Causing Animal Pain, Taking Animal Life

by Tom Regan

Decent people everywhere oppose cruelty to animals. When it is inflicted on them at the hands of human agency, the pain they experience must be justified. That someone enjoys making animals suffer does not rise to the level of adequate justification. Just the opposite. Those who are cruel in their dealings with animals are morally depraved. Here, surely, compassionate humanity speaks with one voice.

Such unanimity was not always evident. As a matter of logic, cruelty is possible only when suffering is possible. No matter how great the fury of our physical assault, we cannot be cruel to inanimate nature or manmade machines. Or (as the seventeenth century philosopher, Rene Descartes, taught) animate machines either.

Famous for his enigmatic declaration, Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), Descartes is perhaps less well known for his infamous teaching that nonhuman animals fall into this latter category. They are, he confidently maintains, animate machines, as lacking in awareness and feeling as the toaster in our kitchen and the cell phone in our car.

Cartesian Vivisection

Philosophers frequently are presented as starry eyed visionaries who never stray from their ivory towers or deign to mix their labor with the workaday world. Descartes’s life shows how far this caricature is from the truth. A cadre of vivisectors, Descartes himself included in their number, zealously embraced his teaching that animals are living bodies that do not feel.

Nicholas Fontaine offers this chilling eye-witness description of the practices at Port Royal during the seventeenth century: “The [Cartesian] scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the poor creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed the poor creatures up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood which was a great subject of controversy.”

Few there are today who would deny that animals can suffer. Both common sense and the implications of our best science reach the same conclusion. In this respect, Voltaire, a contemporary of Descartes’s, was ahead of his times.

“Barbarians seize this dog,” he writes in his Dictionary, clearly aware of the activities at Port Royal, “which in friendship surpasses man so prodigiously; they nail it on a table, and they dissect it alive in order to show the mesenteric veins. You discover in it all the same organs of feeling that are in yourself. Answer me, [Cartesians], has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animal, so that it may not feel? has it nerves in order to be impassible? Do not suppose this impertinent contradiction in nature.”

Sentience and Speciesism

The sentiency of other animals, their capacity to experience both pain and pleasure, is one basis for recognizing their membership in the moral community. If our pleasure and pain are directly morally relevant in deciding what is right and wrong, then their pleasure and pain must be directly morally relevant as well. To affirm direct relevance in our case while denying it in theirs is arbitrary, analogous to counting the pleasures and pains of Euro Americans as being of direct moral relevance, for example, while denying the same status to the pleasures and pains of African Americans. If arbitrary discrimination based on one’s race (racism) is a moral prejudice, as it surely is, then arbitrary discrimination based of one’s species (speciesism) can fare no better.
In our age of enlightenment, most philosophers are not Cartesians, and only a minority describe themselves as speciesists. Even so, the prevailing view among philosophers today denies equal moral status to animals. If we ask why, the main story line of which goes as follows.

where animal pleasures and pains increasingly are recognized as being equal in importance to the comparable pleasures and pains of humans, the prevailing view among philosophers the worst forms of speciesism are receding into their Cartesian past. Even so, the vestiges of speciesist shadows linger. Among philosophers today, the prevailing view

Among philosophers today, what I will the standard view, does not separate humans persons from other animals on the basis of sentience. Rather, it separates humans persons from other animals because (it is claimed) killing a human being matters morally in ways that killing an animal does not. If we ask why, the standard view has an explanation, the main story line of which goes as follows.

Why Killing Humans is Wrong: The Standard View

Hilda, let us imagine, is a loving wife, a devoted mother, a successful professional with a great love of nature and the arts. In the prime of her flourishing life, she is brutally murdered. According to the standard view, the wrong that is done in this case is a wrong done to Hilda directly. And it is a wrong done directly to her because she wanted to go on living. After all, by taking her life, by ending the possibility of her future experience, her murderer frustrates her desire to go on living. That is why the wrong that is done wrongs her.

Now, the desire to go on living is no simple desire. In order for Hilda to want to continue to live, she must be able to understand both that she is in the world in the present and that (should she continue to live) she would be in the world in the future. Clearly, to understand either or both presupposes a high degree of self-consciousness, without which one cannot have the desire to go on living.

Hilda, while she was alive, satisfied this requirement, according to the standard view. Animals such as chickens and cows do not. Although these animals are in the world and aware of the contents of their experience, they are not aware of themselves as being in the world; nor are they able to think of themselves as continuing to be in the world in the future, if they continued to live.

As such, animals who cannot desire to go on living or cannot have this desire thwarted if they are killed. Thus, whereas the murder of Hilda represents a direct wrong done to her, because her desire to go on living is frustrated, the killing of animals who lack this desire does not represent a direct wrong done to them, because they lack the requisite desire.

Given the standard view, then, we do nothing wrong to such animals when we kill them. In the case of the Hildas of the world, however, the wrong done is a wrong done directly to the human victim.

The Prevailing View and Animal Reform

The prevailing view provides a comprehensible basis on which to rest calls for major reforms in how animals are treated. Consider commercial animal agriculture. Billions of farmed animals are slaughtered every year for human consumption. If we assume that chickens and hogs, cows and sheep are unable to desire to go on living, then no direct wrong is done to them when they are killed, given the prevailing view.

However, the pain and frustration these animals experience as a result of their confinement on “factory farms” is directly morally relevant. Indeed, because the pain and frustration these animals experience is so vast as to be all but incalculable, it is difficult to see how it could possibly be justified.

Small wonder, then, that partisans of the prevailing view frequently step forward to denounce the disgraceful conditions in which farmed animals are raised and to call for humane reforms. When the day dawns that farmed animals live a pleasant life before they are painlessly killed, the day will come when no wrong is done to the animals when their life is ended.

Proving Too Little

The standard view is deficient for multiple reasons. To begin with, even if it was adequate in other respects, it would prove too little. The most it could show is that killing never wrongs those animals who do not desire to go on living. What it cannot show is that no animals have this desire.

How are we to decide this? In the absence of a shared language between humans and animals, we are left with judging matters on the basis of how animals behave. Do they (any of them) behave in ways that suggest that they are aware that they are in the world? Aware that they are “somebodies,” so to speak, with lives of their own?

Those who study the behavior of nonhuman primates and marine mammals are in universal agreement in the affirmative answers they give to these questions. Whether the members of other classes of animals fall in the same category of self-conscious being is perhaps less settled among those observers who know them best. Even so, it is enough for present purposes to note that some nonhuman animals arguably are psychologically complex enough to realize that they are in the world and to want to continue to stay alive. If even this much is acknowledged, the standard view, understood as an attempt to deny that killing ever directly wrongs any animal, proves less than its advocates believe.

Proving Too Much

The standard view, if otherwise sound, also can be faulted because it proves too much. The prospect of a “humane” animal agriculture, resting on the prevailing view’s account of the wrongness of killing, may be viewed as good news by those who want to continue to exploit animals with a clear conscience. However, a moment’s reflection shows the opposite. The prevailing view does more than put animals and humans in different moral categories when it comes to the wrongness of killing. It does the same thing in the case of vast numbers of humans.

Infants and young children are the most obvious examples. Even those who attribute a robust psychology to these children will be hard pressed to find in them the self-consciousness required by the prevailing view. Are we to say, then, that no wrong is done to infants and young children if they are killed before they mature enough to desire to go on living? That we do nothing wrong to them when they are most innocent and least able to protect themselves? Given the prevailing view, this is precisely what we are to say. It is difficult to imagine a more deficient, a more obscene ethical perspective.

The Fallaciousness of the Prevailing View

As it happens, the truly good news is that the prevailing view is untenable because it’s fallacious. Logically, there is no connection between (1) frustrating someone’s desire for something and (2) doing something wrong to that person.

Here is an example that illustrates the point. Suppose Hans wants to steal Heinrich’s money. It is ludicrous to say that we have done something directly wrong to Hans if we prevent him from doing what he wants to do to Heinrich. Clearly, whether it is right or wrong to prevent Hans from doing what he wants to do is not something we can decide just by knowing that he wants to do it or that, if we act in certain ways, we will prevent him from doing it.

What is true of Hans is no less true of Hilda. We grant that she wanted to go on living. We grant as well that in taking her life her murderer frustrated her desire to go on living. What is not to be granted is that her murderer did something wrong to her because he frustrated her desire. The satisfaction or frustration of desire is not the stuff of which morality is made.

It does not follow that her murderer did something directly wrong to her when he took her life. She wanted to go on living and true as well that her murderer frustrated this desire of hers, it is not true that the murder represents a direct wrong done to her because it frustrated her desire to go on living. Clearly, whether it was right or wrong for Hilda to do what she wanted to do or for us to prevent Hilda from doing it is not something we can decide just by knowing that she wants to do it or that, if someone else acts in certain ways, she will be prevented from doing it.

Recognizing the fallaciousness of the prevailing view’s rationale has important implications for assessing the morality of killing. In particular, because the prevailing view is fallacious, it has no role to play in exploring questions about when, if ever, infanticide is a direct wrong done to the victims. “Humane” infanticide (deliberately killing human children, while causing them a minimum of pain) can represent a direct wrong done to human infants even though they lack the self-consciousness that is presupposed by the desire to go on living.

Logic Plays No Favorites

But logic plays no favorites. If the preceding is true in the case of infanticide, the same is no less true when we ask whether any wrong is done directly to animals when they are killed. Consider again the slaughter of animals for food. “Humane” slaughter (deliberately killing animals, while causing them a minimum of pain) can represent a direct wrong done to animals even though they lack the self-consciousness that is presupposed by the desire to go on living.

Granted, establishing this much does not show that we do something wrong to animals when we slaughter them as a source of food. This is a question I explore at length elsewhere. What the preceding does show is that the most common philosophical rationale for thinking that we do nothing wrong to animals when we slaughter them for food fails to meet the standards of adequate proof.