Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A British perspective on gun control in the US

Upon hearing about the latest mass-shooting in the US, I decided to browse the internet to read about the terrible event and the reaction to it. I was not surprised to see many Americans again failing to understand and accept the association between events such as these and the ease with which it is possible to obtain firearms in their country. As this blog seems to attract a fair few views from the US, I thought I’d offer a British perspective on the issue of gun control.

For anyone reading this from the UK (or a country with similarly strict gun control) this probably won’t be that interesting. Gun control is simply not an issue here. Our gun control laws are amongst the strictest in the world, and that is just the way people here seem to like it.  In fact, there is some evidence that we’d actually prefer the controls to be stricter. Consider a YouGov survey conducted in 2010 which reported that 31% of respondents would like an outright ban on civilian gun ownership, 38% would like stricter restrictions, 23% thought that current restrictions were about right, and just 4% thought that the restrictions should be relaxed.

None of the main political parties propose to relax gun control and I can not even think of a fringe party who make this a serious policy of theirs.  The only example that springs to mind is the British National Party (BNP), a far-right nationalist party, who in 2005 proposed that adults who’ve completed military service should be required to keep an assault rifle and ammunition in a safe locker in their homes. But not only is the BNP electorally irrelevant, this policy was buried somewhere in a very long manifesto and was probably just a cynical attempt to prove their democratic (and thus non-authoritarian) credentials. Those who read about this policy would at best have thought the BNP were misguided, but if they’d proposed that people should just be allowed to wander into a store and buy a gun and ammunition with nothing more than a background check we’d definitely think they were insane. But that seems to be the state of affairs in most US states!

In my 28 years of life in the UK, most of which has been spent in London (a busy city with millions of citizens and many visitors) I’ve never seen a gun outside of the hands of specially trained armed police officers or military personnel. Having never seen a gun in the hands of a civilian, I’ve obviously never been the victim of gun crime. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has anyone I know. Guns are things that I see in television shows and films, not in the real world. This description of life in the UK is probably one that the vast majority of people born here would agree with. It is on this basis that there is just no appreciable appetite for gun ownership. The desire to own a piece of equipment specifically designed to kill and maim is not one that the vast majority of people here have.

Of course, there is still some gun crime in the UK. In the year 2010/11, statistics for England and Wales show that there were 58 firearms offences resulting in fatal injury and a total of 11,227 firearms offences (almost 80% of which did not result in injury) in a population of over 55 million. By contrast, in Texas (which has a population less than half that of England and Wales) in 2010 there were 805 murders by firearm. The rate of murder  by firearm in the UK for 2010/11 is approximately 0.1 per 100,000 while the rate for the US as a whole was 2.84 per 100,000 in 2010. There have also been incidents of mass shootings in the UK, such as the Hungerford and Dunblane massacres in 1987 and 1996, respectively. More recently, in 2010, Derek Bird went on a killing spree with a shotgun and rifle, which he owned legally. However, since 1987 there have been many more mass shootings in the US. In 2012 alone, thus far there have been shootings at Oikos University in California (7 dead, 3 injured), a cinema in Aurora (12 dead, 59 injured), and a cafĂ© in Seattle (5 dead, 1 injured). In 2011, there was an attack near Tuscon killing 6 and injuring 14, an attack in Seal Beach, California, killing 8 and injuring 1, and a number of other attacks.

When confronted with the regularity of these attacks and statistics on murder by firearm, many Americans seem to react in entirely the opposite way to what I’d consider a sensible response. Instead of calling into question the ease with which people can legally acquire firearms and calling for greater restrictions, they often simply dismiss the problem with inane quips like “guns don’t kill people; people kill people”. While technically true, it would also be true that “bombs don’t kill people; people kill people”, but no one (I hope) would want bombs to be available for general purchase when it’d be inevitable that some people would use them to blow up their fellow citizens. Allowing guns to find their way easily and readily into the hands of millions of people is asking for trouble – the purpose of guns is to kill and maim and it is inevitable that some people will use them for their intended purpose.

Others like to argue that, if they could not obtain weapons legally, would-be perpetrators of mass shootings would find weapons on the ‘black market’ with which to commit their crime. While there is perhaps an element of truth to this, I seriously doubt that Holmes could have acquired the small arsenal he used for his attack had he lived in the UK. By all accounts he seemed to be an introverted and socially-inept nerd who would almost certainly lack the social nous or wherewithal to be going to the criminal underworld to buy weapons. It is also probable that he’d be detected if he was in the process of stockpiling multiple weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. His attack in Aurora would be branded an act of terrorism had he been Muslim, and the security services in the UK don’t sit idly by while people accumulate arsenals of weapons that could be used to, for example, mimic the Mumbai attacks of 2008.  Importantly, since guns are restrictively controlled here, efforts to obtain them in numbers would certainly be something that would arouse suspicion if detected, but in the US gun control is so relaxed that buying guns isn’t itself suspicious at all. I suspect that if Holmes lived in the UK, he’d not have been able to obtain the number of weapons and amount of ammunition that he did or that he’d have deemed it too difficult and tried to lash out at society in some other way. This is speculation of course, but it should also be pointed out that the UK doesn't have the kind of 'black market' gun problem that some Americans imagine to be a consequence of strict gun control. 

Others argue that, despite incidents such as these, to control gun ownership would be “unconstitutional” and therefore something that should not be done. I find this mentality somewhat difficult to understand. On what basis is it sensible to hold as a matter of necessity to something that was written in the 1780s/1790s? This doesn’t seem too different to certain Muslims who want society to be ruled in accordance with texts written 1,000 years ago. If the US still exists in 2790, would it be odd for people to hold necessarily to the Constitution regardless of other developments? I think so. So why is it sensible now? Things change… what was once a good idea might not always be a good idea. Having the flexibility to recognise and respond to this is how progress is made. On a more fundamental philosophical note, the way things are at present is just one of many, many ways that things might have been (assuming free will is true, of course). It just doesn’t make sense to hold as a matter of necessity to the way things are, especially when that way no longer works and things could be different. Unless something changes, the mass shootings in the US will continue to happen as will the many thousands of fatal shootings every year.

What I hope to have demonstrated in this brief post is not a watertight argument for strict gun control, but simply that there are examples of ways in which things can be different. The UK is one such example. Gun ownership is restrictively controlled here and we have a low rate of murder by firearm and just a few mass shootings in the last few decades and despite this strict control we’re not all barricaded into our homes living in fear of armed criminals or being ruthlessly exploited by a tyrannical government. 

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Some thoughts on meat, vegetarianism, and masculinity

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. Since I’ve started a new job I don’t seem to have had the time to write the kind of in-depth posts that I like to write. One that I’ve been meaning to write is on the question of why more people aren’t vegetarian/vegan, which for me is an interesting question as (1) the ethical case for it appears to be clear cut and (2) adopting such a diet is perfectly healthful and therefore not self-sacrificial (that is, it’s not a case of giving up one’s good health to uphold an ethical principle). The answer to this question is too complex to write about now, but I believe the principal reasons to be the tendency for people to hold attitudes and to behave in ways that are culturally normative and the remarkable hiddenness of meat/dairy production which causes many to be entirely oblivious to the reality of the origin of their food or to be so psychologically distant from this reality that they can maintain a pretense of moral inculpability.  

However, as I was recently called “gay” for going to a vegan restaurant, I thought I’d touch briefly upon the view held by some men that being vegetarian or vegan is not manly (the sense in which I interpreted the use of the word “gay”, as opposed to meaning homosexual), which could in part explain the fact that vegetarianism is less common among men than women. For those who place great significance on notions of masculinity or manliness, or are keen to be seen to embody these qualities, being vegetarian/vegan is considered undesirable. But, is being vegetarian/vegan actually ‘not manly’ or less manly than following an omnivorous diet and is the notion of masculinity so significant that it should influence our attitudes and behaviours? The answer to both questions is no.

According to a basic dictionary definition, being masculine is to “have qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness”. Clearly, there is nothing at all about the dietary behaviour of the modern meat-eating consumer that could be considered a display of these qualities. Perhaps if the average meat-eater was going into hand-to-hand combat with grizzly bears in order to secure meat to eat they could be considered to exemplify strength and boldness. However, merely picking up a bag of minced beef from a supermarket shelf or eating a chicken curry at a restaurant does nothing to display these qualities. To make matters worse for the supposedly manly meat-eater, the meat they eat is from animals who would be unable to defend themselves even under favourable conditions, but who have in fact been systematically bred and killed by others in conditions that offer no possibility of resistance whatsoever.

So, while some men might like to imagine that there is something ‘manly’ about eating a steak or a ‘fry-up’, they are doing nothing more than indulging in a socioculturally derived and transmitted fiction. I’d go further to assert that anyone who endows any foodstuff with gender properties is doing precisely the same. Sadly, in modern western society such properties are attached to all sorts of food and drink: red meat is masculine while salad is feminine, beer is manly while wine is feminine, and so on. Even the presence or absence of sugar in a fizzy drink can alter its gender status (i.e. regular vs ‘diet’ drinks)! This is all absurd. These properties are socioculturally assigned rather than being objectively existing properties of the objects themselves. Importantly, vegetarian foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and pulses, which would exist even in the absence of human existence and thus the existence of human notions of masculinity and femininity can not possibly possess these properties. There just is no objectively existing gender status of a vegetarian or omnivorous diet. Perhaps there is a subjectively existing, culturally normative one in modern Western society, but there is no reason to be bound by this other than that it is socially convenient to do so.

Where ‘boldness’ is concerned, there is certainly something bold about becoming vegetarian or vegan. It is to openly reject a significant aspect of modern society and place oneself into a minority position. As those with a basic familiarity with human psychology will know, such non-conformity comes at a cost and therefore requires boldness, integrity, and psychological strength. Conformity, however, is the easy thing to do – most people follow the crowd because it is more convenient to do so than it is to stand apart from them. So, while the vegetarian/vegan adopts a minority position and is ready to confront the social difficulties that this might entail the meat-eater merely does what is culturally normative.

On balance then, being vegetarian actually seems to better represent a basic definition of masculinity than does being a meat-eater. Of course, this has no bearing on the merits of such a diet. The case for vegetarianism rests principally upon profound moral considerations (and indeed arguments relating to health and the physical environment) and not upon the entirely trivial matter of whether it is or is not masculine. The latter should not be an important consideration; it should not influence our attitudes, values, or behaviours in any area of life. Sadly it does and this can often have negative implications. In the case of dietary behaviour, there are implications other than it causing many men to be closed-minded to vegetarianism. For example, archetypal masculine foods such as red meat (e.g. Sobal, 2006), which wannabe ‘macho men’ will be drawn towards have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Weight-loss and health-consciousness have even come to be seen as effeminate endeavours, which can deter the self-styled ‘real men’ and those who wouldn’t want to appear ‘unmanly’ from taking positive action for their own health. There are many more examples beyond dietary behaviour. One that immediately springs to mind is the much higher rate of suicide in men (17 per 100,000 compared to 5.3 per 100,000 for women in the UK in 2010), which is likely to be explained at least in part by the expectation that men should ‘put a brave face’ on their troubles rather than expressing them openly, which denies them the vital social support that women can benefit from. And of course there are the many ways in which masculinity can manifest in violence, confrontation, domination, etc.

In short, to those who believe that eating meat is ‘manly’ and being vegetarian is not, I’d say three things: First, vegetarianism actually seems to better reflect the characteristic qualities of masculinity (e.g. boldness). Second, the idea that foodstuffs and their consumption can have a gender status is a sociocultural fiction. Third, being influenced by this kind of fiction is not only weak but can be damaging to yourself and to others.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

"An animal’s life is not as important as a human’s": On what basis?

In response to a tweet from Ricky Gervais on the subject of animal testing, someone stated:

“Simple fact, an animal’s life is not as important as a human’s.”

This assertion is far from being a “simple fact”; rather, it is highly controversial. It is controversial primarily because it entails that value, worth, or importance, can be objectively assigned to life. The unpleasant nature of this view can be immediately identified when applied within the human species. Most people would disapprove of the assertion that the life of a white man is inherently more valuable than that of a black man, or that the life of a wealthy chief executive is of more value than that of a cleaner, or that the lives of those with high intelligence are more valuable than those with lower intelligence, and so on.

In addition to being unpleasant, the notion that life can be valued objectively is philosophically problematic. Without postulating the existence of a supernatural creator of physical reality who has provided animals (as our inferiors) for our sustenance, it is difficult to identify any basis on which human life could be objectively valued relative to non-human life. The individual making the statement in question would perhaps argue that it is the greater intelligence of humans that makes our lives more valuable or important than those of animals. But on what basis is intelligence objectively more valuable or important than other qualities such as strength or speed? Precisely what is it about the physical universe which makes this an objective truth? Sure, intelligence allows us to build civilisations and develop advanced technologies, but the basis on which this is objectively valuable is again unclear.

If it is possible to assign value to life in an objective fashion and to make statements on the differential value of human and non-human lives, it must also be possible (at least in principle) to make statements on the value of all non-human animals relative to all other non-human animals. For example, it must be objectively true that the life of a dog is inherently more valuable than that of a cat, or vice versa, or else that they are of equal value. It is difficult to identify any objective basis on which such statements could be made. Moreover, if value can be assigned to categories on the basis of the qualities possessed by typical members of those categories, it is difficult to see why value could not be assigned to individuals on the basis of the qualities (and extent of those qualities) we possess of individuals. That is, if human beings are more important than non-human animals because we are more intelligent, it is unclear as to why the life of a human being with greater intelligence is not more important than the life of one with lower intelligence.

Rather than being objective, the way in which we as human beings assign value to the lives of others is relative. We value our family and close friends more highly than those we don’t know or are less familiar with rather than valuing all human lives equally. Many will consider their domestic pets to be more important than other humans that they’ve never met or never will meet; the death of a dog or cat will cause more sadness in the owner than the death of 100 people in a bombing many hundreds of miles away.

It seems clear that the claim that “an animal’s life is not as important as a human’s” is not true in an objective sense. What could perhaps have been said instead is that we, as a species, tend to view our lives, well-being, and interests as being more important than the lives, well-being, and interests of other species. In this sense, animal testing is something that we do to further our own interests despite the harm it causes to the animals involved and is not something that can be justified by appeal to the view that we are objectively more valuable or important. Despite this, the morality of animal testing is certainly very complex. Advocates could argue that testing on a relatively small number of animals can lead to discoveries that might save the lives of thousands or millions of people while opponents might argue that it is never morally acceptable to knowingly act in ways that will inflict harm and suffering on sentient beings. The morality of animal testing is certainly less clear cut than the morality of the mass breeding and killing of animals for food, which is entirely unnecessary as we can be equally (or more) healthy on plant-based diets.

As a final thought, it is instructive to consider the parallels between the view that animal testing is acceptable because “an animal’s life is not as important as a human's” and racial supremacism. Racial supremacism entails the belief that a particular race is superior to all other races and that the interests of that race are more important than those of other races. On this belief, it is considered morally permissible to exploit other races in order to benefit ones own race since those other races are held to be less important. Simply replacing the words “race” and “races” with “species” in the previous sentence should amply demonstrate the similarity between these two forms of particularism.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Animal pain and a basis for their ethical treatment on atheism

I recently watched a video on YouTube of a presentation given by William Lane Craig on the subject of Stephen Hawking's book "The Grand Design". For those unaware of who Craig is, he is a Christian apologist and research professor of philosophy from the US. He is perhaps best known here in the UK for Richard Dawkins refusing to debate him. In the presentation, he claimed that when scientists speak on matters of philosophy and theology, they are "speaking outside of their area of specialisation and their opinions have no more value than the opinions of an untutored layman". Given this, I found it to be hypocritical that Craig should derive his views on animal pain (views which he uses to respond to the problem of evidential evil or 'gratuitous suffering') from Michael Murray, a Christian apologist and philosopher with no credentials in any scientific area relevant to animal pain and whose views on the matter must therefore be of "no more value than the opinions of an untutored layman".  I thought I'd challenge Craig on this by submitting a question on his website, "Reasonable Faith". He responded to this question and since I found much to object to in that response (including the view that there is no basis for morality if atheism is true), here is a rejoinder:

Dear Dr Craig,

Thank you for responding to my question on animal pain (question 243). As a committed vegetarian who is appalled by the ways in which the human species treats non-human animals, this is an issue that is of particular concern for me. Before proceeding to respond to your answer, I should declare that I am neither atheist nor theist; rather, I’m agnostic. I therefore have no interest in exaggerating animal pain in order to strengthen the evidential problem of evil (or ‘gratuitous suffering’). Nor do I have an interest in diminishing animal pain in order to reduce the weight of this problem.

You state that “the question of animal suffering has nothing to do with theology - it’s all about neuroscience”. Assuming it is true that the conscious mind and subjective mental states (including negative affective states such as pain) are caused by the physical matter of the brain, it would appear that the question of animal suffering is indeed one to be answered via neuroscientific methods. However, given the serious epistemological difficulties associated with this area of inquiry, I am doubtful that neuroscience will ever be able to provide an authoritative account of animal suffering. Neuroscientific research on humans, which has benefited from the human ability to report linguistically on subjective internal experience, has failed to provide an explanation of consciousness or a complete and uncontroversial account of pain. Since animals lack this ability, research of this kind on animals must rely on observable behaviour or neurological activity in order to make inferences about possible mental states. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that “no systematic neuroscientific investigation of animal consciousness has yet been undertaken” (Edelman & Seth, 2009). There is, therefore, no robust and comprehensive body of neuroscientific research on this particular issue, and so the kind of consensus that you imagine to be represented by Murray simply does not exist.

Rather than being based on any actual knowledge of, say, what it is like to be a cat or what it is like to be a cat that is being skinned alive (knowledge that is arguably impossible to acquire), Murray’s views are derived from crude neuroanatomical comparisons between human and non-human brains. Although you assert that “his book contains citations of the literature which the interested reader may pursue”, it really does not. A cursory examination of the bibliography reveals that most of the citations are philosophical or theological and that very little scientific work specifically on consciousness and pain in animals has been referred to in the book. This is to be expected, given that the book, of which the full title is “Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering”, is a theological one.   Where the specific question of the ability of animals to experience pain is concerned, Murray appears to rely heavily on Bermond, but importantly “Arguments such as those of Bermond actually play only a limited role in scientific thought” (Weary et al, 2006).

On this basis, therefore, my criticism of your use of Murray as a source on the issue of animal pain stands. Not only is Murray a Christian apologist with no credentials whatsoever in neuroscience, neuropsychology, pain research, or any other scientific area directly relevant to the issue of pain in humans or animals, he also has a clear theological interest in diminishing the issue of animal pain and relies upon controversial minority views in order to support his position. If a more relevant and authoritative source for this viewpoint existed, it would surely be preferable to use that source in order to avoid this kind of criticism.

You describe Murray’s position as being that “sentient animals do experience pain, but they (apart from the higher primates) are not aware that they are themselves in pain”. In response to questions 242 and 113 on this website, however, you and Murray, respectively, have claimed that pain in animals is analogous to the phenomenon of blindsight in humans. Assuming that blindsight is indeed a genuine phenomenon and not a methodological artefact, it refers to the ability of individuals with visual field deficits (caused by damage to the striate cortex) to respond to stimuli presented to the ‘blind’ area(s) of their visual field despite having no conscious experience or awareness of having seen those stimuli. The important fact here is that blindsight does not involve the conscious experience of visual perception, or seeing, but rather involves the detection of visual stimuli below the level of conscious awareness or that accessible to introspection. To argue that pain in animals is analogous to blindsight in humans therefore makes it nonsensical to say that animals do “experience” pain. Since pain refers to the affective mental state actively produced by the brain rather than the nociceptive act that causes it or the physiological responses that occur simultaneously with it, and since experience is defined as “personally encountering or undergoing something”, to say that an animal can experience pain is to say that an animal can personally experience the quality of pain. I do not get the impression that this is what you and Murray actually believe. Indeed, Murray’s position is much stronger than you’ve stated it here. In response to question 113, Murray asks “might the behaviors that we associate with animals that look to be in pain constitute something like “blindpain”--showing all the behavioral symptoms of real pain, but without the conscious awareness?”.

The ethical implications of the view that “sentient animals do experience pain, but they (apart from the higher primates) are not aware that they are themselves in pain” depends on what is meant by “experience”. If it is meant that animals experience pain in the same way that blindsight patients experience visual stimuli presented to the ‘blind’ areas of their visual field - that is, entirely below the level of conscious awareness - then the ethical implications of this view are profound. Any act committed upon an animal, which if committed upon a human would be expected to cause pain, could no longer be opposed on the grounds that it would cause the animal to feel pain. Acts of animal cruelty, which most people consider to be morally reprehensible because of the pain and associated distress they believe to result from such acts, would no longer be acts of cruelty at all, since cruelty requires "wilfully or knowingly causing pain or distress to others". Pain in farm animals would also become a non-issue. Debeaking, tail docking, and castration all performed without anaesthetic, intensive procedures, and even brutal methods such as Halal and Kosher slaughter would all of a sudden become very difficult to oppose if animals are not able to experience pain. Denying that animals experience pain might also represent a slippery slope of progressively diminishing their mental life. After all, if animal pain is “blind pain”, do they also have “blind fear” rather than fear, “blind anxiety” rather than anxiety, “blind discomfort” rather than discomfort, and so on? It is implications such as these which I expect will have caused the “emotional” response you have received.

As an agnostic I live my life without a belief in God or a religion, which is something I share in common with atheists. I would therefore like to take issue with your view that there is no basis for the ethical treatment of animals if atheism is true. For me, the basis on which people should favour the ethical treatment of animals, or refrain from doing harm to them, is very clear. As you rightly point out, a lion doesn’t murder a zebra, it kills it. To the best of our knowledge, such an act is an instinctive one that is devoid of a moral dimension. Human beings, however, are endowed with higher-order cognitive faculties, which allow us, amongst a range of other things, to understand the existence of other minds, to anticipate how our actions will affect the mental states of others, to reflect upon how we would feel if subjected to such treatment, and to deliberate on such information as part of a complex behavioural decision making process. It is these abilities that provide the basis for people to refrain from causing harm to others, whether the other is human or non-human. While people might assign words such as “right” or “wrong” to particular actions, that is not what determines how the vast majority of people behave. For example, most people do not torture their domestic pets, not because they perceive that there is an objectively existing value which ordains that to do so is “wrong”, but because they expect such behaviour would cause pain and distress in the pet and they simply have no desire to bring about such a situation. To my mind, there is something rather disconcerting about the person who refrains from such behaviour because of external pressures (whether from perceived divinely ordained values, state legislation, anticipated disapproval from others, etc) and not because they truly do not desire to cause pain and distress in another sentient being. The same applies to acts against humans, such as rape, torture, and enslavement.

The theist could of course argue that, on atheism, there is no objective reason for people to value the information made available to them by the cognitive faculties previously mentioned and no duty to refrain from intentionally causing harm to others. This objection, however, appears to presuppose that people inherently desire to do harm to others, or are at least indifferent to doing so, and that external pressure is required for us to be “good”. It is to say that if it could be shown that there is no objective morality, we would all of a sudden go out killing, beating, or raping others, either through a desire to do so or as a means to furthering our own personal interests. The large proportion of irreligious people in Europe, who do not believe in divinely ordained moral values, do not tend to behave in heinous ways towards others. It could of course be suggested that these people have come to learn of such objectively existing moral values and that they live their lives by those values, but this is exceptionally difficult to prove. To do so would first require proving the existence of objective moral values. Merely pointing to those behaviours which are almost consensually held to be abhorrent (perhaps as a consequence of evolution), such as child rape, is insufficient, since the moral relativist could point to the lack of consensus on many significant issues such as abortion and the death penalty as evidence that morality is not objective.

The theist might also argue that, if atheism is true, life is ultimately pointless and so it doesn’t matter how we treat others. Again, I consider this objection to presuppose a desire to harm others, or a mere indifference to doing so. It also neglects the tremendous significance of the present moment for us and presumably other sentient beings. The possibility that our existence is ultimately without meaning or purpose does nothing to diminish the personal significance of conscious experience. Consider the following example in which it is assumed that you are an atheist. If you were required to attend a dental appointment to have a filling and were offered the choice of having it done with or without local anaesthetic, would you think “There is no God, life is pointless, nothing matters, therefore it doesn’t matter whether or not I experience excruciating pain during this procedure” or would you think “If I don’t have local anaesthetic I will almost certainly experience excruciating pain and since I don’t want to experience excruciating pain I will only undergo the procedure if given local anaesthetic”? No one would take the former view on the situation. So, regardless of the ultimate fate of us as individuals or as a species, or of the universe as a whole, the way in which we behave towards others really does matter. Just as it would matter to you if someone inflicted pain upon you, it matters to others if someone inflicts pain upon them. Since human beings (at least those who are not psychologically or neurologically damaged in some relevant way) are able to understand that others are able to experience a range of emotions and states (from pain and fear through to joy and love), and that our behaviour can cause those states, we have a very powerful reason to refrain from causing harm to others and arguably to seek to improve the lives of others if we can. This, I believe, is precisely why words such as “right” and “wrong” can be ascribed to behaviour.

In the case of the ethical treatment of animals in particular, I know of no good reason for not applying to animals the empathic thought that decent people apply in their interactions with other humans. Arguments that are based upon an unfounded denial of the ability of animals to experience pain and other negative affective states do not succeed. Precisely what animals might or might not be able to experience is unknown and perhaps unknowable, but since we have good reasons to suspect that they can experience pain (e.g. their behavioural response to nociceptive stimuli) it is preferable to err on the side of caution and treat them in ways that we would not expect to cause pain. Arguments based upon the view that “might is right” are also unsuccessful, since they do not explain why such a view is acceptable where behaviour towards animals is concerned but disapproved of where inter-human behaviour is concerned. Since becoming a vegetarian and taking an active interest in animal welfare, I have not encountered any argument that has shaken my view that I and others should treat animals ethically and refrain from unnecessarily inflicting harm upon them. Indeed, for as long as I can recall, I’ve held this belief and it required witnessing the harm that is done to animals in order to produce meat to cause me to instantly become vegetarian.

At risk of stating the obvious, in discussing issues such as these we should all be conscious of the fact that we are products of our genetics, culture, and unique life experiences, and therefore that our beliefs may not only be very different from those of others but quite possibly very different to reality. Reflexive thought on why we hold the views that we do on these matters is therefore very important.

In this relatively short response, I hope to have shown two things. First, it is simply not the case that there is a neuroscientific consensus on pain in animals. Since you state that the question of animal suffering is “all about neuroscience”, it follows that you should reject Murray’s view and wait for a robust body of neuroscientific evidence on the matter to accumulate. Secondly, there are very good reasons, rooted in the abilities afforded to us by our brains, for treating others in ways that would not cause them harm. If someone would still ask “but if there is no objective morality, what is disagreeable about skinning a cat alive or intentionally starving a dog to death?”, then perhaps our worldviews are so radically different that no amount of discussion would ever bring us to agreement.

Mark, London (England)


Edelman, D.B., and Seth, A.K. (2009). Animal consciousness: A synthetic approach. Trends in Neurosciences. 32(9):476-484

Weary, D. M., Niel, L., Flower, F. C. and Fraser, D. (2006). Identifying and preventing pain in animals. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 100: 64-76.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

“We have canines, we’re meant to eat meat!”

Having been vegetarian for six years and read a considerable amount of relevant discussion online during this time, I’ve noticed that those who attempt to defend the killing or exploitation of animals for food typically do so with highly simplistic arguments. One such argument is that human beings possess canine teeth and are therefore meant to eat meat. Stated in this form, this is of course not a valid logically deductive argument, for the conclusion does not follow necessarily from the premise. Further premises are clearly required in order for this argument to be logically valid:

  1. Human beings possess canine teeth.
  2. Mammals which possess canine teeth are meant to eat meat (or All mammals with canine teeth eat meat).
  3. Human beings are mammals.
  4. Therefore, human beings are meant to eat meat.
Formulated in this way, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. The problem with this argument, however, is that the second premise is false. There are a number of examples from nature that show this statement to be false and therefore provide a powerful defeater for the argument.

One such example is the Western lowland gorilla. The natural diet of the Western lowland gorilla consists almost entirely of fruits, leaves, and other plant matter. Popovich et al (1997) found them to consume over 200 species and varieties of plants and 100 species and varieties of fruit. Importantly, there is a “virtual absence of foods of animal origin” in their diet (Popovich et al, 1997). It is surprising, therefore – on the view that possessing canine teeth entails eating animal flesh – that the Western lowland gorilla not only has canine teeth, but has canine teeth which are considerably larger than the rather small and feeble human examples.

This absence of foods of animal origin is something that the Western lowland gorilla shares in common with all other great apes apart from the chimpanzee, which occasionally hunt and consume small vertebrates (Popovich et al, 1997). The large canine teeth of Western lowland gorillas are also characteristic of other primates. Plavcan and Ruff (2004) were able to demonstrate that “relative to skull length and body mass, primate male canines are on average as large as or larger than those of similar sized carnivores”, that “the range of primate female canine sizes embraces that of carnivores” and that “male and female primate canines are generally as strong as or stronger than those of carnivores”.

In short, the fact that the Western lowland gorilla has considerably larger canine teeth than humans and eats a diet devoid of foods of animal origin provides a straightforward refutation of the idea that having canine teeth means that humans are “meant” to kill and eat animals. Even if such a straightforward refutation did not exist, there are other powerful objections to deriving behavioural obligations from such basic anatomical facts. I discussed these objections in more detail in a previous post, but suffice it to say that while evolution has given us canine teeth barely worthy of the name, it has also endowed us with the capability for moral thought, higher-order cognitive faculties, and a tremendous amount of behavioural plasticity. Moreover, it has seemingly provided us with a physiological makeup which allows for a diet not containing food of animal origin to be at least as healthy, but probably healthier, than one containing such foods. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

William Lane Craig vs Stephen Law: An agnostic's perspective

On October 17th 2011, William Lane Craig and Stephen Law debated the question “Does God Exist?” at Westminster Central Hall. Craig, a research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and a well known Christian apologist, argued the affirmative case, while Law, a philosopher and senior lecturer at Heythrop College, University of London, argued the negative case. Rather than being a generic debate on whether a God exists, this was a debate on whether the God of Christianity, and of Craig, exists. This debate can be listened to in full here.

As the title indicates, I intend to offer some thoughts on the debate from an agnostic perspective. By agnostic, I mean that I maintain a position of uncertainty as to the existence of a God or creator of the universe – that is, I neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of such a being. Furthermore, I doubt that it is possible, at the present time and perhaps ever, to prove the existence or non-existence of a God and that the question is therefore irresolvable. On this basis, I’m essentially atheistic towards all the major religions, although I would not be prepared to state with certainty that they are not true. I’m open-minded on this issue and could therefore be convinced with the right evidence and must also admit to finding a certain appeal in deistic explanations of the origin of the universe.

Craig’s case

Craig began by stating that he would defend the contention that there are good reasons to think that God exists. He proceeded to offer three arguments to this effect. The first argument was the ‘cosmological argument’, which holds that, since every physical thing that begins to exist has a cause and that the universe began to exist, the universe therefore has a cause. Given the seeming impossibility of an infinite regress of physical events, Craig further argues that this cause must be an immaterial, timeless, and personal being of unfathomable power. This argument certainly has considerable intuitive appeal, and to my mind is more believable than the view held by some atheists that the universe literally popped into being out of nothing and without cause. However, it does not prove the existence of the Christian God, which Craig happily concedes, and at best provides a basis for deism. On this basis, Law chose not to engage with this argument, despite being prompted by Craig on a number of occasions.

The second argument Craig presented was the ‘moral argument’. This argument holds that if God does not exist then moral values do not exist, that moral values do exist, and therefore that God exists. Craig did little to prove the premises of the argument to be true, other than claiming that there are “truly evil” acts that would merely be “unfashionable” on the atheistic view and asserting that we “apprehend a real of moral values and duties that impose themselves upon us”. Law did a fine job of drawing attention to the contentious nature of the premises of this argument during his rebuttal.

As an aside, I can’t help but find Craig’s view of morality rather disconcerting. It appears that, to him, the only reason not to act in ways that cause harm or suffering to others is that an objective system of values obliges him not to. The truth is that notions of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” are not required to inform decisions about how to behave towards others. As human beings, we have the mental capacity to understand the existence of other minds, to predict how our actions will affect the mental states of others, and to understand how our actions will impact upon their physical welfare. We ourselves do not like to experience mental distress or physical pain and we can therefore choose not to inflict these things on others. This should be the basis of our behaviour towards others, and it is irrelevant as to whether or not it is “objectively good”. It’s rather sad that Craig would consider rape or child torture to be merely “unfashionable” in the absence of a God, as if the suffering of the victim during and after the act is somehow entirely irrelevant. If there really is a God, surely that being would look upon people who treat others well because they want to far more favourably than those who merely follow rules in order to avoid punishment, like the child who refrains from being naughty while in sight of his parents.

The final argument Craig presented was based on the claimed resurrection of Jesus. He gives three facts to support the view that Jesus rising from the dead is the “best explanation” of the available evidence. First, on the Sunday after his crucifixion, his tomb was found empty by a group of women followers. Second, different individuals and groups saw him alive after his death. Third, the original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, despite having every predisposition to the contrary. Given this, Craig argues that Jesus must have been who he said he was and that the God he revealed must exist. Law only briefly engaged with this argument, where he cautioned against simply accepting the “best explanation” of such an event as being true. There is sufficient doubt surrounding this event to prevent most rational people from accepting it as true and consequently adopting the Christian religion.

The truth is that these three arguments, either separately or collectively, are not what convinced Craig to embrace Christianity. In an interview available on YouTube, Craig states:

“The way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart, and this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence. And therefore, if in some historically contingent circumstances the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don’t think that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit.”

Thus, evidence is entirely irrelevant to Craig. If it contradicts his view then he will simply disregard it. However, if it seems to support his view he clearly has no reluctance to use it. Although Craig did not make this kind of argument in this debate, in previous debates he has typically presented an argument from the personal experience of God as the last in a series of five arguments, including the present three and also the teleological argument. Perhaps Craig did personally experience God; I’m not in a position to claim that he did not. However, it would be that experience that would cause him and others to embrace Christianity, not the three arguments he presented in this debate.

The ‘evidential problem of evil’

Law presented one main argument against the God of Christianity, known as the “evidential problem of evil’. He later pointed out that this argument can be made without the use of the word “evil”, which I find more appropriate. The argument is quite simply that there has been an immense amount of suffering to both humans and non-humans throughout history and that it is highly unlikely that a morally good God would create a world in which this occurred. He proceeds to demonstrate how similar reasoning could convincingly refute the hypothesis that there is an entirely malevolent creator – that is, the considerable amount of good in the world would be inconsistent with such a being having created the universe. In addition, Law neatly demonstrated that the many rationalisations of suffering in the world offered by Christians can be inverted in order to support the existence of a malevolent creator. The challenge for Craig, therefore, was to justify why it is sufficiently more plausible to believe in a morally good God.

Craig failed to establish a strong case for this position. He first asserted that it was up to Law, and therefore atheists, to “prove that it was impossible or highly improbable that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world” and asked “But how can the atheist possibly prove that?”. The answer is that there is probably no means by which this can be proven. Therefore, not only is it entirely unreasonable to shift the burden of proof on to the sceptical position, it is also unreasonable to demand a proof that it is not possible to provide. It is surely up to those asserting the existence of God to prove that God exists, that God is morally good, and that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting suffering. Craig provides no good reason to believe that there would be morally sufficient reasons to permit suffering; rather, he merely appeals to the idea that we aren’t in a position to know what God’s plan is.

Typically I find nothing objectionable or offensive in debates such as this, but Craig’s response to the issue of animal suffering makes this an exception, for a number of reasons. He sought to circumvent the problem of animal suffering by claiming that “even though animals are in pain, they aren’t aware of it”, and that this is a fact emerging from “recent scientific discoveries”. In reference to such “scientific” work, Craig cites the book “Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering” by Michael J Murray. In fact, Craig omitted the second part of the title, thereby concealing the true nature of the book, despite taking care to point out that it was published by Oxford University Press. He also neglected to mention that Murray is a Christian apologist with no credentials whatsoever in neuroscience, neuropsychology, pain research, or any other scientific area directly relevant to the issue of pain in human or non-human animals, and a clear vested interest (that is, to diminish the “problem of evil”) in promoting the view that animals are not able to suffer.

The book to which Craig refers has received just four citations since being published in 2008, which is perhaps indicative of its irrelevance, and certainly does not include any groundbreaking scientific research suggesting that animals can not experience pain. In fact, Murray seems to refer mostly to the work of Bermond, as he also did in his article “Neo-Cartesianism and Problem of Animal Suffering. Importantly, Weary et al (2006), in an article entitled “Identifying and Preventing Animal Pain” published in “Applied Animal Behaviour Science”, state that “Arguments such as those of Bermond actually play only a limited role in scientific thought”. As a philosopher, Craig should understand the serious epistemological difficulties associated with research on pain and consciousness in non-human animals (I've written a little more on this issue previously here and here). While self-report is available for humans and is considered the gold-standard, it is not available in non-linguistic species. Given these difficulties “no systematic neuroscientific investigation of animal consciousness has yet been undertaken” (Edelman & Seth, 2009). Despite this, Craig is happy to accept the view that animals can not experience pain on the basis of highly simplistic neuroanatomical comparisons, arguably because it is theistically convenient for him to do so.

In addition to dishonestly portraying the work of a Christian apologist with no scientific credentials, and the controversial minority view on which it is based, as being the prevailing scientific consensus, Craig stooped further still by asserting that the inability of animals to suffer should be of “great comfort” to “animal lovers” and “pet lovers”. I certainly find no comfort whatsoever in an unfounded view which would remove the basis for animal welfare and opposition to animal cruelty. To commit an act of cruelty requires that the consequence (e.g. pain) can be experienced by the victim. If an animal can not experience pain, then causing physical harm to one is surely as morally neutral as tearing a plant up from the ground or smashing a computer to pieces. Fortunately, not all Christians regard animals in the same way that Craig does.

Another response offered by Craig to the many millions of years of animal suffering in nature was that predation is essential for a viable ecosystem. Law hinted that he had a response to this, but he chose not to air it. My objection would be that this would entail that the creative ability of an allegedly omnipotent creator is constrained by the concept of “ecosystem”. It could certainly be argued that predation is essential for a viable ecosystem in the world in which we live, but could it be demonstrated that ecosystems and the brutality they involve must necessarily be present in the creation of an omnipotent and morally perfect being? The immense quantity of animal suffering in the natural world calls into question either the omnipotence of God or the moral perfection of God. Craig shouldn’t have been allowed to wheedle out of this by appealing to a highly controversial, minority view on animal suffering.


Insofar as it is possible to “win” a debate of this kind, I feel that Law won. Craig presented three arguments which failed to provide “good reasons” for believing in the God in which he believes. Law was able to demonstrate the irrelevance of the cosmological argument, to cast sufficient doubt on the premises of the moral argument, and to cast sufficient doubt on the resurrection argument. He also presented one main argument of his own which Craig was unable to refute. No rational person could adopt Christianity via reason alone on the basis of this debate.

Despite this, I feel that a number of Craig’s arguments, particularly the cosmological, moral, and teleological (which he did not present in this debate), are sufficiently strong to move people away from the dogmatic, militant atheism of the Richard Dawkins variety, to a more open-minded and possibly agnostic position. In previous debates where the focus wasn't on a specific God, Craig has done much better and undermined the case for atheism (i.e. the belief that a God or anything like a God does not exist). For now, I remain agnostic and will continue to be open to where the evidence, reason, or experience leads me. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Elaborating on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's comments on puppy farming

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recently stated that those who consume the meat of farm animals (e.g. pigs) are not in a position to object, in principle, to the organic farming of puppies for food. Predictably, many people entirely missed his point, concluded that he was advocating this in practice, and were accordingly outraged. Of course, he was not seriously suggesting that this is something that we should be doing; he stated that he would not eat such meat unless he was “on the point of starvation”. His actual argument is as follows:

“'You can't object, unless you also object to the farming of pigs. It's an artificial construct of our society, a cultural decision, to make pets out of dogs and meat out of pigs.”

In pointing out that the way in which we view dogs and pigs in Western culture is culturally determined, he is entirely correct. This view is not universal. In some cultures, pigs are not looked upon as food and dogs aren’t considered to make for welcome additions to the family home. In certain countries, dogs are killed and eaten, and even skinned alive for their fur. It is perhaps fair to say that, in those places, the dog has a similar status to that of the lowly pig or cow in Western culture. More broadly, the distinction between “farm animals” and “domestic pets” is culturally determined. It has no basis in objective reality – that is, outside of human thought, these categories simply do not exist.

On what basis, then, can those who happily eat meat from pigs, cows, and other farm animals, and therefore endorse the breeding and killing of these animals, object to the breeding and killing of dogs for food? Arbitrary, culturally derived classifications certainly shouldn’t be accepted as providing a basis for this seemingly hypocritical position, and nor should notions of the cuteness of dogs and their behaviour, their suitability as domestic animals, or their usefulness in other areas of human endeavour. Stripping all of this away leaves what we intuitively consider to be conscious creatures with the ability to experience pain, fear, distress, and discomfort. This raises the moral question of why it should be considered right that some of these animals should exist in factory farms and be brutally murdered while others are singled out for love, affection, and protection from cruelty.

For vegetarians and vegans, the challenge that Fearnley-Whittingstall presents is not a problem, for we would consider the farming of puppies for food to be wrong in the same way that we consider the farming (especially intensive farming) of animals such as pigs to be wrong. The fact that the former are cuter, fluffier, and more suitable as domestic pets than the latter does not cause us to apply our moral judgement inconsistently. For the meat eater, however, it is quite a problem. It is not possible for them to justify their inconsistent position in a sensible, rational, and objective way. They must remain hypocritical, or accept that puppy farming would be no more wrong than the farming of other animals, or else come to consider it all to be wrong. 

Some of the issues covered here are also covered in a previous entry entitled 'Reflecting upon arguments against vegetarianism".