animal ethics

Video Series: How To Prevent Future Pandemics

First interview in the new  Thinking Out Loud series on ‘Animals and Pandemics’: Katrien Devolder in conversation with Jeff Sebo, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU, on how our treatment of animals increases the risk of future pandemics arising, and on what we should do to reduce that risk!

Assessing and Respecting Sentience After Brexit

Thanks to a generous grant from Open Philanthropy, last year the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities co-sponsored a workshop with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) examining the ethical and legal implications of recent advancements in our ability to assess the mental states and well-being of nonhuman animals.  The impetus for the meeting was that since 2009, the United Kingdom had been operating under article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty which states that the European Union and member states, ”shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.” However, after voting to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom was tasked with deciding which rules and provisions to retain, and controversy erupted several years ago when MPs voted against transferring this provision of the Lisbon Treaty to the United Kingdom post-Brexit.

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Hornless Cattle – Is Gene Editing The Best Solution?

In this talk [AUDIO + SLIDES], Prof. Peter Sandøe (Philosophy, Copenhagen University), argues that, from an ethical viewpoint, gene editing is the best solution to produce hornless cattle. There are, however, regulatory hurdles. (Presented at the workshop ‘Gene Editing and Animal Welfare’, 19 Nov. 2019, Oxford – organised by Adam Shriver, Katrien Devolder, and The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics; funded by the Society for Applied Philosophy.)



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.

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.

Follow him on Twitter.

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

Gene-Editing Mosquitoes at The European Youth Event 2018

By Jonathan Pugh


The below is a slightly extended version of my two 5min presentations at the European Youth Event 2018, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. I was asked to present on the following questions:


  1. What are the ethical issues surrounding gene-editing, particularly with respect to eradicating mosquitoes?


  1. Should the EU legislate on gene-editing mosquitoes?


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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why We Should Genetically ‘Disenhance’ Animals Used in Factory Farms

This essay was the winner in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics Undergraduate Category

Written by University of Oxford student Jonathan Latimer

 I will defend the process of genetic ‘disenhancement’ of animals used for factory farming. I suggest that disenhancement will significantly increase the quality of life for animals in factory farms, and that this benefit is robust against objections that disenhancement is harmful to animals and that it fails to address the immorality of factory farming. Contra to a previous submission, I hope to recast disenhancement as something which ought to be seriously considered on behalf of animals in factory farms.

Currently, the factory farming of livestock animals for human consumption causes a great amount of suffering in those animals. It is widely acknowledged that the conditions many animals face in factory farms are abhorrent. Furthermore, demand for factory-farmed meat is increasing worldwide as developing economies grow more affluent. This will lead to more animals suffering in factory farms in the future. One potential solution to this problem is the ‘disenhancement’ of livestock animals. Disenhancement is a genetic modification that removes an animal’s capacity to feel pain. Scientists hope to be able to do this without inflicting any pain at all. So, disenhancement promises to reduce suffering in factory-farmed animals by removing their capacity to feel pain caused by their terrible environment. Continue reading

The Psychology of Speciesism: How We Privilege Certain Animals Over Others

Written by Lucius Caviola

Our relationship with animals is complex. There are some animals we treat very kindly; we keep them as pets, give them names, and take them to the doctor when they are sick. Other animals, in contrast, seem not to deserve this privileged status; we use them as objects for human consumption, trade, involuntary experimental subjects, industrial equipment, or as sources of entertainment. Dogs are worth more than pigs, horses more than cows, cats more than rats, and by far the most worthy species of all is our own one. Philosophers have referred to this phenomenon of discriminating individuals on the basis of their species membership as speciesism (Singer, 1975). Some of them have argued that speciesism is a form of prejudice analogous to racism or sexism.

Whether speciesism actually exists and whether it is related to other forms of prejudice isn’t just a philosophical question, however. Fundamentally, these are hypotheses about human psychology that can be explored and tested empirically. Yet surprisingly, speciesism has been almost entirely neglected by psychologists (apart from a few). There have been fewer than 30 publications in the last 70 years on this topic as revealed by a Web of Science search for the keywords speciesism and human-animal relations in all psychology journals. While this search may not be totally exhaustive, it pales in comparison to the almost 3’000 publications on the psychology of racism in the same time frame. The fact that psychology has neglected speciesism is strange, given the relevance of the topic (we all interact with animals or eat meat), the prevalence of the topic in philosophy, and the strong focus psychology puts on other types of apparent prejudice. Researching how we assign moral status to animals should be an obvious matter of investigation for psychology.

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Video Series: Peter Singer on Vegetarianism

Is it okay to eat one hamburger per year? Is it acceptable to eat a hamburger made from a  ‘happy cow’? The production of crops may result in more animals killed than the production of meat from grass-fed cattle and sheep – does this mean we should eat more meat and less crops? Should we eat insects? Should we try to reduce the suffering of wild animals? In this interview with Katrien Devolder, Professor Peter Singer (Princeton, Melbourne) provides an answer to these, and other questions related to vegetarianism and animal welfare, and offers some practical advice for those who care about animal suffering but can’t resist eating meat…