The scope of animal wellbeing

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?

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22 thoughts on “The scope of animal wellbeing

  1. Some of my thoughts on the subject: #1 perhaps you overestimate human awareness of the future; we may want certain futures to be realized and others to be avoided, but we have little to no certainty that any particular future will occur. Pessimists aren’t right any more than optimists about the future. #2 Although I have no proof or corroborating evidence to support this, I suspect that the depth and breadth of an animal’s memories may be an indication of the range of its sensation of the future, but even if that’s not the case, then #3 we are amputating what would have been that animal’s future when we kill it. We can’t know what possible good (or evil) that animal might have caused to its family or friends, or to us humans. There are countless stories of animals saving humans or making life better for them. Many dogs (and other pets) are very stressed when they are taken to the vet. Granted, we take them for their own good, but they are anticipating a future unpleasantness that can last a considerable amount of time. Imagine how animals feel when they witness other animals being slaughtered or hear their cries. Just my thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts!

      On 1, I actually considered adding a passage describing how often our present self’s desires trump our future self’s needs. Of course, the reality is that means that the affective reactions from simulating short term rewards are stronger than the ones from simulating longer term rewards. And it often comes down to a series of bets. Making longer range bets is a lot easier if our short term needs are currently being met. In other words, it’s a lot harder to wait for the second marshmallow if you’re very hungry right now.

      2. There actually is good evidence that the same brain regions involved in remembering past episodes are used for imagining future ones. Not everyone is convinced, but there seems good evidence that episodic memory is pervasive among mammals, which would mean so is imagining future episodes. What seems rare is the ability to deliberate on novel scenarios in that future imagining. But what may be even rarer, is fitting all those episodes into any kind of lifelong narrative. Here symbolic thought is a major asset. Imagine attempting to remember your life if you didn’t have concepts like months, years, school, career, etc, to work with. It might all be a much hazier mess.

      3. The amputation remark gives me an idea for a possible hypothetical comparison. Imagine if we were actually 17 dimensional beings, but the part we normally think of as ourselves, is just in the 3+1 dimensions we’re familiar with, and that portion can’t conceive of the rest. If a fully aware 17 dimensional being comes along and amputates parts of us that only exist in those other dimensions, has the 3+1 dimension portion of us lost anything meaningful?

      Definitely we never know all the effects of something like taking the life of an animal. But that goes both ways. If we don’t use animals to test medical treatments, how many humans might continue to suffer or die from illnesses with treatments we end up not having? The argument for farm animals is a bit tougher, but as Issing points out, the population of livestock is far higher than equivalently sized animals in nature. As cultured meat becomes increasingly cost effective, the livestock population may crash dramatically. At a species level, who are better off, the large numbers living in captivity, or the wild ones on the edge of extinction?

      On animals witnessing others being slaughtered or hearing their cries, I think part of killing them humanely is avoiding that. Animals in a slaughter queue usually can’t see the actual slaughter, and are put down in a manner that generally kills them quickly and painlessly, with no crying out, using something like a cattle bolt pistol. Although it takes public scrutiny to ensure that humane killing remains the norm.


      1. “At a species level, who are better off, the large numbers living in captivity, or the wild ones on the edge of extinction?”

        I’m thinking more and more about this. This still sounds like science fiction to me, but I think we’ll have to do more about the well-being of wild animals at some point in the future. We have more pressing issues to solve first, though, but they’re not exclusive, as often.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Doing something about the situation for wild animals definitely seems like it would have to be a far future concern. It would require us to take control of entire ecological systems, while keeping them balanced and thriving. I’m not sure if there’s any solution where we could give all the animals the habitat and freedom they’re used to, without at least some predator-prey interactions. We might be forced to balance their short term wellbeing against longer term wellbeing, and the needs of some, like prey, over predators.


  2. I’ve lately been thinking a bit about the source of ethics/morality, and my current conclusion is that it’s all about goals. We have our own goals, but we also recognize goals in other entities, like animals, and ideally we should try to cooperate with those goals when possible, but always in consideration of our own goals. Cooperation means trying to maximize the values of everyone’s goals when possible, even if that means accepting slightly less for your own goals.

    So the main goals we see in animals is their goal to exist (not die) and their goal to not be in pain. We look at these in comparison with our goals of existing (eating), pleasure (eating tasty things), health (a long term goal related to the others, so, eating healthy), living comfortably (so, creating food cheaply), etc. Cooperation then appears in degrees, such as creating food less cheaply so as to avoid animal pain, or possibly eating food that is less tasty (and possibly less healthy) to avoid killing animals at all, etc.

    If you want, you can even consider goals of species to continue. If we stopped raising cattle for exploiting them (for meat or milk), how long would they last “in the wild”? But there is danger here of using this reasoning to “rationalize” exploiting them. So the conversation goes on.

    [are we ready to start talking about robot rights?]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see where you’re coming from with goals. But as you end up concluding, it includes a lot of stuff, like plants, bacteria, and contemporary robots. It seems like goals, just by themselves, aren’t sufficient. I think we need actual feelings, in the sense that the goals need to be involuntary, rooted in innate impulses, and that the drive to fulfill them isn’t itself voluntary, and involves the involuntary mobilization of energy-using facilities. Crucially, it must be something that the system can override with yet more energy.

      This gets into why a system might override those impulses. Because it predicts other innate impulses would be more satisfied by the override, that is, its simulation of scenarios leads to more high valued impulses being triggered, which overrides the current impulses, including the value of not using the energy for the override.

      The ability to override, along with a system for determining when to override, is crucial. Without that, we have a system with goals, but basically just one following programming. This fits most life, including plant life, as well as current robots. We might consider it wrong to interfere with these goal oriented systems, but only in terms of what it means to other feeling systems, the ones with override capabilities.

      The interesting question is whether we’ll ever mass produce robots like this, even once we’ve figured out how to do it. Feelings exist in animals due to our evolutionary history. But there’s no reason they have to exist in robots we build to accomplish certain tasks.

      To be sure, we’ll eventually have robots with many different goals, impulses they may have to selectively allow or inhibit based on simulated outcomes, but it’s not clear those impulses will need to involve involuntary arousal, the involuntary mobilization of energy-using facilities. Without that, it might be hard to see them as having feelings, and therefore as subjects of moral concern.

      There’s also the issue that we can control what impulses a robot has. And we’re unlikely to give them impulses centered on survival and procreation, at least not as their primary driving goals. If a minesweeping robot values finding mines over maintaining its existence, is there any ethical cause for concern?

      Of course, eventually we may be able to change the goal/impulses of living systems. Which always gets us back to the sentient cow that wants to be eaten in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.


      1. You say “we need actual feelings”, but I’m not sure what are “actual” feelings as opposed to some other kind.

        It might help for me to define what I mean by a goal. An entity (agent) has a goal if there is some state of the world such that the entity has (designed/evolved) mechanisms whose proper (“intended”) function (as described by Ruth Millikan) is to move the world toward that state when the world is not in that state. So living things tend to have the goal (and associated mechanisms) to stay living.

        When you talk about “feelings”, I translate that as part of the mechanisms for determining which actions to take to move the world towards the goal. When you talk about impulses (actions which move toward a state) being overridden, I just see multiple and competing goals (like “staying hidden” versus “getting food”).

        But you seem to suggest that just one goal is not enough. Why? I’m suggesting the morally correct thing to do is identify all of the impacted goals you can (competing or not) and accommodate those to a reasonable extent.

        BTW, when we get towards generally intelligent robots, they should be doing the same thing.



        1. I tried to give an idea about feelings above. But I did a post a while back which looks at it in detail.

          The layers of emotional feelings

          It is true that we’re probably not going to get this dynamic unless there are multiple (probably several) feelings that at times contradict each other. Otherwise there’s not much reason for mechanisms to evolve to figure out which of the impulses underlying a feeling to allow or inhibit. In other words, awareness of the impulse is necessary.

          Why would one goal without awareness not be enough? Strictly speaking, there is no fact of the matter answer to that. If you decide it is enough, then for you it is. Ultimately there is no objective morality. But I’m not personally going to get worked up about a Roomba being denied its cleaning goal. (At least unless it happens to coincide with my desire for my house to be cleaned. 🙂 )


  3. First, I find Peter Singer’s ethical approach—a simplistic utilitarianism—thin and outmoded. I also think utilitarianism has limits in ethical debate generally. Most contemporary ethicists reject Singer’s version of consequentialist ethics which produces conclusions that are occasionally hard to stomach. In addition to his argument that parents have a right to kill their handicapped children, I found his argument to abandon prosecutions of old Nazi war criminals incoherent. In the latter case he confuses evidence of heinous criminal acts with facts which may support the mitigation of punishment, two different ethical concepts and a distinction that should be easy to discern. In short, I’ve learned to take Singer’s philosophical conclusions with a grain of salt.

    Second, there is much to discuss about the ethics of eating animals. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while now. It was always a “back-burner” matter for me and I have yet to reach any final conclusions. I do think that the inquiry actually comprises different ethical issues which need to be separated. For example, there are different ethical assumptions and arguments based on a theory of animals “rights” verses a basic concern for animal cruelty, a subtle but I think real distinction. That is, we are generally repulsed at eating foie gras. But not I think because the bird had rights. Next, there are environmental arguments similar to the moral analysis applied to burning fossil fuels. And, often ignored, there are ethical arguments centered on proportionality. For example, is there a distinction between eating beef raised in crowded industrial feed lots which produce disproportionately small amounts of meat for the investment of grain in comparison to me raising a few free range chickens in my backyard for the eggs and the occasional chicken dinner? In short, it’s an ethical issue whose time has come and it deserves much debate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had heard some of that about Singer’s outlook, but this is the first I’ve heard about the Nazi war criminal views. I tend to think things like that pop out anytime we try to reduce ethics to one simple rule. You get conclusions very few people are prepared to accept. Morality seems just too complicated to be reduced to a few simple logical rules.

      In the case of utilitarianism, or consequentialism more generally, it’s always an issue how far to take the calculus. It seems like we keep going if we haven’t hit the intuitively right answer, and stop once we do. But that seems to make the whole reasoning part redundant.

      On eating animals, are you following the development of cultured meat, essentially meat grown in-vitro? If people accept it, it seems like it could have profound and dramatic effects on the meat industry. Our ethical dilemmas might change overnight from how we treat livestock, to how we can protect newly endangered species as the livestock populations collapse.


      1. I think you are quite correct Mike. “Morality seems just too complicated to be reduced to a few simple logical rules.” And the utilitarians are, in my opinion, the biggest offenders here. Frankly I’m surprised there are still serious utilitarians around.

        By the way, I did not mean to paint you with my criticism of Singer. I realized I may have given that impression. I read Issing’s article and had my usual negative reaction to his citation of Singer. For a good taste of Singer’s views regarding old Nazi’s, I suggest you watch the documentary titled “The accountant of Auschwitz.” It’s about the trial of Oskar Gröning. Singer is interviewed in the documentary for his interpretation.

        I’m not familiar with cultured meat. Fascinating. I’ve really only stuck a toe in vegetarian waters. I eat vegetarian often and have cut out various types of meat as I explore the issue. It does seem odd to me that there are veggie “burgers” which are intended to mimic the taste of ground beef. What’s the point? Many veggie meals are delicious without playing that strange game.


        1. No worries Mattie. I didn’t take your criticisms of Singer that way. Even if I had, it wouldn’t change the facts you discussed. Though it does sound like Singer might deserve some credit for being willing to bite philosophical bullets.

          My meat consumption has varied a lot over the years. There have been periods where I was effectively a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, not for any ethical or other philosophical reasons, but just where my tastes ran and what was convenient at the time. But I always veered back to eating some kind of meat. The US, at least the southern US, has historically made a vegetarian diet something of a pain.

          I had a student worker from India once remark that she had no problems eating a vegan diet in her home country, which she did for religious reasons, but found it took a lot of work here. That was about 15 years ago. I think it’s gotten a lot easier since then, but still far from the path of least resistance.


    1. It does seem like as heterotrophs, we’re pretty much stuck consuming other life. We don’t have the option to just photosynthesize. (I doubt we’d get enough energy anyway.) At least as omnivores, we do have the option of getting by on plant food. Many predators, such as cats, don’t have that flexibility. As Issing asked, if eating meat is bad, are we required to do something about all those predators?

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      1. I’m surprised the “what about all those predators?” argument isn’t used more often. It’s a quick and (too) easy comeback for a meat-eater to use against evangelist vegetarians. “Go catch that tiger and feed him vegetable proteins, and get back to me afterwards.”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I suspect a vegan evangelist would retort that carnivores don’t have a choice, but as omnivores we do. But with predators, things are even more complicated, because the tiger’s wellbeing is enhanced by catching and killing his food, not having it handed to him in pieces. It’s even worse for snakes who won’t eat a mouse that they haven’t killed. (Keeping a pet snake is not for those with a weak stomach.)


          1. Sure, but that just opens many cans of worms. Many predators would eat veggie proteins if flavored with synthetic esters or what have you, and they were hungry enough. Or if they starved, still, it seems likely that more animals would survive overall. But whether or not such counter-counter-arguments have good answers, it’s kind of a political embarrassment for many vegetarians to have to answer them at all. That’s what I meant when I said I’m surprised carnivores don’t jump on this more often. Not because it’s necessarily a *good* argument, but because it’s a *gotcha* one; a cheap shot if you will.

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  4. > “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.”

    Most birds and animals equip a nest or a cave in advance before giving birth to newborns. Sometimes parents have to grow newborns at that location for a long time. That is planning for days and weeks ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Are you sure about that? Consider, do we ever see birds doing something else? Do they learn new nest building techniques from other birds? Do they ever do something radically different to accomplish the same goal? Or are they merely following species specific impulses at each step with an overall adaptive result that looks like planning ahead to us?

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      1. I think it depends on what we mean under “instinct,” “planning,” “consciousness,” and so on.

        What somebody explicitly said, and what she omits, when declaring what she means under this or that term – that is not just a methodological issue. An additional problem is how to find out when to stop digging into this hole of the exact meaning. In many discussions and books, we silently ignore all of that. Let’s mark it as a success because that allows us to have finite (vs. infinite) discussions.

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  5. “…how sure are we that most animals can’t in fact plan for the future?” Exactly. And I think scientists have a tendency to underestimate animals, although that may be changing. I hope it is.

    Another argument you could make is that if differential treatment is justified for animals on the basis of their ability to think about their future selves, it could also be justified in babies and the severely mentally disabled, and do we want to go there?

    I know it’s sort of an irritating thing to bring up babies…it seems like they always come up in discussions about animal intelligence.

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    1. On underestimating animals, it seems to depend on the scientist. Some set standards for animals that even some humans might not pass. While others are prepared to see cognition in plants and unicellular organisms. But I think most take the stance that if a particular behavior can be explained by less sophisticated cognition, than the more sophisticated version shouldn’t be assumed.

      I think it’s fair to bring up babies and mentally disabled humans. I brought them up with Peter Carruthers, a philosopher who has historically been skeptical of animal consciousness, and in just the last few years has moved to saying there’s no fact of the matter on it. I pointed out his criteria would also leave no fact of the matter for exactly those categories. To his credit, he bit the bullet and agreed.

      The response Issing provides in his piece is that we can’t be sure what capabilities babies or mentally disabled people might have. But we have examples of mentally complete humans who can understand their future (or lack thereof). The problem is with most species, we have no such examples. So, the argument goes, there are much stronger reasons to suspect a human baby might have some incipient idea of its possible future than, say, a rat. Whether you accept that depends on how certain you think we can be that most animals don’t have that capability.

      There’s also an argument about how interwoven human babies and disabled people are into society as compared to animals. I’m not sure why anyone thinks that is a compelling argument though. People have been known to risk their life to save their dog or other pet.

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