Animal suffering and the pointlessness of moral philosophy

(Above image here) Consider the infamous Chinese dog market. Dogs are rounded up, sometimes beaten while still alive (ostensibly to improve the flavour of their meat), killed, and eaten.

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.


  1. The Problem of Pain, Centenary Press, 1940
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9 Responses to Animal suffering and the pointlessness of moral philosophy

  • MP says:

    I sympathize with much of this, but on the “reheated science” remark: good luck drawing a tidy line between science and philosophy on animal consciousness! And I’m also suspicious that the science ushered forth to prove animals (especially very familiar ones like dogs) feel pain is reheated common sense. Cf. Hume.

  • Kitestring says:

    First off, you’re doing philosophy right now. This might undermine your point that philosophy has nothing to say about what you’re talking about.
    You seem to be arguing for a form of ethical intuitionism, but you do not address the many well known problems with this position.
    For instance, not everyone shares your intuitions. How, other than force, can you deal with those with whom you differ if you cannot say anything to support your position other than “it’s just wrong”? Also, preserving dignity and avoiding suffering are two distinct principles. They can conflict. How can you resolve such conflicts in any sort of rational way?

    • MP: many thanks.
      You’re absolutely right. No such tidy line is possible. But I can’t see how anything that can uncontroversially be described as ‘pure philosophy’ has anything to contribute. While I can see that much that can uncontroversially be described as ‘mere science’ has rather a lot to contribute.
      ‘Reheated common sense’ is an accolade, not an indictment.

  • Kitestring: many thanks.
    Am I doing philosophy by writing this blog? Well: I hope I am – in the loose, liberal way in which ‘philosophy’ was understood until the Renaissance. But I doubt that many modern professional philosophers would recognise that as the stuff that pays their mortgages.
    Yes, I’m arguing for ethical intuitionism – or, rather, observing that nothing else can do any real ethical work in the Chinese dog market. And yes, of course the philosophers have many very well known objections to ethical intuitionism. That is precisely my point. All of those objections boil down to the assertion: ‘Intuitionism is an abandonment of philosophical method.’ The assertion is correct – although I’d say that one should embrace intuitionism only as a last resort, when all philosophical methods have been shown to fail. They fail, I think, when they try to describe what is wrong about causing animal suffering. Hence the need to fall back on intuitions – intuitions which, by definition, cannot be interrogated by any of (modern) philosophy’s inquisitors.
    Yes, one of the most often cited problems with intuitionism as the basis of all ethics is that people have differing intuitions. There are some powerful ripostes to this – many of them anthropological. None is relevant for the purpose of this discussion. I’m simply observing that my own intuition says that you shouldn’t beat live dogs so that they taste better when they’re killed. If someone disagrees with me about this, the disagreement will be at the level of intuition. Formal philosophical methods won’t help either of us to refine or strengthen our argument.

    • WW says:

      I’m not sure how you can maintain both that ethical intuitionism is true and moral philosophy is pointless. I take it that a highly appealing aspect of intuitionism is the way it legitimates moral discourse; it grants prima facie epistemic justification to claims about morality based on the way things seem to one. If that’s right, it means that you and your opponent, regarding the Chinese dog market, are rationally disagreeing even when the discussion boil down to how things seem (as opposed to the disagreement really being a matter of expressing attitudes, or stomping your feet; if this is what was really happening, the usefulness of moral philosophy may indeed be threatened).

      Your contention, nevertheless, seems to be that because seemings can’t be supported by argument, relying on them to make a point is unproductive. Barring that this goes against EC, and the idea that “To appeal to them … [demonstrates] an intelligent appreciation that there are some places to which arguments cannot go – that necessarily ground all conceivable argument,” the same objection could be thrown at appealing to sensory states as evidence. Say I claim that there’s a table in the room—you ask me why, and I say “I see a table in the room.” But would it make sense to object that those sensory states/ my claims about those sensory states aren’t based on further argument? That’s no reason to reject my conclusion.

      In addition, neither should we say that philosophy plays no role in disagreements about claims based on sensory states. If we look at the muller-lyer illusion and I say the lines are different lengths (because I see that they are) and you say they’re the same (because you see that they are), it wouldn’t make sense to throw our hands up and agree to disagree. We’d use whatever philosophical tools were at our disposal to investigate what our claims (based on sense data) would entail, how that would gel with our other theoretical commitments and data, etc. The tool we’d likely use is measuring the lines.

      Similarly, philosophy may not have much to say about the intuitions themselves. Like our different sensory states regarding the muller-lyer illusion, we simply have to acknowledge that they are what they are. I can’t change your sensory states nor intuitions. But that’s our beginning point. Once we register conflicting intuitions, we know they can’t be simultaneously true, and so we get to work reconciling the difference. This happens in a similar way to the empirical disagreement; we check to see what our intuitions predict, how they gel with the rest of our theoretical commitments, etc. This is just reflective equilibrium. The tools we’d use may be questions like, “Are there animals it’s NOT alright to harm? What’s the difference between harming those and harming dogs? Why do we/don’t we think human interests outweigh harm to the dogs? Could non-human pain NOT be morally relevant, not give us reasons to act?” and others.

      Finally, I’ll note that you may be leaving out a possible third category of reasons not to harm: relational ones. Those like Clare Palmer who are dissatisfied with capacity-based approaches to ethics (utilitarianism, deontology) attempt to ground certain duties to animals in how we benefit from them, their dependence upon us, etc.

  • MP says:

    Charles: on common sense: yes. (Or, cf. Hume.) I’m not sure what to say about the purity remark. I suppose I would agree in that I’m suspicious about purity in general!

  • WW: thank you.
    You say: ‘….a highly appealing aspect of intuitionism is the way it legitimates moral discourse; it grants prima facie epistemic justification to claims about morality based on the way things seem to one. If that’s right, it means that you and your opponent, regarding the Chinese dog market, are rationally disagreeing even when the discussion boil down to how things seem…’
    So: you think that the way that things seem to me allows me to start a conversation with you, even if things don’t seem the same to you. I agree: but the conversation is hardly a philosophical one. Since the intuitions are by definition immune to interrogation, the conversation is going to be simply polite, and possibly fun. We’ll end up agreeing to disagree – precisely where we started. You can call that conversation philosophical if you like, but the name rather defames philosophy. Surely a truly philosophical argument must at least have a chance of making some progress – in the sense of moving understanding from position A to position B?
    You’re right to highlight relational reasons: but I did allude to them in my mention of relational altruism. Such views are also implicit in my own intuitions about the wrongness of hurting animals: it is simply wrong to abuse a position of power. That wrongness can itself be articulated in various ways – to all of which, I think, I nodded in the post. It diminishes me, for instance.

  • JDS says:

    Moral philosophy provides reasoning skills and strategies that help us determine what matters and when and why. Science can describe situations, actions, and persons to tell us about the effects and nature of them. But, that alone can’t tell us which of those things matters – that’s why we need to do moral philosophy. (If the dialogue starts by someone arguing that this treatment of animals is wrong because it is relevantly similar to a treatment of humans that would be wrong, then someone might be tempted to reply that there are relevant differences. Science can tell us which differences there are, but we need to do some moral reasoning to determine whether those differences are morally relevant. Is it relevant that dogs are not self-aware like humans? Is it relevant that they’re not part of the species homo sapiens sapiens? Science alone can’t tell us that – that’s why we need to do some moral philosophy. By doing this work, we can get a better understanding of what matters when and why.)
    As far as I can tell, the author is avoiding this conclusion by simply attacking “intuitions” in a way that would implausibly imply that all moral philosophy (not just moral philosophy about this particular topic) is useless. But that kind of radical skeptical argument seems both unwarranted and to rest on failing to see how the kind of reasoning done in moral philosophy (wide reflective equilibrium) is the same kind of reasoning we do in other areas of inquiry. That makes me wonder: if this argument was any good, then could we avoid a radical moral skepticism? If not, then isn’t that so much the worse for the argument?

  • JDS: thank you. Sure, moral philosophy can identify some questions that you’d hope to see addressed in an intelligent essay about the morality of causing suffering to animals. You’ve mentioned some of them: self-awareness: non-membership of the species Homo sapiens, and so on. But does addressing these questions really move us on? Does it do more work than is done by our intuitive reflexes? What ‘better understanding of what matters when and why’ has it given you?
    I’m flattered by the suggestion that I’m a radically anarchic sceptic, but I don’t think I deserve it. Take an old example: should I jump into a shallow pond to rescue a child, so ruining my suit? The answer is yes. That’s what my intuition says, but that intuition can be interrogated in a way that my intuitions about animal suffering cannot. One might plausibly say, for instance, that my intuition about the child rescue is powered by reciprocal altruism. That might or might not be true – or might not be the whole story – but at least it gives us a starting point for a discussion that needn’t invoke (and ultimately rest on) ‘mere’ intuition. We can’t say this for animal suffering – or so my post contends.
    It may be the case that ‘all moral philosophy (not just moral philosophy about this particular topic) is useless’. But I don’t make that case here. Were I to make it though, I’m not clear why you think it would necessarily be ‘unwarranted’, let alone how such a contention would necessarily ‘rest on failing to see how the kind of reasoning done in moral philosophy (wide reflective equilibrium) is the same kind of reasoning we do in other areas of inquiry.’


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