Consciousness, Suffering and the Rights of Animals

What is "speciesism" and do we all suffer from it?

Posted Apr 22, 2016

Peter Singer, influential Australian-born Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, wrote a book, Animal Liberation, followed by many articles, on the rights of animals. He coined the term speciesism for the belief that human beings have special rights.  Speciesism, like racism and sexism, is based on prejudice.  It denies rights to animals because of prejudice in favor of our own species.  Citing Thomas Jefferson and Sojourner Truth, Singer writes “If possessing higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human being to use another for his own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same purpose?”  So, differences in intelligence are not sufficient to give humans pride of place. 

Jeremy_Bentham_Auto-Icon_Michael Reeve_WikimediaCommons
Source: Jeremy_Bentham_Auto-Icon_Michael Reeve_WikimediaCommons

What about consciousness?  Are animals conscious and is consciousness necessary for the sort of personhood implied by rights?  This is trickier, because some people assume there cannot be consciousness without language.  “This position seems to me very implausible”, says Singer. Not so much “implausible” as undecidable.  As long ago as 1906, the brilliant psychobiologist Herbert Spencer Jennings pointed out: “[T]hat objective evidence cannot give a demonstration either of the existence or of the non-existence of consciousness, for consciousness is precisely that which cannot be perceived objectively. No statement concerning consciousness in animals is open to verification or refutation by observation and experiment. There are no processes in the behavior of organisms that are not as readily conceivable without supposing them to be accompanied by consciousness as with it.”

Singer in any case is more interested in sensation, the sensation of pain in particular.  If you can feel pain, then you have the only kind of consciousness that matters from a moral point of view.  Singer took this idea from Jeremy Bentham, inventor of the philosophy of utilitarianism and ‘father’ of University College, London.  By his own wish, Bentham’s wax auto-icon, his mummified head at its feet, is stored in a cupboard at the college and wheeled out for ceremonial occasions.

Never mind his eccentricities.  Bentham laid the foundation for animal rights with this claim: ‘‘The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’’’

But if they can’t speak, how do we know whether animals suffer or not?  Here is Jennings again: “[I am] thoroughly convinced, after long study of the behavior of this organism, that if [it] were a large animal, so as to come within the everyday experience of human beings, its behavior would at once call forth the attribution to it of states of pleasure and pain, of hunger, desire, and the like, on precisely the same basis as we attribute these things to the dog.”  This from his iconic monograph published in 1906: The Behavior of the Lower Organisms.  

What organism is Jennings talking about?  It is the lowly single-celled amoeba, a creature with no nervous system and separated by a vast evolutionary gulf from human beings.   Is this really where Singer’s argument has led us, to accord the same consideration to amoeba as to a dog – or a human?  Well, yes.  If intelligence is irrelevant and consciousness undecidable, Peter Singer’s logic forces us to consider the well-being of an amoeba just as we would the feelings of a girl or the happiness of a dog.   

Can he be right?

Let’s return to the heart of Singer’s argument: Bentham’s question “‘Can they suffer?’’’  Valid, for sure, but is it the only question?  There is another: How much should we care? How should we weigh the suffering of the girl versus the amoeba?  This is not a question of fact or logic but of human sympathy.  It cannot be decided by philosophers but only by an ethical system.  Such a system is not subject to proof or disproof.  It is not a scientific matter.  Singer presents his case as a simple matter of logic.  But he persuades because he links his idea of speciesism to the recognized evils of racism and sexism.  Adding “ism” to anything automatically renders it suspect.  In fact, the way we treat animals is a moral issue that is sui generis; it cannot be reduced to something else.   Logic has little or no place in arriving at an answer. 

If you believe Singer’s argument, then by all means go vegan and watch where you tread.  But you believe because you have been persuaded, not because Singer’s argument is true, in the way that Euclid or predicate calculus is true.