In Animals Like Us, Mark Rowlands offers the following as one of the reasons for believing that animals can feel pain:
The final reason for thinking that animals can feel pain is based on evolutionary considerations. At the time of Descartes, it was thought that human beings were very different from any other animal. Indeed, humans were not thought of as animals at all. The mind, the thinking part of us, was, according to Descartes, a non-physical thing, not really part of the physical world at all, but a soul or spirit that survived the death of our physical bodies. Only humans had this, animals were just physical machines. Now, however, we are in possession of so much evidence that emphasizes just how similar we are to other animals. In particular, we know that we have all had a common evolutionary history, beginning with chains of molecules floating around in the primeval soup. We share over 98 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees. Indeed, genetically, there is a greater difference between chimpanzees and monkeys than between chimpanzees and us. We, and the other great apes, have a common evolutionary ancestor, and we split into separate species only – on the evolutionary timescale – very, very recently. Imagine you are standing on the east coast of Africa. You are holding hands with someone else, and they are holding hands with someone else, and so on. You form a chain of hands across the African continent, all the way to the west coast. The person standing at the water’s edge in the west represents a molecular peptide chain, the first primitive proto-organism. You, standing at the water’s edge in the east, represent the species homo sapiens. Then, we and the other great apes split from our common ancestor about thirty yards away from where you are standing. That’s how close we all are on the evolutionary time scale.1
If we humans can feel pain and modern science has shown that humans are – biologically speaking – just another animal, then there is no reason for us to believe that nonhuman animals cannot feel pain.
I bring this up not because most people doubt that nonhuman animals can feel pain2 but because it exposes a deeply ingrained pattern of thought. Modern science has shown us that we are not radically dissimilar to animals; nevertheless, we constantly think of ourselves in that way.3 This could be because we possess language in a way (as far as I know) unparalleled among other animals. Language enables us to have an observer that sits behind our eyes, narrating our lives to us. We share this experience with other humans and thus come to believe that we are creatures apart. But whatever the reason, we no longer live in an anthropocentric universe.
I suspect this is why conservative churches of the evangelical or fundamentalist variety range from wary to hostile to modern science. At the heart of these religions is a personal relationship with God: a relationship founded on a personal conversion experience, which is in turn founded on the personal love of God in sending Jesus Christ into the world as a response to the fall of Adam and Eve, who themselves were specially created by God in the Garden of Eden. This account of God’s relationship with the universe is deeply anthropocentric. Modern science is thus an attack on a central principle of evangelical and fundamentalist theology.4
A few years ago, a friend and I were discussing the relationship of science and religion. He remarked that, since science had displaced humanity from its privileged position, we now had to choose whether we would lower the status of humanity or raise the status of nonhuman animals. To be honest, I was a little intimidated by his massive intelligence and didn’t want to seem stupid, so I sometimes didn’t ask for clarification when I didn’t understand. This was one of those times. I never did find out what he meant, but I’ll use the idea for my own purposes here.
Since science has shown that the universe is not centered on humanity5, we must adjust the way we think about the relationship between humans and nonhuman animals. Once crucial aspect of this is to rethink who is worthy of moral consideration. We could take the reductionist route, lower the status of humanity, and model society on the “survival of the fittest” rule. I doubt many see that an an attractive option.
Another option would be to raise the status of nonhuman animals, i.e., to consider them worthy of moral consideration.6 To regard something as morally considerable is, according to Mark Rowlands
to regard it as the sort of thing that counts morally – the sort of thing that should, morally speaking, be considered when we decide what to do.
Something is morally considerable when we must take it into account when making decisions.
Many people reject the idea that we must take into account the interests of animals when making decisions concerning them. But in order to maintain that rejection it must be shown that there is some morally relevant difference between humans and other animals.7 Species isn’t morally relevant; it’s a characteristic given by nature and over which you have no control. It has the same moral relevancy as race or gender, i.e., none.
Not even a unique ability thought to be possessed by humans justifies excluding animals from moral consideration. The problem here is that whatever characteristic you choose (rationality, language, etc.), there will be humans who are thought to be moral considerable (infants, the mentally disabled) who do not possess it. Someone could reply that they possess it potentially; but possessing something potentially is meaningless. I am potentially the President of the United States of America, but if I demand personal protection from the Secret Service I can guess what they would think of my present possession of potential privileges.
This is only a sketch of an argument, of course. My main goal is to get you thinking about your relationship with animals. Most of us already give moral consideration to our pets. Is there a reason why that shouldn’t be extended to all animals? The lives and well-being of millions of animals depend on how we answer this and related questions. The scale of the question demands that we not dismiss it.
1. Mark Rowlands, Animals Like Us, p. 8.↩
2. I believe most of the debate would be over animals’ experience of pain, which Rowlands addresses elsewhere. Even there, though, I believe this argument from evolution is helpful. If we have evolved to experience pain negatively (as opposed to experiencing it indifferently) then why should we assume that animals have a vastly different experience of pain?↩
3. Religious thought is not – despite what some may say – responsible for this. I would guess it’s a natural bias that would exist even if religion did not. On the other hand, religious thought does participate in it. Thankfully, some religious thinkers (like Andrew Linzey) have begun exploring what religion without anthropocentrism may look like.↩
4. It is interesting to note that equally conservative but more sacramental churches tend to have a less adversarial relationship with science. Perhaps this is because they are already trained to think of their relationship with God as mediated, and so are more comfortable with the idea of God working through means in creating the universe.↩
5. And, despite popular misunderstanding, we’re not even the apex of evolutionary development. We are but one tip of one branch of the phylogenetic tree.↩
6. Which does not mean full and equal status, by the way. Giving moral consideration to animals does not mean that in a burning house scenario you would be equally justified in saving either the cat or the cat lady. But that’s another blog post.↩
7. At this point I’m borrowing again from Mark Rowlands.↩