So there’s a Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper in press on the cognitive differences between human and nonhuman animals that is related, in some ways, to my own work (it even cites me twice… yay, the citation count for that paper just jumped to, like, 4). The paper is sure to be controversial for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the title, but I’m fairly convinced by its arguments. But I’m not really writing this post to talk about the article. When it’s published, with all its peer commentaries (BBS publishes target articles and then a bunch of peer commentaries, along with a response from the authors of the target article), maybe we can have a discussion about it. For now, I just want to use it as a launching point for another discussion: animal rights. In thinking about the article, because I’m writing a peer commentary on it with another psychologist (and crossing my fingers that it’ll be published — I don’t have a good track record of getting peer commentaries published), has gotten me thinking about the implications of theoretical work on cognitive/behavioral differences between human and nonhuman animals, and the moral implications of those theories.
The truth is, I don’t really know where moral status comes from. Having gotten rid of supernatural beings in my life, it’s become difficult for me to believe that moral status is something inherent, in a metaphysical sense, in beings of a certain type, so I’m left looking elsewhere for the source of moral status. It’s even difficult to determine where moral status comes from, epistemologically, these days, as research on moral cognition has made it more and more clear that reason — the best candidate — plays less of a role in determining our moral judgments than we’d like to believe. Despite all this uncertainty, however, I can’t escape the intuition that there is something unique about humans, morally, and so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what this uniqueness is, and what, exactly, it means for the moral status of nonhuman animals.
But before I get too deep into that, let me make a few things clear. The first is that whatever the moral status of nonhuman animals, I think terrorism in their name is despicable (this, for example, disgusts me). Whatever I may end up thinking about animal rights, I abhor violence, and recognize that even when it’s used in the service of a just cause (which is not to say that groups like the ALF are serving a just cause), it tends to do little more than beget more violence. Even if it doesn’t foster more violence, it always stifles discourse, and where important and difficult issues like morality are concerned, discourse is of the utmost importance. The second thing I want to make clear is that I fully recognize the importance of animal research to science, particularly the medical sciences. We’re all better off because of research that’s been done on animals. And finally, because it’s an inevitable question when these topics arise, I’m not a vegetarian. I don’t see anything wrong with vegetarianism (though I admit I find veganism a bit odd), I just haven’t gotten to the point where I think it’s the only moral path.
I should also note that I’ve done animal research. When I was an undergrad, I worked in and among a few different animal labs, working with Japanese quail, rats, mice, and indirectly, with pigeons (by indirectly, I mean, I was always the one who had to chase the little buggers down when they escaped, and they always escaped, proving perhaps that pigeons are smarter than pigeon researchers, which should have been clear anyway, since they’re all closet Skinnerians). Some of it was quite gruesome, and I was deeply uncomfortable with what I was doing on more than one occasion. So I know a bit about what’s going on out there.
Having said all that, I hope it’s clear that animals are at least on my “moral radar,” as the SEP calls it. I understand that animals are beings that can suffer, and as such, their moral status should at least be carefully considered. And it’s not enough to simply say, as some defenders of animal research do, that animal research has been immensely beneficial to humans. That’s undoubtedly true, but that just begs the important question of whether the benefit to humans justifies the suffering of research animals, and why? In fact, that reply misses the point entirely when we’re talking about basic research, in which the potential benefits to humans are far from clear. In fact, much of that research will never lead to benefits to humans, aside from increased knowledge of course, so a related question arises: at what point, if ever, does the potential benefit to humans become great enough to justify the suffering of nonhuman animals?
Notice that I’m assuming, at this point, that the suffering of nonhuman animals is something that needs to be justified. There are plenty of people who don’t think this is the case, and to them I have nothing to say, really. I have a deep intuition, that as of yet no amount of reasoning has been able to rid me of, that suffering is bad, and that if it is possible, it should be avoided. That is, if suffering is unjustified, it is morally wrong. This is, in fact, my deepest moral intuition, guiding all others. So I’m starting from that position, and if you disagree with it, then this discussion will have nothing for you in it.
Of course, I’m not the only one who believes that animal suffering needs to be justified. As far as I know, every civilized nation within which animal research is conducted has a set of rules specifying under what circumstances animal research is justified, and how, even when it is justified, everything possible should be done to minimize the suffering of animal subjects. In many cases, these rules are more strict than those governing human research, because humans can provide informed consent (a potential clue, I might add, in the investigation of moral status). Granted, sometimes these rules can be comical, as in the rules for euthanizing research animals. They’re quite strict so long as the animal is still captive, but if the animal escapes and is running loose outside of the lab, you can kill the little bastards pretty much any way you want. But the very existence of these rules makes it clear that the intuition that animal suffering needs to be justified is pretty widely shared.
What, then, is it that makes humans more important, morally, than nonhuman animals? How is it that benefits to humans, even in the very abstract sense of potential benefits, as in basic research, can justify the suffering of nonhuman animals? The answer, I’m convinced, must lie in the origin of moral intuitions in humans. Something about why we think moral considerations are important must also specify why they’re more important when applied to humans. In fact, I think, though I’m not wedded to this answer, that it is just the fact that we have moral considerations in the first place that makes our moral claims greater than those of nonhuman animals. In other words, because we are moral animals, our moral claims have a higher status. We are animals who can act morally, and as moral beings who live in concord with other beings, moral and amoral, it is incumbent upon us to act morally. Put different, the best choice is always the most moral one.
The upshot of this is that anytime the claims of a moral and amoral being compete, the moral being’s claim should be honored. This is because in honoring the claim of a moral being, we increase that beings ability to act morally. In the case of animal research, this means that by causing suffering to nonhuman animals in order to benefit humans — through making their lives longer, increasing the quality of their lives, etc. — we increase the capacity of humans to act morally. This is, therefore, the most moral path.
This isn’t a very satisfying answer, I know, and it leaves us with more questions than it answers. At what point does the immorality of causing suffering to animals — and if suffering is wrong, then causing suffering to animals is always wrong — outstrip the (potential) increase in moral action by humans? How would we recognize this point? Even if we can figure out about where this point lies, what do we do with border cases about which we’re uncertain? In which direction should we prefer to err? Where do we set our decision bound? I can’t really answer these questions, but I hope that putting this post out there will spark a discussion, because I think that answering these questions is very important, and it’s pretty clear that most people on either side of these issues (the animal rights absolutists and the defenders of animal research) are all that interested in answering them. So I’ll cut this post off here, leaving pretty much everyone feeling unsatisfied, I’m sure, in the hopes that you’ll start talking where my abilities have left off.