animal consciousness
Posted: 24 August 2010 02:35 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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I’ve been reading a number of discussions recently about the ethics of meat eating, which is a subject that I’m sure has been covered on this forum before so I’d like to stick with the specific issue of animal consciousness first and then see where it leads. Daniel Dennett is probably the most famous skeptic with respect to animal consicousness, and he is often invoked in arguments against animal rights, but in fact he’s not opposed to animal welfare concerns, he just takes a rational stance against anthropomorphism and wants animal suffering to be put into perspective. He says that consicousness is a benign user illusion that evolved so that we could make judgements about the intentions of others, and the reason we develop our kind of consciousness is because we go through a period of intensive cultural programming in childhood that’s largely absent in other species. With respect to animal consciousness though, he concedes the hard problem to dogs (although he wouldn’t use that terminology) because in this essay he says that if it is like something to be a dog then it might be rather like being half asleep. If you were half asleep, however, then although some pain would be meaningless, it would still leave the animals in question as subects who have some moral status. My argument is that even if we take a skeptical stance against animal consciousness as Dennett does, then it still matters if the animal is in a gestation crate that prevents movement for years on end, or if they are drowned in a scalding tank. Imagine putting someone under an anaesthetic that almost renders them unconscious, would it in that case be morally justifiable to put their hand into a pot of boiling water? Without knowing whether or not they are capable of suffering, or of experiencing anything at all, I think we are still morally obliged to give them the benefit of the doubt, and this is essentially how I feel about factory farming, which, if they are conscious beings, undeniably involves a life of chronic suffering. Where does anyone stand on this issue, and I’m not just trying to start a fight I’m open minded on this! I’d also be interested if anyone knows anything about Sam Harris’s beliefs regarding animal consciouness and wheather or not he’s said anything about the treatment of animals in his writing.

[ Edited: 24 August 2010 02:47 AM by ceph]
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Posted: 24 August 2010 03:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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This is my first post here so I can’t speak as a veteran of these forums. I’ve been vegetarian for over a year, vegan for a few months.

As far as I can remember, Sam Harris didn’t mention anything about the ethical treatment of animals in his writing. But I read his stuff before I started to think about the ethics of eating meat, so maybe he did, but it couldn’t have been anything substantial or definitive.

I also read Dennett before thinking about how we treat animals. I really enjoyed Consciousness Explained, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Freedom Evolves, and Breaking the Spell. I don’t really know much about his position on animal rights/welfare, but he’s surely mistaken if he thinks that animal pain can be disregarded because they are not human or don’t think as much as we do.

Dennett does believe that some forms of animal advocacy entail anthropomorphism. If he’s saying that he thinks protecting animals has no rationale unless you mistakenly humanize them then he is wrong. Or at least not thinking about the issue correctly. If this is what Dennett thinks then he is presuming that only something human can have moral value, therefore for someone to propose that an animal has moral value means to impart humanness to it. Animal advocates argue against his premise: they argue that moral worth is not defined it’s degree of humanness.

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Posted: 25 August 2010 05:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Thanks for the response. I was delighted to see that Sam potentially included non-human animals from the outset at his TED talk by stating that morality is based upon the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Like many of his colleagues though he is able to reconcile that with meat eating and I hope the issue of factory farming is at some point addressed in his writing. It’s true that some scientists take a skeptical view of animal consciousness, but the majority concede at least a kind of sentience to animals, and I think that in our current state of knowledge we ought to give them the benefit of the doubt. We do so for very young infants after all even though we don’t know what it’s like from their perspective, so surely we should also condemn our system of agriculture that routinely abuses animals in the most horrific ways. I’ve mentioned Dennett as a skeptic, but Bernard Baars takes the opposite view and in this essay he gives strong evidence for animal consciousness and crucially the ability to suffer. My question to anyone who eats meat would be, how can you justify such blatant cruelty to non-human animals, particularly in factory farms, while condemning the similar abuse of very young infants who are surely just as capable of suffering. I’ve always thought that any attempt to appeal to our ignorance of animal consciousness automatically fails on those grounds.

http://cogprints.org/912/1/UFAW_PAPER_final_version_July_12_2000.txt

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Posted: 25 August 2010 07:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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ceph - 25 August 2010 09:45 AM

. . . My question to anyone who eats meat would be, how can you justify such blatant cruelty to non-human animals, particularly in factory farms, while condemning the similar abuse of very young infants who are surely just as capable of suffering.

I’m a speciesist—it’s that simple. The following link seems relevant:
http://www.websteruniv.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/animals/singer.html

. . . [T]o be a “speciesist” is to consider the interests of one’s own species as more important that the interest of another species MERELY on the grounds of membership in the species.

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Posted: 27 August 2010 04:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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I’m a speciesist—it’s that simple

I don’t understand. Is that an admission of bigotry? Are you defiant (speciesism is justifiable) or resigned (speciesism cannot be justified but it’s hard to change my habits)?

As it seems relevant, when I read Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene for the second time I found this gem near the end of the first chapter:

The feeling that members of one’s own species deserve special moral consideration as compared with members of other species is old and deep. Killing people outside war is the most seriously-regarded crime ordinarily committed. The only thing more strongly forbidden by our culture is eating people (even if they are already dead). We enjoy eating members of other species, however. Many of us shrink from judicial execution of even the most horrible human criminals, while we cheerfully countenance the shooting without trial of fairly mild animal pests. Indeed we kill members of other harmless species as a means of recreation and amusement. A human foetus, with no more human feeling than an amoeba, enjoys a reverence and legal protection far in excess of those granted to an adult chimpanzee. Yet the chimp feels and thinks and - according to recent experimental evidence - may even be able of learning a form of human langauge. The foetus belongs to our own species, and is instantly accorded special interests and rights because of it. Whether the ethic of “speciesism”, to use Richard Ryder’s term, can be put on a logical footing any more than that of ‘racism’, I do not know. What I do know is that it has no proper basis in evolutionary biology.

Yet Dawkins is not a vegetarian. He has gone through the logic of it but has not committed himself to vegetarianism or to eating less meat. He did a very engaging interview with Peter Singer for his “Genius of Charles Darwin” series: http://richarddawkins.net/videos/3951-peter-singer-the-genius-of-darwin-the-uncut-interviews

Dawkins is one of my intellectual heroes, but I find it funny, as a vegan, that he still eats meat while basically acknowledging the ethical dilemmas of meat-eating yet argued against such an attitude with regard to God and religion in The God Delusion.

EDIT: I would also be pleasantly surprised if the moral status of animals is discuseed in Sam’s new book, however it doesn’t really seem to be in his modus operandi.

[ Edited: 27 August 2010 04:45 PM by lnarcomey]
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Posted: 28 August 2010 06:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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lnarcomey - 27 August 2010 08:31 PM

. . . Is that an admission of bigotry? Are you defiant (speciesism is justifiable) or resigned (speciesism cannot be justified but it’s hard to change my habits)?

“Bigotry” once referred only to religious exclusion, but now includes much more. Eventually it might include cross-species opinions/feelings at which point our species will have moved considerably closer to a self-imposed extinction. Don’t worry—we’ll get there somehow. As to whether I’m defiant or resigned, I’m neither within your brief definitions.

Thanks for the response, lnarcomey. By the way, Sam Harris sponsors a much more active forum over at Project Reason. I hope to see you there.

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Posted: 28 August 2010 08:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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nonverbal - 28 August 2010 10:12 AM
lnarcomey - 27 August 2010 08:31 PM

. . . Is that an admission of bigotry? Are you defiant (speciesism is justifiable) or resigned (speciesism cannot be justified but it’s hard to change my habits)?

“Bigotry” once referred only to religious exclusion, but now includes much more. Eventually it might include cross-species opinions/feelings at which point our species will have moved considerably closer to a self-imposed extinction. Don’t worry—we’ll get there somehow. As to whether I’m defiant or resigned, I’m neither within your brief definitions.

nonverbal, as a general point I agree that our attitudes are changing and to some extent we are able to tolerate inconsistencies in our ethics. We do so with repect to Peter Singer’s ‘shallow pond’ for example, but the point of such arguments isn’t just to comment on our ability to compartmentalise our minds, but to challenge such ways of thinking. If you’d simply said “I’m racist” in reponse to an argument then it would also beg the question in a similar way.

[ Edited: 28 August 2010 08:57 AM by ceph]
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Posted: 28 August 2010 10:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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ceph - 28 August 2010 12:50 PM
nonverbal - 28 August 2010 10:12 AM
lnarcomey - 27 August 2010 08:31 PM

. . . Is that an admission of bigotry? Are you defiant (speciesism is justifiable) or resigned (speciesism cannot be justified but it’s hard to change my habits)?

“Bigotry” once referred only to religious exclusion, but now includes much more. Eventually it might include cross-species opinions/feelings at which point our species will have moved considerably closer to a self-imposed extinction. Don’t worry—we’ll get there somehow. As to whether I’m defiant or resigned, I’m neither within your brief definitions.

nonverbal, as a general point I agree that our attitudes are changing and to some extent we are able to tolerate inconsistencies in our ethics. We do so with respect to Peter Singer’s ‘shallow pond’ for example, but the point of such arguments isn’t just to comment on our ability to compartmentalise our minds, but to challenge such ways of thinking. If you’d simply said “I’m racist” in response to an argument then it would also beg the question in a similar way.

That’s fine, but it wasn’t my intention to make such a point. Also, the way people mistreat animals has nothing to do with what I think of Singer’s views. Farms have become blood-thirsty factories, in terrible need of reforms. Temple Grandin’s accomplishments make her a hero to me, in contrast to what Singer has done.

Can I interest you in moving this discussion to a place where more than 3 people will see it? Harris’ other forum would be ideal for such a purpose. Or we can continue to waste our keystrokes here.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 29 August 2010 05:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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nonverbal - 28 August 2010 02:08 PM

Can I interest you in moving this discussion to a place where more than 3 people will see it? Harris’ other forum would be ideal for such a purpose. Or we can continue to waste our keystrokes here.

Sure thing. I can see there’s already a long running thread on meat eating at Project Reason so I’ll read those comments before starting another one, or it might be better to just continue on the existing thread as the last post is only a few days old. Thanks for letting me know about the other forum by the way.

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Posted: 29 August 2010 08:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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ceph - 29 August 2010 09:02 AM

. . . I can see there’s already a long running thread on meat eating at Project Reason so I’ll read those comments before starting another one, or it might be better to just continue on the existing thread as the last post is only a few days old. Thanks for letting me know about the other forum by the way.

That thread may be too long for it to be accessible at this point. I remember following it at the beginning but lost interest after a few dozen pages. Here’s the link for anyone who might be watching:
http://www.project-reason.org/forum/viewthread/12652/

(Some topics seem to benefit from a massive word count—the big panpsychism thread, for instance:
http://www.samharris.org/forum/viewthread/9298/ )

I’ll be watching for a new thread focusing on your interests regarding animal consciousness, mistreatment of non-human animals, etc. and try to contribute as time permits. Hoping to see you there   -Dave.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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