Animal suffering and the pointlessness of moral philosophy
Everyone I know thinks it’s obscene, and that the suffering of the dogs cannot possibly be outweighed by the sensual satisfaction of the diners, the desirability of not interfering, colonially, with practices acceptable in another culture, or by any other consideration. It’s just wrong.
‘It’s just wrong’ is the observation that moral philosophers exist to denounce. They draw their salaries for interrogating this observation, exploding its naivety, and showing that the unexamined observation is the observation not worth making.
But what can the moral philosophers bring to the discussion about the Chinese dogs? Alone, and unaided by science, not much. The philosophy turns out to be either (a) reheated science or (b) a description of our intuitions, together with more or less bare assertions that those intuitions are either good or bad. Why might it be ‘wrong’ to treat the dogs like that? There are, broadly, two possible categories of reasons: reasons to do with the dogs, and reasons to do with the humans who kill and eat them.
Reasons to do with the dogs
(a) They are in pain
The statement ‘they are in pain’, is of course in danger of being anthropomorphic – of assuming that animal pain is akin to human pain. For it to be uncomplicatedly akin to human pain, animals would have to have consciousness. C.S. Lewis thought that animal pain was not as much of a challenge to the notion of a good, omnipotent God because animals have no sense of self. The mere noxiousness of pain impulses along their neurones is therefore not supplemented by the additional unpleasantness, experienced by conscious humans, of anticipating future pain. For that you have to have a notion of a self, existing in the present and persisting in the future, ‘who’ will experience the future pain. Lewis thought that this anticipation was the main component of agony.(1)
He was wrong about the entire absence of animal consciousness. It is known to be present in many species. But whether it is present or not present is an empirical question. It’s not something that philosophers can help about. Lewis was probably right to say that pain is exacerbated by an appreciation that it may continue into the future.
But whether he was right or wrong about that, consciousness wouldn’t seem to alter the nature of pain. The nature of pain is the appreciation of a noxious stimulus. The appreciation entails the depolarization of nerve membranes, and some central realization that the stimulus is one that should be shunned. Dogs, for instance, are plainly sensate. Their responses to painful stimuli are physiologically indistinguishablefrom ours. What those responses are, and whether they are materially different from ours, are matters for physiologists, not philosophers. How impulses from the periphery are processed centrally is a matter for neuroscientists, not philosophers. Whether we can, as a matter of principle, know anything about the contents of the head of another (whether it’s a canine of human head) is an epistemological question, but epistemologists have made little progress over the last three millennia. The Greeks identified the issue: no one has added meaningfully to the debate since.
So: there is a fairly good scientific case for saying that dogs’ nerves scream when the dogs are beaten, and that their brains experience something not unlike what we experience (although perhaps – because of the consciousness caveat, that experience is not as intense or multi-layered as ours).
Where’s the philosophy here? What tells us that a creature that has these depolarizations is worse off than one that does not? What tells us that it is bad to cause another creature to experience these depolarizations?
Every conceivable account of the badness of causing animal suffering rests on the ‘mere’ intuition that it is morally wrong to do to some other sensate creature that which we do not like ourselves. It’s the Golden Rule. Try to justify it without any reference to intuitions and you’ll find yourself using empirical language (for instance the language of reciprocal altruism – dreadfully hard, anyway, to use in the context of non-human suffering) rather than being philosophical.
The word ‘mere’ is inappropriate for intuitions. They are ancient, profound and morally foundational. To appeal to them isn’t (as generally thought in the Academy) the last resort of those who have run out of proper arguments: it is an intelligent appreciation that there are some places to which arguments cannot go – that necessarily ground all conceivable argument.
(b) Whether or not they are in pain, it is contrary to their dignity
This is best illustrated by reference to our attitudes towards dead animals.
It has been alleged that David Cameron performed a sex act on a dead pig’s head. There was widespread disgust at the allegation. Partly, no doubt, this was because it was thought that Cameron had behaved in a way inconsistent with his own human dignity. But also there was a (related) feeling that the pig’s dignity had been violated. (There is a necessary reciprocity about dignity claims: If X violates Y’s dignity, he necessarily – and usually even more so – violates his own).
This claim – that the pig’s dignity is affronted – is immune to philosophical interrogation. This does not begin to mean that the claim is incoherent or unsustainable, any more than the fact that a deep ocean trench cannot be reached by a small submarine means that the trench does not exist, or is not deep. The claim is, again, one buttressed by ‘mere’, vaulting, mighty intuitions, before which Kant can only tremble.
Reasons to do with humans
We’ve dealt with these already. We can say no more than that the Golden Rule should govern human behavior, and that there are some ways in which dignified humans do not behave. We can point to the benefits, in terms of human thriving, of behaving according to the Rule and behaving in a dignified way. But that’s the only contribution that a sort of utilitarianism can make – and it’s a stuttering mention from the floor, not a key note speech.
What does this mean for philosophers?
That a bit of humility’s in order? Knowing that you’ve got nothing to say is something worth knowing, and saying that you’ve got nothing to say is something worth saying.
- The Problem of Pain, Centenary Press, 1940