Adam Shriver’s Posts

Panpsychism and Moral Status

Panpsychism is the view that sentience is ubiquitous in the world. Some people find it attractive because it sidesteps the challenge for dualists of explaining why there are two radically different types of things in the world, physical things and mental things.  And panpsychism seems to avoid some of of the challenges that face physicalist accounts of consciousness of explaining how mental properties are related to physical properties; since pan-psychism says that “mentality” is everywhere, the task left for cognitive scientists is simply to explain why that mentality is organized in a particular way rather than needing to directly address the “hard problem of consciousness'” head on.

Many people also find sentientism, the view that sentience is sufficient for moral status, attractive.  So it can be tempting to combine panpsychism and sentientism and conclude that we can assume that all animals, including oysters, snails, and fruit flies, must necessarily have moral status.  This move is a mistake.

The problem with the above move is that it rests on an equivocation on the term “sentient.”  One definition of sentient means “the ability to feel pleasure and pain.”  Another definition means “the ability to have any types of conscious experiences.”  The link to moral status requires the first definition of sentience.  But panpsychism, if true, only entails the second.

Beyond just the definitions, it certainly seems like there are a lot of experiences that are neither positive nor negative…they are simply neutral.  So the fact that some experiences occurred doesn’t tell us that anything morally significant occurred in the absence of further knowledge about what types of experiences they were, even for a sentientist.

But what about observing avoidance behaviour?  If we see that, and we think that mentality is everywhere, shouldn’t we conclude that the avoidance behaviour is indicative of suffering?  But this seems contrary to what we know about pain.  People can still have withdrawal reactions that rely on spinal reflexes, even when they self-report that they don’t feel pain.  In fact, in rare cases, people even report feeling pains but not finding them unpleasant.

So panpsychism doesn’t really sidestep the challenge of determining which types of behaviours in nonverbal populations are indicative of positive or negative experiences.  They may avoid having to take on the hard problem of consciousness but they are left with the hard problem of morally relevant consciousness.

Should Meat Be Excluded From the UK’s Value Added Tax?

The idea of using a meat tax to improve human health and protect the environment has been getting a fair amount of attention from prominent scientists in the media. Professor Mike Rayner was quoted last year as saying, “I would like to see a tax on red meat and meat products. We need incentives to cut down on meat and dairy consumption.” Marco Springmann told the Guardian, “Current levels of meat consumption are not healthy or sustainable. The costs associated with each of those impacts could approach the trillions in the future. Taxing meat could be a first and important step.” And Joseph Poore suggested that taxing meat will likely be necessary to avoid serious environmental problems.

Taxing food products to promote human health is controversial. It has been suggested that introducing taxes to limit particular food consumption behaviors is a troubling shift towards a “nanny state,” involves paternalistically imposing “alien values” on people, and interferes with the free market by picking and choosing winners and losers among different products. A decision to impose a dedicated tax specifically targeting meat would need to adequately address all of these concerns. Continue reading

Pain for Ethicists #2: Is the Cerebral Cortex Required for Pain? (Video)

Here’s my presentation from the UQAM 2018 Summer School in Animal Cognition organised by Stevan Harnad:

I also highly recommend Jonathan Birch’s talk on Animal Sentience and the Precautionary Principle and Lars Chittka’s amazing presentation about the minds of bees.

Thanks again to EA Grants for supporting this research as well as my home institutions Uehiro & WEH. And thanks to Mélissa Desrochers for the video.

You can find the first Pain for Ethicists post here.

Adam Shriver is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities.

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Pain for Ethicists: What is the Affective Dimension of Pain?

This is my first post in a series highlighting current pain science that is relevant to philosophers writing about well-being and ethics.  My work on this topic has been supported by the W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics, the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, as well as a generous grant from Effective Altruism Grants

There have been numerous published cases in the scientific literature of patients who, for various reasons, report feeling pain but not finding the pain unpleasant. As Daniel Dennett noted in his seminal paper “Why You Can’t Make A Computer That Feels Pain,” these reports seem to be at odds with some of our most basic intuitions about pain, in particular the conjunction of our intuitions that ‘‘a pain is something we mind’’ and ‘‘we know when we are having a pain.’’ Dennett was discussing the effects of morphine, but similar dissociations have been reported in patients who undergo cingulotomies to treat terminal cancer pain and in extremely rare cases called “pain asymbolia” involving damage to the insula cortex. Continue reading

If You Had to Choose, Would You Say Chimpanzees Are Persons or Things?

In everyday speech, the term ‘person’ often means roughly the same thing as ‘human,’ which in turn refers to someone who belongs to the species Homo sapiens. However, in practical ethics and in philosophy more broadly, the term ‘person’ has a much more rich, and more complicated, history.  Continue reading

Harmless Kidney Markets

Written by Adam Shriver

@adamjshriver

Kidney transplants result in improved quality of life and increased longevity compared to dialysis for patients with end-stage renal disease (Evans et al. 1985, Schnuelle et al. 1998, Wolfe et al 1999).  In 2014, the national transplant list in the United States passed a milestone of 100,000 people waiting for kidneys.  However, the current rate of kidney donations, both from living and deceased donors, is not high enough to keep up with demand (Becker & Elias 2007). As a result, many people die each year and the quality of life of many more people is significantly diminished.

In response to this problem, various authors have proposed the creation of a regulated market for kidneys whereupon individuals may sell one of their kidneys in exchange for money and possibly other benefits (Matas et al. 2008, Gaston et al. 2006, Radcliffe-Richards et al. 1998, Radcliffe-Richards 2012, Veatch 2003).  Kidney sellers could be paid relatively large amounts of money (~$95,000) while maintaining a cost-effective system due to the savings obtained from moving people off dialysis (Matas 2008).  If implemented, a regulated kidney market could result in important increases in quality of life and in survival rates.

I admit I find the arguments from authors such as Matas and Radcliffe-Richards largely persuasive.  Nevertheless, their proposals have been subject to a number of criticisms from ethicists that pull on strong moral intuitions.  In what follows, I present an alternative model for a kidney market that I believe avoids the most serious objections to kidney markets.  In contrast to previous arguments that suggest that the benefits of regulated kidney markets would outweigh the harms, I will propose a model that is harmless, on the best way of understanding a harmful practice.  If, as I argue, we can design a kidney market where the decision to give up a kidney does not harm the seller, this suggests that we can reap the benefits of a kidney market without the ethical costs that have raised concerns. Continue reading

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