A moral claim not to feel pain

'Intensive farming and the use of animals in the entertainment industry raise even more pressing eth

The view that animals have moral rights is a difficult one to accept because of the widespread assumption that moral rights come as a package: either you have none, or you have them all.

As it seems laughable to suggest that a chimpanzee should enjoy the right to an education, or the right to freedom of expression, then it is assumed that he should not enjoy any right whatsoever.

But it is possible to justify the right of any mammal not to have pain inflicted unnecessarily without also defending their right to vote at the next election.

That is because a chimpanzee can feel pain, and has an interest in not feeling pain, but cannot decide between the domestic policies of rival political parties, and has no interest in doing so. We do not frustrate any of the chimpanzee’s preferences by not allowing him to vote, but we do frustrate his preference to be free from pain if we kick him around for no reason.

From the very origin of the idea of rights and consistently in the development of this idea, the entitlement of an individual to respectful treatment has been justified on the basis of whether the individual has preferences and acts on those preferences.

If the possession of those psychological capacities determines who has rights, shouldn’t we be open to extending rights to non-humans, provided that they can also exercise the same capacities to some extent?

We can describe some animals as agents with preferences: chimpanzees have preferences about what to eat and where to live - although they do not know they do.

On the other hand, we might have no reason to believe that they have plans for the future or beliefs about their own existence. This suggests that they do not have an interest in their continued existence and that there are no grounds to accord to them a right to life.

These considerations, as any other in moral decision-making, should of course be weighed up with other moral considerations before giving rise to decisions or actions.

Should we stop experimenting on primates if that would slow down scientific achievements that could lead to the development of treatment for debilitating diseases? These questions are difficult, because they require us to weigh up the morally relevant interests of individuals who are deserving of careful moral consideration, i.e. the primates used in research and the people awaiting a cure.

Before we can answer questions like this, we need to know more about the case. Would the primates involved in that particular research project be subject to pain? How likely is it that the research project would give rise to a potential breakthrough? Could the experiment involve other species of animals, less sensitive than primates to pain and stress, or could it be done in ways that do not require any animal to suffer?

Although we do not know a lot about the mental life of other animals, we do not need to know a lot about it before we can speculate that they have an interest in avoiding pain. Good evidence comes from their behavioural responses to potentially painful situations and from physiological similarities in pain perception mechanisms between humans and non-humans, especially in other mammals.

This makes it harder for us to justify current human practices involving other animals, where these animals are treated in ways that are likely to cause them considerable pain. Intensive farming and the use of animals in the entertainment industry raise even more pressing ethical questions than the use of animals in biomedical research, because the outcome of these practices has a more tenuous contribution to make to interests that are relevant to our well-being.

In conclusion, some animals can make a moral claim on us not to be inflicted pain, even if it does not make much sense to accord to them the full range of so-called ‘human’ rights. As long as they can be shown to have preferences that have an impact on their well-being, those preferences deserve moral consideration.

Lisa Bortolotti lectures in philosophy at the University of Birmingham. She is interested in the philosophy of cognitive science and in applied ethics and has just finished writing a textbook in the philosophy of science to be published in November with Polity Press
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times