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Animal Spirits
August 21, 2014 8:38 PM   Subscribe

The more we learn about the emotions shared by all mammals, the more we must rethink our own human intelligence

More Notes on Humans and Animals
I am growing increasingly convinced that people who believe we have an absolute moral duty to see to the well-being of all other human beings, to install water-purifying equipment in villages on the other side of the world, etc., and who, at the same time, happily contribute to the ongoing mass slaughter of animals, are really just picking and choosing their causes. There simply is no compelling reason why I, or anyone, should suppose that all and only human beings are the worthy targets of moral concern. This is not to say that you should care about animals. It is only to say that there is nothing natural or obvious or conclusive about your belief that you should care about all and only human beings. Your belief is a prejudice, characteristic of a time and place, and not the final say about where the reach of moral community ends.
Consider the lobster? Pity the fish
I was thinking of Wallace's essay while reading a new paper in Animal Cognition by Culum Brown, a biologist at Macquarie University in Australia. Brown does for the fish what Wallace did for the lobster, calmly reviewing the neurological data and insisting that our undersea cousins deserve far more dignity and compassion that we currently give them. Brown does not mince words:
"All evidence suggests that fish are, in fact, far more intelligent than we give them credit. Recent reviews of fish cognition suggest fish show a rich array of sophisticated behaviours. For example, they have excellent long-term memories, develop complex traditions, show signs of Machiavellian intelligence, cooperate with and recognise one another and are even capable of tool use. Emerging evidence also suggests that, despite appearances, the fish brain is also more similar to our own than we previously thought. There is every reason to believe that they might also be conscious and thus capable of suffering."
When Animals Get Bored Or Anxious They Develop Tics Just Like Humans

Even ant colonies can have 'personalities.'
see more at The media’s growing interest in how animals think

more links at Omnivore
posted by the man of twists and turns (69 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 


Wildebeest, it turns out, are really dumb. Mohammed explained that if zebras start to cross a waterway and lose just one of their number, they usually cancel the mission, back up the herd and look for alternative passage. Wildebeest, by contrast, will continue to throw themselves into the croc-filled water. Once they’ve committed to crossing, through some tipping-point of group emotion, they seem incapable of modifying or adapting to the new situation.

Wildebeest crossing croc-infested water is exactly how politics works, particularly the politics of war if you care to glance around. More evidence against the assertion that humans are in any way special or superior.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:37 PM on August 21 [16 favorites]


Wait, you think that there is no moral differences between humans and non-humans? (Asked by someone who is a vegetarian for moral reasons.)
posted by persona au gratin at 11:13 PM on August 21


Most cognitive scientists, from the logician Alan Turing to the psychologist James Lloyd McClelland, have been narrowly focused on linguistic thought, ignoring the whole embodied organism. They see the mind as a Boolean algebra binary system of 1 or 0, ‘on’ or ‘off’. This has been methodologically useful, and certainly productive for the artifical intelligence we use in our digital technology, but it merely mimics the biological mind

Sorry, where's the evidence that cognitive scientists were this obtuse, instead of held more nuanced, scientifically-informed views?
posted by polymodus at 12:05 AM on August 22 [11 favorites]


Wait, you think that there is no moral differences between humans and non-humans?

You mean the human conception of morality that we apply inconsistently and that nobody can agree on anyway?
posted by turbid dahlia at 12:43 AM on August 22 [7 favorites]


The concept that humans are somehow different from animals or are somehow set apart from the natural world in which they live, or whatever the excuse is that humans use to justify the belief that we are "not like all those other creatures"... seems to me to be one of the most poisonous memes ever to enter the collective human consciousness.
posted by hippybear at 1:55 AM on August 22 [14 favorites]


one of the most poisonous memes ever to enter the collective human consciousness

It hasn't penetrated animal consciousness yet, then?
posted by Segundus at 2:10 AM on August 22 [7 favorites]


I don't see much in the way non-human animals regard human animals that make them regard humans as "not like all those other creatures". They either regard us with fear as predators or with indifference as not a threat.

Do you see something different?
posted by hippybear at 2:18 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


persona au gratin: Wait, you think that there is no moral differences between humans and non-humans?

What's your own answer to this question?

I see differences of degree, not of kind.
posted by pracowity at 2:30 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


Accusations of anthropomorphising or epistemological overreach have never done anything to dissuade me from the obviously apparent fact of this. I've never believed that my thoughts, personality or emotions rely on language or other human-specific traits, or that animals lack those fundamental aspects of being; how can anyone deny the awareness, reactions, and feelings of non-human animals, especially the higher-order ones, having spent any time at all with them? And what are those things but variations of thought? The resistance to the idea, the retreat into pedantic, solipsistic reasoning about the unknowability of the Other... they baffle me, really.

Certainly the minds of non-humans are different - and probably in all ways that are directly relevant to us, less sophisticated. (In some cases more sophisticated, of course, in terms of various species-specific aspects like non-verbal group coordination in packs or flocks, the piloting wizardry of birds of prey, the building of webs...). Certainly their experience must be alien to us in many ways. But you know what? My own mind is often less sophisticated than the standards animals are held to, as I wake or sleep or drift or zone out or play or move or fornicate or drug myself. My own thoughts are often alien to me as they run down some obscure channel or are modified by some new or confusing experience.

Those moments of rawer, baser, or stranger thought, no matter how simplified and close to the metal they run, have never diminished in the least bit the magnitude of my awareness, the power of the signal, the vividness of colours, sounds, immediate reactions of pleasure or discomfort or fear or anticipation. Those things that make up the awareness that we think we perceive, and do in fact perceive, when we gaze into the eyes of Dog -- they can be so easily recognised especially in sophisticated vertebrates. Denying them has always seemed massively arrogant to me -- so credulous of the power of our words to encompass everything that is. But in fact, our words encompass almost nothing of what is.

That's what I think, anyway. But then, what do I know? I'm a dog.
posted by Drexen at 2:47 AM on August 22 [16 favorites]


I've never believed that my thoughts, personality or emotions rely on language or other human-specific traits, or that animals lack those fundamental aspects of being; how can anyone deny the awareness, reactions, and feelings of non-human animals, especially the higher-order ones, having spent any time at all with them? And what are those things but variations of thought?

This is kind of question-begging. Animal behavior might reflect "variations of thought" but I suspect they vary pretty widely across the amoeba --> ant --> mouse --> dog --> human spectrum, enough to render that notion meaningless. And is the idea that human thought relies on language even really debatable at this point? Not a neuroscientist but I thought this was pretty conclusively the consensus.

The resistance to the idea, the retreat into pedantic, solipsistic reasoning about the unknowability of the Other... they baffle me, really.

I'm more baffled by the constant tendency to project human qualities and experiences onto animals whose inner world (if that idea even makes sense) we can't really begin to imagine and who in some cases evolved to exhibit behaviors that tug at our heartstrings.

I don't think it depreciates animals' moral value to say that they are not like us. I think it makes them more interesting, not less.
posted by eugenen at 3:22 AM on August 22 [6 favorites]


They either regard us with fear as predators or with indifference as not a threat.

What's their take on Morgan's Canon?
posted by Segundus at 3:32 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


Umm, many animals kill and eat other animals. So unless you *do* claim human superiority and dominion and ability to act in defiance of evolutionary nature, the consumption of other species as meat is natural behavior for us.

Nature has no inherent morality, unless you believe in a Creator. What we consider our moral sensibility or "consciousness" is an effect of adaptation selecting for particular cognitive capacities useful for a highly social species that has clambered to the top of the food chain.
posted by spitbull at 3:52 AM on August 22 [11 favorites]


This is kind of question-begging.

So is the assertion that only human thought is real thought. *shrug*

Animal behavior might reflect "variations of thought" but I suspect they vary pretty widely across the amoeba --> ant --> mouse --> dog --> human spectrum

Certainly, but that doesn't render the notion meaningless. A different position on the spectrum arguably implies a difference in our moral responsibility towards them. But that doesn't mean we have no moral responsibility towards them nor does it imply only a minimal moral responsibility towards them.

We cannot yet prove through science or argumentation just how close higher-order animal intelligences are to our own. The article makes the point that they may be much closer than we tend to assume. I think the direction of modern science is to increasingly confirm this. It's also my strong intuition. An intuition isn't a proof, but so what? What is? I think it is more human to give the benefit of the doubt and to try to be good.

I'm more baffled by the constant tendency to project human qualities and experiences onto animals whose inner world (if that idea even makes sense) we can't really begin to imagine and who in some cases evolved to exhibit behaviors that tug at our heartstrings.

I'm not baffled by it, inasfar as the qualities you seem to think must be exclusively human, seem to me more universal to aware beings (more or less so, depending on species). And I think that given the deficiency of our understanding, that obvious intuition is enough for me to go by. Humans are also mysterious and we often cannot discern or understand them, their thoughts, their actions. Difference in degree? Sure. In kind? Not to me.

I don't think it depreciates animals' moral value to say that they are not like us. I think it makes them more interesting, not less.

That's exactly my point! Saying that humans and animals have an important commonality does not mean that they are literally the same. So what do you know, we agree after all.
posted by Drexen at 3:55 AM on August 22


Umm, many animals kill and eat other animals. So unless you *do* claim human superiority and dominion and ability to act in defiance of evolutionary nature, the consumption of other species as meat is natural behavior for us.

But this is circular. If we have the capability to empathise and to balance the needs of other beings with our own, then that makes us superior enough that we can abrogate that ability? No. I act based on my own standards and values, not the lack of same that I might assign to others, human or not.

Nature has no inherent morality. But living beings, and especially humans, have a manifest morality that we make and try to excercise for ourselves. That empathy that is so refined and developed in us prompts us to protect other minds and to reduce their suffering if possible. Certainly that sets us apart from many animals. That doesn't mean we can or should apply it only to ourselves.
posted by Drexen at 4:02 AM on August 22 [3 favorites]


eugenen: "And is the idea that human thought relies on language even really debatable at this point? Not a neuroscientist but I thought this was pretty conclusively the consensus."
So people who are taught no language do not think?
posted by brokkr at 4:16 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I missed something important!

And is the idea that human thought relies on language even really debatable at this point? Not a neuroscientist but I thought this was pretty conclusively the consensus.

No. Linguistic communication is not unique to humans. Human thought is not exclusively linguistic. Even among people who believe those things are true, there's no agreement in the field that this has been proved.

Language is deceptive. When we use it to interrogate itself, it tends to elide things that cannot be expressed in language, of which I think it's fair to say there are an infinite number.
posted by Drexen at 4:20 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


So people who are taught no language do not think?

Indeed. What's more, when I interrogate my own experience it is undeniable to me that I have plenty of non-linguistic thought and experience. If anything the linguistic part of my thought is a sparse and thin film floating over the top of my consciousness.

Perhaps other people experience themselves differently. I can see why that would make it harder to believe in non-verbal experience.
posted by Drexen at 4:23 AM on August 22 [4 favorites]


Sorry, where's the evidence that cognitive scientists were this obtuse, instead of held more nuanced, scientifically-informed views?

I find this thread of the conversation amusing.

I worked for Art Glenburg's language research lab, who was all about embodied cognition. It seemed like all his recent work was a reaction against what he thought McLelland's position was. He frequently spoke vociferously against what he believed were McLelland's blind spots and oversimplifications. It was as if the undergrads were being propagandized into believing McLelland = evil.

One of our grad students went to talk with Tim Rogers (a McLelland collaborator (teehee)). Rogers said something like "I don't understand why Art thinks we disagree; we are just looking at different parts of the same process."
posted by Jpfed at 4:24 AM on August 22 [4 favorites]


This issue is close to my heart, so what the hell, I'm going to throw another observation out there as well.

Some people react to these ideas by pointing out: I can't prove that animals have experiences in common with us. That's not news to me. It's also not important to me. For a start I can barely do the same with other humans, but more importantly: I don't need a justification to empathise with other living beings. Doing so comes naturally to at least some humans, and has done since we ever knew what empathy was. Indeed, even the psycopathic abuser of animals can sense and enjoy their suffering.

The debate over it is, to me, just a disingenuous extension of the rationalisations we use to justify our abuse of other species. Like the quibbling over whether or not waterboarding is torture, it's a debate that would be irrelevant if we were, collectively, better people.
posted by Drexen at 4:45 AM on August 22 [3 favorites]


I'm not baffled by it, inasfar as the qualities you seem to think must be exclusively human, seem to me more universal to aware beings (more or less so, depending on species). And I think that given the deficiency of our understanding, that obvious intuition is enough for me to go by. Humans are also mysterious and we often cannot discern or understand them, their thoughts, their actions. Difference in degree? Sure. In kind? Not to me.

I don't really know the difference between a difference in degree and a difference in kind. I mean, at some level of abstraction of course we have things in common with other animals. I'm sure you can generalize pain, e.g., to more or less every higher-order creature, or some positive quality like happiness or contentment. Humans have more cognitive functioning in common with primates than with raccoons, etc. I know that my dog "likes" it when I come home from work or feed her dinner and I know that she's "scared" of loud noises, but I don't pretend to have the slightest idea what it is like to have those canine responses.

Incidentally I also know that the ants that regularly invade my kitchen are "scared" of soapy water, since they swiftly exit stage left when I pour some on the counter. Is that response intelligibly similar to my own emotional reaction to danger, or my dog's? I guess you can say it's a difference in degree, but again, I don't really know what that would mean.
posted by eugenen at 4:50 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


I hope that I'm not overbearing the thread, here. Eugenen, I think we agree more than we differ! With that said:

I don't really know the difference between a difference in degree and a difference in kind.

It's somewhat moot (as I'd say are most of the arguments around this issue!) - but I'd say that a difference in kind between humans and non-humans might justify a lack of moral consideration towards them. A difference in degree can justify at most a difference in moral consideration - a difference that, as loving and empathetic beings, we must try to minimize.

I don't pretend to have the slightest idea what it is like to have those canine responses.

In the strong sense, neither do I - but I don't think it follows from that that they must be, or necessarily could be, somehow completely divorced from human responses. Certainly I recognize commonalities. Certainly science identifies many commonalities. We are fundamentally the same sorts of machines as many types of animals, albeit configured differently, right down to most aspects of brain structure and function. Of course, this applies less and less the further from human the species is. I'm by no means equating all the different species.

We could identify various aspects of our thought that dogs must lack, but I don't think, and I don't think most scientists think, that those aspects are prerequisites for conscious awareness. We could define 'sentience' as something requiring those uniquely human aspects, but by doing so, we make 'sentience' too specific to rule out experience, awareness, emotion, and other morally important effects from non-humans.

Incidentally I also know that the ants that regularly invade my kitchen are "scared" of soapy water, since they swiftly exit stage left when I pour some on the counter. Is that response intelligibly similar to my own emotional reaction to danger, or my dog's? I guess you can say it's a difference in degree, but again, I don't really know what that would mean.

I think it's fair to say that ants, especially individual ants, differ more from humans than e.g. dogs do, by orders of magnitude. I think this is enough to say that they differ intelligibly from humans and dogs. Dogs also differ intelligibly from humans. As I've said before, I'm not saying that we should treat all species 'the same' as humans. But to the extent that we share commonalities with them -- a great degree in some animals, much less so in others -- so should we try to extend at least the same basic considerations to them as far as we can.

I'm not posing any kind of absolutes in any direction, not least because I don't believe in them. Ultimately I return to my original point: I have never perceived a very fundamental difference between the internal life of myself and a dog. Indeed I think I have more in common with certain dogs than certain humans, because human sophistication allows more extensive differences. The arguments about epistemelogical uncertainty on the experience of different beings, or the assertion that I must be projecting, do not hold weight to me, and I think that the linked articles indicate they hold increasingly less weight with science, too.

I don't expect my position to be a solid enough argument to persuade someone who doesn't perceive things in the same way as me. But then, I barely believe in solid arguments at all, especially not on subjects like this. I think that in some cases, like this one, we have to rely on the vagaries of our intuition and our drive to be as morally good as we can, even in the face of uncertainty.
posted by Drexen at 5:25 AM on August 22


Like I say to people who don't think animals feel pain: if I kick a dog, it yelps. If I kick you, you yelp. The main difference is the dog cannot thereafter emit a stream of self-serving bullshit about how non-dogs don't feel pain the way it does.

That being said, there's clearly an enormous, yawning gulf between humans and all other animals when it comes to cognition. Animals don't make technological progress. Humans have rocket ships and nuclear weapons, all basically invented in the last 100 years. Chimps put sticks in termite mounds, but has that technique changed or improved in the last 10,000 years? Animals don't make art - well, I guess there's that one band of chimps that put grass behind their ears. Humans built the Sistine Chapel. I don't know, it seems like there is a "fundamental" difference there.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 5:32 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


Sure, the products of human culture are astounding and unique, and so are many aspects of human intelligence, especially when considered collectively. Mind you, many animals also do astounding and unique things that we can't. Few pilots match birds. Few buildings match termite colonies in relative scale or sophistication of design. Many species have faculties and senses, reaction times, physical judgement, and so forth, that we lack.

But are those things really fundamental to the nature of our very conscious existence? I think they are really more superficial functions of our minds, but which can have astounding and useful effects when combined with our ability to make things persist, to iterate, to develop outside of us in forms like institutional, traditional, or cultural knowledge and memory. We make the Sistine Chapel and other things, and we coo at them and privelege them -- and certainly, they are astounding, and point to things we possess that animals don't -- but I don't think that proves much about the core of our experience and how it differs from animals.
posted by Drexen at 6:03 AM on August 22


We cannot yet prove through science or argumentation just how close higher-order animal intelligences are to our own.

Will all due respect, we can never "prove" that. Invoking proof in the context of experimental science generally, and the science of the mind in particular, is a bit of a red flag that you're not a working scientist yourself.

Linguistic communication is not unique to humans. Human thought is not exclusively linguistic. Even among people who believe those things are true, there's no agreement in the field that this has been proved.

The present scientific consensus is that linguistic communication is unique to humans, but that cognitive though relies far less on language than has been previously assumed.

We need to be precise about what distinguishes language from other sophisticated forms of cognition. Language in this context has the following properties: (1) grammar, (2) recursive self-reference, (3) arbitrary levels of abstraction, (4) the capacity for counterfactuals, and (5) a declarative mode. Vocabulary alone does not constitute language. To date the study of animal cognition has found null results on most of these counts, with a few exceptions that are potentially confounded by overtraining and experimenter expectancy.

This is not to say that there aren't very sophisticated vocal behaviors in non-human animals. Some areas (such as the study of cetacean vocal communication) may indeed pay out on a few of the items above, although we're a long way off from being comfortable making a check mark for any of them yet.

On the other hand...

Sorry, where's the evidence that cognitive scientists were this obtuse, instead of held more nuanced, scientifically-informed views?

Depends on the generation of cognitive psychologists you're talking about. The original "cognitive revolutionaries" were heavily influenced both by American psychoanalysis and by Chomsky, neither of which have ever let a little thing like evidence dissuade them of firmly-held beliefs. These original cognitivists were also dead-set against radical behaviorism (and for good reason), but as such were inclined towards a polarized view. Insofar as the behaviorists were arguing for common mechanisms across many species, the research priority of early cognitive research was to establish what set humans apart.

Things are very different now. Many in "comparative cognition" today (who are doing the most important work in identifying what humans have in common with other species) either studied under behaviorists or were behaviorists themselves, who were persuaded of the merits of a cognitive approach but who were never the "revolutionary firebrands" that carved out the field's initial niche. Nevertheless, there's something of a yawning gap between mainstream cognitive research and comparative cognition because the methodologies used in cognitive research are not well suited to work with animals (you can't really give verbal instructions, and certainly can't motivate behavior by saying "try your hardest").
posted by belarius at 6:57 AM on August 22 [4 favorites]


It's so goddamned depressing watching people trying to justify morality w.r.t. other animals. As if morality were some axiomatic set of natural laws passed down off the mountain.

Animals are sentient. They feel pain. They are concious and moral. They tell stories, make tools, get drunk. They hold grudges, they're spiteful. They are capable of dramatic acts of bravery and sacrifice.

You've got three choices here:

You can tell yourself a bullshit story about how other animals are different to humans and why you can continue to kill, eat and enslave them.

You can stop killing, eating and enslaving creatures and recognise that have just as much right to live peacefully on this earth as you have.

You can realise that these feelings and the laws we apply to each other are there purely in order to enable us to live comfortably with each other. As such, they do not apply to other species.

None of these options are particularly appealing TBH. It's like there's a three way tie between nihilism, stupidity and delusion.
posted by zoo at 6:59 AM on August 22 [11 favorites]


But are those things really fundamental to the nature of our very conscious existence? I think they are really more superficial functions of our minds... I don't think that proves much about the core of our experience and how it differs from animals.

Except for the "manifest morality" which "sets us apart from many animals" and obligates us to be better people. I mean presumably that one is more than a superficial function of our mind if it so broadly and significantly compels our actions, right? So eating Tofurkey is what sets us apart from the beasts, rather than anything to do with building the pyramids of Giza or developing tensor calculus.

I can't relate it to the above statement but I am pondering what Tofuman, a vegetarian fascimile of human flesh, would be like.
posted by XMLicious at 7:00 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


At least we're becoming better people by recognizing the fundamental rights of the corporate beings we've begotten.
posted by XMLicious at 7:03 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


Will all due respect, we can never "prove" that. Invoking proof in the context of experimental science generally, and the science of the mind in particular, is a bit of a red flag that you're not a working scientist yourself.

Nope, I'm not, and I'm glad for your input if you are! And sure, that's a good point about proof -- but I also think it's close to the point I'm making. Because of exactly that concept, my view of the minds and animals, their value, and how they should be treated is (like many human viewpoints about many subjects) based mostly on intuition and my own perception, albeit bordered and constrained by my reading of the science. To override my perception and convince me that animals in fact were so different as to have no moral importance, it would require either a very convincing argument (informally, a 'proof') or at least something like a scientific consensus in that direction. My point is that I don't perceive there to be either, and the OP articles bolster that perception.

The present scientific consensus is that linguistic communication is unique to humans, but that cognitive though relies far less on language than has been previously assumed.

That's interesting to hear, as my own learning (to the limited extent it touched this subject) was focussed on Chomskian ideas of the at-least partial commonality of human and (some) animal communication. Thanks for the more nuanced/updated explanation.

Luckily for me it's the second point that my line of argument really hinges on!
posted by Drexen at 7:41 AM on August 22


Except for the "manifest morality" which "sets us apart from many animals" and obligates us to be better people. I mean presumably that one is more than a superficial function of our mind if it so broadly and significantly compels our actions, right?

Sure. But I don't require someone or something to be as moral as me in order for me to try to act morally towards them. Rather my morality is based on trying to reduce unnecessary pain and suffering. If someone or something has the capacity for those, it behooves me to concern myself with them. I would hope most people would feel the same way.
posted by Drexen at 7:46 AM on August 22


If you are discussing the relationship between humans and other animals, and you use words like "higher", "lower", or "spectrum", then you're a century and a half out of date.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 8:20 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


If you are discussing the relationship between humans and other animals, and you use words like "higher", "lower", or "spectrum", then you're a century and a half out of date.

Could you expand on that?
posted by Drexen at 8:40 AM on August 22


Personally, I think we need to avoid words like behoove. Because I'm really craving some delicious, delicious horse right now.
posted by zoo at 9:01 AM on August 22 [3 favorites]


Well in general, humans have a tendency when there is a lack of absolute proof another being (including other humans!) have similar experiences of pain, consciousness, or self awareness.. OR EVEN DIFFERENT but still existing pain,consciousness or self awareness -- people tend to choose whatever is most convenient and operate from that, rather than siding with the knowledge there is at least a possibility of another being experiences itself and deserve some respect and compassionate for that possibility.

There is no proof that even among humans, that experience of consciousness, levels of intelligence, or pain awareness is exactly the same in every person, yet we tend to side, when discussing morality, with an absolute respect for humans regardless of intellectual deficit, or destructive behaviors, or proven status of level of consciousness of self or others. Not to say that some people don't draw lines about which humans deserve compassion and welfare and the dignity of sharing the rights we should hope for all person (certainly, given the complicated balance between the needs of diverse beings with overlapping and competing needs and desires, lines do in fact have to be drawn). If we are to say that disabled humans whose intellect is damaged do not deserve ethical consideration we get into some very murky waters, but then to apply the concept of dignity and innate worth to animals with similar nervous systems, capacity for experiencing pain or trauma, along with complex and empathetic social structures and behaviors- it also is somehow highly debatable. This is not a very scientific distinction to make, that human DNA itself bestows some magical superior form of consciousness.

I mean maybe it's true, I like to hope there's all kinds of magic in the universe, it's just unfortunately not a very evidence based proposal. It possible the universe itself is self aware, and that becoming ever more sentient and conscious and capable of acting on such awareness through the force of will is in fact part of the "purpose" of life, and that that deep sense within us that there is purpose or meaning within the universe and our lives and our role within that does come from somewhere. To me, while intelligence is amazing, and necessary for empathy, what amazes me is not our intelligence alone but our capacity to use that to care for not only ourselves but those around us, even beings outside our species.

Our intelligence has not necessarily made us superior in survivability to many other species who are not so dependent on the technology that we think makes us so advances but also creates a level of dependence on it that we are virtually helpless for years of our lives, and without access to that technology we can not function. There are likely many forms of micro-organisms that will outlive us and have more capacity than we to expand beyond our planet to populate the universe.

So what then? Micro-organisms, for all our "intelligence" have bested us at space survival and travel. Are we really superior?

Is it not possible that within "the great purpose" we have as always positioned our own consciousness at the forefront of "manifest destiny " of purpose and consciousness and worthiness of compassion, when we are in a sea of many, of whom we might could better understand and serve each other? I don't know that intelligence is the purpose of life. I should hope personally that empathy and awareness, growing in sentience while uniting with others, sharing gifts and understanding and love between beings would be a "higher"purpose of life.

Intelligence may serve that, or be necessary for it, but I do not think it is proof of itself of a life form being "higher". Do not judge a species by how it treats members of it's own, but how it treats it's inferiors.
posted by xarnop at 9:10 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


"Of course I can't offer any proof to support my position: but if you don't agree with me you're an evil, horrible person." We seem to have wandered out of the discourse of science and into the discourse of faith here.
posted by yoink at 9:27 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


My cat is definitely more self-aware than many humans I have had the misfortune to make the acquaintance of. Well, one of my cats, anyway. The other one is...dumb.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:37 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


I'm not being snarky, by the way, when I say this is a matter of faith and not science. I mean that it is unhelpful to confuse these two domains (as this FPP is doing--it's essentially "we have more and more evidence in support of my faith" which, well, no.) I think people on both sides of this "debate" would benefit from recognizing this as simply a matter of faith. That is, for those of us who think that it's perfectly acceptable to eat some of our fellow animals (e.g. cows, pigs, rabbits etc.) and not others (e.g., my neighbor, Bob) have to respect the deeply held beliefs of those who do not believe that--but, similarly, those who believe that it is immoral to eat cows, pigs, rabbits etc. also have to realize that they don't, actually, have an evidence-based defense of their position: that it is simply a matter of faith. They may be unhappy that others do not share their faith, but I think they would be best to approach this like devout believers of any religion living in a pluralistic society need to do. It may pain the devout Jew to see someone driving on the Sabbath, but we all agree that the gentile is not bound by the Jew's beliefs. It may pain the Hindu to see his Christian neighbor eating cow, but his neighbor is not bound by the Hindu's beliefs. And so forth.
posted by yoink at 9:57 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


A spicy rejoinder, yoink, but is it really fair?

The man of science belarius has warned us against focussing too much on the idea of proof, and my own position along with some others in this thread is a reaction against people who take flimsy evidence and their own biases as being proof enough to justify neglecting or negating the welfare of non-human living beings. But the OP articles seem to indicate that, to the extent that science has an answer, it is getting closer to my position. I'd certainly welcome your thoughts if you think that's wrong.

Your call for even-handedness and mutual tolerance is very apt, but as we've seen in other threads, there's only so far that ideal can take you. I hope I and like-minded others in this thread haven't crossed the line into calling others 'evil and horrible', or implying that -- I don't think we have. But at the same time, doesn't the question imply an answer that calls at least some practises, including meat-eating, into question? Even if it's ambiguous enough to be neutral now, is it completely so, and will it always be so?

For reference, I'm a meat-eater myself, but I can't justify that.
posted by Drexen at 10:07 AM on August 22


I hope I and like-minded others in this thread haven't crossed the line into calling others 'evil and horrible', or implying that

Not to point any fingers, but if one asserts that it is simply unquestionable or that only willed moral blindness could prevent you from accepting that animals have to be given the same ethical regard as humans, one is accusing anyone who disagrees with that position of being a moral delinquent.

And as to the question of the "evidence." No--no matter how much evidence is piled up of animals doing things that look similar in various ways to what we do under the sway of certain emotions, that is not evidence that those animals are feeling those emotions in the same way that humans do. And yes, it is also true that it is impossible to prove that humans other than myself feel or think in the same way that I do. So it is all "faith" all the way down. The question is simply where do you, personally, draw the line. I draw it at humans because it seems to entail all kinds of incoherent consequences to extend it further. But I can understand someone else's desire to draw it somewhere else. They just need to recognize that there will always be some element of arbitrariness in their selection of a stopping-point. Is there really anything so inherently "moral" in saying "I can see how a cow is kinda-sorta similar to me, therefore I'll extend the same moral concern to the cow as I extend to my fellow human being; but I can't see how a plant is similar to me, so I won't extend the same moral concern to plants as I extend to cows and human beings"? Don't we normally recognize the higher moral impulse as being the extension of complete ethical recognition and concern to those who are unlike us, rather than the relatively tribal impulse of recognition of the similar?

Whichever way you slice it we get into moral paradoxes. If there's a human being who does not express emotions/thoughts in ways I can analogize to my own, do I have a diminished ethical responsibility to that person? That's an uncomfortable question for BOTH the person who draws their boundaries at "the human" AND for the person who says "look, animals have expressions that I can analogize to my expressions of emotion! Therefore I should have ethical concern for them." Does the first say "this particular human being is like an animal, and therefore merits less ethical concern"? Does the second say "this particular human being is not like humans+animals in this crucial respect, and therefore merits less ethical concern"? Personally I say "all human beings require the same extension of full ethical concern by virtue of them being human beings." But I recognize that this is a position of moral "faith" rather than anything that can be derived from empirical evidence.
posted by yoink at 10:55 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


Animals don't make technological progress. Humans have rocket ships and nuclear weapons, all basically invented in the last 100 years.

Sure, humans have some capabilities other species don't have (whether in degree or kind), and vice versa. For instance, an orange tree doesn't need farming or supermarkets because it can make its own food out of stray elements and sunlight whereas you would starve if you tried that. To me, that seems easily as impressive and practical as building a rocket ship. Time will tell whether any given set of traits a species happens to evolve turns out to be adaptive or not in the long run, and the jury's still out on thumbs, freakishly oversized cerebrums, etc.
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:11 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


Well it's also only a matter of faith that all humans deserve innate worth, or respect, or equality.

So also, it's only a matter of faith that any human has any obligation to respect the faith of anyone else, especially when that "faith" violates the actually welfare of sensing beings.

Whether or not and how an entity experiences itself and others is in fact not a matter of opinion (unless you literally believe there is no such thing as reality itself)... meaning it's really a matter of proper detection of the reality of other beings, not a matter of guessing.

The idea that people who believe it's ok to punch other humans because that's where their "faith" draws the line and for some reason that "faith" needs to be respected by any other beings is a really silly view of the concept of morality in my opinion. At that point no one has any obligations to anyone, not to respect, or validate, or treat anyone with kindness or acceptance or anything of the sort.

For most people, harms principles make their way into morality, and if we can agree that sensing beings deserve that awareness to be respected than any being who MIGHT be sensing deserves a lot more respect even outside of "proof". If you know you MIGHT be torturing a sensing being, you owe it to that possibility to at least respect that possibility is there and reduce or eliminate the harm if at all possible.

I don't actually think morality is about faith. I think it's ultimately a conscious choice to side with compassion for sensing beings- and to use science and logic and awareness to understand how best to carry out that mission. If we plan to achieve welfare of sensing beings through made up opinions that disregard fact, we may do a great deal of harm and it would contradict the point. And as much as "faith" is some thing that clings to itself outside of looking at facts, I don't think that is the best way to determine the morality of anything.
posted by xarnop at 11:12 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


(I have this vague daydream sometimes of far-future humans with vestigial thumb-stubs and smaller heads who get along MUCH better with the other animals and plants.)
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:13 AM on August 22


if one asserts that it is simply unquestionable or that only willed moral blindness could prevent you from accepting that animals have to be given the same ethical regard as humans

I admit I've been coming on a little strong, but I don't think that's a fair summation of what I've argued! If it seems like I did, I'm happy to recant that here.

I pretty much agree with the rest of your comment though (which is why I've used a lot of 'me/I'-centred language), and I've taken up plenty of space in this thread, so I'm going to step back for now. Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion!
posted by Drexen at 11:24 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


The question is simply where do you, personally, draw the line.

Hylozoism asserts that everything is animate. In this view, thought is held as the fundamental property of the whole of reality. Each form of being has its own distinctive way of thinking, which is just a strictly quantitative difference from the thinking of other forms of being. The concern of ethics, then, is to extend our sympathy to the whole of reality as constituting a single continuum of thought. Of course, there will always be exploitation of other life forms. However, this exploitation should be conducted on the basis of the recognition that they, too, are thinking beings.
posted by No Robots at 11:39 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


Well it's also only a matter of faith that all humans deserve innate worth, or respect, or equality.

I say that explicitly in my comment.
posted by yoink at 11:40 AM on August 22


I don't actually think morality is about faith. I think it's ultimately a conscious choice to side with compassion for sensing beings

How is "conscious choice" incompatible with "faith"? If you "consciously choose" to become a Catholic, you are "consciously choosing" that faith. If you "consciously choose" "compassion for all sensing beings" you're "consciously choosing" the faith-based position that there is an ethical imperative to care for all "sensing beings."

Of course, you don't actually believe that. An electric-eye door is a "sensing being" (quite provably)--but you don't have any "compassion" for the door and it's ceaseless, Sisyphean task of endless opening and closing. Your faith-based commitments are more complex than that. Even in the animal kingdom you'll have difficulty with mere "sensation" as your cut-off point. Venus fly traps have "sensation." Do we have to extend "compassion" to them?

My point is simply the old, old, old philosophical one that we cannot derive an "ought" from an "is." Our "oughts" have, in the end, no empirical foundation.
posted by yoink at 11:47 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


As if morality were some axiomatic set of natural laws passed down off the mountain.

I see what you did there
posted by Hoopo at 11:47 AM on August 22


Well yes I do think it's possible consciousness exists outside the living world. One can choose whether to be moral, but if your version of morality doesn't involve compassion for sensing beings I'm sure why you would bother to use the word. You don't have to be moral, but in the sense that ethics deals with awareness of sensing beings, and tends towards bringing beings out of suffering or discomfort and into preferred states and desired functioning- stating that morality is just about random opinions does not seem to encompass anything I've every associated with morality.

Let's see if we can clear up any semantic difficulties here with a few dictionary definitions:
Morality is essentially a system of what is considered good or bad. One could, under this, have a system of morality in which suffering is considered good, and according to once principles be carrying out "morality".

Personally, I don't believe in cultural immunity, and do believe in the use harms/benefit principles to determine treatments of beings. If people have designated suffering as a "good" they are not consistent with compassion, which is a more important force that rigidly adhering to norms that are based on either random or involve defining suffering as good.

So yes of course, one can choose not to value compassion, and to allow being to suffer and call that "good" but no one has to respect that position or even tolerate it, or allow such a position and the bahviors around it to thrive. Also given that a moral system that isnot based in harms principles, allows those doing the harm, to also be harmed-- beings who care about the welfare of others might use harm against those to doing harm and still be behaving ethically-- so essentially your own morality doesn't protect you from being harmed by those who oppose you. (I.e. if you're going around torturing animals, what's to stop someone bigger than you torturing you, and how does your moral system protect you from that, or does it?)

Rule by might, or even intelligence, and permitting such beings to torture, kill, and brutally exploit all they can have power over has it's problems. I don't think that's the way.
And in a moral system where anyone can do anything and it's all equivalent, no one has any obligation to tolerate your beliefs or be peaceful and kind in response to the harms caused by that mentality.

I don't think suffering is the same as well being. Do you? I am in favor of beings being taken out of painful or undesired circumstance, not put in it just because I'm powerful enough to do that to them and can argue their experience matters less than mine.

We all have to eat, and until we learn to drink electrons we'll be taking energy from other beings. I am a fan of harm reduction and empathy for the consuming nature that beings have found themselves in, and that delusion or awareness that keeps us from seeing and knowing the feelings of others, for which we may not be at fault having such limited awareness as we do.

For me, knowing that I am quite imperfect at determining the level and type of consciousness of other beings, it is a reminder for me to side with empathy when unsure rather than destruction, and without making an assumption other beings exist for me to manipulate and use for my own benefit regardless of their experience.
posted by xarnop at 12:30 PM on August 22 [1 favorite]


> They either regard us with fear as predators or with indifference as not a threat.

Or with interest, as dinner.
posted by jfuller at 12:51 PM on August 22 [2 favorites]


I am not a scientist, just an old fart with notions.

Sifting through all this, it seems to me that morality is only a conceit. We are clever enough to be moral, but not clever enough to come up with a proper definition of it. I'm not aware of any ethical code that cuts across all human cultures, except when described with such broad, vague terms as to make them meaningless until qualified: (food is good, unless it's poison, bears are bad, except in chili). We may admit that the other animals can be kind, can feel emotions, and sense the world in ways that are beyond us, but we don't seem to be able to discover any sort of morality used by these other critters. Can morality be found only among those beings that can make choices? We can agree only in certain terms, about certain things: caring for our children, honesty in our dealings, respect for our fellows. Not all people have the same definition of these, seemingly basic, ideas.

Vegetarians who eschew meat on moral grounds can't really come up with a cogent moral theory to cover that ground, as long as they admit to the existence of carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores. If we humans have free will, then so does the dog who chooses to eat that slice of leftover pizza instead of chasing down the neighbor's cat for lunch. But suppose Fido eats Tabby. Is Fido immoral? Hell, Fido may well be otherwise cute and affectionate. But he's no more immoral than the beautiful cheetah who chokes the lovey gazelle to death, then drags its body home to feed her cub--the cheetah has fewer dietary options than the dog. We must teach some dogs to not eat cats. Most dogs are willing to go along with our notions about those things, but this is a human value, not a doggie value.

Cruelty is another conceit, and, along with those moral tenets to which I subscribe, I happen to share certain notions about that. I'm willing to kill another animal for food, but I'd rather not put it in pain in the process. I guess my moral compass is fairly well-defined, although I often have to think about it now and then, when situations come up that don't fit into obvious slots.

Lobsters scream when you drop then into the boiling water, but you just can't hear them. I'm pretty sure a trout is in distress when you jam hook through its mouth and throw him up on the bank. He probably isn't too please, either, when you lop off his head. Now if I am more immoral than the cheetah, or the dog, I just don't see how.

My cat loves me. I can understand that he does, but I can't describe how that feels to him. I don't know how this might work with fish, but I suspect they may have some sort of analogous feelings. Many birds seem to display affection--especially parrots and ravens. Beats me, though what their bird brains are making of it. Some of my mules seemed to like me--or at least they pretended they did. One of my mare seemed to like me, too, and she was solicitous of me during some of our more demanding treks. A couple of my dogs were very protective of me, alert to anything I wanted them to do, and seemed to be in distress if they didn't understand what I was telling them. I've seen brave animals and kind animals. Some horses I once had took care of a blind gelding. One of them always was near him, shepherding him up and down the rocky, forested hills where we live. My mules were like soldiers, protecting the herd from any strange horses, challenging them until our lead mare and gelding met them and let them into the herd. Mules are lower ranking on the equine social order, so challenging a strange horse was an act of bravery. I don't see any merit in quibbling over whether the mule was driven by biology or his own sense of duty, because he clearly made a choice to stand between the herd and the strangers.

We are clever. But the jury is still out on whether our ability to imagine things and do puzzles is a credible survival trait. We may be too smart for our own good.
posted by mule98J at 1:03 PM on August 22 [4 favorites]


yoink: An electric-eye door is a "sensing being" (quite provably)--but you don't have any "compassion" for the door and it's ceaseless,

An electromechanical stimulus-effect contraption does not equal sense, just like biological reflex actions, bypassing the CNS, aren't construed as senses. Sense in its base denotation is a reference to a distinct modality of qualia like vision or touch, i.e. a type of content in a conscious being.
posted by Gyan at 11:36 PM on August 22


a type of content in a conscious being

If that is the way "sense" is being used in the comment I was responding to, then it was being badly misused. Clearly we can have no evidence as to the conscious experience of "sense" in any animal.
posted by yoink at 6:32 AM on August 23


It's not a matter of faith, it's a stipulation, FWIW.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:27 PM on August 23


But some stipulations may be necessary to build certain kinds of structure upon, and that might be empirically testable.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:29 PM on August 23


Moral vegetarians are perfectly aware of the existence of carnivores. We all create our own personal moralities. They are based on what we think is right and wrong not what others think. They can be influenced by the arguments and actions of others but not determined by them. I can't say whether or not a dog has free will but can say that it's not part of my personal moral calculus.
posted by sineater at 1:04 PM on August 23


It may be possible to prove some moral arguments empirically (in theory anyway). For example, is it possible to organize a fair society that doesn't take as one of its core values that all human life is inherently valuable. For certain narrow definitions of "society," it might be possible to show that different specific cultural assumptions or values are incompatible with certain forms that a society can take. Might be possible, but probably not at current levels of intellectual development and rigor. In other words, it's not a given that moral values can't be demonstrated as empirically better or worse in certain limited senses for achieving certain desired outcomes. It's all relative, sure, but that's not nearly the same thing as saying it's all bullshit, just that it's more complicated than some people try to make it.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:05 PM on August 23


In other words, it's not a given that moral values can't be demonstrated as empirically better or worse in certain limited senses for achieving certain desired outcomes.

No, that's not right. You're getting confused about what it is you're trying to demonstrate. It's certainly possible to make an empirical, provable argument that social formation A better realizes our desired moral ends than social formation B. It is possible to prove, for example, that if you believe it is morally desirable for all people to be given equal access to medical care (say) that universal healthcare will realize that moral aim more fully than leaving the provision of medical care up to market forces. But that isn't a case of empirical analysis providing a reason to adopt a particular ethical position. The ethical position is not derived from the evidence--it's entirely unrelated to it, except in prompting you to undertake the study at all.

So empirical analysis is certainly crucially important to figuring out the best way to realize our moral aims, but it has almost nothing whatsoever to say about what our aims should be. The one case where it plays some role is simply in the case of determining whether some subject does or does not fall under some previously formulated moral dictum. Thus, for example, if I hold that certain moral claims arise from all human beings (say that I have a moral duty to rescue a human in distress) and I see a figure struggling in the water offshore during a storm--then, clearly, there is an empirical effort I can make to determine whether or not that figure is, in fact, a human being. If I discover that it is I may feel myself morally compelled to attempt a rescue, whereas if I discover it's a dog (say) I may feel myself to be under either no such compulsion or a reduced compulsion.

Aha! you may say, but the same thing applies, say, to a racist who thinks that Jews have no moral claim upon him but Goys do--surely you could empirically prove to him that Jews are just as much "people" as Goys are! Well, no--alas. Because that moral position need not be founded in any empirical error or misunderstanding. If you have "faith" that Jews are damned for all eternity (say for the guilt of killing Christ) there is no empirical argument that need force you out of that position--any more than you need be empirically argued out of belief in the existence of God or Christ's compassion or whatever. You might eventually abandon your beliefs under the weight of social pressure or a change of heart or what have you, but there is simply no "if A, then B, then C..." chain of reasoning that need persuade you that your moral position is unsound. In the end it's simply the assertion of one series of moral claims against another.

that's not nearly the same thing as saying it's all bullshit


I'm not saying "it's all bullshit." I take my own moral positions with profound seriousness. But I recognize that where they differ profoundly from yours or another person's (i.e., where we have actual moral differences--rather than where we are just disagreeing about the best policies and actions to realize our moral vision in the world) that at that point, as Wittgenstein says, "the chain of reason has an end." If you sincerely and profoundly believe that, say, the only genuine subjects of moral concern in the world are, say, the members of your tribe, or your village, or--by contrast--if you believe that the moral claims of mosquitoes are indistinguishable from those of humans, well...I can argue with you, but I can't prove you wrong. All I can do, then, is proselytize for my world view as one which I consider saner, healthier, more beautiful but I can't say "here is this fact about the world which you must agree, by observation, to be true and which is inherently incompatible with your stated moral position."
posted by yoink at 1:45 PM on August 24


No, that's not right. You're getting confused about what it is you're trying to demonstrate. It's certainly possible to make an empirical, provable argument that social formation A better realizes our desired moral ends than social formation B. It is possible to prove, for example, that if you believe it is morally desirable for all people to be given equal access to medical care (say) that universal healthcare will realize that moral aim more fully than leaving the provision of medical care up to market forces. But that isn't a case of empirical analysis providing a reason to adopt a particular ethical position. The ethical position is not derived from the evidence--it's entirely unrelated to it, except in prompting you to undertake the study at all.

Not if you're an ethical pragmatist, yoink.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:53 PM on August 24


In other words, I'm not getting confused about anything, but what matters to me are the real world consequences of various ethical positions, beliefs, and assumptions, and I believe they can and do have real-world consequences. So presumably, for someone coming at ethics from my POV, it's at least theoretically possible to empirically test ethical propositions in particular contexts to determine their value.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:56 PM on August 24


An electromechanical stimulus-effect contraption does not equal sense, just like biological reflex actions, bypassing the CNS, aren't construed as senses. Sense in its base denotation is a reference to a distinct modality of qualia like vision or touch, i.e. a type of content in a conscious being.

By the way, if you want a good thought-experiment to see the problem with this (and the problem with the whole "look, cows feel just like we do!" argument) imagine a futuristic world where we can engineer bio-mechanical robot creatures that are indistinguishable to the human eye and to at least non-expert human examination from "real" animals. Now imagine that we program one of these to respond to stimulus in exactly the ways that a real cow does, but at the same time we know with certainty that this stimulus-response is purely rote--that the animal "feels" no pain, no suffering, it simply mimics all the signs we associate with suffering (and pleasure) perfectly.

Now you're in a paddock with a cow. How do you determine whether it's a cow that has "qualia" or not? How do you determine what your ethical responsibility to that cow is?

O.K. now, back here on planet earth. How did you determine empirically that real cows have such "qualia" and electric-eye doors don't?
posted by yoink at 1:56 PM on August 24


what matters to me are the real world consequences of various ethical positions

This just seems hopelessly muddled. What on earth do you mean by "matter" here which you appear to be using in opposition to and exclusively of "ethical positions"? How could it "matter" whether anybody on earth lived or died except from an explicitly moral point of view? And that point of view has not been derived from your empirical/rational/pragmatic position. It precedes it, and must necessarily precede it, logically.
posted by yoink at 1:59 PM on August 24


You just have to stipulate what you want--define your cultural values as abstract values--and the rest follows from there. But yes, the first step is in a certain sense arbitrary. No less necessary for that, though. I couldn't possibly flesh out my argument completely enough here to address all your objections without hogging the topic, so I won't. But your objections aren't really worrying to me, and I'm not interested in selling my own view, so I don't see much point in continuing this siderail at the moment.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:22 PM on August 24


Maybe one more quick explanation will make what I'm arguing clearer. If people's beliefs and attitudes can be demonstrated to influence their behavior, then people's ethical beliefs (or lack of them) can presumably also influence their behavior. From there, how particular ethical beliefs specifically influence behavior might be something we could probe empirically. But of course that doesn't solve the is/ought problem. There's no easy solution to that. We have to define our cultural values axiomatically--the ethical goals have to be an input to the system, a stipulation arrived at by cultural consensus; they can't be derived through reasoning alone.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:51 PM on August 24


O.K. now, back here on planet earth. How did you determine empirically that real cows have such "qualia" and electric-eye doors don't?

Easy, mind = brain, so the more a cow's brain resembles a human's, the more likely it is to have qualia. A little googling suggests they're very similar, so I'm inclined to think a cow's experience of, e.g. pain is very similar to my own. Electric eye doors on the other hand don't have brains and therefore don't have minds; so regardless of what we think about the cow, the odds that doors experience qualia are zero. Not a hard question at all.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 3:48 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


From there, how particular ethical beliefs specifically influence behavior might be something we could probe empirically.

Of course. But that has nothing at all to do with my claims. I'm not saying that ethical positions have no empirical consequences. I'm saying we can't derive an ought from an is--that there is no empirical basis for our ethical positions. And you seem to have come around to agreeing with me.
posted by yoink at 5:11 PM on August 24


Easy, mind = brain, so the more a cow's brain resembles a human's, the more likely it is to have qualia.

That's a completely circular argument. You're just assuming the very thing you are supposed to be proving as your starting point. That "human-like-brain=qualia" is just posited out of nowhere with no proof at all. It's not as if you proved it for dogs, and cats, and cows and whales and now you're asking me to accept that it's pretty likely true for lemurs as well; you haven't proved it for any animal at all--not even for your fellow human beings.

What's more, it's clearly (to me) not a viable ethical position. If aliens land tomorrow and walk (or crawl or roll or wiggle or fly or whatever) up to me and say "hi, earthling, we really enjoyed that series Firefly and we figured we needed to find out more about the species that was capable of making it" I'm not going to determine my willingness to extend to them the same ethical concern I would extend to fellow humans based on whether or not they have human-like brains.
posted by yoink at 5:16 PM on August 24


Your question read to me like it assumed the existence of qualia, and I answered it with that assumption in mind. And yes, I take it as a given that humans are conscious and have subjective experiences and that those experiences arise out of and occur in the brain. The meat does the thinking. The contrary position is axiomatically a non-starter for me. There's no reason to believe that humans don't have subjective conscious experiences and nobody in real life has ever behaved as if it were true. When they do behave as if it were true, we call them psychopaths, tyrants, monsters, etc.

O.K. now, back here on planet earth . . . If aliens land tomorrow

Make up your mind!

I'm not going to determine my willingness to extend to them the same ethical concern I would extend to fellow humans based on whether or not they have human-like brains.

Well, sure. I never suggested you should. It's totally possible to say, as the Jains do, that one shouldn't even swat a gnat, regardless of its brain size or complexity and without worrying about whether it experiences qualia (if they exist). As I said earlier in the thread, I'm content to treat something that acts like it is in pain, as if it were actually experiencing pain the way I do. On the other hand, I am virtually certain that you don't extend the same ethical concern to electric-eye doors as you do to dogs, or humans. Or am I wrong?
posted by mrbigmuscles at 6:05 PM on August 24


And you seem to have come around to agreeing with me.

Not exactly, yoink, I didn't come around; that's what I meant with my first comment about values being stipulations, but you're right that we don't disagree on that point. I just think we could theoretically test how particular ethical assumptions would play out in scenarios modeled on the real world if we had sufficiently powerful tools for modeling agents with beliefs and their interactions, and on that basis we could make better informed decisions about our ethical assumptions--but I fully realize we couldn't achieve anything remotely so sophisticated at our current levels of intellectual development.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:05 PM on August 24


yoink: How do you determine whether it's a cow that has "qualia" or not? How do you determine what your ethical responsibility to that cow is?

O.K. now, back here on planet earth. How did you determine empirically that real cows have such "qualia" and electric-eye doors don't?


I don't see that it can be empirically determined, only intuited viz. to me, a cow has qualia and the door doesn't.
posted by Gyan at 2:48 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


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