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Is “Personhood” a Normative or Descriptive Concept?

photograph of young child watching elephant at zoo

Many ethical debates are about “getting the facts right” or “trusting the science,” and this sentiment is driven by a presumed difference between political and ethical values and facts. This can be problematic because it naively assumes that facts are never a product of values or that values can’t be a product of fact. This can lead to mistakes like thinking that evidence alone can be sufficient to change our thinking or that the way we value things shouldn’t be affected by the way the world is. Ethical inquiry requires us to consider many questions of both fact and worth to draw conclusions. To demonstrate, we will consider the recent case of Happy the elephant and whether it makes sense to call her a person.

While it is tempting to think of values as being something entirely personal or subjective, in reality most discussion and debate about values is far more nuanced and complex than that. Determining the value of something, whether it’s going for a walk or eating a candy bar, involves considerations of function, worth, and means.

Eating a candy bar has the function of providing sustenance and a pleasant taste. The worth of the bar will be determined by considering the means required to attain it compared to the worth of other things I could eat. If the cost of the candy bar goes up, the means required to attain it becomes dearer. While the candy bar provides necessary energy, it is also harmful to my health, and so I re-evaluate the worth of the bar.

People may differ over the value of the candy bar, but the disagreement will likely hinge on the different functions the candy bar has in life. But notice that function and means – two essential considerations for valuation – are factual in nature. To ask what the candy bar will do is to ask what it is good for. In other words, any thought about worth inevitably involves factual considerations. Often, the reason we want people to avoid misinformation or to trust expertise has to do with the ethical concerns rather than the factual concerns; we expect facts to moderate the way things are valued and thus the way we act.

But what about facts? Aren’t the facts just the facts? Well, no. There is no such thing in science as the “view from nowhere.”

We don’t study every part of the natural world; we study things we are interested in. Our investigations are always partial, infused with what we want to know, why we want to know it, and what means we have available to try to find an acceptable answer.

The risk that we over-generalize our findings – start making pronouncements about the world and forget about our practical aims in research – suggests that facts alone cannot settle ethical debates. Just like values, a fact is defined by function, worth, and means. Indeed, many concepts are “thick” in that they perform a dual function of both describing something while also offering normative content. “Cruel,” for example, is often used both normatively and descriptively. But what about “person?”

Recently a New York court ruled that an Asian elephant named Happy is not a person. The case began after the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition against the zoo holding Happy, arguing that Happy’s confinement was a violation of habeas corpus because Happy resides in a solitary enclosure. They demanded recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and her release from the zoo.

Habeas corpus – a person’s legal protection from unlawful detention – has historically been used to push legal boundaries. One of the most famous cases is Somerset v. Stewart, which found that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England and so was ordered to be freed. This suggests that “person” is often a “thick” concept that not only describes something, but also inherently (especially legally) contains normative elements as well. In the end, the court, found that Happy was not a person in the legal sense and was thus not entitled to invoke those rights.

Those who supported Happy’s case emphasized that elephants are intelligent, cognitively complex animals. The Nonhuman Rights Project argued that elephants share numerous cognitive abilities with humans such as self-awareness, empathy, awareness of death, and learning. Happy was the first elephant to pass a self-awareness indicator test. In addition, several nations such as Hungary, Costa Rica, Argentina, Pakistan have taken steps to recognize the legal rights of “non-human persons.” The argument is that because these animals are intelligent enough to have a sense of their own selves, they are entitled to the robust liberties and protections afforded by the law.

But the question is not whether Happy meets some cosmic notion of personhood, but an instrumental question of what function we want the concept of “person” to perform.

The question for the court was to determine the worth of competing conceptions of “personhood” which would perform different social functions (one which extends to animals and one which doesn’t), and which involve very different means in operation. For example, a legal person is usually someone who can be held legally accountable. A previous ruling in a similar case held that “the asserted cognitive linguistic capabilities of a chimpanzee do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions.”

The issue of cognitive complexity in relationship to personhood is not static – simply meeting a given threshold of intelligence is not enough to warrant designation as a “person.” There are practical considerations that bear on the matter. Changing our conception of personhood would, as one justice noted, “have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.” It’s difficult to know what legal obligations this might create or how far they could extend. What would happen, for example, if there was a conflict of legal rights between a human and non-human person? The issue is thus not whether Happy should be treated well, but whether the concept of personhood is the right tool for sorting out these difficult ethical problems. Similar controversies crop up in the debate about extending rights to nature.

In other words, when we consider cases like this it will never simply be as simple as saying a fact that “elephants are cognitively intelligent” or proclaiming that “elephants should be protected.” As a “thick” concept, the definition of “personhood” is always going to depend on the practicality of the concept’s use in our particular social world. But if the problem with extending certain rights to elephants is problematic because of the stress it places on the function of the concept, then perhaps seeking to label elephants as “persons” is unhelpful. It simply isn’t going to be enough to point to evidence of cognitive awareness alone. When we consider what we want the concept “person” to do for us, we may find that by paying attention to the intended function we can achieve it more effectively with another ethical notion, such as the UK potentially granting rights to animals on the basis of “sentience.”

In Defense of Eating Dogs

photograph of strays dog on street

In Western societies, dogs are regarded as our companions. As such, the idea that one might ever eat a dog would strike us as abhorrent. This view stands in stark contrast to that of many Asian countries, in which the consumption of dog meat is a regular part of their culture. However, attitudes appear to be shifting. As younger generations increasingly regard the practice as taboo, the president of South Korea has recently suggested that the time has come for the practice to be prohibited.

But should it be? I suspect that many people would regard the consumption of dogs as not only taboo, but morally wrong. However, this attitude seems to be inconsistent with our attitudes towards other animals.

I want to suggest that if there is nothing wrong with eating cows, chickens, and pigs, then there is nothing wrong with eating dogs. Conversely, if it is wrong to eat dogs, then it is also wrong to eat cows, chickens, and pigs. Regardless of what direction one goes with the reasoning, my point is that there is an inconsistency in how most people view dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs.

Can We Draw a Line?

Why might it be wrong to eat a dog? One answer is that dogs are companion animals. They are honorary members of our family, so to speak. Indeed, some dog owners refer to themselves as “dog moms” or “dog dads.” As such, it would be wrong to eat a dog because of the special status that we have given them.

The problem is that this association is contingent. Perhaps you might view your dog as part of your family, but that doesn’t mean everyone else views dogs in that way. Indeed, that is not how they are viewed by people who consume them as food and in societies where this practice is prevalent. If dogs only have significant value because we give it to them, then they don’t have it inherently. If that’s the case, then while eating dogs might be revolting or disgusting, it isn’t wrong. And just because something is offensive to one’s own tastes doesn’t mean it should be legally banned for everyone.

Another answer might be that dogs are what animal rights philosopher Tom Regan called “subjects of a life.” Dogs are conscious: they can experience pain, pleasure, and other aspects of consciousness. These qualities generate moral value which makes it wrong to kill them purely for the sake of consumption. While this argument shows that dogs have inherent value, it also applies equally to cows, chickens, and pigs — animals that we commonly consume. After all, all of these animals can feel pain and other aspects of consciousness. So why wouldn’t it be wrong to eat them? It seems that any property we think of is going to be a property that these other animals have.

As such, someone who accepts this line of reasoning must also be committed to stopping the consumption of these other animals. But that’s a tough bullet to bite, as many people who are opposed to dog consumption engage in other forms of meat consumption.

The point is that it’s arbitrary to draw a moral line at dogs but not for, say, cows. Consistency demands that we either embrace the permissibility of eating cows, chickens, and pigs — and therefore the permissibility of eating dogs, or we embrace the wrongness of eating dogs — and therefore the wrongness of eating other animals.

Which Direction Should Consistency Take Us?

There are arguments to be made for either.  I have argued that since it is not wrong to eat cows, chickens, and the like, that it is not wrong to eat dogs. On the other side, Alastair Norcross has argued that since it’s wrong to eat dogs, most other kinds of meat consumption are therefore also wrong.

It’s worth taking a deep dive into the literature to build an informed view, but let’s table these arguments for a second. Most people lack the expertise, time, or willpower to confidently explore the academic literature. Indeed, unless you’re a professional philosopher you likely haven’t taken deep dives on many of the beliefs you have. In the absence of that, the next best thing is to work from our background knowledge and engage in critical and reflective deliberation on our beliefs. How might we do that in this case?

Suppose that you’re opposed to eating dogs. Ask yourself this: which is stronger – your intuition that it’s morally permissible to eat chicken, cows, and pigs, or your intuition that there is something wrong with eating dogs? I suspect that most people would answer the former — after all, even those who are opposed to eating dogs are generally OK with eating other kinds of meat. So if that intuition is stronger, perhaps consistency should weigh in favor of that intuition.

That is to say, if we are faced with a dilemma where both horns are counterintuitive (in this case, either we say that eating dogs is morally permissible, or we say that most meat consumption is morally impermissible), then we should go with the horn that preserves our strongest intuition. Our moral common sense is generally reliable, so if we are going to deviate from it, the smaller the deviation the better. In other words, if we are going to bite a bullet, we should bite the smaller bullet. Based on that rule of thumb, we should go with the view that it is morally permissible to eat dogs.

Of course, this isn’t the final say. We are just weighing intuitions, and intuitions and heuristics are defeasible. There are other factors we might need to consider. One might give an independent argument against meat consumption that is strong enough to override intuitions in favor of meat-eating that were not formed reflectively. On the other hand, one might enhance these intuitions by giving independent arguments to shore them up.

Note that I am not saying that someone who thinks it is OK to eat cows, chickens, and pigs must also be OK with personally eating a dog. There is no inconsistency in being willing to eat a cow but refusing to eat a dog, so long as the different attitude is not justified by an appeal to different moral status. The point is one about intellectual consistency.

Is It Time to Show the Lobster a Bit of Respect?

photograph of lobsters in water tank at market

The United Kingdom is currently in the process of revising what the law says about sentience and the ethical treatment of animals. This week news broke that the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation has called for greater protections for non-vertebrates such as octopi and crustaceans. As a consequence, debate is emerging about whether practices such as boiling lobsters alive should be banned. Much of this debate seems to be centered on scientific facts regarding the nervous system of such animals and whether they are capable of feeling pain at all. But, perhaps this is the wrong mindset to have when considering this issue. Perhaps it is more important to consider our own feelings about how we treat lobsters rather than how the lobsters feel about it.

The ethical debate about the treatment of lobsters has mostly focused on the practice of boiling them alive when being prepared for eating. Lobsters are known to struggle for up to two minutes after being placed in boiling water and emit a noise caused by escaping air that many interpret as screaming. In response to such concerns, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, and New Zealand have all banned the practice of boiling lobsters alive and require that they be transported in saltwater rather than being kept in/on ice. But the debate always seems to hinge on the question of sentience. Can a lobster feel pain when being boiled alive? To answer that, questions of sentience become questions of science.

There is no clear consensus among scientists about whether the lobster nervous system permits it to feel pain. But how do you measure pain? To many the reaction to being in boiling water is taken as a sign that the lobster is in pain. Some studies have shown that lobsters will avoid shocks, a process called nociception where the nervous system responds to noxious stimuli by producing a reflex response. This explains why the lobster thrashes in the boiling water. However, other scientists have questioned whether the nervous system of the lobster is sophisticated enough to allow for any actual sense of suffering, arguing that a lobster’s brain is more similar to an insect. They suggest that the sensory response to stimuli is different than that to pain which involves an experience of discomfort, despair and other emotional states.

Indeed as invertebrates, lobsters do not have a central brain, but rather groups of chain ganglia connected by nerves. This can make killing them challenging as simply giving it a blow to the head will not do; a lobster must have its central nervous system destroyed with a complicated cut on the underside. It is recommended that they be stunned electronically. Because of this very different brain structure, it is suggested that lobsters lack the capacity to suffer. As Robert Bayer of the Lobster Institute describes the issue, “Cooking a lobster is like cooking a big bug…Do you have the same concern when you kill a fly or mosquito?”

Nevertheless, critics charge that this thinking is only a form of discrimination against animals with neurological architecture different from our own. Indeed, beyond nervous system reflex responses, because pain is difficult to directly measure, other markers of pain are often driven by using arguments by analogy comparing animals to humans. But creatures who are fundamentally different from humans may make such analogies suspect. In other words, because we don’t know what it is like to be a lobster, it is difficult to say if lobsters feel pain at all or if pain and suffering may fundamentally mean something different for lobsters than they do for humans and other vertebrates. This makes addressing the ethics of how we treat lobster by looking to the science of lobster anatomy difficult. But perhaps there is another way to consider this issue that doesn’t require answering such complex questions.

After all, if we return to Bayer’s remarks comparing lobsters to bugs, there are some important considerations: Is it wrong to roast ants with a magnifying glass? Is it wrong to pull the wings off flies? Typically, people take issue with such practices not merely because we worry about how the ant or the fly feels, but because it reveals something problematic about the person doing it. Even if the ant or the fly doesn’t feel pain (they might), it seems unnecessarily brutal to effectively torture such animals by interfering in their lives in such seemingly thoughtless ways, particularly if not for food. But would it all suddenly be okay if we decide to eat them afterwards? Perhaps such antics reveal an ethical character flaw on our part.

In his work on environmental ethics, Ronald L. Sandler leans on other environmental ethicists such as Paul Taylor to articulate an account of what kind of character we should have in our relationships with the environment. Taylor advocates that actions be understood as morally right or wrong in so far as they embody a respect for nature. Having such a respect for nature entails a “biocentric outlook” where we regard all living things on Earth as possessing inherent moral worth. This is because each living thing has “a good of its own.” That is, such an outlook involves recognizing that all living organisms are teleological centers of life in the same way as humans and that we have no non-question begging justification for maintaining the superiority of humans over other species. In other words, all living things are internally organized towards their own ends or goods which secure their biological functioning and form of life and respecting nature means respecting that biological functioning and the attainment of such ends.

Taylor’s outlook is problematic because it puts all life on the same ethical level. You are no more morally important than the potato you had for dinner (and how morally wrong it was for you to eat that poor potato!) However, Sandler believes that much of Taylor’s insights can be incorporated in a coherent account of multiple environmental virtues, with respect for nature being one of them. As he puts it, “The virtues of respect for nature are informed by their conduciveness to enabling other living things to flourish as well as their conduciveness to promoting the eudemonistic ends.” While multiple virtues may be relevant to how we should act — such that, for example, eating lobster may be ethical — how we treat those lobsters before that point may demonstrate a fundamental lack of respect for a living organism.

Consider the lobster tanks one finds at a local grocery store, where multiple lobsters may be stacked on top of each other in a barren tank with their claws stuck together. Many have complained about such tanks, and some stores have abandoned them as critics charge that they are stressful for the lobster. It is difficult to say that such “live” lobsters are really living any kind of life consistent with the kind of thing a lobster is. Does keeping lobsters in such conditions demonstrate a lack of respect for the lobster as a living organism with a good of its own? As one person who launched a petition over the matter puts it “I’m in no way looking to eliminate the industry, or challenge the industry, I’m just looking to have the entire process reviewed so that we can ensure that if we do choose to eat lobsters, that we’re doing it in a respectful manner.”

So perhaps the ethical issue is not whether lobsters can feel pain as we understand it. Clearly lobsters have nervous systems that detect noxious stimuli, and perhaps that should be enough to not create such stimuli for their system if we don’t have to. We know it doesn’t contribute to the lobster’s own good. So perhaps the ethical treatment of lobsters should focus less on what suffering is created and focus more on our own respect for the food that we eat.

The Ethics of Animal Dis-Enhancement

photograph of chickens packed into pens at poultry farm

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.


Human beings have long treated animals not as sentient beings, but as objects or products to be used and consumed. We do this in spite of the fact that animals demonstrate every sign of having mental lives. We have the same reasons to believe that animals have mental lives that we do to believe that other human beings have mental lives; the best evidence we have is behavior. Humans report having affection for animals. Nevertheless, we intensively farm them for food and use them for medical experiments, activities which are quite painful and lead to suffering, permanent disability, and/or death. Engaging in these activities requires compartmentalization and moral disengagement.

The tension arises because humans want to use animals for all of the purposes that they typically use them for, but they also don’t want the animals to feel pain or to suffer if it can be prevented. Under ordinary conditions, when faced with this choice, humans use animals rather than exhibit care for their suffering. Recently, some scientists and philosophers have suggested an alternative solution: genetically engineering farm and research animals to experience little to no suffering. Recent research on pain suggests that it is registered in the brain in two places. The first is in the primary or somatosensory cortex, which establishes the nature of the pain (burning, throbbing, etc.). The second involves the affective dimension which happens in the anterior cingulate cortex. This area controls not the pain itself, but how much the sentient creature minds the pain. Either area could be genetically engineered to reduce the discomfort experienced by the animal.

Advocates of this approach care about animal pain and suffering; if they didn’t, they would remain satisfied with the status quo. They are advocating what philosophers frequently refer to as an approach in line with non-ideal theory. The distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory is a meta-ethical distinction, that is, it is a distinction between different theories of what ethics is and how we ought to approach it. Ideal theorists argue that ethics should be concerned with identifying the correct moral theory and then directing behavior so that it conforms to that standard. The non-ideal theorist, on the other hand, acknowledges that everyone would follow the ideal theory in a perfect world, but emphasizes that we don’t live in such a world. As such, our ethical theorizing should situate itself in the world that we actually inhabit, with all of its flaws and imperfections — a world where we perhaps can’t or shouldn’t expect everyone’s compliance or agreement on all things at all times.

When it comes to dis-enhancement, these non-ideal theorists often acknowledge that it would be best if we simply stopped exploiting animals and using them as objects for human purposes. They also recognize, however, that animal advocates have been shouting their messages from the rooftops for decades, even centuries in some parts of the world. To the extent that these messages are being heard, they are also largely being dismissed. If we are going to continue to use animals for food and research, at least we could do so in a way that minimizes pain. This may not realize what true justice demands, but it may represent incremental change toward that ideal state of affairs.

Opponents of dis-enhancement make several different kinds of arguments. First, they argue that dis-enhancement leaves animals vulnerable. The ability to experience and to care about pain is an evolutionary mechanism that helps creatures to avoid danger. If there is no longer any fear of pain because dis-enhanced animals do not feel it, then animals could die from otherwise avoidable risk. In response to these claims, the non-ideal theorist might argue that the unfortunate truth is that these animals aren’t going to be venturing out into the wide world in which they might make bad decisions. Their fate is certain — they are destined to live lives during which they are imprisoned and used and then discarded. If this is the case, why not do what we can to make their existences less unpleasant?

Opponents argue further that our willingness to do this to non-human animals highlights the extent of our speciesism — our tendency to direct our moral concern only to members of certain species on the basis of species membership alone. Imagine that a scientist wanted to create a group of people to enslave and abuse. The scientist doesn’t want to cause the resultant humans any pain, so he creates them without the ability to experience it. It is reasonable to suppose that many people would object to this experiment. Would their objections be justified? How is this different from creating a horde of robotic slaves? If we react negatively to this thought experiment, but not to dis-enhancing animals, what could explain our reaction other than speciesism?

Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake takes place in a futuristic universe that is increasingly bioengineered. At one point, Crake, who is working in the “Neo-agricultural Department” at a research university takes the main character, Jimmy, to observe a new method of food production. They are growing parts of chickens — only the breasts — for the purposes of food. Crake says,

“You get chicken breasts in two weeks – that’s a three-week improvement on the most efficient low-light, high-density chicken farming operation so far devised. And the animal-welfare freaks won’t be able to say a word, because this thing feels no pain.”

Crake’s laboratory is experimenting with animal parts, but, at least at this point in the story, they are not creating sentient beings. They are just chicken breasts, they aren’t having lived experiences of the world, they don’t have preferences or a dignity to contend with. (Consider in vitro meat, which allows scientists to create meat and organs to eat or to test on without changing the genetic structure of future sentient animals.)

When it comes to farm and research animals who have been “dis-enhanced,” we are still dealing with sentient creatures that have experiences of their world. They may lack the ability to feel or to care about feeling their own pain, but they still have a set of dispositions to behave in certain ways and have the ability to develop preferences. This makes them different from robots or disembodied chicken breasts. They are aware of their own experiences. Some opponents argue that respect for the lived experiences of sentient creatures demands that researchers refrain from playing Frankenstein with their bodies in ways that have serious consequences.

In response, advocates of dis-enhancement might appeal again to the non-ideal nature of the theory under which they are operating. They might agree that it would be wonderful if everyone respected the dignity of sentient creatures. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen. Given this, dis-enhancement might be our best chance at reducing or eliminating the massive amounts of suffering that these processes entail.

Another objection to dis-enhancement comes from the perspective of environmental virtue ethics. Are we oriented virtuously toward the natural world and the living creatures on it if we respond to the crises that we face with dis-enhancement? Consider the following parallel case. One way of responding to climate change is to engage in geoengineering. One form that this can take is changing the chemical constitution of our atmosphere in such a way as to roll back or lessen the effects of global warming. Opponents of geoengineering point out that when a child messes up their room, the right thing to do is get them to clean it and teach them how to keep it clean rather than searching for ways to mess it up ever further without consequences. By analogy, we should limit our greenhouse gas emissions and try to clean up the mess we’ve made rather than pursuing geoengineering strategies that threaten to produce ever more mess.

Critics of dis-enhancement argue that we should adopt the same standard of responsibility when it comes to cruelty to animals. Instead of finding ways to engage in cruel behavior without causing pain, we should simply stop engaging in cruel behavior. Treating animals in the way that we do is an exhibition of vicious character. Even if it has little effect on the animals because they have been dis-enhanced and don’t feel pain, the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s observations may be useful here. He says that we “must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If we behave callously toward dis-enhanced sentient animals because they don’t experience pain, the consequence may be that we are increasingly callous and cruel toward the beings that do.

The question of dis-enhancement is ultimately a question of how we should view the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Should it be a conqueror’s relationship to the conquered? Are we so depraved as a species that it would be naïve for us ever to expect broad scale changes? Or is there hope that we can someday view ourselves as empathetic fellow participants in biotic communities?

Under Discussion: Animal Dignity and Cultured Meat

photograph of raw lamb cutlet surrounded by vegetables

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat.

As cultured or lab-grown meat arrives for the first time on consumers’ plates, the ethical arguments surrounding this product will undoubtedly take on new urgency. Some of these arguments revolve around the supposed environmental benefits of cultured meat, or the fact that it is still produced using materials derived from dead animals. However, there is a more radical argument favored by some ethical vegans that I will assess in this column: namely, the claim that cultured meat harms animal dignity.

There is a live controversy in philosophical circles over whether animals can be said to have dignity, but for the sake of argument I will concede that they do. To say that animals have dignity is to say that in virtue of possessing some property — sentience perhaps, or the capacity for flourishing — animals have intrinsic moral worth and a kind of moral status that demands respect and care. Respect and care require taking animals’ interests into account when deliberating about what to do. Perhaps more controversially, taking their interests into account may require assigning weights to those interests equal to the same interests of human beings. For example, Peter Singer argues that to the extent that the pain of an animal and that of a human are of equal intensity and duration, there are reasons of equal weight to relieve the pain of the animal and the human for those who are able to do so.

The argument against cultured meat from animal dignity begins with the empirical claim that the marketing and consumption of cultured meat will tend to promote, or at least preserve, the idea that animals are edible. But, it is claimed, this idea is inconsistent with the acknowledgement of animal dignity. To see this, consider the ethical implications of the widespread consumption of lab-grown human meat. Although kill-free, we might still object to this practice on the grounds that it would cause people to start viewing people as edible, which — much like viewing human beings as commodities — is contrary to their dignity. Similarly, if we grant that animals have dignity, and that their dignity entitles them to equal consideration, then it is contrary to their dignity to view them as edible. And although lab-grown meat does not require the slaughter of animals on a scale approaching traditionally harvested meat, it is still marketed and consumed as a simulacrum of flesh from slaughtered animals. Thus, it is alleged that the resemblance between cultured meat and flesh from slaughtered animals will help perpetuate the notion that animals are edible.

So, the argument against cultured meat from animal dignity looks like this:

  1. The belief that animals are edible is incompatible with the acknowledgement of their dignity.
  2. The marketing and consumption of cultured meat encourages people to view animals as edible.
  3. Therefore, the marketing and consumption of cultured meat undermines or prevents the acknowledgement of animal dignity.
As David Chauvet points out, this argument seems to trade on an ambiguity in the meaning of “edibility.” The dictionary defines “edible” as “suitable or fit for consumption.” On the one hand, for something to be edible means that it can be eaten; inedible things on this definition include things like rocks, nails, and shards of glass. Call this sense of edibility “physical edibility.” But to say that something is edible can also mean that it is to be eaten, or that it ought or to be eaten. On this definition, inedible things might include certain animals or other human beings. Call this sense of edibility “ethical edibility.”

Now, it seems plausible that cultured meat will perpetuate the idea that animals are physically edible. Everyone will know that cultured meat ultimately comes from animals via their stem cells, and that cultured meat resembles and is a substitute for “real” meat. But if this is the sense of “edibility” at play in the second premise of the argument, then for the argument to be valid, it must be the operative sense of “edibility” in the first premise — that it is contrary to animal dignity to see them as edible. However, this claim just seems false. We know that animals are physically edible, so how could this truth possibly undermine our acknowledgement of their dignity? Again, compare this to the case of lab-grown human meat. If lab-grown human meat merely encouraged the belief that humans are physically edible, it is implausible that this belief — which most adult human beings already share, at least tacitly — would undermine our acknowledgement of human dignity.

So, if the sense of “edible” in the second premise of the argument is physical edibility, then that must be the sense of “edible” operative in its first premise, if the argument is valid. But with this sense, that premise is quite probably false, and the argument as a whole unsound.

On the other hand, if cultured meat encouraged the belief that animals are ethically edible, this would constitute grounds for concern for those who believe in animal dignity, since the belief that animals ought to be eaten or are permissibly eaten is arguably incompatible with equal respect for their interests. By the same token, if lab-grown human meat encouraged the belief that humans are ethically edible, this would arguably undermine human dignity. On this reading of “edible,” then, the first premise of the argument is likely true.

However, it is doubtful whether the consumption and marketing of cultured meat really encourages the belief that animals are ethically edible. Cultured meat is often touted by industry spokespeople and the press as the ethical alternative to traditionally harvested meat. This serves to underscore the ethical divide between cultured meat and the traditional variety. Moreover, this marketing strategy would only be compelling to those who are already disposed to believe that animals are not ethically edible, at least under contemporary factory farming conditions. Thus, the vast majority of cultured meat consumers, particularly in the early adopter phase, will be people who reject the ethical edibility of traditionally harvested meat.

So, if the sense of “edible” in the first premise of the argument is ethical edibility, then that must be the sense of “edible” operative in its second premise, if the argument is valid. But with this sense, that premise is quite probably false, and the argument as a whole unsound.

Finally, as Chauvet points out, even if the argument is sound and cultured meat does prevent the acknowledgement of animal dignity, it does not necessarily follow that we should reject cultured meat. The acknowledgement of animal dignity would require a radical transformation of most people’s attitudes towards animals. Very probably such a transformation can only take place in a series of gradual steps, rather than all at once. If cultured meat can make good on its promised benefits to animals and humans alike, it can still serve as a transitional step even if it does not take us very much closer to recognizing animal dignity.

Under Discussion: Aristotelian Temperance and Cultured Meat

photograph of raw steak arranged on butcher block with cleaver and greenery

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat.

On the 19th of December, so-called “cultured meat” was listed for the first time on a restaurant menu when the Singaporean eatery 1880 began offering lab-grown chicken from the American company Eat Just. Unlike its standard counterpart, an ingredient like cultured meat (also sometimes called “in vitro” meat) is not harvested from the dead body of an animal raised for slaughter, but is literally grown in a cultured solution much like a petri dish (hence the name “cultured”). While meat-substitutes of various types have become increasingly popular in recent years, this newly-approved product goes one step further: rather than simply aiming to mimic the flavor and texture of meat with plant-based ingredients, cultured meat is biologically (and, by most reports, experientially) identical to “meat” as typically conceived — it is simply not meat grown in the normal way.

For many, cultured meat offers one of the most economical and practical methods for potentially dismantling the ethical scourge that is the industrial factory farming system (responsible as it is for the annual torture and death of billions of chickens, cows, pigs, and more). If cultured meat can be produced economically at a scale sufficient to satisfy popular demands for meat products, then consumers might well be able to stubbornly maintain their meat-eating habits without requiring the suffering and death of so many creatures each year. From a utilitarian perspective, the moral calculation is clear: to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, we seemingly must pull the switch and convert our societal habits from eating meat to eating cultured meat.

But, this leaves open alternative questions about the ethics of eating cultured meat. For example, even if it’s true that cultured meat could offer a viable method for satisfying culinary desires for meat in a way that requires comparably little animal death, that does little to address the problem of having those desires in the first place.

In a recent article, Raja Halwani argues that the Aristotelian virtue of temperance gives us two ways of thinking about how to consider our meat-eating desires: as a matter of desiring the wrong object or as a matter of desiring the right object in the wrong way. As Aristotle himself explains in the Nicomachean Ethics, the temperate person:

“neither enjoys the things that the self-indulgent man enjoys most—but rather dislikes them—nor in general the things that he should not, nor anything of this sort to excess, nor does he feel pain or craving when they are absent, or does so only to a moderate degree, and not more than he should, nor when he should not, and so on” (emphasis added).

While temperance is often considered primarily as a matter of the latter practice — that is, as a restraint on the uncontrolled pursuit of our desires of taste (as exemplified perhaps most infamously in the American Temperance movement) — Aristotle also points out that the temperate person will lack a taste for things that should not be desired.

That is to say, it is one thing to desire something inappropriate while consciously restraining yourself from acting on that desire, while it is quite another to simply not desire the inappropriate thing at all. Imagine, for example, that Moe is a person who (for some reason) desires to murder a series of innocent people in some horrifically gruesome manner. Although he imagines that he would feel great pleasure at committing murder (and, indeed, takes pleasure simply in his imagination of doing so), Moe knows that acting on those murderous desires would be wrong, so he works hard to suppress them and (thankfully) never actually kills anyone. Calvin, in contrast, lacks the desire to murder anyone and, therefore, never commits murder. While it is true that, on one level, Moe and Calvin are the same — neither of them is a murderer — it is also the case that we could say that Calvin is better than Moe in at least some way.

To Aristotle, Moe’s case evidences a kind of continence insofar as Moe has mastered control of his improper desires (because he desires the wrong thing — namely, murder); as Aristotle says, the continent person “knowing that his appetites are bad, refuses on account of his rational principle to follow them.” This means that Moe also demonstrates a lack of what Nicolas Bommarito has described as a kind of “inner virtue” insofar as Moe’s tendency to feel pleasure at even just imaginary murder manifests “morally important cares or concerns” — in this case, they are “morally important” precisely because they are unethical. So, while it is true that we should also recognize Moe’s conscious restraint as proof of separate moral virtues (assuming that his restraint is borne from more than simple self-preservation or a desire to avoid punishment), it is still the case that Moe’s murderous desires are vicious.

What, then, do we make of cultured meat?

Although Halwani does not specifically discuss in vitro meat, he mentions briefly that it “might even be that the temperate person would not desire fake meat processed to look and taste like common forms of meat, such as the Impossible Burger, given that they imitate the kind of meat produced through a cruel history of suffering and death.” Or, like Rossi argued here at the Prindle Post, if cultured meat continues to encourage popular attitudes or perspectives of animals as “edible,” then it might well be serving to perpetuate a less-than-ideal set of desires, even if there are few direct problems with a tasty meal of ethically-produced in vitro meat. Like Halwani points out, temperate individuals might well be morally required to forego various aesthetic pleasures “when they come at the expense of immoral actions,” but the point is that the truly temperate person would not suffer from desires for immoral objects in the first place.

In effect, cultured meat could be promoting a structural sort of continence for our diets that recognizes the moral harms of our current food production methods and so acts to restrain them without doing anything to dissipate the original problematic desires themselves.

Admittedly, I’m taking for granted here that the currently standard system of raising creatures in captivity and subjecting them to immense pain simply for the purpose of consuming their flesh is a moral abomination, regardless of how tasty that flesh might be. If cultured meat offers the most realistic opportunity to prevent widespread nonhuman animal suffering, then that alone is sufficient reason to explore its viability. But the implications of our diet for our character (and what we care about) is also important to consider, even once creaturely suffering is diminished.

In short: cultured meat might indeed do well to prevent future bloodshed, but it cannot, on its own, establish a robustly virtuous culture that lacks the desire for the products of bloodshed.

Is the “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act” a Step in the Right Direction?

photograph taken of turkeys overcrowded in pens

On October 22nd, Congress unanimously passed the “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act.” The law makes certain acts of cruelty against animals federal crimes. Before the federal law was passed, legislation protecting animals was largely a matter reserved for state legislatures. The law was met with praise from both private citizens and animal welfare organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

The scope of the law is one of its most noteworthy positive features. Many animal welfare laws arbitrarily restrict protections to only certain species of animals—often companion animals or animals that human beings tend to find cute or pleasant. Bucking that trend, this bill includes, “non-human mammals, birds, reptiles or amphibians.” Specifically, the law prohibits the “crushing” of animals, where “crushing” is defined as “conduct in which one or more living non-human mammal, bird, reptile, or amphibian is purposely crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury.”

While the law is laudable when it comes to the range of animals it protects, it is arbitrary in other ways. The protection the law provides is subject to noteworthy exemptions. The following conduct is exempt from protection: conduct that is, “a customary and normal veterinary, agricultural husbandry, or other animal management practice,” “the slaughter of animals for food,” “hunting, trapping, fishing, a sporting activity not otherwise prohibited by Federal law, predator control, or pest control,” action taken for the purpose of “medical or scientific research,” conduct that is “necessary to protect the life or property of a person,” and conduct “performed as part of euthanizing an animal.”

On its face, the law seems like a step in the right direction. The exemptions, however, should motivate reflection on the question of what a commitment to the prevention of animal cruelty actually looks like. Exemptions to a law can be useful when there are compelling moral reasons for them. In this case, however, the exemptions highlight the inconsistency in societal attitudes about just how wrong it is to be cruel to animals. It looks as if all the law really prevents is the callous, perhaps even psychopathic, infliction of pain on animals by private individuals. This isn’t where the majority of animal abuse and cruelty takes place.

Consider the first exemption, allowing for animal cruelty in the case of “a customary and normal veterinary, agricultural husbandry, or other animal management practice.” This exemption covers a tremendous number of interactions that occur between humans and animals. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious moral justification for the exemption. If animal cruelty is bad, why would cruelty for the purposes of “animal management” be any less bad? This exemption also constitutes a fallacious appeal to common practice. The fact that a given practice is a “customary” part of animal management practices does not mean that the practice isn’t cruel.

The slaughter of animals for food is a particularly interesting case. One might think that this exemption is morally justified. After all, we must balance the interests of animals against the very real need that human beings have for sustenance. The legislators in this case felt that this balancing act ultimately favored the needs of human beings. There are a number of problems with this argument. First of all, it assumes that the harms we are justified in causing to other creatures can ultimately be justified by human need. That assumption may not be morally defensible. Second, human beings do not need to consume animal flesh in order to satisfy their nutritional needs. We continue to consume animals, in a way that is, ultimately, unsustainable, because human beings like the taste of animal flesh. Even if the question of how we ought to treat animals must be resolved using a balancing act, it doesn’t seem like a justification that is based purely on taste preferences could ever be sufficient to come out ahead in the balance. What’s more, even if such considerations could come out ahead, factory farms currently engage in cruel practices simply to maximize the volume of their “product,” and, as a result, the size of their profits. For example, chickens are kept under conditions in which they don’t have the space to fully spread their wings. To prevent them from cannibalizing one another under these stressful conditions, chickens are often “debeaked.” This cruelty could be avoided if these farms simply raised fewer chickens. The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act does nothing to address this cruelty—it actually provides exemptions for it.

Finally, the passage of this act may provide many people with the false impression that the government is protecting animals in a real, thoroughgoing way. Many people probably believe that cruelty to animals is strictly regulated and enforced by the government. After all, how could the vicious treatment of a living being not be against the law. Before this law passed, there were two pieces of federal legislation offering limited protections to animals. First is the Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966. The Act nominally provides for the humane treatment of animals, and its mere existence may make citizens feel at ease with the protections afforded. The Act does ensure that animals in certain contexts, are provided with “adequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, water and veterinary care.” They must also be protected against extreme temperature. However, this law contains significant exemptions as well, of the same variety as those provided in the Act passed this year. The second bit of legislation is The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, passed in 1958 and revised in 1978. This Act only protects certain animals from being killed in particular kinds of inhumane ways. It does not prohibit cruelty full stop. The bottom line is that animals are not protected from cruelty by federal legislation. Despite the pleasant-sounding name of the “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act,” the Act fails to provide protections where animals need them the most. It’s unfortunate that sometimes psychopaths and future serial killers kill animals for kicks, and that should certainly be against the law. At the end of the day, though, the real problems that we face have to do with our attitudes about animals and with the institutions that we’re willing to go to great lengths to protect.

The Puppy and the Snapping Turtle

An image of a snapping turtle's mouth

On March 8, 2018, an abandoned, terminally ill puppy was brought into the classroom of Idaho high school science teacher Robert Crosland.  Crosland, known for taking in sick animals, could tell that the puppy was beyond saving.  After school, in front of a handful of his students, Crosland placed the sick puppy inside the tank of his snapping turtle.  It drowned and was then eaten by the turtle. Crosland was reported for animal cruelty. The snapping turtle, a member of an invasive species, was confiscated and euthanized by the Department of Agriculture.

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Will Changes in Meat Consumption Redefine the U.S. Food System?

An image of chickens at a poultry farm

In 2017, a plant-based diet became tremendously popular. The growing demand for alternative proteins motivated grocery stores and food companies to offer more alternatives to meat proteins, which has been reflected in consumer behavior patterns. However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, production in the U.S. beef, pork, and broiler industries is expected to increase in 2018. For the record, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that 2018 will hold the highest per capita consumption of meat since the U.S. record set back in 2004. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average consumer is projected to eat 222.8 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018.

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Animal Abuse on Spring Break: The Case of Total Frat Move

Popular blog Total Frat Move has been in hot water recently in response to numerous animal abuses posted on their main Instagram account (@totalfratmove), along with an associated account dedicated to spring break (@tfmspringbreak). Both accounts follow drunken college antics, with @tfmspringbreak focusing especially on beer luging (pouring beer down a narrow channel, such as one made of ice) and shotgunning (puncturing a can and opening the top to consume liquid more quickly). Controversy comes into play as a significant portion of the photos and videos on this account feature animals contained within alcoholic drinks or being used as a drinking vessel.

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Finding Consciousness in the Humble Honeybee

Though previously a point of contention with artificial intelligence and apes, consciousness and awareness are now possibly exhibited by insects — most specifically bumblebees and honeybees. In 2012 a group of scientists released the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. They had been reevaluating the “conscious experience,” and concluded that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”  This statement revolutionizes the idea that consciousness is reserved for higher mammals.
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