Daniel Issing has an interesting article at Quillette on the hard problems of vegetarianism. Vegetarianism, and its more pure form, veganism, are often seen as the obvious moral thing we should all be doing, but that most of us aren’t. Issing, himself a vegetarian, explores the messy details that make this a more complicated proposition than it might seem. It’s a fascinating article which I recommend.
But there’s one part of it I want to focus on.
Now, if some form of utilitarianism underlies all animal welfare theories, the notion that animals’ interests need to be taken into account can be challenged by denying that the utilitarian calculus can be meaningfully applied across species. All it takes is to argue that we are not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively different from non-human animals. Both human and non-human animals suffer pain, yet presumably only humans are able to anticipate it, reflect upon it, and live their lives in dread of it. You can psychologically abuse and torture human beings, but you wouldn’t be able to achieve the same results with animals. Although far from the only reason for punishing criminals—we convict murderers even if the victim did not see it coming, died instantly and painlessly, and is not survived by grieving relatives—the mental landscape matters to ethical judgements. Those judgements, after all, are products of the mind as well, and thus differential treatment may well be justified.
I will note real quick that I do think it is possible to inflict psychological abuse on animals. A social animal, such as a dog, kept in isolation, would almost certainly suffer detrimental effects to its wellbeing. But Issing is talking here specifically about psychological abuse related to anticipation of things that might be days, weeks, or months in the future. And there, I’d agree that most animals can’t be affected by that, because the observational evidence seems to indicate that the very idea of days, weeks, or months in the future is inconceivable to them.
This gets to an idea I’ve seen expressed from various people, one relating to Antonio Damasio’s hierarchy of self: the proto-self, the core self, and the autobiographical self. The proto and core self are the self that exists in the moment. The autobiographical self is the one that spans the personal life narrative of the organism, our memories, but also everything we imagine about our future, our hopes and dreams, etc.
The point is that most non-human animals have a very limited autobiographical self. In general, most animals can only anticipate things a few seconds to a few minutes into the future. In cases where we’re tempted to think an animal is planning far into the future, it’s usually us projecting our own mental state on them.
For example, seeing squirrels save nuts might make us think the squirrel is thinking about its future needs, or a spider laying the foundation of its web might incline us to think it’s planning out the entire thing in advance. But in these cases, the animal is just following instinct. Squirrels save nuts. Spiders weave webs. We don’t see individual members of these species trying alternate strategies, because these aren’t learned personal strategies, but species level programming.
What does that mean? We still definitely need to give consideration to the animal’s moment to moment wellbeing. These are sentient creatures and we shouldn’t inflict pain or suffering on them without a very good reason. But if we need to put them down humanely, we shouldn’t see it as equivalent to killing a human, since the human does have a very developed autobiographical self. When a human is killed, we are taking away their all their hopes, dreams, and even fears about the future. When most non-human animals are killed, provided it’s done in a non-painful manner, according to this view, we’re not taking away anything they can conceive of.
On the face of it, this seems like a pretty insightful point, one that might allow us to be more at peace with (most) animal testing, or with farming that takes into account the animal’s needs while it’s alive, and in both cases that puts it down humanely if or when it’s necessary. There is the caveat that more intelligent species, such as great apes, elephants, dolphins, and perhaps some birds, might have broader than usual time horizons, something that should be considered for their wellbeing.
But this overall line of reasoning makes me nervous. It feels suspiciously like a rationalization for what we as a society are currently prepared to do for animal welfare, while minimizing pressure to do more. The question is, what are the arguments against it?
One possible objection is, how sure are we that most animals can’t in fact plan for the future? There is evidence of longer term planning in some animal species, but it tends to be clustered in the intelligent ones I mentioned above. Planning in most species is limited to immediate situations, like figuring out how to navigate a maze. That said, new evidence could change the picture at any time.
Another objection is if these animals understood their situation, they’d be in distress about what was going to happen to them. But it could be argued that this is a pointless counterfactual. If the animal could understand what was going to happen, they wouldn’t be what they are.
That said, taking one of the lessons from the previous post, it does raise the interesting question of whether we could imagine ourselves in a similar situation to the animal. For instance, suppose reincarnation were a real thing, with no ability to preserve memories across lives. If someone did something to me that took away all my future incarnations, even if I never knew anything about them, it certainly feels like I would have lost something. The problem with this example, though, is I can conceive of those other lives, which is more than what most animals can understand about their future self.
I’ve kicked around other hypothetical scenarios, such as the multiverse being real and copies of myself in other universes being killed, but that doesn’t appear to be taking away even an unknown benefit to the me in this universe. So I haven’t found a thought experiment scenario that puts us in the same ethical position as non-human animals. If you think about it, this makes sense, since I’m looking for something I can lose that I can’t even conceive of.
What do you think? Are there other objections I’m overlooking? Or aspects to the ones I noted that make them stronger than they look?