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Octopi and Moral Circle Expansion

photograph of octopus in water

Washington State is now on the cusp of passing the world’s first ban on octopus farming. The bill – which passed the State House of Representatives and Senate earlier this month – now only needs to be signed by the Governor in order to become law. The legislation is intended to halt a developing practice that leads to widespread death and suffering for octopi – not to mention other serious environmental harms.

This development marks yet another step in what is often referred to as “moral circle expansion.” What do we mean by this? Well, there are things that are worthy of moral consideration, and there are things that are not. My family, my friends, my students – indeed, all other humans – are, we assume, worthy of moral consideration. What this means, essentially, is that when making a decision, I need to factor in how the interests of those individuals might be affected. If, for example, I am about to do something that will cause severe pain to a number of those people, this will be a morally relevant consideration – and may, in fact, be sufficient to render my action morally impermissible..

There are, however, many things that are clearly not worthy of moral consideration. Most inanimate objects are like this. That’s why when my computer is slow to boot up first thing in the morning, there’s nothing morally problematic with me responding by striking it and delivering a tirade of verbal abuse. The story would, however, be much different if I treated another human in this way.

Sadly, our history is rife with examples of our “moral circle” being limited so as to exclude certain portions of the human population. Disenfranchisement, gender- and sexuality-based oppression, and the widespread suffering of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples have all, to some extent, resulted from a failure to understand how far our moral circle should expand.

In 1975, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation opened a brave new world of moral circle expansion by arguing that non-human animals are also worthy of moral consideration. His argument was elegantly simple, and started from the observation that most non-human animals are sentient – that is, able to feel pleasure and pain. According to Singer, sentience is all that’s required in order for something to have interests. Why? Because if something can feel pleasure then it has an interest in gaining pleasure, and if something can feel pain then it has an interest in avoiding pain. Once these interests are on the table, they must factor into our moral decision-making processes.

Almost fifty years on, Singer’s assertion might now seem rather uncontroversial. Most would probably agree that my cat has interests, and is therefore worthy of moral consideration. So too are the birds currently at the feeder outside of my window. The upshot of this is that there are many ways in which I could act towards these animals that would be clearly morally impermissible.

But, as humans, we’re rather inconsistent in our approach to moral circle expansion. While we happily include the animals with which we are most familiar – like household pets – we tend to omit vast populations of other animals – like those we farm. Many try to justify this distinction based on the perceived intelligence of the creatures in question. But this is a bad approach. Firstly, our perceptions are often mistaken. Pigs, for example, are smarter than dogs. Secondly, implying that something is less worthy of moral consideration just because it is less intelligent creates all kinds of problematic implications for how we treat very young children and those with diminished mental capacity.

Moral circle expansion gets even trickier once we start considering creatures more far-removed from humans. Recent developments suggest that our moral circle might need to be expanded to include things like fish and maybe even insects – but this is (predictably) being met with serious resistance. Something similar is now happening in Washington with octopi.

Interestingly, in 2021, the United Kingdom passed legislation recognizing decapod crustaceans (lobsters and crabs) and cephalopod molluscs (squid and octopi) as sentient beings. This recognition did not, however, automatically halt practices that would be considered morally reprehensible if perpetuated against other sentient beings. Washington State’s bill goes one step further than this, with California and Hawai’i now considering similar legislation. And such a move makes sense. Octopi are among the smartest non-human animals – able to use tools, recognize people, complete puzzles, and even open toddler proof cases that are impervious to young humans. At the very least, such abilities put them (cognitively) leaps-and-bounds ahead of many other non-human animals that we readily afford moral consideration. My cat, for example, isn’t capable of half of what an octopus can manage. So – if sentience and intelligence are what matter to moral circle expansion – cephalopods should be afforded at least as much consideration as our feline companions – if not more.

Yet they’re not. Spanish multinational Nueva Pescanova is currently planning to open the world’s first intensive octopus farm in the Canary Islands (a development that partially motivated Washington State’s new bill). And it’s this inconsistency that’s most concerning. There is, we must assume, an objective standard for what should be included in the moral circle. What’s more, most of us seem in agreement that the circle should be expanded to include many non-human animals – especially those we share our homes with. Yet, whatever standard we adopt to ensure this happens (be it sentience, intelligence, or a combination of both) there are many more non-human animals that fulfil this criteria – octopi chief among them. What this means, then, is that we must either abandon any notion of expanding our moral circle to include non-human animals in the first place; or – better yet – begin to think more carefully (and inclusively) about the range of animals that rightfully deserve moral consideration.

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.