Discussion about the ethics of eating animals in modern Australia, if such a discussion even gets off the ground, often gets sidetracked by personal axe grinding. That is, rarely do the facts get discussed as people bring their emotions to the table. Yet even when we do tackle the conversation seriously, many seem determined to obscure the issue with deep philosophical analysis of such matters as utility, cognition, personhood and so on.
I believe that the whole question is nothing like as complicated as people make it out to be.
It seems simple enough. On the evidence to hand, it is more likely than not that other animals (at least those we eat the most) experience life in a meaningful way. As well, they ARE lives of a complex sort in much the same way we are, and as such surely have some inherent value on that basis alone, as do we. Thus, in the absence of any kind of necessity, we should strive to do less harm to them, rather than more. This accords with every ethical principle we seem to hold dear.
So, the clear conclusion seems straightforward. Stated as a general principle, we could just say “do as little harm to other beings as possible, on the grounds that they have an interest in living as free of harm and suffering as possible”. How can this principle be countered? Well, I think it boils down to trying to successfully defend a view in which animal lives don’t matter. More particularly, a view in which animals are not as smart, feeling or conscious as we are and hence undeserving of our consideration. To an extent, there is some truth to those claims, but the deeper question is, how much truth?
The claims that animals don’t experience, or as some would have it, aren’t sufficiently cognitive to have any worthwhile inner experience, seem to be increasingly invalidated by research. Self-awareness by passing the mirror test? Some ants can do that. No emotions? Physiologically cows can experience emotions and indeed they do, as a considerable body of research shows. No “consciousness”? We don’t even know what that means in humans so why should we discount it in pigs? Certainly most of the physiological structures required for consciousness exist in pigs, even if in some cases less developed. But does that prohibit the pig from cognition or consciousness or simply place her on a spectrum of awareness?
When it comes to the animal experience, I believe Bentham’s argument for suffering entails the most persuasive force. As he said in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:
“The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Can these animals suffer? Both experience and science point in the same direction – they do. They must suffer in the factory farms, which is increasingly the method of choice for farming. But there is an added dimension, which I tend to see in the context of an interest in life. We afford other humans the right to that interest and on that basis seek not to exploit them, harm them, or otherwise oppress them unnecessarily. That’s what human rights are all about. It’s what our laws seek to embody in principle.
Thus we ought not farm other animals when the necessity for doing so does not exist. Could free range farming be an ethical option? Perhaps, but again, on what grounds? Taste? Human preference? These are poor grounds and wouldn’t fly in almost any other ethical context, I’ll wager.
Consider the intelligence/cognition of an animal and its contribution to that animal’s experience. Many might argue such animals as cows and pigs and chickens cannot entertain deeper feelings and emotions, yet how confident can we be of this? For example, while poultry farmers seem persuaded that chickens are dim indeed, current research tells us that they are far more cognitive and emotional than we had thought.
“Chickens are just as cognitively, emotionally and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas, and that there is a need for further noninvasive comparative behavioral research with chickens as well as a re-framing of current views about their intelligence.”
Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken, Animal Cognition March 2017.
And that’s exactly what research finds, time after time. Our farmed animals share deep emotional and meaningful lives, not so dissimilar from our own. What difference there is may be more of degree, rather than in kind. We have much under-estimated the experience and capacities of others, it seems.
It surprises me that people are so easily able to dismiss this inner experience of other animals. The fact that our farmed animals are capable of so much, and have an interest in living, escapes most of us, though the tide is turning. This article makes the point well, in regard to the experience of one of the most maligned and poorly treated of all our farmed animals:
Why DO we ignore the obvious plight of others in favour of such little real value? A paper only just published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences talks about Theory of Animal Minds. The claim is that the human capacity for inferring minds in others, called Theory of Mind, applies equally to the minds of other animals. The authors dub this Theory of Animal Mind (TAM).
In a nutshell, they argue that it is highly likely that we simulate how other animals must think and feel using this TAM mechanism. But this is not an objective measure and hence can be influenced by beliefs or practice – do we diminish animal sentience because we want something from them or because we wish to retain an objective distance, or do we over-endow them with minds because we have beliefs that they are more than they are?
In the former case, ethical issues ensue because notions of sentience in other animals are often correlated with peoples’ attitudes towards animal use and treatment by humans.
Some research has found that this is indeed the case, in fact here’s a case where people endowed dolphins with greater intelligence and consciousness than human beings (although note what the paper says about the consideration of those same qualities for food animals):
When it comes to consciousness and hence the capacity to suffer, the general thrust of research seems to hold that it is likely a facet of the experience of most complex beings. Do bees experience any kind of conscious awareness of the world? Well, it depends a little on the mechanism for “consciousness”, and indeed what consciousness even is.
While it’s currently uncertain, increasingly research points towards a physicalist view of the world. That is, consciousness arises in the physical operations of a brain. Indeed, consciousness may simply be an everyday artefact of sufficiently complex systems. Giulio Tononi for example argues that consciousness arises in any network with sufficient complexity to facilitate some level of integrated information and suggests that on that view, it is likely that most animals also possess consciousness.
Thus, while TAM as suggested above might lead to people over-valuing, or more likely under-valuing the inner experience of other animals, scientific consensus points us towards the inevitable conclusion that their inner experience is sufficient to affirm Bentham’s proposition.
My point in this isn’t to argue philosophical fine points. It is just to say that when we consider the question of “do they suffer”, the weight of evidence demands that we agree that they do. And when we consider their right to an interest in a life, on what possible grounds can we deny that? If we must weigh those facts against our interests in a taste, on what possible grounds can we successfully dismiss their claims in favour of our preferences?
And so I am led to conclude that when we deny our farmed animals a right to not only an interest in a life but also a right to experience that life free of suffering and harm at our hands in virtue of their capacity to feel, we are choosing to act in a manner contrary to all that we have come to believe in.