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Ethics and Other Minds: The Moral Permissibility of Octopus Farms

photograph of octopus underwater

In March of 2023, news agencies reported that Nueva Pescanova, a Spanish multinational corporation, is planning to intensively farm octopuses in the Canary Islands. The proposal for the farm describes farming a million octopuses a year for slaughter and sale as food. Octopuses are extremely intelligent. They are capable of using tools and engage in high-level problem solving. The documentary My Octopus Teacher, which highlighted the capabilities of these animals won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2021. The best-selling book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Origins of Deep Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith pursued critical questions about what it is for a creature to be conscious and how that consciousness manifests itself. These questions have moral implications that we should not take lightly.

In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes famously argued that he could know beyond all doubt that he existed as a thinking thing. Though each of us may be justified in belief in our own existence, we can be less certain in the case of the consciousness of other individuals, including other humans. The best we can do is note similarities in structure and behavior and conclude that similar creatures are likely also conscious, especially if they are capable of telling us that they are. In Discourse on the Method Descartes argued that the ability to use language or other signs to express thoughts was the evidence available to us that another being has a soul. He argued that the fact that non-human animals only express passions through behavior and not thought in a language demonstrates that,

They have no reason at all, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, just as a clock, which is only composed of wheels and weights is able to tell the hours and measure the time more correctly than we can do with all of our wisdom.

Descartes is just one historical figure in a long line of thinkers who define what we might now call consciousness in very anthropocentric ways — human beings represent the gold standard, the rational animal. In Other Minds, Godfrey-Smith argues that consciousness is so evolutionarily advantageous that it might have evolved in response to different environmental pressures in different circumstances, and this may be just how it happened in the case of the octopus. Octopuses have consciousness distributed through “mini-brains” throughout their body. This raises many significant philosophical questions and strongly suggests that if we use human consciousness as a standard for what the phenomenon is or could be, we’d likely end up with an impoverished take on the concept. Questions of consciousness don’t just impact interactions with other humans or non-human animals. They are also relevant to our future interactions with advanced technology. It’s important to do our best to get it right.

If octopuses exhibit behavior that indicates significant intelligence and their biological structure suggests a kind of consciousness that we know very little about, the situation demands erring on the side of caution. This is an argument not only against intensively farming these creatures but also against killing them at all for food or for any other human purpose. If it’s wrong to kill intelligent creatures, it seems sociopathic to farm millions of them for food every year.

Nueva Pescanova claims that the deaths of these octopuses would be painless. There are several questions that need to be asked and answered in response to this claim. First, is it true? The company plans to kill the animals by placing them in water kept at -3C. They allege that this is a humane and painless form of death. This is a controversial claim. Some experts insist that this form of death is particularly slow and painful and for this reason some supermarkets have already stopped selling seafood killed in ice baths.

Second, if the death is painless, does that entail that the killing is morally acceptable? Some philosophers have suggested that it does, at least if the creature in question has no sense of time or capacity to fear their own death (see, for example, Peter Singer’s arguments in Practical Ethics). There are at least two main responses to this line of thought. First, the problem of other minds reemerges with a vengeance here. What does it mean to have a sense of time or to fear one’s death? Can these capacities manifest themselves in different minds in different ways? Do they require articulation of thoughts in a language or is the presence of certain dispositions to behave sufficient? Second, killings are not justified just because they’re painless. If Bob sneaks up behind Joe and kills him painlessly, he nevertheless, all things being equal, does something seriously morally wrong. Among other things, he deprives Joe of a future of positive experiences. As philosopher Thomas Nagel argues in his famous paper Death, the badness of death consists in the deprivation of the goods of life. This is a deprivation that both humans and non-humans are capable of undergoing. If death is bad for humans for other additional reasons related to their cognitive abilities, those might be additional reasons that death is particularly bad for an intelligent creature like an octopus as well.

The prospect of intensively farming octopuses is particularly troubling because of their intelligence. That said, the practice of intensively farming sentient creatures at all raises very serious moral concerns. Intensive farming involves mistreatment of animals. It causes them pain and it violates their autonomy. It recklessly disregards the care obligations we have to vulnerable populations. It weakens our moral characters by encouraging us to think of other sentient creatures as things rather than as beings with minds and experiences of their own. The case of the octopus motivates thought about the problem of other minds and the many forms consciousness could potentially take. If we ought to err on the side of caution when it comes to minds that are different, there is an even stronger case for doing so when minds are the same. There are many historical examples of the use of uncertainty about other minds to discriminate and oppress people on the basis of race, gender, age, ethnicity, and so on. People have too often concluded that if another mind is unknowable, it must be inferior, and this has been the cause of the worst atrocities perpetrated on humans by humans. We should stop engaging in the very same behavior when it comes to non-human animals. Intelligent creatures should not be intensively farmed nor should any sentient animal at all.

Considering the Rights of Nature

aerial photograph of Pastaza River Basin in South America

In an essay entitled The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life William James argued that ethical progress could only be attained by using the ethical norms we have now and making sure that we are responsive to claims of others who are left out of those norms. He wrote, “The course of history is nothing but the story of men’s struggles from generation to generation to find the more and more inclusive order. Invent some manner of realizing your own ideals which will also satisfy the alien demands,–that and that only is the path to peace!” Part of the history of an increasingly inclusive moral order includes who we are willing to grant rights to as a person. The abolition of slavery obviously counts, as does the recognition in that women deserve equal rights to men. In the past decade, however, there has been another example which has gained significant traction and that has been the extension of rights to parts of nature. James’ essay only discusses a greater human moral inclusivity so does the extension of rights to nature constitute moral progress?

The recent US election was a surprise in many ways but perhaps one of the most interesting results was the 89% of residents of Orange County in Florida who voted for the Right to Clean Water Charter Amendment which extends natural rights to the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers. The rivers now have a recognized right to be clean and free of pollution and for citizens to enforce these protections. This comes after almost two years ago Ohio voters supported a measure to grant rights to Lake Erie after outbreaks of toxic algae blooms shut down a drinking water plant. While efforts to do this had some success before 2010, the past decade has seen rights granted to different parts of nature in California, New Zealand, Bolivia, Uganda, Bangladesh, Columbia, Ecuador, and India.

Most of the efforts to recognize rights in nature stems from the development of legal and moral theories which have rejected an anthropocentric outlook. Just as many legal jurisdictions recognize that humans have inherent moral rights, proponents of such theories argue that things in nature have an inherent right to exist and evolve independent of how much they are valued by humans. For example, environmental ethicist Paul Taylor has argued for a biocentric outlook which requires that humans recognize our dependence on the natural world, that things in nature have a good of their own as certain things will aid or inhibit natural growth, and that there is no non-question begging way to assert the moral superiority to humans. If something has inherent moral worth as a moral subject (such as a tree), then the extension of rights provides a legal mechanism to protect those things. However, arguments can also be made that natural entities should have recognized rights because of their instrumental value to humans. In the Florida and Ohio cases, much of the support for granting rights came from those who supported clean drinking water.

According to the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, “Nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” The application of rights to nature has required shifts in legal thinking. For example, prior to New Zealand granting rights to the Whanganui River, the river was not treated as a single thing under the law. The laws governing the different parcels of land attached to it — the water, the riverbed, and the air above the river — were all different. Under a rights-based approach a river is no longer mere property but is recognized as a single legal entity whose ability to flourish depends on a larger natural system.

The most significant benefit of granting rights to nature is that it ensures these natural features have standing in court to defend its interests. So, if you live near a river that is being polluted, you can take those polluters to court even if you cannot prove that you are personally being harmed. It may also mean that a court could rule that the government must protect a species or maintain an ecosystem. By contrast with something like the Endangered Species Act which only protects a species when it is in danger, granting rights may force governments to be more proactive about environmental protection and maintenance. Even if laws and permits allow for certain kinds of pollution in a river, those could be struck down as a violation of that river’s rights. There are also possible indirect benefits in that many in the rights of nature movement also work on behalf of the rights of indigenous people. For example, the rights granted to the Whanganui River were part of a treaty agreement with the Maori people following over 100 years of litigation with the New Zealand government.

On the other hand, the idea of granting rights to nature is complicated and unclear in practical application. Much of the work on environmental ethics, for example, focuses on living things. Yet, in addition to rivers, New Zealand has also recognized a mountain (Mount Taranaki) as a legal person. It is easier to say that an animal or a plant deserves some protection because it has a good of its own; it is capable of dying and thus would fail to flourish. But mountains and rivers are not alive. According to environmental ethicist Ronald Sandler, for something to have a good of its own it must be goal-directed in a non-accidental way. If a non-living thing (such as a river) does not have a good of its own, then it does not have inherent value. In other words, the particulars of whichever moral account is being used to recognize moral worth must be specific.

Similarly, there is also the ontological question of what kinds of things should get rights. For example, ongoing debate has shifted our thinking such that a river is now considered a single legal entity rather than many. But why stop at just the river rather than the entire ecosystem surrounding it? Do environmental collectives deserve rights? Sandler, for one, argues that some collectives such as an ant colony may deserve inherent moral consideration, but an ecosystem in general does not. Nor does a species have any inherent moral worth. Sandler notes, “like ecosystems, species are less definitely defined than living organisms…It is often difficult to identify the limits of a species and the concept is unsettled both biologically and metaphysically.”

A similar problem concerns who gets to represent a river or a mountain. In some cases, guardians can be appointed. For example, the Maori have legal rights of guardianship over the Whanganui River. But in other cases, it may not be clear who should be able to represent a river, lake, or mountain in court. Even in the science of ecology, there can be disagreement about the best ways to conserve or promote environmental flourishing. For example, in his book A Tapestry of Values, philosopher Kevin Elliott discusses the controversy over systems of river restoration. Classification systems used as guides for restoring rivers can vary with some being more complicated to use while others may be more reliable. In other words, disagreement about how best to protect the rights of a natural object can lead to disagreements about who gets to represent it in court and what is in that object’s best interests when it can’t represent itself.

There is even greater unclarity regarding what should be done when the rights of one legal person conflict with the legal rights of another. Part of this lack of clarity led to the Lake Erie measure passed by voters to be struck down as “unconstitutionally vague.” The judge in the case noted that without guidance about what conduct would constitute a violation of rights, it simply isn’t clear how to apply the law. While a legal paradigm shift may be expected to be vague at first, the theoretical issues involved with who gets what rights and why would still need to be settled.