Morrissey recently caused controversy by suggesting that the mass breeding and killing of non-human animals for fast-food is worse than the killing of 77 human beings by Anders Behring Breivik in
. I happened to believe that his comments raised some important questions, which I talked about in a previous blog post. Norway
Since then, I have seen some people arguing that non-human animals are not ‘sentient’ or ‘conscious’ and that what Morrissey said is therefore incorrect. To them, animals are the “beast machines” of Descartes: mere biological machines devoid of a subjective experiential existence. This appears to entail that human beings are the exclusive beneficiaries of mind and consciousness, which emerged suddenly and inexplicably in the evolutionary process with no prior and less sophisticated form. Given what is known about the evolution of other characteristics, serious doubt should be cast on this view of animals.
Consciousness is a very difficult phenomenon to explain. Though it is thought to be an emergent property of the physical matter and activity of the brain, considerable investigations in humans into the neurological correlates of conscious experience have failed to explain consciousness. It is arguable that consciousness is in fact inaccessible by scientific methods. It is an immaterial and subjective phenomenon that can not be observed by others or by scientific instruments. Indeed, the only way in which we can gain insight into the conscious mind of another human being is through their subjective report. Some philosophers argue further that the existence of minds other than our own can not be proven via the scientific method and that the existence of such other minds is a properly basic belief.
Far less research has been carried out on non-human animals, with Edelman and Seth (2009) stating that “no systematic neuroscientific investigation of animal consciousness has yet been undertaken”. The basis on which the Cartesian view of animals as “beast machines” should be accepted is therefore unclear. There is certainly no scientific proof for a lack of consciousness in non-human animals and it is unclear how scientific methods could ever provide such proof.
Most people don’t take this view of animals. Pet owners view their pets (particularly dogs) as loyal and loving companions with a mind and personality of their own. People are outraged by instances of animal cruelty that appear in the media – the case of the woman caught on camera throwing a cat into a wheelie bin being a powerful example. Indeed, there is legislation against animal cruelty precisely because of the experiential distress it causes to the animal. There is no such legislation against purchasing a toy robot or a computer and smashing it to pieces in the privacy of ones own home. Individuals and society recognise and acknowledge the capacity of animals to suffer and that there is something inherently wrong in inflicting such suffering upon them.
Unfortunately, the majority of people do not extend their abhorrence of animal cruelty to the intensive farming of animals for the production of cheap meat, dairy, and other products. The conditions that these animals have to endure for life in factory farms before meeting their brutal end are far, far worse than what happened to the previously mentioned cat – yet there is no outrage. Perhaps some people aren’t aware of what goes on behind the closed doors. I, too, was once unaware, but once I learned of the reality of what these animals face I was thrown into a very uncomfortable state of mental turmoil which could only be relieved by behavioural change or resorting to spurious arguments like ‘animals aren’t sentient’. I chose the former and have never regretted it.