to the degree that we ARE gifted with intelligence and imagination, with self-awareness and the awareness of another’s pain, we can be that much MORE monstrous than any wolf or weasel. So the fact that I would unashamedly choose to save a drowning human baby over a drowning puppy doesn’t mean that I find all human life equally “sacred” or human society always all that wonderful. I can understand and even sympathize with those who choose to withdraw for a time into the wilderness — to observe wolves and grizzly bears, to become their champion as I can be a passionate champion of these animals too. But I’m still, first and foremost, a human being (and in the company of a grizzly bear, say, possible prey, something I damn well better not forget!); so my primary concern is naturally the survival of the human race — our survival and our joy (enhanced, I would argue, by the co-survival of other creatures). Add this species loyalty to your list of “isms” if you must, but I cannot imagine feeling any other way.

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Thomas Palm 08.15.05 at 5:52 am

The uniqueness of humanity is largely an accident of all other hominids being extinct. Had there been Homo Habilis living on, say, Madagascar, it would be much more obvious how murky the issue of speciesism really is. Or what if someone managed to produce a human-chimpanzee mix? The genetic difference isn’t larger than that it might be possible.

Given advances in genetic and computer technology the issue of animal rights isn’t just a theoretical issue. In a not too far future it may be Homo Sapiens who are on the receiving end of whatever compassion superior beings chose to grant us.

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sennoma 08.15.05 at 10:31 am

I think it’s important to distinguish between two sets of claims here, one which may, and one which does not, have anything to do with “self-awareness”. I have not read Animal Liberation, so I can’t say much about Singer’s arguments for that cause. I have, however, read Practical Ethics and Writings on an Ethical Life, so I think I have Singer straight on the more basic argument for ethical treatment of animals. It is this latter argument that, I think, does not require an examination of whether, or to what extent, animals may be persons.

Singer claims that minimal ethical behaviour consists in like consideration of like interests (he goes to some lengths to argue for this). So, whether or not it can write an essay on the fact, a chicken has an interest in the absence of pain, in an adequate supply of food, and in simply continuing to live. When you compare “yum, chicken” (human interest) with “more life, fucker” (chicken interest), it is unethical (species-ist, even) to privilege the more trivial interest simply because it belongs to the human. This in no way makes chickens and humans moral peers, nor does it argue that obligate carnivores (like Alan’s Bengal tiger at #29) should starve if they would be moral.

To argue for Animal Rights or Animal Liberation might require consideration of such things as self-awareness, but none of that is necessary for the basic proposition that humans ought not treat other animals cruelly — or, in most circumstances, as food.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 08.15.05 at 11:04 am

Note–I have not read Singer’s “Animal Liberation”, though I have read many of his other works including “Practical Ethics”, and the rather apalling “Should the Baby Live”.

But unless he has radically reformed his views, this commentary doesn’t work well into it:

Fair enough. But let’s think about a human whose capacity is diminished to the point where he no longer capable of feeling pain in a “human” way. Specifically, imagine a human who has only the cognitive capacity of a cow. There are plenty of examples of humans like this in mental institutions and nursing homes. Would you think it was okay to needlessly cause these humans to suffer, in the same way as we needlessly cause the cow to suffer? If not, then your argument is inconsistent.

I know that it is dangerous to “mind-read” but considering his stated positions, Peter Singer almost certainly thinks it is, if not a positive moral good (too avoid wasting resources on such people), at least ok to kill such people if doing so could add to net happiness. (See “Should the Baby Live” where he argues that chronic but treatable disabilites such as hemophilia can be subject to infanticide in some rather common circumstances like ‘it might be easier to care for a non-hemophiliac child or non-Down’s syndrome chiled’.) And a hemophiliac child won’t even be cognitively impaired. So I’m not sure how he gets to the idea that giving animals human rights will improve things for animals under the rest of his scheme for classifying who and what lives and dies.

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Quentin Crain 08.15.05 at 12:43 pm

Thanks Dan for the comment! For the record I am a “preferential consequentialist” (eg. PC — wink!)

But I worry that most people really do not understand the positions they hold. I am among those annoying people who likes to ask “Why?” until the person being asked simply walks away. As you mention, there really is no reason to believe “Life is sacred” over “Life is meaningless” — but I generally want people to be able to defend their positions logically from some sort of stated assumptions.

One can see from the messages between yours and mine that people hold a number of assumptions left unstated:

Jean Lepley (#35) “… rare and wonderful interactions between species …” ‘Wonderful’ is a value judgement. Why are they “wonderful”?
Jean Lepley (#35) “But I’m still, first and foremost, a human being … so my primary concern is naturally the survival of the human race …” Why is that concern “natural”?
Jean Lepley (#35) “… but I cannot imagine feeling any other way.” Why do you feel that way? Should I? Anyone (else)?

sennoma (#37) “When you compare “yum, chicken” (human interest) with “more life, fucker” (chicken interest), it is unethical (species-ist, even) to privilege the more trivial interest simply because it belongs to the human.” Why is it “unethical”? Why is the human’s interest “more trivial” than the chicken’s interest?
sennoma (#37) “… but none of that is necessary for the basic proposition that humans ought not treat other animals cruelly—or, in most circumstances, as food.” But why “ought” I abide by this proposition?

Sebastian Holsclaw (#38) I supposed there is no specific quote to be taken, but I think it is reasonable to infer from the tone of the comment that he takes issue with “killing” “such people” (eg. “a human whose capacity is diminished”) vs. killing a cow. If their mental, emotional, and all other capacities equal, why would killing such a person be worse than a cow? (I assume Sebastian believes [axiomatically] that humans are more sacred than cows.)

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Sebastian Holsclaw 08.15.05 at 12:55 pm

“I assume Sebastian believes [axiomatically] that humans are more sacred than cows.”

Correct.

I also suspect you are falling into a very classic intellectual snob trap of believing that unarticulated reasons=no good reasons. :)

I say that with a smile because I do it all time, but that doesn’t make it correct.

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Quentin Crain 08.15.05 at 12:58 pm

But Sebastian, what is a “good reason”?!? grin! (And why is it intellectually snobish??)

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Quentin Crain 08.15.05 at 1:18 pm

In case people are annoyed (grin!) I believe, axiomatically, that all being’s preferences ought to be maximized. I determine what action to take based on consequences.

I believe this mainly because I want *my* preferences maximized, and I choose to believe that ethical/moral believe ought to be universialized.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 08.15.05 at 1:37 pm

“I believe this mainly because I want my preferences maximized, and I choose to believe that ethical/moral believe ought to be universialized.”

Ethically self-consistent (almost tautologically) but not a very good argument to convince other people that your beliefs ought to be universalized.

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Quentin Crain 08.15.05 at 1:59 pm

Why not? Is it not the case that nearly everyone wants their (and the people they are close to) preferences maximized?

So, what is left is to convince them that acting in ways that helps others maximize their preferences (or at least act in ways that does not specifically frustrate others maximizing their preferences) is the best way to maximize they personal preferences, right?

And how could it be worse than say: “Why do or do not do X? Because it is in the Bible!” (Oops! Perhaps you are right — appeals to the Bible or whatever are probably better in many contexts. Sad though eh?)

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Sebastian Holsclaw 08.15.05 at 4:59 pm

Appeals to the Bible or some outside, (theoretically stable) order offer a scientific “it’s a fact” type of persuasive appeal.

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Hamilton Lovecraft 08.17.05 at 3:55 pm

zed pobre: there aren’t even synapses until 25 weeks of gestation, so that puts a hard demarcation on when there can be any kind of awareness,

That sounded improbably late to me, so I googled:

In just the fifth week after conception, the first synapses begin forming in a fetus’s spinal cord. By the sixth week, these early neural connections permit the first fetal movements–spontaneous arches and curls of the whole body–that researchers can detect through ultrasound imaging.

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