On November 9, 2017, more than 500 people gathered at the Flat Earth International Conference in Cody, North Carolina. Attendees agreed that the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee, with the North Pole as its centre and Antarctica running around the edge.
Shocking as all this may sound, this gathering was not stupidest collective act that occurred this month. In the noble competition for collective stupidity, it only took the silver medal. The clear winner is the recent decision by Tory MPs in the UK to remove any reference to animal sentience from the EU Withdrawal Bill.
This decision has been often misreported for clickbait purposes, so the facts first. In 2009 all countries of the EU signed the Lisbon treaty, which recognized that animals are sentient beings: they feel pain and have emotions. If the UK is no longer part of the EU, there will be no legal recognition of animals as sentient beings. Green MP Caroline Lucas proposed an amendment that would rectify this. It was voted down 313 to 295.
Does it matter that there was no actual discussion in Parliament whether animals feel pain? Not really. Does it matter that environment secretary Michael Gove was trying to backpedal on this decision a couple of days later? Again, not really. What matters is that 313 members of the British Parliament thought it was better not to have any traces of the claim that animals are sentient beings in the UK legal code.
It is really the Flat Earth gathering that is the only apt comparison that comes to mind. The difference is that while the 500 attendees in North Carolina included a man who measured the curvature of the Earth with a ruler from an airplane window and another one who is now preparing to gather evidence for the flatness of the Earth from his homemade rocket, the 313 people who voted in the Parliament were Tory MPs, presumably many of them with university degrees (and without doubt most of them with very expensive public-school education).
"How can we then explain that allegedly intelligent people would question that animals feel pain? I’m afraid here most of the blame should go to my very own discipline, philosophy."
The process of pain perception is as well-understood as any other perceptual process. We know that in our visual system the retinal signal is sent to the primary visual cortex (V1) via the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) in the thalamus; outputs from V1 are fed forward to a range of extrastriate areas (V4/V8, MT). Animals also have retinas. Their retinas also send signals to the V1 via the LGN, and so on. So doubting that animals see would be crazy.
But we have the same level of understanding of how pain perception works. The receptors of pain perception in our skin are called nociceptors (they would be the equivalent of retinal cells). When these nociceptors are activated, they send signals to the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices and the anterior cingulate cortex. This happens in humans and in other mammals (and also almost in the same way in other vertebrates). So doubting that animals feel pain is as crazy as doubting that animals see.
At this point someone may object that while animals may process pain, they don’t feel pain. Or they don't feel feel pain. Having a certain neural circuitry, after all, is different from having the experience of pain. And it’s the experience of pain we should really care about, isn’t it.
There are huge theoretical problems with this line of thought, but there is also straightforward empirical refutation. Rats and chickens systematically choose and self-administer painkillers when and only when they are distressed. I am not sure how this finding could be made consistent with the ‘animals don’t really feel pain’ line short of some maneuver worthy of the Flat Earth crowd.
How can we then explain that allegedly intelligent people would question that animals feel pain? I’m afraid here most of the blame should go to my very own discipline, philosophy.
Philosophers have always been big on denying that animals feel much. Almost all the heavy hitters of Western philosophy – Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant – found it important to stress this, Descartes taking the cake for his insistence that animals are really just machines. But there is a more direct reason for this skepticism about animal pain, the recent obsession with consciousness and what came to be known as the ‘explanatory gap’ between what natural sciences tell us about the mind and about what we feel.
Consciousness and pain are natural phenomena, so the default should be that it is the natural sciences that could tell us something about them. Philosophers of a certain persuasion find this stance threatening. Science has taken so much away from philosophy, not consciousness now! And that’s where it’s convenient to talk about our ‘privileged access’: we know more about our own conscious state than any scientist could. The general line of argument is that even if we know everything that can be known about the neural and psychological apparatus of our brain, this will not explain what it is like to feel pain (or anything else).
This new mysticism about consciousness may sell books, but it is not very helpful when it comes to animal sentience, as it fuels a form of skepticism about the subjective experiences of any other creatures (animals or even humans other than yourself). These new mystics take consciousness out of the domain of scientific study, and of course once something is outside that domain, all hell breaks loose – just ask the guy with the ruler on the airplane...
"This new mysticism about consciousness may sell books, but it is not very helpful when it comes to animal sentience, as it fuels a form of skepticism about the subjective experiences of any other creatures"
Animals are sentient and the Earth is not flat. There are some pragmatic implications of both of these truths. We can fly from Sydney to Buenos Aires via the Antarctic (that would not be an option for Frisbee Earth). But the consequences of animal sentience are not all unproblematic.
There is the inconvenient fact that the behavioral and brain sciences are heavily relying on experimentation with animals. The elegant experiments I mentioned earlier about rats and chickens self-administering painkillers – well, they may not have been that much fun for the rats and chickens involved. If animals are sentient, should we then stop all these experiments? No, we should not, but we should know that we’re experimenting on sentient beings (and adjust the experimental methods accordingly).
Also, should the recognition that animals feel pain make us all vegetarian or even better, vegan? This is obviously an ethical decision everyone needs to make for themselves, but denying that animals are sentient is nothing but a cop-out. Vegetarianism and animal experimentation are difficult ethical dilemmas, but addressing them needs to start with acknowledging that animals feel pain.
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