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Fantastic Beasts and How to Categorize Them

photograph of Niffler statue for movie display

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is both a film franchise and a book. But the book doesn’t have a narrative; it is formatted like a textbook assigned in the Care of Magical Creatures course at Hogwarts. It’s ‘written’ by Newt Scamander and comes with scribbles from Harry and Ron commenting on its contents.

Before the creature entries begin there is a multipart introduction. One part, entitled “What is a Beast?” seeks to articulate a distinction between creatures who are ‘beasts’ and those that are ‘beings.’ The text notes that a being is “a creature worthy of legal rights and a voice in the governance of magical world.” But how do we distinguish between beasts and beings? This is one of the main questions central to the topic of moral status.

So, the intro asks two questions: who is worthy and how do we know? The first question seeks to determine who is in the moral community and thus deserving of rights and a voice. This is a question concerning whether an entity has the property of ‘moral standing’ or ‘moral considerability.’ The second question seeks to identify what properties an entity must have to be a member of the moral community. In other words, how does one ground a claim that a particular entity is morally considerable? We can call this a question about the grounds of moral considerability. It is the main question of the short introduction to Fantastic Beasts:

What are the properties that a creature has to have in order to be in the category ’beast’ (outside the moral community) or ‘being’ (inside the moral community)?

Attempts to resolve a question of moral considerability confront a particular problem. Call it the Goldilocks Problem. Goldilocks wants porridge that is just right, neither too hot nor too cold. We want definitions of the moral community to be just right and avoid leaving out entities that should be in (under-inclusion) and avoid including entities that should be left out (over-inclusion). When it comes to porridge it is hard to imagine one bowl being both too hot and too cold at the same time. But in the case of definitions of the grounds of moral considerability, this happens often. We can see this in the attempts to define ‘being’ in the text of Fantastic Beasts.

Fantastic Beasts looks at three definitions of the grounds of being a ‘being.’ According to the text, “Burdock Muldoon, Chief of the Wizard Council in the fourteenth century, decreed that any member of the magical community that walked on two legs would henceforth be granted the status of ‘being,’ all others to remain ‘beasts.’” This resulted in a clear case of over-inclusion. Diriclaws, Augureys, Pixies and other creatures were included in the moral community of beings, but should not have been. The text states that “the mere possession of two legs was no guarantee that a magical creature could or would take an interest in the affairs of wizard government.”

What really mattered was not the physical characteristic of being bipedal but the psychological characteristic of having interests. By focusing on the wrong property this definition accidentally included entities that did not belong.

This of course is related to a humorous story that Plato once lectured about Aristotle’s definition of a human as a featherless biped only to have Diogenes show up the next day with a plucked chicken stating “Behold! A man.”

At the same time, however, this definition is under-inclusive. Centaurs are entities that could take an interest in the affairs of wizards, but they have four legs and thus are left out. Merpeople also could take an interest in the affairs of wizards, but have no legs and thus are left out. Clearly, this definition will not do.

And it is not surprising that the definition fails. Using a physical characteristic to determine whether an entity will have the right psychological characteristics is not likely to work.

So what is a wizard to do but try to find a property more closely linked to the relevant psychological characteristic. Interests — for example, wants and needs — are often expressed linguistically: “I want chocolate chip cookies”; “I need more vegetables.” This apparently led Madame Elfrida Clagg to define a being as “those who could speak with the human tongue.” But, again, we have an example where the definition is over- and under-inclusive. Trolls could be taught to say, but not understand, a few human sentences and were included in the community but should have been excluded. Once again, the merpeople, who could only speak Mermish, a non-human language, were left out when they should have been included.

In our own world, the focus on language and other activities as proxies for cognitive traits have been used to discuss the moral status of animals (also, here). Attempts to exclude animals from the moral community did, in fact, use speech-use and tool-use as reasons to exclude animals. Descartes famously claimed in part V of the Discourse on Methods that animals did not use language but were mere automatons. But apes can use sign language, and crows, elephants, otters and other animals can use tools. So, for many who want to only include humans as in the category of ‘being,’ these activity-based definitions turn out to be over-inclusive. But again, given the incapacity of new born humans to use language or tools, they would also leave out some humans and be under-inclusive. So, using a non-psychological property (an activity) to identify a psychological property is unsurprisingly problematic.

Apparently, the wizarding world got the memo regarding the problem of these definitions by the 19th century. In 1811, Minister of Magic Grogan Stump defined a being as “any creature that has sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of the magical community and to bear part of the responsibility in shaping those laws.” The philosophical term for this set of capabilities is autonomy, at least in the way Immanuel Kant defined the term.

One way to express Kant’s’ view is that the morally considerable beings, the beings that could be called ‘persons,’ were those that had the capacity to rationally identify their interests and then have the will to execute plans to see those interests realized.

Persons are also capable of seeing that others have this capacity and thus rationally adopt rules that limit what we can do to other persons. These are the moral rules that guide our interactions that ground our rights, legal and moral, as well as give us a voice in self- and communal-governance. In other words, the term ‘being’ in Fantastic Beasts is just the text’s term for ‘moral person.’ Furthermore, the relevant psychological characteristic of persons is autonomy as defined by Kant.

There is something questionable about this Kantian view of being-hood or person-hood. On this view, persons need sophisticated cognitive abilities to be identified as persons. Any entity that lacks these cognitive abilities needed for moral judgment are non-persons and thus wholly outside the moral community. In other words, non-persons are things, have only instrumental value, and can be equated with tools: you can own them and dispose of them without morally harming them. But, this definition also excludes human infants and humans with diminished cognitive abilities, but we do not think of them as outside the moral community.

Surely these implications for humans are unacceptable. They would probably be unacceptable to the fictional Newt Scamander as well as to people who fight for animal rights. But the Kantian view is binary: you are a person/being or a beast/thing. Those who find such a stark choice unappealing can and do recognize another category between person and things. This would be something that has interests, but not interests in having a voice in governance. These entities often are vulnerable to damaging impacts of the behavior of persons and have an interest in not suffering those impacts, even if they cannot directly communicate them.

So, we need a new set of terms to describe the new possible categories of moral considerability. Instead of just the categories being/person and beast/thing, we can discuss the categories of moral agent, moral patient, and thing.

A moral agent is an entity that meets the Kantian definition of person. It is an entity who is in the moral community and also shapes it. A thing is something that does not have interests and thus is outside the moral community. But a moral patient is an entity that has interests, specifically interests against harm and for beneficence that should be morally protected. Thus, they are members of the moral community, just not governing members. So, Centaurs and Merpeople and Muggles can all be considered moral agents and thus can, if they so desire, contribute to the governance of the magical community. But even if they don’t want to participate in governance, the magical community should still recognize them as being moral patients, as beings who can be impacted by and thus whose interests should be included in the discussion of governance. The giants, trolls, werewolves in werewolf form, and pixies should at least fall into this category of patient as well. In the human world, infants, young children, and those with cognitive impairment would also fall into this category.

To sum up, then, the text of Fantastic Beasts presents a view similar to Kant’s of the grounds of moral status, but it can be improved upon by recognizing the category of moral patients. Furthermore, Fantastic Beasts clearly supports psychological accounts of the grounds of moral status over physical accounts. In other words, what matters to many questions of identity and morality are psychological properties and not physical properties or behavioral capacities. This is consistent with a theme of the Harry Potter novels where the main villains focus on the physical characteristic of whether an entity has the right blood-status to be part of the wizarding community. In other words, only a villain would solely focus on physical characteristics as a source of moral value.

The Animal Ethics of OrganEx

photograph of pig head poking around barn door

As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in his 1789 letter to physicist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While it seems nothing can be done about the latter, science has been progressively fighting the former for centuries. Or, at least, challenging when death’s inevitability befalls us.

In a recent paper published in Nature, a team from Yale University claim to have developed a system – dubbed OrganEx – capable of reversing some of death’s effects over an hour after cardiac arrest. If we’re to believe the findings (and there seems to be a good reason to do so), then this team has pushed the boundary separating life from death. Before going further, however, it should be pointed out that the experiment was carried out on pigs and the restored features of life were nothing as grand as consciousness and the capacity for independent living; they were cellular.

Nevertheless, the study’s results may have profound implications for medical practice, especially in end-of-life matters like organ transplantation and donation, palliative care, and assisted dying.

In short, OrganEx was developed from an already existing experimental system called BrainEx. Developed in 2019, BrainEx showed the capacity to preserve the structure and function of cells within a pig’s brain hours after decapitation. OrganEx takes the same principles and applies them to the entire body. It consists of two essential parts. The first is an infusion device attached to the body via the femoral artery and vein. The second part is a complex chemical cocktail that the infusion device circulates through the body, mixed with the recipient’s blood. This concoction consists of amino acids, vitamins, an artificial oxygen carrier, and neurological inhibiting compounds, among other things. An hour after researchers stopped the pig’s heart and withheld medical assistance, the OrganEx system started pumping the perfusate around the pig’s body. After six hours of circulation, tests showed that oxygen had begun reaching multiple bodily tissues and that the pig’s heart had demonstrated limited electricity activity. Additionally, some expected cellular degradation appeared absent. In fact, some cells were metabolizing glucose and building proteins.

In other words, compared to the experiment’s control groups, OrganEx began repairing damaged organs hours after death.

The study’s results are remarkable, and the paper has received significant media attention (many making references to the idea of Zombie Pigs). However, an unease sits at this study’s core and, unfortunately, at the core of many biomedical studies – the use of animals in experiments.

Unlike the BrainEx study, in which researchers acquired the pig’s head from a slaughterhouse, the pigs used in the OrganEx study were slaughtered deliberately for the study’s purposes. Is this ethical? Can we justify the use of these pigs in the OrganEx experiment? I believe a perfectly suitable alternative was overlooked, an alternative that would have meant that the pigs used in the experiment could have continued their lives without being slaughtered – human cadavers.

Within research ethics, there is a widely employed framework known as the 3Rs. Proposed by Russel and Burch in their 1959 book, The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, these Rs stand for Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement, and researchers should consider each of these principles in order. Replacement refers to substituting animals in research with technological alternatives or simply nothing at all. If it isn’t possible to replace animals, researchers move on to the reduction principle, using as few animals as possible to minimize potential suffering. Finally, if replacement and reduction aren’t possible, researchers should seek to refine their husbandry and experimental methods to reduce suffering and improve welfare. The OrganEx’s study designers seemed to consider such principles, and Yale’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee gave comparable advice: “we sought to minimize the animal number and any potential discomfort and suffering.”

I believe, however, that the use of pigs in this experiment breached the first of these principles. The appropriate number of pigs would have been zero, as freshly deceased people would have provided equally effective test subjects.

This might strike some as an odd claim to make. After all, researchers use non-human animals in the preclinical research phase as a buffer before human testing. Bypassing such a precaution and going straight to human research goes against the typical wisdom of research ethics and protocol. However, it is essential to remember that the subject needs to be dead for the OrganEx experiment’s purposes (or at least “dead” according to our current conception of death). That is the experiment’s point, to explore the technology’s posthumous application. As such, research participants cannot be harmed as we typically envision (i.e., allergic reactions, unforeseen side effects, etc.) because they’re already dead.

Death is not an unusual event. It happens to countless people every day. My proposal is that the researchers could have taken advantage of this naturally occurring, potentially suitable research populace but chose to use pigs instead; pigs that they slaughtered deliberately.

So, the question becomes which potential subject is more ethically justifiable: live pigs needing slaughtering to satisfy the experiment’s participation requirements or the bodies of humans who had recently died from natural causes?

All other things being equal, this seems to be a fairly straightforward choice. Living beings deserve more moral consideration than dead ones because the living can experience harm, have a greater claim to dignity, and possess complex internal worlds (pigs especially). The dead lack these things, and while we may attach morally valuable attributes to the deceased, such qualities pale compared to the living. This is true for comparing intra-species (dead human vs. live human) and inter-species (dead human vs. live pig). In short, living pigs deserve more moral consideration than dead humans, and in a research context, if you can use an already dead human instead of slaughtering a live pig, and you subscribe to the principle of reduction, then you should use the human cadaver.

That said, there might be good reasons why the researchers chose to use pigs instead of humans. They do indicate that the BrainEx study focused on a pig brain, and some consistency with that existing work would make sense. I’m unconvinced, however, that this is a compelling enough reason to decide to use pigs in this subsequent study. This is certainly true given that, presumably, the OrganEx’s anticipated application isn’t on pigs but on humans. It would seemingly make sense to align the experiment closely to the anticipated application as early as possible and skip unnecessary research steps.

Ultimately, there are good arguments to use animals for research if doing so helps prevent downstream harmful outcomes (although I don’t necessarily buy them). Nevertheless, if those outcomes can be avoided without using animals, then there is an ethical duty to do so. Preventable harm, including death, should be avoided where possible, which applies to animals as much as it does to humans.

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.”

Monkeypox’s Biggest Threat Might Be to Wild Animals

photograph of two Cape ground squirrels in South Africa

On May 18, a U.S. resident (who had recently traveled to Canada) tested positive for monkeypox, adding the United States to a growing list of countries that have detected cases of a virus normally found primarily in Central and West Africa. Over the following week, suspected cases have arisen in four additional U.S. states, leading President Biden to comment that “it is something that everybody should be concerned about.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (which, to be clear, is “most certainly not over,” according to the head of the World Health Organization), it is understandable that reports of another ominous-sounding virus can be unsettling. But, as numerous outlets have shared, there are considerable reasons to be confident about our collective ability to face the unlikely possibility of a monkeypox outbreak: not only does the disease appear to have a generally low mortality rate (of less than 1%), but we already have an effective vaccine and other means to treat monkeypox patients. Also, transmission of the monkeypox virus (which is of a type that evolves comparatively slowly) is importantly more difficult than the coronavirus, requiring close contact with an infected carrier (for example, the CDC has recently warned that monkeypox rashes could be mistaken for symptoms of more common sexually-transmitted diseases). Altogether, the consensus of medical experts is that, though it is a serious disease that should be monitored, the threat posed by monkeypox is not nearly as significant as that posed by COVID-19: at present, we should not worry about a monkeypox pandemic.

However, this might not hold entirely true for one portion of the American population: nonhuman animals.

While the monkeypox virus is relatively rare in human patients, it is endemic in several African environments among a variety of nonhuman animal species: squirrels, rats, mice, and (unsurprisingly) monkeys have all tested positive for monkeypox at different times (its name, in fact, comes from the laboratory creatures in which it was first detected in the late 1950s). Typically, human monkeypox patients contract the disease from close contact with infected nonhumans, such as through a scratch or bite from an animal or from eating undercooked meat from a carrier. While the natural reservoir — the actual animal population that originally sources the virus — is not presently known, experts believe that multiple species could easily serve as regular carriers, potentially placing monkeypox at risk of becoming endemic in new environments (although, again, this is not to say that the virus would automatically therefore be a greater cause for concern, given the state of medical knowledge about it).

But this means that certain nonhuman animals might face a growing risk, if not from monkeypox itself, then from humans intending to prevent the spread of the disease by sacrificing the lives of nonhumans.

Here, we can indeed draw lessons from recent elements of the fight against COVID-19, such as how slaughterhouses “depopulated” during COVID lockdowns via the mass-killings of their stock (sometimes by simply shutting off ventilation systems to suffocate the animals). In a similar way, when a new variant of COVID-19 was detected among the mink population in Denmark, officials ordered that more than 17 million animals be “culled” (killed) to prevent further spread — a tactic mirrored on a more personal level by health workers in China who were killing the pets of people in quarantine. In a different way, the race to find a COVID-19 vaccine resulted in a shortage of animals used in medical laboratory tests (that require a stock of primates to intentionally infect and treat); this was one of several reasons why human vaccine trials were unusually accelerated. And this all is without considering the effects of contracting COVID-19 itself.

Granted, you might argue that at least some of these measures were necessary to stem the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic; furthermore, you might think that, if forced to choose between killing a deer infected with a disease and watching a human potentially die from that same disease, that we have a moral imperative to prefer members of our own species over other creatures. But what is important to note here is that neither of these points seem to properly apply to the present situation we face with monkeypox. By all accounts, although current case reports are unusually high in many places, it is nowhere near the same level of risk (of either morbidity or mortality rates) as the threat that COVID-19 has posed for the last two years:

if people were to start killing animals to prevent the spread of monkeypox, those killings would be far less clearly justified.

So, while the international medical community continues to track the present spread of monkeypox, the rest of us should each do our part to avoid a panic about the currently-unlikely threat of a monkeypox pandemic. Moreover, even though it is true that rodents and other wild creatures are the most common vectors for spreading the monkeypox virus, we should take care to avoid unduly threatening those innocent populations of creatures.

Is the Pain of Wild Animals Always Bad?

Close-up color photograph of a screwworm fly on a green leaf.

Should humans intervene to prevent wild animals from suffering? This question has received some attention as of late. Consider, for example, Dustin Crummett’s recent article here at the Post.

In response to this question, I suggest that it is not clear what types of animal suffering are bad. Consequently, it is not clear that human beings ought to intervene on their behalf. I will outline what I think are several types of pain, but I still suggest it is unclear whether human beings should intervene.

Before we hit it off, notice what this question is not. It is not a question of negative obligation: “should humans act in such a way that causes animal suffering?” This question, when we answer “no,” means human beings have a negative obligation to not cause harm. For instance, this question of negative obligation arises in the recent prohibition of a geothermal project in Nevada, a project which could threaten an endangered species of toad.

Instead, the present question is a positive one. When, if ever, should humans intervene to prevent wild animals from suffering? Crummett’s example of the New World screwworm is poignant and motivates us to intervene on behalf of suffering animals. The New World screwworm causes excruciating pain for the prey, and its elimination would not apparently result in ecological harm. In other words, its elimination would only seem to benefit the would-be-prey.

As Crummett argued, human beings ought to reduce wild-animal suffering. To make this point, Crummett entertains an example about a dog that lives in a poor state of experiencing cold, disease, and hunger before dying at an early age. He then uses this example to discern what is bad about the situation, and what is good about helping such an animal. He writes,

Why is what happens to the dog bad? Surely the answer is something like: because the dog has a mind, and feelings, and these events cause the dog to experience suffering, and prevent the dog from experiencing happiness. Why would the person’s helping the dog be good? Surely the answer is something like: because helping the dog helps it avoid suffering and premature death, and allows it to flourish and enjoy life.

Though this all seems intuitively plausible to me, I remain unconvinced. Even if I assume (for the sake of argument) that humans should prevent animal suffering, it is not clear what counts as suffering.

When I reflect upon pain more generally, it is not apparent to me that all kinds of pain are bad. Sure, I don’t like experiencing pain (except for going to the gym, perhaps). But we are talking about morals and value theory, not experience — when something is morally bad, it is not necessarily reducible to my experiential preference.

So, are all pains bad? Consider some different types of pain. In his recent monograph, philosopher David S. Oderberg distinguishes between three types of pain (distinctions not unlike the ones which St. Augustine posits in his little book, On the Nature of Good):

    1. Useful pain;
    2. Pain achieving;
    3. Useless pain.

A useful pain alerts you to something for a good reason. For example, it is useful to experience pain when you burn your hand on a hot stovetop; it is also useful to experience the pain that accompanies going to the gym.

“Pain achieving” is the pain that can accompany the successful operation of an organism’s natural operation or function. For example, pain achieving is the pain a child experiences with growing pains or when growing teeth.

Useless pain, in contrast, is pain that may alert you to an issue but serves no purpose. For example, a useless pain is the pain of chronic nerve damage or that of a phantom limb. This useless pain is useless because the alert it gives cannot successfully motivate the individual to react, or because there are no underlying issues or malfunction of the body to account for this.

According to Oderberg, only useless pain is bad. While the former pains might be unpleasant for the individuals in question, they are not always bad. Indeed, it is good that we experience a high degree of pain when we burn our hands on stovetops — why else would we move them? Surely, if we as human beings only had red lights go off in our peripheries whenever we were burned, it would not be as motivating.

Of the three options, Oderberg’s position that only useless pains are bad seems correct.

But notice a further complication. Even when the pain serves a further good, it can be bad in itself. As philosopher Todd Calder points out, while money can have a good of utility, it is intrinsically neutral. So too with pain. It might be a good of utility, but it could still be bad in itself.

This distinction between types of value explains why pains of utility can still be bad in themselves. While the pain of a sprained ankle is bad because it causes me to be irritable, it still can be bad in itself as a painful experience.

With these distinctions in mind, we come back to the original question: Should humans intervene in wild animal suffering?

It seems that the second distinction between intrinsic value and utility does not help us here. For, if all pain is intrinsically bad, and human beings ought to prevent all pain, we experience a moral overload. This is unrealistic, too onerous. Moreover, this conclusion would require us to intervene in all instances of pain, without discrimination regarding the kinds of pain and the degree of pain. Are we really to consider cases of an animal with a thorn in its side as serious as the case of an animal with a New World screwworm? Certainly not.

The first distinction instead offers a clear answer to the original question: Should humans intervene in wild animal suffering? Only if it is bad. And is the suffering of wild animals bad? If the suffering in question is an instance of useless pain, then yes.

To achieve a resounding “yes” to the original question, we need two things. First, we need a good reason for the assumption we started off with: that human beings are obliged to prevent animal suffering because it is bad (and such prevention amounts to a good act). Is this the case? I have not yet seen a good reason to believe it. Second, we need to see that there are instances of useless pain in wild animal suffering. Could the case of the New World screwworm count as an instance of useless pain? Perhaps. But it looks like it can count as an instance of ‘pain achieving’ as well. Because of this, it is not clear that human beings ought to intervene on behalf of wild animals.

Rise of the Human-Animal Hybrids: The Ethics of Xenotransplantation

black-and-white photograph of pig in a cage

On January 7th, 2022 David Bennett was implanted with a pig heart. His doctor was not Moreau, but rather Muhammad Mohiuddin, a surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center and expert in xenotransplantation – the implantation of animal organs into humans.

While pig parts have been used medically for decades, such as the use of pig heart valves as replacement valves, the implantation of a whole organ is an incredible clinical achievement. The donor animal is genetically modified and raised in careful conditions to minimize the chance of pathogen transmission and rejection, that is, the human immune system attacking the heart as foreign tissue. Whole organ xenotransplants been performed before, but without effective technology to prevent rejection, results have been bleak.

The life-saving surgery was done under special FDA authorization given the lack of other options. How Bennett will fare long-term remains unclear, and like most transplant patients he will need to take immunosuppressant drugs even with the genetic modifications done to the pig. Transplant patients are followed for both physical and psychological concerns, as the feeling of becoming hybrid or chimera, or taking up aspects of the donor, is well established, and may be especially acute in xenotransplantation. (Regardless of the physiological legitimacy of this feeling.)

The organ donor list is long in America, and the supply of organs short. Xenotransplantation represents a potential lifeline for thousands of patients in need. Nonetheless, as amazing as new xenotransplantation technology is, it comes with longstanding ethical concerns.

Modern medicine heavily instrumentalizes animals, their bodies becoming objects of research and testing, and now harvested for organs. From an animal welfare perspective, xenotransplantation is clearly not good for the pigs – although perhaps not any worse than factory farming. Xenotransplantation research also involves extensive use of non-human primates, especially baboons, as they are considered the best animal model to test the viability of cross-species transplants for humans.

Beyond animals, xenotransplantation research makes use of brain-dead humans as test subjects. Death is a tricky designation, and some people, while deemed dead from the perspective of brain death, are nonetheless biologically stable enough to support a transplant for some period of time. In September of 2021, for example, a genetically modified pig kidney was attached to a brain-dead woman and supported for 54 hours. The idea is that data like this is of more relevance to human recipients than that from baboon trials, although the condition of the test subjects renders it all but impossible to do longer term studies. Such research practices invoke complex questions about human subjects, and the status of brain death. The very idea that the body is declared dead, yet somehow alive enough to test organ transplantation, challenges our intuitions. And for communities for whom the body or the breath are more important in the designation of life and death, brain death is a thin justification for such research.

These research practices may be defensible, but they should be done carefully, with attention to the animal welfare implications, the alternatives, and the expected benefits of xenotransplantation. This ethical question is made more complicated by the empirical fuzziness, for we do not yet know what the clinical payoff might be.

The more sensational ethical concerns of xenotransplantation research come from the ick factor. One can all too easily imagine Jeff Goldblum informing Dr. Mohiuddin that he is playing God, and that humans should stay well away from the creation of chimeras.

From a scientific perspective, this is tricky. Humans are never pure. Not only are humans, like all organisms, a cobbled together pile of old parts assembled by evolution, but even during the course of our life we are a blend of different species. Just ask the 100 trillion bacteria living inside your gut.

Nonetheless, this is all at least “natural,” whereas xenotransplantation most certainly involves some kind of additional level of “unnatural” intervention. There are two ways, I believe, we can make this concern more precise.

The first involves an express embrace of the sacred or the natural. For example, a Christian theological perspective in which the body is explicitly treated as sacred, may provide clear grounds for ethical objection to xenotransplantation. This may be an even greater concern in Jewish and Muslim communities with their specific injunctions against the eating of pork, although some Jewish and Muslim religious authorities have been open to uses of porcine parts when clinically necessary.

The limitation of this approach is that it argues against xenotransplantation based on the acceptance of specific religious or spiritual premises, or ontological claims, about what is natural, as opposed to general ethical principles.

The second characterization of the concern is about the implied values. Xenotransplantation embraces a conception of medicine such that all research and interventions are okay as long as they are ultimately in service of prolonging life. A more humble ethical framework, one that is more accepting of death, may not value xenotransplantation to the same extent. The Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel has developed a perspective of giftedness regarding intervention. His idea is that we should not strive for mastery of every aspect of our biology, but should be open to the arbitrariness of life as something which makes it worth valuing. Sandel, to be clear, is not against healing, and believes that healing disease helps our natural capacities flourish. But where we draw the line is fuzzy, and one possible objection to xenotransplantation is that it fails to appropriately acknowledge the messiness of life and the ways to cope with that, and instead is highly technocratic, seeking mastery and intervention. (At the expense of animal life.)

Finally, xenotransplantation is new, expensive, and technologically demanding, and ethical issues will no doubt arise in the specifics of implementation. How should it be handled with insurance? How should patenting work? Who deserves access to these organs? For instance, concerns have been raised about Bennett who was guilty of a 1988 stabbing. Organ donation in the United States is administered by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and policies are in place to facilitate the equitable distribution of organs. Although even these are imperfect, and wealthier, better-connected patients can use strategies like signing up at multiple transplant centers to receive organs faster. How whole organ xenotransplantation will fit into the existing scheme is not yet clear, but should be done in a way that preserves as far as possible equity of organ donation.

Personally, I worry an overly restrictive ethical response would be premature, as we are still in the research stage with xenotransplantation and therefore have an unclear decision to make from an outcome perspective. David Bennett’s case may be important for public perception, but as a single instance, it is limited in how scientifically informative it can be. Nonetheless, we should continue a parallel conversation about animal welfare, research ethics, and highly interventionist medicine. And above all, we should avoid celebrating a medical marvel as an ethical one without careful reflection.

 

Note: David Bennett died March 8th, 2022, two months after the procedure.

Curfews and the Liberty of Cats

photograph of cat silhoette at night

Starting in April 2022, the city of Knox, Australia, will impose a ‘cat curfew’ requiring pet cats to be kept on their owners’ premises at all times. The curfew has sparked a great deal of controversy, with many cat owners not only arguing that it’s perfectly acceptable to let their cats roam freely, but that it’s morally wrong to force them to remain indoors.

In order to properly analyze this issue, it’s important to understand why the Knox City Council has resorted to such extreme measures. On average, a well-fed free-roaming domestic cat will kill around 75 animals per year. As a result, pet cats are responsible for the deaths of around 200 million native Australian animals annually. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The refusal of negligent cat owners to spay or neuter their pets has led to an explosion of the feral cat population (currently estimated to be somewhere between 2.1 million and 6.3 million) in Australia. A feral cat predates at a much higher rate than a domestic cat, killing around 740 animals per year. Because of this, feral cats are responsible for the deaths of an additional 1.4 billion native Australian animals annually.

Many may look at these numbers and see little to complain about. Animals kill other animals – it’s the circle of life. But it’s not that straight-forward. Despite their enormous importance as companions and family members, the sad truth is that in Australia – as in many countries – cats are a major invasive species. As a result, cats have already been directly responsible for the extinction of 25 species of mammal found only in Australia. This accounts for more than two-thirds of all Australian mammal extinctions over the past 200 years. Cats are currently identified as a further threat to an additional 74 species of mammals, 40 birds, 21 reptiles and four amphibians.

Australia is currently pursuing a number of strategies to control the feral cat population. But this will largely be for naught if the contributions of domestic cats are not also addressed. And this is precisely what Knox’s curfew seeks to do. But is it morally wrong to keep our cats indoors? One way to answer this question is through a simple cost/benefit analysis – what is often referred to as ‘consequentialism’ by philosophers.

So how does a cat curfew stack up on a consequentialist analysis? At bottom, the point of this policy is to (1) reduce the number of native animals being killed by domestic cats, and (2) stem the flow of feral cats resulting from the free-roaming recreational activities of unspayed and unneutered domestic cats. The results of doing this include not only the protection of individual native animals, but the preservation of entire species. And there are further benefits outside conservation. The curfew will also curb other undesirable behaviors like spraying, fighting, and property damage, and limit the spread of a number of parasites that can infect many mammals (including humans) but that are only spread by cats.

A consequentialist argument for the curfew would need to show that these benefits outweigh the costs to those cats that are now forced to stay indoors. Given the above considerations, there are compelling reasons to think that this might be the case. But these reasons can be made even stronger when we realize that the costs to cats are nowhere near as great as we think.

Free-roaming cats are vulnerable to all kinds of risks, including everything from getting hit by a car, to feline leukemia, to wild animal attacks. As a result, the life expectancy of an outdoor cat is only 2-5 years, while indoor cats live for an average of 10-15 years. Given this, we might argue that even if forcing a cat to stay indoors does reduce its quality of life, this may be made up for by the fact that it gets to experience far more of it. But there’s little evidence to even suggest that such a reduction in quality-of-life does occur. While it might be easier for an owner to keep a cat enriched by allowing it outside, experts state that it’s still possible for a cat to be just as happy indoors without all of the associated risks of a free-roaming life. What is required is careful, attentive pet-ownership with a focus on providing indoor enrichment. If this is done, then the benefits of a cat curfew can be achieved at no cost whatsoever to the cats being forced to stay home.

Nevertheless, the consequentialist analysis isn’t the only approach we might take. There are, in fact, a number of scenarios in which it might lead us to unsavory conclusions – like justifying animal testing where doing so would lead to the development of a drug that would save millions of lives. An alternative approach can be found by focusing on the rights of the animals in question, and refusing to violate those rights regardless of what kinds of benefits might be achieved by doing so. What, then, might a rights-based approach make of the cat curfew?

Clearly, the biggest concerns arise around a cat’s right to liberty. Cats should be free to roam, and any restriction on that ability is an infringement of their right to liberty. But let’s unpack that a little bit. Firstly, we need to figure out the content of this right. Put another way, we need to know what a cat requires in order to have this right respected. Clearly it would be wrong to keep a cat in a two-square-foot cage. How much space does it need, then? Is a reasonable-sized apartment sufficient? How about a two-story townhouse? Or must it have access to at least a football-field sized territory to roam? One simple answer might be to say that respecting a cat’s right to liberty involves allowing it to go wherever it wants to. But this seems to overstate the right considerably. When a cat wanders down to the river bank, we are not obliged to fetch a boat and ferry it to the other side so that it might continue to roam unhampered.

Even if we are able to explain the content of a cat’s right to liberty, we must then consider in what circumstances it might be overridden by competing rights. Among the other rights possessed by a cat is, presumably, the right to life. And the cat curfew does a lot to ensure the preservation of this right – extending a cat’s life-expectancy by 2 to 5 times. Seen in this way, the curfew no longer becomes a case of violating a cat’s right to liberty, but balancing that right against the cat’s more fundamental right to life.

Cat curfews, then, appear to be morally acceptable on both a consequentialist approach (saving the lives of native animals and preserving endangered species at no cost to the wellbeing of cats), and a rights-based approach (maximizing respect for a cat’s right to life at a small cost to their right to liberty). As such, it seems that – even in the absence of such laws – we all have strong reasons to rein in the murderous urges of our cuddly companions by keeping our cats indoors.

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.

Do Insects Matter?

close-up photograph of grasshopper

A few years ago I told my mom about a paper I’d written about insect suffering. She said: “Insect suffering? Like if I step on an ant?” I said: “Yes.” She said: “People talk about that?” I changed the subject because I was too embarrassed to explain that, no, they usually don’t, but I think they should.

But whether insects suffer, and whether this matters morally, is increasingly important. Many people now promote replacing meat from cows, pigs, chickens, etc. with protein from farmed insects. They think eating insects, and insect products, would be environmentally friendlier. Others, such as Brian Tomasik and Jeff Sebo and Jason Schukraft, are not convinced. Some are not convinced by the environmental claims, but they mostly worry about the implications for animal welfare. The animals that produce your meat, eggs, and dairy are almost always raised on factory farms where they are treated extremely inhumanely. Many philosophers, including me, think this is a good argument for getting your protein from vegan sources, like beans, lentils, nuts, seitan, and Beyond Burgers. (If that sounds too hard, you might start by cutting out chicken and eggs, since chickens are treated the worst.) Unfortunately, as Sebo and Schukraft describe, insect farms aren’t exceptions on the inhumane treatment front. If insects matter morally, this could be extremely bad: farming insects for human or animal consumption is increasingly popular, and we may soon be farming tens of trillions of insects every year.

I think that whether insects matter morally depends on at least two questions: (1) are insects sentient?, and (2) is being sentient enough for insects to matter morally? I answer these questions: (1) maybe, and (2) yes. Since insects might matter morally, it makes sense to give them the benefit of the doubt when we can do so without sacrificing anything too important. After saying more about all this, at the end, I’ll say some things about what it means to care morally about insects.

Are insects sentient?

Being sentient means that you are capable of having conscious experiences. Something is a conscious experience if there is something it is like to have it. Think about what you experience when you look at the black letters on this page. There is something it is like for you to see the color black, just as there is something it is like for you when you feel sad, or hear a song on the radio, or think about your plans for the future. There is also something it is like when a bat uses echolocation, even though we humans, who can’t echolocate, can’t imagine what it’s like. The experiences of seeing black, being sad, echolocating, etc. are all conscious experiences.

Can insects have conscious experiences? Is there something it’s like to be a fly or an ant, or are they “dark inside”? The short answer is that we’re not completely sure either way. I won’t try to review the evidence here; it’s reviewed in some of the pieces I linked above. What matters now is this: if it’s realistically possible that insects are sentient, and if sentience is enough for them to matter morally (as I argue next), then it makes sense to give them the benefit of the doubt when possible. If they matter morally and we unnecessarily harm them, we’ve done something bad.

Do all sentient beings matter morally?

Some individuals matter morally for their own sake. Others don’t. It’s wrong to hurt you, or a dog, without a good reason. It might be wrong for me to destroy a chair for no reason: maybe it’s your favorite chair. But that would be different. I would wrong you if I destroyed the chair. But I wouldn’t wrong the chair. The chair doesn’t matter for its own sake; only how it affects others matters. If I were on a distant planet with a chair no one cared about, it wouldn’t be wrong to destroy the chair. But if I were on a distant planet with a person or a dog no one cared about, it would still be wrong to hurt the person or the dog. They matter for their own sakes, not just because others care about them.

The question is whether insects matter for their own sakes. I think that if they are sentient, they do matter for their own sakes. Think about dogs. It is extremely wrong to light a dog on fire. It is usually okay to light a picture of a dog on fire. Why is that? Surely the answer has to be something like: the dog has a mind, feelings, an inner life, the dog is someone and not just something, and doing this terrible thing means the dog will feel horrible pain and lose out on valuable future experiences. In other words, the reasons not to hurt a dog have to do with the fact that dogs are sentient. But none of this is true of the picture of the dog; it really is just a thing that you can treat however you want.

So it seems to me that sentience is enough for an individual to matter morally: nothing with a mind, with the capacity for consciousness, is a mere thing. There is a further question about whether it might be possible for an individual that isn’t sentient to matter morally. But we don’t need to answer that here. What matters is that, if insects are sentient, they do matter morally.

What does this mean?

Suppose you and a fly are both drowning. I can only save one. Obviously, I should save you. That’s true even if you both matter morally. For one thing, I know you matter morally whereas I only know the fly might matter morally. But also: you have many desires and hopes about the future which will be foiled by death; you have relationships which will be cut short and loved ones who will miss you; death would make you miss out on a long life full of rich experiences as opposed to, for the fly, a much shorter life full of simpler experiences; the terror and pain you feel while drowning would be much worse than that felt by the fly; etc. These and other reasons mean your death would be much worse than the death of the fly. Some philosophers also think the mere fact that you are human also matters, whereas others think that belief is mere prejudice. But we can ignore that for now. After all, some of the factors I mentioned also apply to dogs, and so mean you should also save a dog over an insect. So I do kill insects sometimes, both by accident (which is unavoidable) and intentionally. For instance, when my cats got fleas, I gave them flea treatment.

But in that case, you might wonder, why worry about insects at all? If the suffering of humans (and dogs, and all those factory-farmed mammals and birds and fish) is so much worse, why not focus on that, and ignore the insects? Well, you should care about all that other stuff, too. But, first, it’s not always a competition. You can take various small steps that won’t detract from addressing these other things. By attuning us to the moral importance of sentience, concern for insects might even make us more concerned about other, more sophisticated beings. And, second, humans have the ability to affect very many insects, and the death and suffering of tens of trillions of farmed insects may be extremely bad when added up, even if each insect’s treatment is only a little bit bad. (In the future, it may even be possible for us to intervene in nature to improve the condition of the quintillions of insects that live in the wild.)

So: live your life and be concerned about everyone, but be concerned about insects, too, and try to avoid hurting them when you can. And let others know you’re doing this. Whether moral concern for insects spreads will affect whether we make the right decisions on big-picture issues, like whether to farm them. And it will also affect how embarrassed I get when I talk to my mom.

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: 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.

Elephants Are People Too

close-up photograph of elephant in the wild

37 years ago, the daughter of a Pakistani dictator was gifted a 1-year-old Asian Elephant calf named Kaavan. Kaavan ended up in Marghazar Zoo, a run-down facility in Islamabad. He had one elephant companion; a female named Saheli. When Saheli died in 2012, Kavaan spent days in his enclosure with her dead body before she was finally removed. Elephants are known to experience grief in response to the death of their companions. Since then, Kaavan has spent all of his time apart from other elephants, earning him the nickname “the loneliest elephant.” He has spent much of his existence in chains. With the help of animal rescue organization Four Paws International and Free the Wild, the animal welfare organization started by pop legend Cher, Kaavan has been freed from the zoo at which he was held captive and is now in an elephant sanctuary.

Kaavan was granted freedom from Marghazar Zoo as a result of a decision made by a high court in Pakistan. Chief Justice Athar Minallah began his opinion with a reflection about COVID-19. He notes that for the first time in memorable human history, human beings are confined to small spaces, restricted from interacting with friends and family, and limited in their range of autonomous choices. He argues that perhaps our own confinement provides us with an ideal opportunity to reflect on the ways in which we treat non-human animals, creatures who also enjoy social relationships, space to move freely, and a range of options when it comes to how, where, and with whom they will spend their time. In his ruling, Chief Justice Minallah poses the following question,

“Has nature forced the human race to go into ‘captivity’ so as make it realize its dependence for survival on other beings possessed with a similar gift, i.e., life? Is it an opportunity for humans to introspect and relate to the pain and distress suffered by other living beings, animal species, when they are subjugated and kept in captivity and denied the conditions and habitats created for their survival by the Creator, merely for momentary entertainment?”

Elephants are complex creatures who live rich social lives. They are highly intelligent and have excellent capacities for memory. Like all social beings, elephants thrive when they are in one another’s company. They flourish when they are able to do the things that elephants do when left unmolested. Humans have long benefitted from treating non-human animals as things, as instruments for human pleasure. We eat them, we conduct research on them, we hunt them for fun, and we force them to entertain us even when doing so is contrary to their own interests. Justice Minallah suggests that now is a moment, long overdue, at which we can start to view non-human animals with empathy and compassion, especially in cases in which their cognitive architecture is so similar to our own.

The court’s ruling on Kaavan’s case provided the conditions under which he was freed, but the question remained: to where and how does one transport a 5-ton pachyderm? Stunningly, the answer turned out to be: 4,000 miles away, to Kulen Prom Tep Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia — by plane. The Sanctuary is over 30,000 acres — space that Kaavan will get to explore with many other elephants.

Meanwhile, at the Bronx Zoo in the United States, a 49-year-old Asian Elephant named Happy is confined under similar conditions. Happy has been at the Bronx Zoo for 42 years. For the last decade, he has been held apart from other elephants in a one-acre enclosure. The Zoo insists that Happy is treated humanely. The Non-Human Rights Project, an animal advocacy group led by attorney Steven Wise that is dedicated to securing legal rights for non-human animals, disagrees. In recent years, the NhRP has also secured habeas corpus hearings for Hercules and Leo, the first non-human animals to be granted such a hearing. Though the judge in that case did not grant that the chimpanzees were legal persons, he affirmed the basic moral idea behind the movement. Judge Fahey wrote,

“The issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a “person,” there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”

The NhRP has argued that Happy is being unlawfully imprisoned at the zoo. The central issue at play in the case for freeing Happy is whether he is a person with rights to habeas corpus protection. A person has a right to bodily autonomy which carries with it a right not to be unfairly imprisoned or held against their will. So, for example, if a person has been detained or imprisoned and they believe that they have been put in that position unlawfully, they have a right to file a habeas corpus brief with the court in an attempt to be released from confinement. The argument is that, like people, non-human animals, or, at least, some non-human animals, have the same right to bodily autonomy and the same entitlement to protection against unlawful imprisonment as human beings do.

A common objection and, indeed, one of the objections that was raised by one of the justices at the most recent hearing on Happy’s case in front of the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department is that if we grant that elephants and chimpanzees are legal persons, we’ll have to recognize that they have the other rights of persons — the right to vote, the right to bear arms, etc. This strikes many as both absurd and dangerous. In response to this concern Wise points out that there are many entities to which the courts have granted limited personhood status, including corporations. When the NhRP insists that Happy is a person in the limited sense that he has the right to bodily autonomy and should not be imprisoned unlawfully, they are not also insisting that elephants have the right to free speech or to the free exercise of religion, or any other such absurdities.

Another concern that was raised by more than one of the justices in Happy’s most recent hearing is that the question of elephant personhood shouldn’t be an issue for the courts to decide. The appropriate body to make that decision is the legislature. If that body wants to declare by statute that certain animals should be treated as persons, they are free to do so, but barring that, such dramatic action that has consequences that are so wide in scope would be judicial overreach. In response, Wise points out that a writ of habeas corpus is a measure of common law. The common law is established by judicial decisions and precedent rather than by statute. As such, the courts don’t need to, and indeed shouldn’t, keep Happy imprisoned until such time as Congress decides to pass legislation protecting these animals, which it is unlikely ever to do. For good reason, habeas corpus writs provide courts with the ability to quickly remove persons from unlawful detainment. Wise argues that they should take the opportunity to do so in Happy’s case.

These legal questions are intimately connected to critical moral questions. Do non-human animals have rights? The concerns posed by the court suggest a way of answering this question that is supported by various social contract theories. According to a basic version of this kind of theory, fully free humans come together to form a society with the understanding that it will be in everyone’s self-interest to give up some of their liberties in exchange for certain protections. The social structure of society is granted legitimacy by the fact that the rational people involved in the decision-making consented to it. The trouble is, not all sentient beings participated in constructing the contract. Non-human animals are entitled to rights and protections only if the decision-makers have agreed to such protections. According to this view, in our modern time, elephants and chimpanzees only have rights if legislatures pass statues granting them those rights.

One shortcoming of social contract theories is that they have no mechanism for ensuring protection of the vulnerable. If decision-makers don’t want to provide protections, at-risk populations are out of luck. This means that elephants and chimpanzees might remain unprotected, and it also might mean that oppressed groups like women and minorities who weren’t permitted to be involved in the original decision-making aren’t guaranteed protections either.

An alternative approach, and an approach consistent with the strategy of the Non-Human Rights project, is to insist that all sentient beings have ownership over their own bodies and, to the extent that they can exercise autonomy without harming others, should be allowed to do so. This approach respects the inherent dignity of all life. It recognizes that Happy should be released from captivity, not because it is the will of the people, but because Happy is not the kind of entity that ever should have been “kept”; Happy is a “who,” not an “it.”

Moral Problems with Mink Production

photograph of mink fur

In a strange twist during a year that has seen more than its fair share of strange twists, a potential new threat in the fight against the coronavirus has emerged, this time in the form of a mutation in the virus found in minks. It has always been known that animals like mink are susceptible to some of the same kinds of respiratory diseases that affect humans, and that viruses can mutate when passed between different kinds of animals (it is speculated, after all, that the origin of coronavirus in humans originally came from bats). While there is reason to be optimistic that the mutation will not be too much of a problem for the development of a vaccine, the threat of a mutated version of the virus widely spreading to humans seems like the absolute last thing we need right now.

The mutated version of the virus was first discovered in Denmark, although a number of other major mink-producing countries (including Poland, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands) have reported the presence of COVID-19 in their minks, as well. As an early response, the Danish government imposed lockdowns in the relevant parts of the country, and attempted to force mink farmers to cull the country’s nearly 17 million minks that are farmed for their fur. This move has received considerable backlash: political opposition has challenged that the government has no legal right to force farmers to cull their mink herds, and the Danish agriculture minister stepped down as a result. Other governments are in the process of deciding which measures to take, although no clear plans of action have yet to emerge.

One aspect of this story that may have caught you off guard is the astonishing number of minks that could potentially need to be destroyed: in Denmark alone there are almost three minks for every human. While this number was never explicitly a secret, it wasn’t exactly well-known either, and after having been made public it has raised more than a few eyebrows of those concerned with animal welfare. While arguments against the raising of animals for their fur are not new, it is perhaps worth revisiting the topic in the face of this potential mass culling.

Typically in arguments like these one considers pros and cons, weighing reasons that have been provided in favor and those that oppose, and seeing which view is better supported by evidence and argument. When it comes to the question of whether minks should be farmed on a mass scale for fur production, however, the balance of moral reasons points pretty clearly against the practice.

Let’s consider some of the reasons against. In a recent letter to Science, three scientists from some of the largest mink-producing countries outline some key reasons why mink production should stop: in addition to the potential to transmit diseases harmful to humans, the conditions for raising mink are typically inhumane, with “minks showing signs of fearfulness, self-mutilation, infanticide, and breeding difficulties.” On top of all that, there is the environmental impact the comes along with any mass animal farming operation: the letter cites that “the climate footprint of producing 1 kg of mink fur is 5 times as high as the footprint of producing 1 kg of wool.”

So here are some arguments against: potential to harm humans with mutated viruses, cruelty to the animals, and damage to the environment. Are there reasons in favor?  Economic reasons come to mind: there is a demand for mink pelts, and so we might think that farmers should be able to supply them. Indeed, culling a country’s entire population of minks would have significant economic effects: the world’s largest fur auction house, Kopenhagen Fur, is reporting to be shutting down in the wake of the Danish government’s culling order, with the potential for an additional 3,000 jobs being lost in the case of a collapse of the mink industry. Certainly, then, the livelihood of mink farmers is at least one factor to be concerned with.

How one weighs these reasons will depend on how much one thinks that minks are animals worthy of moral consideration. If, for instance, one is concerned that mass fur farming is cruel to animals that ought not be treated cruelly, then even though putting an end to mink farming would harm those who make it their livelihood, this might seem like a minor concern when thinking about the overall benefits of ending an inhumane industry. This is not to say that the concerns of mink farmers should be completely ignored – the Danish government, for example, is currently considering a financial rescue package for mink farmers – but rather that, all things considered, the benefits of ending the practice seem to outweigh the harms.

There is, however, another moral problem in the vicinity: given that we currently are not sure how harmful the mutated version of the virus is, should we, in fact, kill millions of minks as a precaution? Recall that one of the reasons against farming minks in the first place was that it is inhumane: presumably, it is wrong to cause animals unnecessary suffering, and there is ample evidence that mass farming practices cause such suffering. However, if we think that these animals have some moral value, then that is also a factor to take into consideration when deciding whether they should be culled.

In trying to figure out what the best course of action in this case is there are clearly scientific questions that need to be addressed. As we saw above, it’s not clear whether the mutated version of the virus is dangerous, or whether it would interfere with the production of an effective vaccine, and so it is not clear whether at this point there is enough evidence to warrant a mass culling of minks. However, one might think that it is best to err towards caution: given the damage that the coronavirus has already caused, it might be best not to take any chances of it getting even further out of control. On the other hand, it is known that viruses mutating is common, and so even if all the minks are destroyed then that’s far from a guarantee that there will be no further mutations in the future. The mere threat of mutation, then, may not be a good reason to kill millions of animals.

At the same time, some animal rights groups have stated that the mass culling of the existing minks that are farmed for their fur would be the best course of action if it would put an end to the farming of minks in the future. For instance, Humane Society International stated that while there “was never going to be a happy ending for the 60 million mink exploited for fur annually” that “stopping breeding them altogether would be the best way to prevent animals suffering in the future for the fickle whims of fashion.” Culling minks could not only prevent future harm to humans, but also potentially put an end to an industry that would otherwise cause much more harm to animals in the future.

This is not an easy moral problem to solve. Regardless of what decision is ultimately made, though, this development in the ongoing coronavirus saga has at least shed light on a moral issue that is worthy of additional consideration.

The Endangered ‘Endangered Species Act’

close-up photograph of black-footed ferret

On August 12th, officials in the Trump Administration announced a set of deregulatory measures aimed at loosening the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, the ESA not only prohibits the sale and/or transportation of species on the ‘endangered’ list kept by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but also requires all federal agencies to coordinate their activities with the FWS and other regulatory commissions “to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat of such species.” While the ESA currently protects over 1600 plant and animal species, and has been credited with preventing the extinction of the American bald eagle, the California condor, the humpback whale, the black-footed ferret, and the grizzly bear (among others), the roll-backs proposed by the White House may soon prevent the ESA from being applied in a manner that is, at all, effective.

Although the measures have been marketed as “improvements to the implementing regulations” that will help to “increase transparency and effectiveness and bring the administration of the Act into the 21st century,” conservationists have pointed out three key areas of concern. Firstly, new species that will henceforth be added to the ‘threatened’ list (one step down from ‘endangered’ status) will no longer be automatically given the same protections given to species already on the endangered list. Until now, the difference between ‘threatened’ and ‘endangered’ status was essentially just a way to indicate the species population without implying a difference of response, but this weakening will now allow for a difference in behavior. Instead, ‘threatened’ species will not warrant the same level of heightened concern. While Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt defended this move on the grounds of promoting efficiency, explaining that  “[a]n effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation,” the proposed amendments to the ESA do not include any additional protections requiring would-be funding for ‘threatened’ species to be diverted to ‘endangered’ species. In practice, it seems far more likely that ‘threatened’ species will not be taken as seriously as they currently are – which will inevitably lead to more of them eventually making their way onto the ‘endangered’ list.

Opponents of the ESA argue, however, that the ‘endangered’ list has been padded with faulty data. Robert Gordon, a senior official in the Interior department, has argued that much of the ESA has been “federally funded fiction” that wrongly listed species as ‘endangered,’ despite their actual numbers in the wild. In a 2018 report, Gordon argued that 18 of the 40 species heralded as having “recovered” as a result of the ESA were never actually endangered to begin with and that it is simply impossible for the ESA to accomplish its stated goals. Some might argue that these numbers indicate the pressing import of conservation measures, rather than a mandate to loosen them. 

A second concern about the Trump Administration’s roll-backs surrounds the ambiguity of the phrase, “foreseeable future.” At present, the ESA defines an ‘endangered species’ as one “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” whereas a ‘threatened species’ is one that “is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.” Whereas, historically, “foreseeable future” has been interpreted in broad terms, the new guidelines explicitly indicate that, “The term foreseeable future extends only so far into the future as the Services can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are likely…. The Services need not identify the foreseeable future in terms of a specific period of time.” By requiring these assessments to be made on a “case-by-case basis” for each species, the administration not only casts doubt on its concerns for administrative efficiency, but subtly allows regulators to potentially ignore the far-reaching effects of systemic issues related to global climate change

Finally, and perhaps most notably, the proposed changes to the ESA delete the phrase “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination” from the Act’s implementation guidelines when considering whether to add a new species to the protected list, effectively allowing human business interests to be weighed on equal footing with the concerns of the endangered forms of life the ESA is designed to protect. Although it adds some language that sounds like a buffer for animal-welfare concerns (in that said economic information can be considered “as long as such information does not influence the listing determination” of a species), it seems like a strange move to explicitly weaken the Act while at the same time applying apparent, though less strict, reinforcement elsewhere. This is especially true given Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ comments about how “[t]he revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.” The corporate preference evident in the final draft of the ESA edits lays bare its essence as a public relations patina, instead of the substantive wall of protection for endangered species it was designed to be.

Such a PR move is necessary; a poll from July of last year indicated that four out of five Americans support the Endangered Species Act and only one out of ten oppose it. Despite rampant disagreement about the existential threat of climate change, Americans are unified in their support of preserving animal species. Nevertheless, as Brett Hartl, government-affairs director for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Biological Diversity, said “These changes tip the scales way in favour of industry. They threaten to undermine the last 40 years of progress.” It is not hard to imagine how interests of particular creatures or species – whether in the foreseeable future or beyond – could be discounted when weighed against the possibility of increased profits for larger corporations.

Which means, these deregulatory measures from the Trump Administration are not only concerning in their implications for the government’s continued preference for short-term financial gains over long-term existential stability in the face of climate change, but they pose significant risks for the communities of currently-living creatures threatened and endangered by the actions of human agents. As Christine Korsgaard explains in her recent book Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals, groups of creatures have value for at least two reasons: firstly, because every individual creature in the species (every token of the type) has particular interests that matter (8.7.1). But secondly, and more broadly, a collection of agents with individual goods of their own constitutes a community that has a shared good of its own (11.6.4). Korsgaard uses the example of a public park with a baseball diamond or an open-air theater as an “essentially shared good” – as something that not only happens to be good for individuals with different-but-overlapping interests, but as something which is only good insofar as it allows for the community to participate in something together (like a baseball game or the performance of a play). Applying this concept to habitats and animal communities, Korsgaard says, “When a species of animals becomes extinct in a given area because of human activities, it is a sure sign that we have been harmful to the point of fatal to those animals’ communities.”

What this means, then, is that even if we grant that the economic interests of corporations and business owners are worth measuring against the interests of wildlife and ecosystems, we are obligated to consider both of Korsgaard’s levels in our calculations. It is not simply a matter of measuring a concern for a small set of animals against the financial interests of a multinational conglomerate, but rather the collective interest of the species against the collective interest of the corporation – a comparison which may threaten to actually come down in favor of the plants and animals on the FWA’s list (provided that existential concerns outweigh simple profits).

A number of state attorneys general (including those from California and Maine), as well as environmental groups, have already promised to challenge the Trump Administration’s revisions to the ESA in court. Time will tell whose interests will ultimately win out.

Moral Standing and Human Monkeys

photograph of macaque's face in profile

Last month researchers significantly complicated how we conceive of the landscape of moral creatures. Scientists in China have created a monkey with a human brain gene, inserting it with a virus into eleven macaque monkeys. “The five survivors went through a series of tests, including MRI brain scans and memory tests. It turned out they didn’t have bigger brains than a control group of macaques, but they did perform better on short-term memory tasks. Their brains also developed over a longer period of time, which is typical of human brains.” The scientists articulated the aim of the study as observing the evolutionary process of the human brain, the research was meant to capture how our brains developed the way they did. The next stages will involve study of the genes associated with language learning.

Typically, ethicists and laymen alike have taken there to be something morally relevant about most humans that means that they ought to be treated in particular ways, and should treat others in particular ways. Humans are moral animals in the sense that they are the ones that can do wrong and be wronged. In other words, when a non-human predator kills and eats its dinner, they are harming but not wronging their prey. When humans kill something, this is a potentially morally-loaded behavior.

The moral standing of humans is a tense enough ethical question, it being notoriously difficult to find an intuitive property that could ground the moral package of rights and duties that we take most humans to have – that transforms humans into persons. Is it advanced cognitive capacities such as reason, or self-awareness, or the ability to direct their behavior self-consciously? Is it the complex ways they feel pain and pleasure? The sort of relationships they have with one another? The potential to develop into a being that has these properties? Their membership in the “advanced” species? Each of these standards misses some intuitions that many would find central to our moral understanding – children may be excluded, animals may be included too strongly, humans experiencing brain death or persistent vegetative states or advanced dementia may not be captured appropriately.

While much of the focus of discussions of moral standing attempts to figure out what is special about humans, it is difficult to ignore that many of the things that makes humans special are shared to varying degrees with non-human animals. Our tool-use, communication, intelligent and flexible responses to the environment, complex social structure, etc., can all be found across the animal kingdom in various forms. This is suggestive of duties or respect that we may owe to such animals, and animal ethics is a large and growing area of research.

Further, with the advances made in computer science, some philosophers suggest that we need to start thinking about treating artificial intelligence that we create with similar moral respect that we owe to non-human animals. So, while humans may be a model for moral consideration, concern, and responsibility, extending this framework to relevant beings in the world is nothing new.  

However, influencing creatures to give them the properties of humans is a significant step. While there may be ways of ethically treating some non-human animals in captivity (wildlife preserves?), keeping a creature with human capacities captive has long been viewed as morally reprehensible (a view that hopefully criminal justice systems will catch up with). Also, one major justification for experimenting on non-human animals is the benefit for humans – potential disease intervention, etc. This, however, is not the aim of these studies.

While there are those that consider it to be unethical to interfere with the basic capacities of non-human animals, the researchers have a two-pronged defense. First, apes are similar enough to humans that altering their genetic structure wouldn’t be a harm. Second, their test subjects are different enough that their research won’t succeed in making them sufficiently human to worry.  

An interesting result of the potential future of these experiments is that many creatures would have the moral status of “potential person”, which is relevant to some in the US’s abortion debate. If the research on primates continues as the researchers articulate, Tooley’s science fiction thought experiments from the 1970s and 80s about the potential to inject cats with the rationality of mature humans transitions from science fiction to scientific possibility, and attention to the standing of “potential person” will be relevant outside of the abortion debate.