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Nueva Pescanova and the Ethics of Octopus Farming

photograph of octopus underwater

The more intelligent an organism is, the more issues come with its captivity and, specifically, with its farming. Few lament carrot cultivation because vegetables are unintelligent and cannot suffer. Insects are more challenging as they respond to stimuli. Still, there is doubt whether they possess the required biological mechanisms to feel pain meaningfully. Domestic mammals are an even more significant challenge as their biology resembles ours enough to cast doubt on whether breeding and slaughtering them for food is permissible. Even more problematic are great apes, which, while not commonly bred for consumption, present severe challenges regarding humane treatment and enrichment in captivity. Finally (and hopefully theoretically), farming humans is strictly morally and legally prohibited because it would be principally and practically impossible to do so (putting aside the fact that we shouldn’t harm one another ipso facto). As Jeremy Bentham put more succinctly in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, when considering how to treat others, be they human or otherwise, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

This link between intelligence and farming underpins the outrage by animal rights groups at Nueva Pescanova’s plans for the world’s first octopus farm in Spain’s Canary Islands. Demand for such a facility certainly exists; many around the globe consider octopus a delicacy. But, until recently, successful octopus breeding had proven impossible to achieve commercially. Wild-caught octopuses were the only source. However, the company announced in 2019 that it managed to overcome the traditional hurdles that had prevented octopus breeding and was ready to proceed. As animal breeding is generally more straightforward and profitable than hunting and fishing, the venture stands to make Nueva Pescanova a lot of money.

But, unlike carrots, octopuses are not passive organisms unable to suffer. In fact, scientists typically consider octopuses highly intelligent, demonstrating a remarkable capacity for problem-solving and deep curiosity. For example, in 2009, workers at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium arrived to find that one of their octopuses had redirected 200 gallons of seawater from its tank to the floor outside. They’re even capable of unscrewing jars to gain access to food within, which they complete faster each time scientists present them with the challenge. Indeed, as the 2020 hit film My Octopus Teacher revealed to many, octopuses are vastly complex organisms that play, mimic, and learn.

It is this capacity for intelligence and curiosity – one so remarkable that octopuses are the only invertebrate protected by the U.K.’s Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986 – that has led to the outrage about the planned octopus farm. According to a report by Eurogroup For Animals and Compassion in World Farming, the proposed facility will house and kill over a million octopuses yearly. This is a pretty horrifying statistic (although it pales compared to the roughly 890,000 cattle slaughtered daily in 2019). But, the conditions in which the octopuses will live and die give that number an even grimmer context.

First, according to the report, workers will kill the octopuses by submerging them into an ice slurry of around -3°C. Unfortunately, when used to kill fish, this method results in a slow and painful death (for more on the ethics of fish consumption, see The Prindle Post article on The Feelings of Fish). There is little reason to think this would be any different for octopuses. Indeed, given the octopuses’ remarkable cognitive capabilities, which exceed that of most fish, there’s reason to believe such a death would be even more agonizing.

Second, octopuses are, for the most part, solitary creatures. They prefer to live alone and only interact with others of their species at specific moments (like when mating). However, housing each octopus separately would be logistically and financially impossible at a commercial farm. So, Nueva Pescanova plans to keep its stock grouped in multiple tanks, with roughly ten to fifteen octopuses per cubic meter. For a solitary species, this is a recipe for a poor quality of life, and it runs the risk of leading to cannibalism. So, not only will they be housed amongst others of their species, for which they aren’t evolved, but they’ll also have to contend with the risk of predation.

Third, Nueva Pescanovaplan will keep the octopuses under 24-hour light to enhance captive females’ breeding capacity. Of course, this would be uncomfortable and likely traumatic for any number of creatures. Still, the prospect is practically hellish for octopuses that spend much of their time in the dark and can feel light via sensors in their many arms.

These are just a snippet of the concerns the farms raise. But, it paints a pretty unpleasant picture of a solitary, intelligent species forced into intimate proximity with others of its kind, for its entire life, under the gaze of 24-hour lights, until they reach a harvestable size when they’re dunked into sub-zero water to die. The company has acknowledged these worries and claims it will work to mitigate them. However, it is hard to see how Nueva Pescanova can accomplish this when the welfare concerns are in such stark contrast with the company’s proposed operating practices. And, if traditional agriculture and farming practices are any example, we can expect animal welfare to take a backseat to monetary interests.

In determining our obligations and responsibilities to others, Bentham asks us to consider whether an organism can suffer. If so, then we owe that creature the rights traditionally reserved for humans. So, would we feel comfortable treating humans in this way? The answer (hopefully) is no. If octopuses can suffer in a way that, while not identical to us, is at least comparable, then we have to ask whether such farming should be allowed.

While overwhelmingly dark, this story has a thin sliver of light. There are already bills progressing through Washington state’s House to prevent similar farms from being established there. While House Bill 1153 focuses on the environmental impacts (which is a good thing to focus on), it does make some allusion to the horrors that await farmed octopuses. Sadly, however, while this does offer some hope, it will come as cold comfort to those octopuses that could eventually be farmed in inhumane conditions around the rest of the world.

Ultimately, in the face of today’s all-consuming capitalistic practices, the question isn’t whether animals can suffer but whether their suffering can be made profitable.

The Feelings of Fish

photograph of bass fish underwater

“It’s okay to eat fish, ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.”

So sang Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in the haunting “Something in the Way.” Here’s the problem, however: according to recent research, fish do have feelings – and this stands to create all sorts of concerns for how humans treat these animals.

A study published just last month shows that fish are able to pass the Mirror Test – being capable of recognizing themselves in mirror reflections and photographs. This test is an important indicator of an advanced level of cognitive capabilities in both human and non-human animals, and sees fish join an elite club previously only occupied by humans, dolphins, elephants, and some great apes. This latest study joins a mounting body of research showing that fish do, in fact, have a much higher level of cognition than we previously thought. For one, they don’t have a three-second memory. In fact, they tend to remember things for a period of about five months. Further, a 2019 study showed that fish experience pain in much the same way as humans; exhibiting accelerated ventilation rates and showing an ability to avoid pain-inducing stimuli. They even rub areas of their bodies that have suffered pain – much as we do a stubbed toe.

So what do these latest developments mean for the ethical treatment of fish? Why might features such as self-recognition and the ability to feel pain be relevant in considering what we can permissibly do to fish?

A few months ago, I considered a similar problem relating to our treatment of insects. Recent research had suggested that – contrary to our traditional understanding – insects might be capable of experiencing pain. I explained how the ability to feel pain (and its corollary, pleasure) is, for some ethicists, all that is required for a living being to have interests. How so? Well, if something can experience pain, then it has an interest in avoiding pain. In fact, the fish in the study cited above showed precisely this behavior – avoiding areas of their tanks where they received electric shocks, even where those areas were previously associated with feeding.

Suppose, then, that I want to go for a spot of recreational “catch-and-release” fishing. Is it wrong for me to do so?

One starting point might be to note that even if fish can experience pain (and have a corresponding interest in avoiding pain) the amount of suffering caused by a single barbless hook through the mouth is relatively small. Suppose that, for a fish, this experience is roughly about as painful as it would be for a human to be pierced in the back of the hand with a sharp needle. This might seem acceptable. But would we think it morally permissible for someone to go around stabbing others in this way for purely recreational purposes? If our answer is “no,” then we have a problem.

The reason why this is problematic comes down to the principle of equality.

Previously, I discussed how when we talk of the equality of humans, we aren’t generally claiming that all humans are equal, nor that they should be equal. Rather, equality is taken as a prescription that the interests of all humans should be given equal consideration. This is the principle that underpins the wrongness of sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry.  It’s why it’s morally impermissible to prioritize one person’s interests in, say, being given a promotion based merely on their gender or skin color. Instead, the interests of these individuals need to be considered equally.

So, if two individuals have an interest in not experiencing pain, then those interests have to be treated equally. And if we believe that inflicting X amount of pain on one individual is morally impermissible, then we must believe that inflicting that same amount of pain on another individual is just as wrong. Further, we’re not permitted to make a distinction based purely on the species of the individual. Why? Because doing so would violate the principle of equality in the same way that sexism or racism does. In this case, however, it would be speciesist.

As with the ethical treatment of insects, we might consider discounting – or disqualifying altogether – the suffering of fish on the basis that they aren’t as intelligent as humans. But this contravenes the very same principle of equality.

Consider how we think about humans: Do we believe it is more morally permissible to cause pain and suffering to those who are less intelligent? Do we allow harm to very young children on the basis that they do not have the same cognitive faculties as fully developed adults?

Clearly not. So we must take the same approach to animals like fish.

Given all of this, it seems that if fish do truly experience pain in a way that is similar to humans, then something like recreational catch-and-release fishing becomes morally impermissible (assuming, of course, that we’re not willing to endorse harming humans in the same way for fun). But what if the harm caused to these fish wasn’t merely recreational, but was instead done for survival? Would it be permissible for us to catch-and-kill fish for this purpose?

This is where the waters become a little murky. Peter Singer – the proponent of the approach taken above – is a Utilitarian, meaning that he believes the morally right thing to do is that which maximizes pleasure (or minimizes pain). Thus, if a family was in desperate need of sustenance, the pain and suffering inflicted on a fish by catching and killing it for dinner might be outweighed by the good of the family’s continued survival. But here’s the thing: for many of us, this will never be the case. Most of us in developed nations have ample sources of sustenance that do not require the suffering of fish – or any animal for that matter. This is precisely why Singer argues so forcefully in favor of veganism.

Ultimately, however, all of this comes back to the question of whether fish do truly experience pain in a morally relevant way. And while some will take these latest studies as clear evidence that they do, others will remain skeptical that the kind of thing being experienced by fish (and insects and other animals) is fundamentally different to that experienced by humans. And that might turn out to be the case. I have, however, previously noted our very poor track record of understanding pain in other living beings (even infant humans). Given this, it would seem that caution is in order – and that the best approach might be to refrain from recreationally harming an animal that may turn out to experience pain in a way similar to humans.

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.

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

photograph of lobsters in water tank at market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Personhood and Nonhuman Rights

photograph of two elephants on marshy plains

In July 2019, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh granted all of the country’s rivers status as legal persons. Doing so makes it possible for the newly created National River Conservation Commission to bring legal action against anyone whose activity is deemed “harmful” to the country’s rivers. Other countries, and states within the US, have enacted similar rules (see Meredith McFadden’s “Who and What Is a Person: Chilean Rivers” on this site). There have also been extensive efforts on the behalf of non-human animals to establish for them legal personhood. For example the Nonhuman Rights Project in 2018 sued the Bronx Zoo to obtain a writ of habeas corpus for Happy, an Asian elephant housed at the zoo since 1977. In short, they got a court to compel the zoo to justify the lawfulness of their captivity of the elephant. 

The reasoning in each case has been distinct and so no consistent framework has yet emerged to ground the efforts to extend (the recognition of) rights beyond human beings to non-human animals and non-organisms. The Nonhuman Rights Project has focused on arguing that long-standing legal definitions in the Anglophone tradition already recognize the rights of animals—and that humans largely fail to act consistently on our own legal principles. The Bangladeshi ruling leverages a cultural belief that the river is a mother figure to the country. A broad ruling on the rights of nature made in 2011 by Bolivia’s government appeals to existence of conditions on the integrity and balance of natural systems—in short, nature’s wellbeing. This raises the question of what consistent basis, if any, can be articulated for such cases going forward. As attempts to abate climate change and eliminate animal cruelty increase, there will be a need for a powerful and consistent legal-philosophical framework to undergird these types of claim. 

One possible framework relies on an anthropocentric and social utility view of rights: that is, one which determines when, and to what, rights should be extended by calculating the benefit to humanity the rights would yield. Under such a framework the ability of current and future humans to secure food, water, and shelter gives sufficient reason to treat non-human animals and non-organisms as bearers of legal rights. Most of the arguments geared toward motivating people to deal with climate change fall under the auspices of the anthropocentric framework. However anthropocentric accounts of rights only extend rights to non-human animals and non-organisms on a provisional basis: these entities are considered as bearers of rights for only as long as it benefits humans. This framework does not make sense of the language found in measures like those taken by Bangladesh and the Nonhuman Rights Project. In these cases it is for the sake of the animals and the rivers themselves that rights are being recognized—not for the sake of the humans who benefit from them.

The Nonhuman Rights Project highlights the following definition from Black’s Law Dictionary: “So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights or duties.” To this they add, in the case of Happy, that she is cognitively sophisticated enough to pass the mirror test—a psychological exam argued by some to demonstrate the existence of a sense of self (see McFadden’s “Passing the Mirror Test” for discussion). Hence they offer cognitive sophistication as a criterion for being capable of rights or duties. Other defenses of animal rights appeal to sentience—the ability to feel pain and pleasure—as the relevant criterion establishing animals as bearers of rights. Peter Singer wrote in his 1979 Practical Ethics, explaining the views of John Stuart Mill, “[t]he capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way.” However neither of these lines of reasoning extend to non-organisms, like rivers and lakes. These entities do not have cognition at all, much less sophisticated cognition. Moreover Singer, continuing on after the passage quoted above, forecloses upon the possibility of non-organisms having interests: “It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer.” This directly contradicts the language of the measures taken in Bolivia and Toledo, Ohio which discuss the rights of nature “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”

Taking the idea of the rights of non-organisms like lakes and rivers seriously may require a significant departure from mainstream moral philosophy, according to philosophers of so-called “radical ecology” frameworks. Proponents of radical ecology contend that the project of extending rights of personhood to non-humans can never fully account for the moral standing of non-humans, viewing the project as a thinly-disguised version of anthropocentrism. Instead they argue for a fundamental revision of how human’s view the natural world. For instance the very division of the world into the categories of ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ is a misstep according to radical ecology—one which is at the root of problems like those addressed by Bangladesh, the Nonhuman Rights Project, Toledo, Bolivia, and others. Hence while the radical ecology framework gives full breath to language about nature’s rights to flourish, it objects to the method of extending legal personhood to non-human entities. 

Meeting the challenges of climate change and generally reforming humanity’s relationship to the rest of the natural world is no simple task. The steps taken by various jurisdictions and organizations to extend legal personhood to nonhuman animals and organisms represent a strategy that is in its first iteration. The strategy has so far met both with mixed reception and mixed results. Regardless of their success, similar measures and strategies are likely to arise as jurisdictions grapple with environmental and animal rights issues. Likewise, scholars will continue trying to develop powerful and consistent philosophical frameworks to undergird the legal work.

Passing the Mirror Test and the Wrong of Pain

Photograph of a striped fish called a cleaner wrasse in front of coral with another different species of fish in view behind

In mid-February, scientists announced progress in developing an understanding of consciousness. An international team collaborating in four countries discovered patterns of brain activity that coincide with awareness. Consciousness has long been a mystery, and there are many reasons to explore and figure it out. It seems like creatures who have some form of consciousness make up a special club, experiencing the world with more layers, perhaps with more complex agency, perhaps uniquely making up the moral community.

These potential steps forward in understanding our brain-based and embodied consciousness come alongside a purported broadening of the group of animals that scientists claim pass the mirror-test for self-awareness. As we try to put our fingers on what it means to be conscious, in the last century Western philosophers have become open to the idea that there is a rich arena of animal perspectives alongside our own. The variety of ways that we can imagine experiencing the world has grown with our study of human and non-human animal experiences. This has interesting implications for who we include in our understanding of our moral community and how we understand the ways we can harm these members.

Though it is pretty intuitive that causing harm is bad, explaining why can be notoriously difficult. One route is appealing to the negative experience of harm – primarily how bad experiencing pain is. This focus unites human and non-human animals that can feel pain into one morally relevant domain. If what is bad about causing harm is that it brings about this negative experience of pain, then we need to identify the sorts of creatures that experience pain and avoid bringing about those states without outweighing reasons. Thus, consciousness will be morally relevant insofar as it delineates those creatures that are in some way aware of their experiences.

There are two responses to this line of thinking. One direction argues that this grounding of the badness of causing harm is too narrow: there are harms that we don’t experience, so this understanding misses morally relevant behaviors. Another direction claims that this line of thinking is too broad: not all pain is morally relevant.

Consider the (false) common conception of the perspective of a goldfish, where their understanding of the world resets every 10 seconds. Would causing pain to a creature who would very quickly have no memory of it have the same moral relevance as causing pain to something that would incorporate it into its understanding of the world indefinitely? Take the faux-goldfish example to its conceptual extreme and imagine a creature that has the experience of pleasure and pain, but only has instantaneous experiences – it lacks memory. Presumably, it wouldn’t matter to the creature a moment after it felt pain that it felt pain a moment ago because it had no residual impact from the experience (unless prolonged damage was done). If you share this intuition, then something more than the mere experience of pain is involved in the morality of causing harm.  

The way to make pain morally relevant is to focus on the perspective of the creature experiencing the pain – that there is such a perspective extended in time that experiencing the pain will impact. We can imagine the fear of a non-human animal in unfamiliar circumstances and consider the anxiety that may develop over time if it is continuously exposed to such circumstances. Such creatures have a sort of “self,” in the sense that their experience of the world develops their mode of interacting with the world and understanding of the world over time.

There is an even more advanced way of being a creature in the world beyond stringing experiences together in order to have a perspective extended in time: a creature can be aware that it has such a perspective by being aware that it is a self.

A key experiment to check the development of a self-concept is the mirror-test, where an animal has a mark placed on their body that they cannot see by moving their eyes. If, when they see the mark on a body in a mirror, they come to the conclusion that their own body has the mark, then they “pass” the mirror test because in order to come to such a conclusion the animal must use an implicit premise that they are a creature that could be so marked. The mirror-test is thus meant to indicate that an animal has self-awareness. It relies on a variety of competencies (vision and figuring out how mirrors work, for instance), but has long been thought to be sufficient for indicating that a creature is aware that it exists in the world.

Humans don’t pass the mirror test until they are toddlers, and only some primates also are able to pass the test, along with sundry birds and other mammals. However, this past year a tiny fish – the cleaner wrasse – seemed to pass the test. It is a social animal, considered to be relatively cognitively advanced, but the scientists who advocated for the results of the mirror-test suggest that while yes, this is a smart and advanced fish, this may not mean that it is self-aware. The success of the small fish has raised issues in how we test for morally relevant milestones in non-human animals.

One interesting facet of the mirror test is that animals that perform well are social, which is often a morally relevant trait. If morality is a matter of treated others with the sort of deference they are due, then a sort of sociality for members of the moral domain makes some sense.

In defining our moral community, most theorists include some non-human animals, and most consider it relevant to identify the way creatures experience the world. These latest advances in mapping consciousness and advancing our interpretation of self-awareness tests will help us understand the spectrum of relationships possible in the animal world. 


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