Tag Archives: animal consciousness

The Argument From Marginal Cases For Animal Rights

As of late, I’ve been getting really interested in animal rights philosophy, not because I’m close to turning into a vegan or anything, but simply because I find philosophical arguments that depend on comparative animal psychology to be really interesting. And I’ve been interested in the philosophy of animal minds for a long time, so the connection to my research is obvious. In particular, the Argument from Marginal Cases (AMC) really interests me. The AMC is one of the primary arguments used to support the idea that nonhuman animals have rights just the same as humans.  I found the following summary of the AMC in a paper by Daniel Dombrowski:

1. It is undeniable that [members of ] many species other than our own have ‘interests’ — at least in the minimal sense that they feel and try to avoid pain, and feel and seek various sorts of pleasure and satisfaction.
2. It is equally undeniable that human infants and some of the profoundly retarded have interests in only the sense that members of these other species have them — and not in the sense that normal adult humans have them. That is, human infants and some of the profoundly retarded [i.e. the marginal cases of humanity] lack the normal adult qualities of purposiveness, self-consciousness, memory, imagination, and anticipation to the same extent that [members of ] some other species of animals lack those qualities.
3. Thus, in terms of the morally relevant characteristic of having interests, some humans must be equated with members of other species rather than with normal adult human beings.
4. Yet predominant moral judgments about conduct toward these humans are dramatically different from judgments about conduct toward the comparable animals. It is customary to raise the animals for food, to subject them to lethal scientific experiments, to treat them as chattels, and so forth. It is not customary — indeed it is abhorrent to most people even to consider — the same practices for human infants and the [severely] retarded.
5. But absent a finding of some morally relevant characteristic (other than having interests) that distinguishes these humans and animals, we must conclude that the predominant moral judgments about them are inconsistent. To be consistent, and to that extent rational, we must either treat the humans the same way we now treat the animals, or treat the animals the same way we now treat the humans.
6. And there does not seem to be a morally relevant characteristic that distinguishes all humans from all other animals. Sentience, rationality, personhood, and so forth all fail. The relevant theological doctrines are correctly regarded as unverifiable and hence unacceptable as a basis for a philosophical morality. The assertion that the difference lies in the potential to develop interests analogous to those of normal adult humans is also correctly dismissed. After all, it is easily shown that some humans — whom we nonetheless refuse to treat as animals — lack the relevant potential. In short, the standard candidates for a morally relevant differentiating characteristic can be rejected.
7. The conclusion is, therefore, that we cannot give a reasoned justification for the differences in ordinary conduct toward some humans as against some animals

So here’s why I think the AMC is rather weak.

I don’t have any problems with premise (1). Premise (2) is already problematic though. The claim is that “human infants and some of the profoundly retarded [i.e. the marginal cases of humanity] lack the normal adult qualities of purposiveness, self-consciousness, memory, imagination, and anticipation to the same extent that [members of ] some other species of animals lack those qualities.” While it is undoubtedly clear that a human baby possesses less self-consciousness, imagination, and anticipation that human adults, there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that human babies are remarkably well-developed cognitively, they just lack the capacity of expression. So a human baby is certainly more intelligent than a chicken, and possibly more intelligent than a cow. The problem is that human babies have no way to express their intelligence since they can’t speak yet nor can they use their motor skills to communicate. But subtle experiments demonstrate the extent of their cognitive sophistication.

Moreover, the AMC ignores an obvious extension of the “marginal case” of the human baby: human fetuses. It seems like many speciesist would not include human fetuses in the moral sphere precisely because of how marginal their cognition is. And the development of human-like cognition is one of the markers for where we start drawing the line for abortion. The more developed the brain becomes, the less we feel it’s right to abort a child. And it could be said that the actual birth is an arbitrary cut-off point. If a baby was born without any brain, then it’s likely we would not include that baby into the moral sphere and mercifully end its life without its explicit consent.

But what about mentally retarded people like those with severe autism or Alzheimers? Clearly these entities lack the uniquely human cognitive capacities that characterize a normal human adult, yet we don’t treat them like cattle. Isn’t this inconsistent? Hardly. In the case of most autistic children, I believe the evidence shows that they either have a reduced human cognitive skill set or a different cognitive skill set, but it is rare that they have no skill set at all. I would daresay that your average autistic child is more cognitively sophisticated than a chicken. And the same for your average Alzheimers patient. Likely, an Alzheimer patient, for the majority of their disease progression, has a reduced cognitive skill set, but they don’t lack one altogether. And when such persons do eventually completely lack consciousness, why would a speciesist assume that they have full moral rights? Personally, if I ever developed Alzheimers, I would hope that my society permitted assisted suicide or mercy killing once I reach a totally advanced stage of the disease. Likewise for vegetative coma patients. It seems as if humans who totally lack consciousness are not fully included into the moral sphere, as, say, a normal human adult. This explains our attitudes towards those in comas with no foreseeable chances of recovery.

Thus, I think premise (3) is wrong in almost all cases. Moreover, we can use a different strategy to show why it’s consistent for a speciesist to treat newborn infants differently than they treat cattle: counterfactual biological development. Under normal healthy circumstances, a human infant will grow into a cognitively sophisticated adult. Under healthy circumstances, it is very very unlikely that a cow will grow into a cognitively sophisticated adult. And if that cow ever does mutate and develop the ability to rationally talk and engage humans in high-level moral conversation, then we should include that cow into the moral sphere. But what about someone with severe mental retardation who has no potential to grow into a normal adult? Well, as I said before, it’s doubtful that most retarded children are as cognitively stupid as a cow or chicken. Moreover, we can engage in a counterfactual analysis and think that it would have taken much less different alignment of genes for a retarded child to have been born with the potential to grow into a normal adult than it would be for a chicken or cow. A cow would have to have a total restructuring of the genome in order to produce a brain capable of learning human-like cognitive skills. So the counterfactuals are in fact quite different.

And there is another point where the AMC fails: it paints a false dichotomy whereby either animals have rights equivalent to adult human rights or they have no rights at all. This is a false dichotomy, because we can imagine a continuum of rights rather than an on or off switch. It makes sense to me that although a bonobo or dolphin has less rights than a human adult, it has more rights than a chicken, and a chicken has more rights than an oyster. I would never treat a bonobo like I would a chicken or a mosquito, but I would not treat a bonobo like a human child or a human adult. If there was a burning building, I would rescue a normal human adult or child over a bonobo, but I would rescue a bonobo over a chicken. Moreover, it’s false that this reasoning is arbitrarily speciesist because I would rescue a bonobo over a vegetative coma patient or a human fetus.

Now I want to discuss premise (5): human uniqueness. I see it claimed a lot in animal rights literature that the attempt to find uniquely human cognitive attributes has failed. Oh yeah? What about the set of cognitive attribute that allows you to send a robot to Mars? Or write a philosophy book?* Although there are certainly many similarities between humans and nonhuman animals, I just don’t take seriously anyone who denies the obvious and vast differences. Robot to Mars! Seriously! For those skeptical of human uniqueness, I highly recommend Michael Gazzaniga’s excellent book Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. As evidenced by practically everything in our culture as well as particular neural structures/functions, we are not just different by degree, but in kind. And even if it was just in degree, the level of difference in degree is of such magnitude it stills warrants the conclusion of human cognitive uniqueness. See this post for more.

So yeah, imo, the AMC has so many problematic premises it can barely even get off the ground as a convincing argument.

*Edit: I’ve realized that someone might wonder why the ability to send a robot to Mars is morally relevant. I don’t think it is. But the type of creature capable of sending a robot to Mars is also probably capable of moral deliberation and reflection, which certainly seems to me like a candidate capacity for bestowing moral worth. But since I do in fact place some value on basic organic sentience, clearly moral reflection is not the source of all of human worth, but I do think it grounds the majority of human worth. In fact, I think moral reflection (which is a skill enables by reflective consciousness) is of such importance than it generates moral value in terms of the counterfactuals for biological potential.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

Some thoughts on pain, animals, and consciousness

I just started reading Euan Macphail’s book The Evolution of Consciousness and the first chapter raises an interesting question: do animals have consciousness?

First, we need to define consciousness in order to determine whether or not animals besides humans possess it. We could roughly distinguish between two types: feeling-consciousness and metaconsciousness. Metaconsciousness is often referred to as self-consciousness and seems to depend on there being a self-concept in place that allows for such metacognitive functions as knowing that you know, thinking that you think, desiring about your desires, etc. Metaconsciousness seems to be a very rare cognitive skill and could plausibly be restricted to humans only since it seems unlikely that a mouse knows that he knows something, or is aware of his own awareness. Moreover, we must be clear to distinguish metaconsciousness from prereflective bodily self-consciousness, which is the self-consciousness that arises from simply having an embodied perspective on the world and not necessarily from having an explicit self-concept structured by linguistic categories such as self, person, soul, mind, consciousness, etc. Although all animals could be said to have bodily self-consciousness, it is unlikely that nonhuman animals have a self-consciousness of this bodily self-consciousness.

In contrast to metaconsciousness, we can talk about what Macphail calls feeling-consciousness. Obvious examples of feeling-consciousness include the experience of pleasure, suffering, love, motivation, etc. Moreover, feeling-consciousness includes sensory feels such as my the feeling that I am currently looking at my laptop screen, or the feeling of my clothes on my body and the keyboard against my fingertips.

While many people would agree that nonhuman animals do not have metaconsciousness, it seems plainly wrong to deny animals feeling-consciousness. After all, isn’t it quite clear that an animal experiences pain in the same way humans do? This argument is often made through analogous comparisons of behavior. We assume that if a person pricks a human with a needle, and the human rapidly withdraws his hand, he does this because the needle hurts. And since we can prick the paw of an animal and the animal exhibits the same rapid withdraw, then we would be perfectly right in concluding that the animal also withdraws because it feels pain. The same goes with vocalization. If you prick a human with the needle, he might yelp or cry out in pain. And if we prick an animal, it will also make a vocalization in response. We can also measure involuntary responses like heart rate. When a human experiences pain, these involuntary processes occur. And when we prick an animal, we see the same involuntary responses. The obvious conclusion then is that animals feel pain just the same as humans.

But are these behavioral criteria necessary for feeling pain? We wouldn’t, for example, think that vocalization is necessary for the experience of pain, since a human born without vocal cords would surely experience pain just the same. Same goes for the withdrawal response. If you sever the spinal cord of a dog from its brain, the dog will still exhibit a withdrawal response. Same with humans. Humans with a severed spinal cord still exhibit withdrawal reflexes despite not feeling anything so the mere behavior of withdrawing a limb should not necessarily indicate the existence of feeling. After all, if we programmed a robot to rapidly withdraw its arm when exposed to a sharp force, we wouldn’t conclude that it feels anything simply because it shows the appropriate behavioral response. As Macphail puts it, “An actor could reproduce all these symptoms without feeling any pain at all, and that, in essence, is why none of these criteria is entirely convincing.”

Moreover, we could go beyond analogy and argue that of course animals feel pain since pain is highly advantageous from an evolutionary perspective. If an animal didnt have the appropriate mechanisms for feeling pain, then it would have not been nearly as successful as the creature who did experience pain. From this perspective, the function of pain is quite clear: to motivate us to avoid dangerous things.

But Macphail asks us to consider an armchair scenario about the evolution of pain. It is widely supposed that life began from the self-assembly of chemical building  blocks enclosed within a semipermeable membrane. These first organisms were basically complex chemical machines, and most people would agree that we can account for everything in terms of biochemical mechanisms. To explain the behavior of the organisms, we wouldn’t suppose that they have feeling-consciousness since, presumably, such chemical machines wouldn’t feel anything. Now, suppose that as multicellular organisms evolved there arose a cellular specialization wherein cells became nerve cells, sensory cells, and motor cells. The sensory cells function to detect information in the environment, which then act to encourage nerve cells to activate, which then encourage motor cells to activate.

The coordination of these different cells gives rise to to ability to react to dangerous stimuli. If the chemical machine wanders into a toxic area of the ocean, then the sensory cells can detect the significance of this stimuli and relay the information to the nerve cells, which then activate the motor cells which allows for the organism to escape from the dangerous stimulus. As Macphail says, “The point is, that it is easy to envisage the rapid early evolution of links between sensory systems and motor systems that would result in withdrawal from disadvantageous areas and of similar systems for approach to advantageous areas. It is equally easy to see that this scenario has proceeded without any appeal to notions of pain or pleasure.”

The question then is this: where does feeling-consciousness fit into this story? What is the function of feeling pain/pleasure that could not be accounted for in terms of the biochemical mechanisms and their increasing complexity? Why would an early organism need to feel pain when the mechanisms for avoiding dangerous stimuli and approaching advantageous stimuli are sufficient for the task of survival? Feelings don’t seem necessary for the adaptive success of an organism, a point which raises some very interesting philosophical questions.

With all that said, I need to make some qualifications. Although the above considerations lead us to believe that feeling-consciousness is not necessary for the adaptive success of animals, there is another sense of consciousness used by philosophers that does seem applicable to these lower organisms: phenomenal consciousness. Phenomenal consciousness is usually defined in terms of the “what-it-is-like” to exist. Presumably there is “something-it-is-like” to be a bat. This something-it-is-like is often talked about in terms of raw feels, such as the raw feeling that there is something-it-is-like to taste an apple or enjoy the blue sky. On my view, there is also something-it-is-like to be a bacterium, although it is very dull in comparison to the what-it-is-like of more complex organisms. However, I also want to claim that the raw feels which constitute the what-it-is-like of an organsim are not the same as the feeling-consciousness discussed above. Although many philosophers would disagree with me about this, I think that it is precisely the ubiquity of feeling-consciousness in humans that makes us think that the same feelings must be present in other animals. When humans gaze up at the blue sky and enjoy the feeling of pure sensory quality, I want to claim that this experience is unique to humans, for although a nonhuman animal is capable of perceiving or detecting the blue sky, it is probably not capable of feeling that it is perceiving, or feeling that it is detecting. To consciously feel sensory experiences requires that one “feel” how one perceives the world, as opposed to just perceiving the world. I claim that the perception of the world and the feeling that one is perceiving the world are two radically different phenomena, with the latter perhaps depending on the linguistic, self-reflexive cognition of human minds. Philosophers rarely recognize the significance of this distinction, and their philosophy of mind suffers accordingly.

Lastly, I want to briefly discuss the ethical implications of the seemingly radical position that animals don’t have feelings. Some people would think that even if this idea is true, it leads to such horrible ethical consequences that we should never even entertain it as a hypothesis. But I disagree. I think the idea that animals don’t consciously feel anything and the idea of animal rights are not mutually exclusive. One can hold the position that animals don’t feel pain, while still believing that we should be humane in our treatment of animals and that we shouldn’t cause animals any unnecessary discomfort. One could believe that animals don’t feel pain but merely detect dangerous stimuli while still believing that we should work to decrease the amount of dangerous stimuli detected by animals. In this way the idea of an animal ethics is perfectly compatible with the views I am entertaining here.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology