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Spineless Ethics

Written by Roger Crisp

Last week, at a seminar organized jointly by the Oxford Uehiro Centre and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, Prof. Irina Mikhalevich presented a fascinating preview of a paper (‘Minds Without Spines: Toward a More Comprehensive Animal Ethics’) which forms part of a project she has been working on with Prof. Russell Powell.

Animal ethics has burgeoned in philosophy since the publication of Peter Singer’s landmark essay ‘Animal Liberation’ in the New York Review of Books in 1973. Its focus has been largely on vertebrates, especially relatively large mammals, but this group, Mikhalevich pointed out, comprises only 0.1% of all animals. Mikhalevich mentioned several possible explanations for this lack of attention, including the belief that such animals, because their brains are so small, are not conscious. She then went on to explain how recent developments in cognitive science and neuroethology have provided evidence that many invertebrates may have capacities for complex cognitive and non-cognitive states, including pleasure and pain. Ants, for example, can recognize themselves in a mirror, something which human beings achieve typically only when nearly two years of age. And something analogous to our ‘dopamine’ system has been found in certain invertebrates. Indeed, given the adaptive benefits of pain perception, one would expect this, or something analogous to it, in at least those invertebrates which can learn to avoid painful stimuli.

It is highly plausible to believe that capacity for pleasure and pain, or other affective states, is a necessary condition for moral standing. But it has to be admitted that invertebrates, and any mental lives they may have, are significantly less complex than those of animals standardly thought of as ‘higher’. So it might be thought that, though they have moral standing, that standing is vastly lower than that of the higher animals, and hence practically irrelevant. This may be true, but it is far from obvious, and requires argument. Some believe, for example, that all animals are to be treated equally, or even that justice requires that some priority be given to lower animals, on the ground that they are worse off – that is, their lives are less good for them overall than the lives of many higher animals are for them.

Would extending the moral circle to include invertebrates – accepting what we might call ‘spineless ethics’ — have major practical implications? Mikhalevich suggested that it may not, since it could turn out that the number of invertebrates with moral standing is relatively low, and the interests of such creatures may be less significant than those of vertebrates. As I just mentioned, and Mikhalevich herself admits, this second suggestion can be questioned. And of course it may be that the number of invertebrates with moral standing is, though relatively low compared to the total number of invertebrates, absolutely very large indeed.

Here are two possible implications of spineless ethics. First, we may be required to revise our current practices involving the extermination of invertebrates in agriculture, especially if they involve inflicting pain. There are difficult issues here involving aggregation, as Mikhalevich noted, but huge numbers of painful experiences, even if they are quite short, cannot be ignored, especially if it were possible (as it may well be) for human beings to live happy and healthy lives without such practices. Second, we may have to reconsider our attitudes to the badness of certain catastrophic events, such as a rise in global temperature which resulted in the extinction of higher species but left the world inhabitable by sentient invertebrates. We humans tend to think primarily of ourselves, or at least the higher animals, when considering the total amount of happiness on the planet. But given the numbers involved, our contribution to that total, on some not implausible views of aggregation, may be relatively trivial.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. I am reminded how far I have come since graduate school when I read this, but I hope my comments will not be unwelcome, even if the perspective may not seem “plausible” in the opinion of many who view this blog. I’m coming now from philosophical discussions about our entering the Anthropocene epoch, surveying what we humans have done to the natural world to date and what we’re proposing to do (gulp!) next. In light of that sort of brainstorming, this conversational gambit seems hopelessly anthropocentric and logocentric, and even peculiarly quantification-centered, though I “know” that paradigm well, since I had to dwell within it once. But I no longer think it is “highly plausible to believe” that having a capacity for experiencing life only in a way that is somehow an extension of our human way of experiencing is “necessary” for being recognized morally, and to say “it has to be admitted that” the experiential lives of invertebrates are “significantly less complex” than those of vertebrates sounds an awful lot like saying “it has to be admitted that” the genomes of nonhuman organisms must be “significantly less complex” than the human genome, as was said often in the pre-genomic era of biological science. And consider this: “given the adaptive benefits” of knowing what’s happening around and to you, whoever and whatever you are, all living organisms must take in information from their immediate environment, process it, and respond to it in some way– if they don’t do so appropriately, they won’t be here for very long. I put this together as indicating that every living being has some sort of “interior,” i.e., that “mind” nonanthropocentrically construed is coextensive with life–you might take a look at Evan Thompson’s _Mind In Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind_ (2007) for some exploration of this idea. Moreover, when it comes to living morally–and certainly when it comes to “numbers”–I think that we as human beings need to start realizing the great “thinning” effect that our human numbers (plus our fixation on the “numbers” of economics!) have already had not just on species but on the absolute number of nonhuman animals in existence–it is estimated that we have already diminished their numbers by at least half (perhaps you have read Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm?)–and start pulling back, in both our reproduction and our consumption. The notion that there is some sort of moral imperative to “maximize” the number of “maximally sentient” (meaning us, of course) beings on the planet is not only ecologically absurd, it comes to look increasingly morally repugnant as we slowly begin to appreciate the breadth of the complexity of the lives of other organisms.

    1. I appreciate prof. Mikhalevich and Powell work, and think that if one will count factory farm animals, we increased number of animals in the world incredibly, but thank you for adding one more argument against maximizing happiness. Perhaps it shows more clearly than other (at least to me) how limited this approach is. (I am not of course against happiness as such and often recommend choosing action which would bring more of it, it just can’t be the ultimate value, and – by the way – the world existed for centuries without any sort of beings able to sense it in the tiniest way.)

  2. You might want to count factory farm animals as an “incredible increase” in animals having lives generally filled with suffering, unlike the animals living in nature (if it is as yet relatively undisturbed by us), which generally have lives that experience what they evolved to experience or that usually come to an end rather rapidly when they cease to be that way, so I don’t think we humans should congratulate ourselves in this regard. But no, even with a huge number of avian and mammalian farm animals being “produced” by humans every year, their number doesn’t come close to the number of animals, vertebrate and invertebrate, inhabiting the Biosphere, or at least that once inhabited it–and every takeover of land, whether by pastoral scenes of domesticated grazing animals or now by the imposition of concentrated animal feeding operations, displaces all the original wild inhabitants, don’t forget. Moreover, I don’t know about “the world” (this usually refers to the human-created “world”), but for the last three and a half billion years or so the Earth has had plenty of organisms able to sense the environment and respond to it, because that’s how Life evolved. And, speaking of “the ultimate value”–my candidate for that is Life itself–Life as a phenomenon that evolved into an amazing diversity of forms, of which ours is just one. How about respecting all forms of Life, in the dynamic balance that evolved here and that, all together, would be capable of sustaining itself indefinitely on this planet?

    While much has been said about species going extinct, by the way, very little attention has been paid to the ongoing massive loss of nonhuman life that has been occurring even within relatively “common” species, which have been diminishing right under our noses. Ceballo, Ehrlich and Dirzo, in an article entitled “Biological Annihilation” (2017;, estimate that “as much as 50% of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are billions of populations.” Think of that! Dramatic declines in insect numbers are starting to be reported in many parts of the globe ( I have personally become aware of the loss of many insects, amphibians, small reptiles and small mammals from places where they were once abundant–it started some years ago with a slow realization of not having seen certain organisms in many years and has greatly speeded up now, with me starting to notice how many familiar creatures I am unable to find in places they used to be. Combined with the increasing rate of actual extirpation of entire species, what we humans are doing to the biological systems of the planet is absolutely staggering–as is the nonchalance with which our anthropocentric culture–an overgrown, metastatic “western” industrial-consumerist culture that has at this point overwhelmed most of the human cultural diversity that once existed on this planet–accepts this nonhuman holocaust as if it matters not a whit, as long as the stock market opens tomorrow. I think the fact that the growing loss of the base of food webs worldwide is not perceived as a matter of serious practical danger, a growing threat to the continued existence of our own species in the rapidly approaching future (not to mention a great moral wrong), is a sign of serious intellectual dysfunction; we have become so “self-centered” as a species (and, of course, frequently highly subgroup-centered within that larger grouping of humanity), and so dependent upon the huge industrial ag machine to feed us (something that can’t go on forever as it is; see e.g. that we don’t seem to realize how far out of touch with reality we really are. I would sure like to see an intelligent discussion someday about the ways in which our culture-wide thinking has gone wrong so as to land us in this mess, and suggestions for waking up and getting out of it. But as long as philosophers are perpetuating anthropocentrism instead of critiquing it, that crucial discussion is being postponed.

    1. I had in mind mostly vertebrates, sorry – just wanted to stress that we are not only diminishing numbers (and yes, no doubt that factory farm animals, and those at labs, or even homes, suffer terribly.)

  3. The Philosophers Jelly.

    The thought of extending the moral circle is based upon anthropocentric worldviews and hence limited. It does not already include an inclusive value for all life. And just so, the term ‘value for all life’, itself reflects the boundedness and difficulties inherent in discussions of this type.

    Morality itself is transported into anthropocentric views unless the value of all life is one of the unchallengable foundational bases; and whilst morality continues to be linked to a particular organizing ‘intelligence’ or any other sort of structure limited by/to the originating source that would be difficult. Clearly many life forms rely upon other life forms to support their own existence and so the development of methods to rationalise recognized or developing conflicts creates mechanisms for dealing with or progressing those issues.

    Prior to ‘I think therefore I am’, life as life is necessary, and so understanding and everything else must originate from life rather than within any particular species. To deny that would appear to deny the ‘I am’.

  4. “Prior to ‘I think therefore I am’, life as life is necessary, and so understanding and everything else must originate from life rather than within any particular species. To deny that would appear to deny the ‘I am’.” I am very much in agreement with this, or, as Antonio Damasio put it, “first there was being, and only later was there thinking.” But it is true that all animal life depends for existence on other forms of life, and if you consider the recycling of nutrients then all life depends on other life, endlessly. But if morality is a matter of us humans making responsible decisions about our actions, and if we respect other lifeforms as they evolved within the Biosphere (admittedly big “ifs” given our current state of collective awareness), then it behooves us to figure out our appropriate ecological niche, given our own evolutionary history as primates.

  5. But if morality is a matter of us humans making responsible decisions ….. to figure out our appropriate ecological niche, given our own evolutionary history as primates
    Di Francesco Malevolta in an ongoing photographic exhibition – Linea di confine – in Caravigno, Italy, showed how many niches are not chosen and how a choice may result from, or create, an emotional reaction.
    A simple example; the sign showing the entrance to the exhibition pointed towards a set of stone steps covered in leaves winding up towards a closed door, which was locked. To find the entrance to the exhibition one had to find an unsigned way around a circuitous route to a closed door behind an easel presenting another artists work. This created a situation where many chose to look no further and others were compromised by time. The photographs themselves exhibited physical, geographical, political, mental and emotional boundaries which the artist had sought out, as well as revealing what the artist may not have sought.
    The point of this is that comprehensive results come from searching rather than what may be pushed or presented, in the same way that niches and privacy do.

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