Right now I am reading Peter Singer’s book The Expanding Circle. It’s a good book so far. It’s clear, well-argued, and written with a sense of moral urgency. The central argument is that due to the way ethical reasoning works on the basis of impartiality, it would be arbitrary to restrict the moral community to a single group, such as your own tribe, gender, or race. Hence, the evolution of morality over the years is moving (and will hopefully continue to move) in the direction of ever greater impartiality as seen by societal advances in abolition, woman’s right’s, etc. However, Singer also argues that we should expand to circle of ethics beyond the human realm to all other sentient creatures capable of feeling pleasure or pain. Singer argues that it would be just as arbitrary to restrict ethical considerations to humans as it would be to restrict them to a certain class of humans.
But then how far down the evolutionary continuum should we go? Singer thinks we should probably draw the line around oysters and the like, since it seems implausible that oysters are capable of feeling pleasure or pain. And Singer definitely thinks we should not expand the circle to include inanimate entities like mountains or streams. So what’s so special about the ability to feel pleasure or pain? Singer thinks that this capacity is a nonarbitrary dividing line because it’s something that humans can take into consideration. On what basis could we include mountains and streams into our moral deliberation? There seems to be none. But the fellow capacity to feel pleasure and pain seems like a good candidate.
This is where I must disagree with Singer. I simply don’t see what’s so morally special about the ability to detect cellular damage. And that is all pain perception really is. It’s an evolved biological mechanism that registers damage to cells and then relays that information to appropriate motor centers to move the creature out of harm’s way, which increases the biological fitness of the creature, maintaining homeostasis and organisational structure. Vegetarians like Singer loathe this line of thinking because it brings to mind the old practice of torturing cats and dogs because Descartes argued they can’t really feel pleasure or pain because animals are simply unfeeling mechanisms. But I don’t think the permissibility of wanton torture follows from the idea that pain perception is just a simply biological mechanism for damage detection. Even if it is permissible to use animals for food, it doesn’t follow that it’s permissible to torture them for fun. Even if it’s permissible to eat animals for food, we might still be obligated to treat them with respect and try to lower the occurrence of pain to it’s absolute minimum. But, personally, I believe that just having the capacity to feel pain doesn’t launch you into the moral category whereby it becomes impermissible to be used for food for humans.
I’ve heard it claimed that this kind of speciesism is injustifiable if we consider the cognitive capacities of those who are extremely mentally handicapped or incapacitated. Since presumably I think speciesism is justifiable because humans are cognitively superior to nonhuman animals, then it should be ok to treat cognitively inferior humans just like we do cattle. Since we wouldn’t think it’s ok to do this to mental invalids, we can’t just use cognitive superiority to justify the way we treat nonhuman animals. My immediate response to this is that there is a difference between entities who, if everything had been biologically optimal, could have developed to the human cognitive level, and entities who could never reach that level despite being developed in optimal biological conditions. This principle of potentiality is enough to show how it’s nonarbitrary to treat human invalids different from nonhuman animals.
There’s another point I want to make about the moral worth of pain itself. How could it be of that much importance when nonhuman animals themselves seem to be indifferent to it compared to the typical human response to pain? I read in Euan MacPhail’s The Evolution of Consciousness that there have been field reports of chimps getting into fights with other males, having their testicles bitten off, and immediately afterwards being capable of having sex with a female. I doubt there is any human who is horny enough to ignore the pain of having their genitals mutilated just to have sex. On the basis of this observation, we can infer that chimp pain perception is different from the awareness of pain that humans possess. And since chimps are seen by people like Singer as being the most worthy of our ethical consideration, what does this say about the pain capacities of animals even lower down the totum pole than chimps? Nonhuman animals don’t seem to “care” about their pain to the same extent that humans do. Caring about pain as opposed to pain itself goes by another name: suffering i.e meta-consciousness of pain. While it is plausible that some nonhuman animals have the capacity for a kind of protosuffering, it seems clear to me that human suffering is of a level of sophistication far beyond that of any nonhuman animal. Now, I don’t have a clear argument for why human suffering is more morally valuable than the mere pain of nonhuman animals, but it is at least a nonarbitrary cutting off point and one that has a kind of intuitive support.
However, I don’t think the moral worth of human suffering over nonhuman pain is enough to justify the claim that nonhuman pain has no moral worth at all. As a matter of fact, I agree with Singer that the pain of nonhuman sentient beings does have some moral worth, and that we are obligated, ultimately, to reduce that pain. For this reason, if I was presented in a supermarket with the choice of eating real beef or artificial beef grown in a lab, I would choose the artificial beef. So the only reason I am not a non-meateater is because the right technology has not been invented yet. As soon as that technology becomes available (and they are working on it), I will gladly give up my practice of eating meat. But since I believe that eating meat is a very healthy way to get protein and animal fats into my diet, I do not think the current pains of nonhuman animals is enough to overcome the selfishness involved in maintaining my own health, for I value my own life over those of nonhuman animals. Again, this is not because I don’t place any value in nonhuman life. In my ideal world, not a single sentient entity would ever feel unnecessary pain. I feel predation to be evil, but I nevertheless eat animals for health reasons. If I sincerely thought vegetarianism was healthier than an omnivorous diet, I would be a vegetarian (which would be nice because it would line up with my beliefs in the evils of predation). But since I am a speciesist and value human life more than nonhuman life, I think it is permissible for me to continue my practice until the technology of artificial meat becomes widely available. I’m aware of the possibility that this reasoning could be nothing more than a post-hoc rationalization of my comfortable habits of meat eating. But I do think that there is a nonarbitrary argument to be made for speciesism that makes the exclusion of nonhuman animals from the moral sphere far less arbitrary than the exclusion of subclasses of humans. Contra Singer, I don’t think speciesism is equal to racism or sexism.