Tag Archives: moral relevance

The moral relevance of human intelligence

Animal rights proponents often assert that “sentience” is the only morally relevant characteristic. In their view, we owe the same moral consideration to all sentient living beings, which must include the same basic rights to life and freedom.

The animal rights philosopher asks — Why does it matter if humans can compose a violin concerto or prove complex mathematical theorems?  After all, animals also have unique abilities that no human possess.  Birds can fly unassisted, dolphins use sonar, and mice have an exquisite sense of smell. In what way does human intelligence makes us different from other living beings in any morally relevant way?

As an example, one of these philosophers, Prof. Gary Francione, writes:

“[…] cognitive characteristics beyond sentience are morally irrelevant […] being “smart” may matter for some purposes, such as whether we give someone a scholarship, but it is completely irrelevant to whether we use someone as a forced organ donor, as a non-consenting subject in a biomedical experiment.”

Sentience, according to the dictionary, is the “ability to feel and perceive things.”  However, to Prof. Francione it clearly means something more:

[…] sentience is a necessary as well as sufficient characteristic for a being to have interests (preferences, desires, or wants) in the first place. A rock is not sentient; it does not have any sort of mind that prefers, desires, or wants anything. A plant alive but has no sort of mind that prefers, desires, or wants anything.

Having preferences, desires, beliefs, interests and acting purposely to achieve them is to attribute a living being with mental states that go beyond the mere ability to feel and perceive things.  It goes beyond the accepted definition of “sentience”.  Yet, it seems obvious that not all species possess these attributes in equal degrees.

A human mother that is contemplating death due to cancer, will suffer beyond her physical pain when thinking that her children will grow up without a her, that she will never see them marry or have children of their own, that she will leave her spouse alone to take care of the family.

It is her cognitive abilities that allow her to suffer in ways other animals cannot.  Thus, if we agree that suffering is morally relevant, the type of suffering this mother experiences must count too.  And because such suffering is enabled to beings with the cognitive abilities that allow them to pose such questions, one must conclude that human cognitive abilities are morally relevant too.

Human cognitive abilities enable us to suffer in ways no other animals find possible.

There is a second important way in human intelligence becomes morally relevant.  It is the fact that our cognitive skills give rise to the scientific edifices of mathematics, physics and life sciences, which allows us, humans, to combat suffering in the world.

Humans have relied on our science to develop vaccines, screening tests and diagnostic devices, therapies and cures for many diseases.  These developments have saved billions lives, both human and non-human, and eliminated much suffering.

In contrast, while it is true that birds fly, dolphins use sonar and mice have a terrific sense of smell, none of these abilities allow them to battle suffering.

Rejecting our ability to confront suffering is to reject our human condition. Rejecting the moral responsibility that results from our cognitive abilities, as proposed by animal rights activists, would be wrong.

Consciousness and Moral Status

A group of scientists recently gathered at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference and issued the following declaration which as been widely covered in the media:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

Their good intentions duly noted, this is not a declaration of a scientific fact.

The truth is that we have no idea what a “conscious state” is.  We do not know what neural substrates “generate consciousness”.  We do not know how to recognize what is “intentional behavior” and what is not.  We do not know if consciousness if a property that arises only in biological systems. Nor do we know if consciousness is a binary or graded property. These are all open questions. Any assertion that non-human animals are capable of exhibiting “conscious states” as those experienced by humans is at best a working hypothesis based on vague concepts that need to be clarified.

Note that if we truly had the scientific knowledge and understanding to back up the declaration we should be able to answer the following simple questions.  Is a fly’s escape behavior to a swat intentional or a mere reflex?  What about single-cell organisms that follow up gradients of nutrients?  Are they conscious?  Is their movement towards the food intentional?  The authors must surely have a way to answer these questions to have decided to include the octopus in their list of conscious animals, while leaving the salmon out.  But they do not really have an answer.  If we had one we could also offer a resolution to one of the biggest problems in philosophy — the problem of other minds.  PZ Myers already offered a similar criticism of the declaration and I hope other scientists will jump into this debate as well.

Of course, there are animal activists that had already reached the conclusion that animals are conscious simply by staring into their eyes, they mockingly applaud the new recognition by this group of scientists, and move on to suggest the following:

Some of the conclusions reached in this declaration are the product of scientists who, to this day, still conduct experiments on animals […] Their own declaration will now be used as evidence that it’s time to stop using these animals in captivity and start finding new ways of making a living.

Is this so?  Can the declaration, assuming it is scientifically valid, be used to argue in such a way?  This may be possible if and only if one accepts the following assumptions.  First, that the declaration means that consciousness is a binary property — either you have it or not.  Thus if animals are conscious they are conscious to the same degree as a normal human (thereby denying the possibility graded levels of consciousness). Second, that consciousness is the only morally relevant property that determines the moral status of a living being.  If one accepts these two assumptions the moral status of human and non-human animals ought to be the same. But both assumptions are wrong.  Not even the scientists involved in the declaration would agree with the first assumption.  People do not think we owe the same moral consideration to the serial killer and to the Dalai Lama, although both are equally conscious. Similarly, we reject the notion that the moral status of a patient in a minimally conscious state is the same as that of a worm. Thus, consciousness alone is insufficient to establish the moral status of living beings.

Opponents of animal research continue to insinuate that the only reason for scientists to experiment on animals is because it supports our livelihood.  No, this is not the real reason. The reason for this work is that humans have ability to reduce and eliminate suffering from the world by means of their scientific work.  Due to current limitations in technology, in some cases, medical research cannot move forward without access to living organisms at the level of single cells and even molecules. Scientists acknowledge that we owe moral consideration to other living beings, but not to the same degree as human life.  We do confront this moral dilemma by carrying out the work while minimizing the number, pain and suffering of animals subjects.  Opponents of animal research, on the other hand, readily ask us to stop the work, but fail to provide a moral justification.