AR Philosophy > Morality Index

6. Valuing Consciousness

    "The dissolution of commercial animal farming as we know it obviously requires more than our individual commitment to vegetarianism. To refuse on principle to buy products of the meat industry is to do what is right, but it is not to do enough. To recognize the rights of animals is to recognize the related duty to defend them against those who violate their rights, and to discharge this duty requires more than our individual abstention. It requires acting to bring about those changes that are necessary if the rights of these animals are not to be violated. Fundamentally, then, it requires a revolution in our culture's thought about, and its accepted treatment of, farm animals... But prejudices die hard, all the more so when they are insulated by widespread secular customs and religious beliefs, sustained by large and powerful economic interests, and protected by the common law. To overcome the collective entropy of those forces against change will not be easy. The animal rights movement is not for the faint heart"
    -- Richard Ryder

Hard-nosed scientists and traditional analytic philosophers are likely to feel much of this review essay is idle opinion. OK, this guy gets worked up about getting rid of cruelty and suffering; but so what? Moral seriousness here is implicitly taken by philosophical sophisticates to be intellectually frivolous. The language of morals is basically verbiage because value-judgements aren't reckoned to have truth-conditions. They amount instead to an obliquely autobiographical commentary on the state of mind of their author. By common scientific consent, they don't consistently pick out objective features in the mind-independent universe. In issuing value-judgements, all we are doing - assuming adherence to a pre-QM classical realist fantasy of perception - is unwittingly projecting our feelings onto the world "out there" as [supposedly] disclosed by the senses. We think we're "reading off". In fact, we're "reading in". Admittedly, we don't have any wholly satisfactory theory of truth - any more than meta-ethicists have any wholly satisfactory theory of the meaning of value-judgements. Yet only some sort of correspondence theory of truth is going to be viable; and unlike statements of fact, what value-judgements express clearly doesn't correspond to anything which could potentially make them true or false. They are therefore, it's alleged, just (in)convenient fictions: DNA-driven adaptations, explicable perhaps in terms of human evolutionary psychology, but still inventions of the human mind. In this context, the very title Taking Animals Seriously gives the game away. Why not take animals lightly? Surely, there's simply no fact of the matter either way?

In defiance of the ill-called naturalistic fallacy, I'm going to argue there is a fact of the matter. A post-Darwinian world where suffering has been replaced by states which seem self-intimitingly valuable really is more valuable, no less than it will be more blissful. Furthermore, all-pervasive well-being is not just more valuable than the endemic miseries of the status quo. It's better than DeGrazia's well-intentioned but ultimately cosmetic reformism, which still leaves the bloody and pain-infested Darwinian legacy biologically entrenched both in and around us.

How come? Doesn't this sort of claim mix up prediction with prescription? Surely value isn't like, say, pain? Value-judgements at least purport to have propositional content; and thus are potentially true or false. Whether they're merely privately entertained or verbally expressed, they serve as vehicles for expressing something over-and-above the ill-defined phenomenological properties of particular spatio-temporally located episodes occurring in the mind/brains of people who physically make them. Pain doesn't have this sort of content. It's just painful. It's not "about" anything. Pain is self-intimating. Value isn't. In the case of pain, for sure, the "seeming" and the reality genuinely are indistinguishable. At least in its rawest and purest form, the experience of pain isn't shot through with theoretical assumptions about its nature above-and-beyond its self-disclosing nastiness; or often even with [fallible] attributions of its cause. You can't be mistaken about being in agony. So at the risk of succumbing to a naive semantic empiricism, we can be depressingly confident that no revolutionary scientific discovery could ever reveal that pain didn't exist; the distinction between Appearance and Reality vanishes when the reality at issue is appearance itself. Yet to claim the same about value, and to claim that value is self-authenticating simply because [currently] peak experiences appear self-intimitingly valuable, is mere tricksy verbal manoeuvre. Mapping out the world's ontology needs hard experimental work; not an exercise in inward-looking contemplation.

So what's going on? Values may seem to be about something external to experience if one retains a classical realist theory of perception. The rival picture of billions and billions of autobiographical virtual worlds, each chattering with mentalese masquerading within as public speech, is scarcely conventional wisdom. And yet if values "really" existed outside the distinctive quality they lend to certain forms of experience - dressed up in virtual world furniture or otherwise - they would be weird and cognitively inaccessible objects, wholly out of place in a naturalistic world-picture. So there's simply no need to posit such ontological extravagancies at all. But if they can't intelligibly be treated as platonic objects, they are even less plausible as candidates for natural properties of the [inferred] mind-independent world. There simply isn't room for goodness and badness in the scientific world-picture as revealed by physics. So why not banish values altogether? Surely the "naturalistic fallacy" was debunked a long time ago?

Yet the naturalistic fallacy is only a fallacy if value gets propositionalised and treated as something external to experience itself; and since causally inert, non-spatio-temporal abstract propositions are scientifically unnaturalisable, this exile is probably ill-advised. [How a natural world can simulate a world where truth-evaluable "propositional content" exists is another story. Ours does, quite uncannily; natural selection is quite superb at simulating the miraculous, though it's unaccountably silent on the date upon which the first semantic miracle allegedly occurred]. Many modes of experiences which are apprehended as valuable - typically bound up today with encephalized feelings involving neural representations of genetically advantageous qualities - aren't normally conceptualized by their subjects as particular modes of experience. Their valuable aspect is known under other descriptions entirely. Value appears instead to inhere in the properties of the particular, typically reproduction-enhancing objects, properties, people or behavior which excite such judgements. Yet to identify value as dwelling beyond our psychoneural virtual worlds - as a spooky, ill-located sort of ontological furniture - is not simply incoherent. It is to presuppose one has non-inferential access to the mind-transcendent universe which we simply do not, and could not, possess.

But then what is the ontological status of value? What is it really?

Well, what is the ontological status of phenomenal blueness? It's a mode of experience. Awake or dreaming, it's mind-dependent, albeit often selected from the mind/brain's finite menu of states by patterns of peripheral stimuli. It can't be defined in terms of anything else external to itself. Formally, its occurrence in one's mental world may indeed be field-theoretically encoded by the equations of QM; and natural selection has ensured that awake mind/brains normally undergo it when optic nerves get triggered by electromagnetic radiation differentially reflected from macro-patterns in the local environment. Yet this doesn't make blueness any less unique and irreducible, or "really" something else. If we ever understand why the quantum mechanical formalism codifies the structures and interrelationships of different kinds of consciousness to yield the exact textures it does - or indeed any texture at all - we'll be able to manipulate and create blueness [or manufacture and maximize valuable experiences] in a more effective and more quantitative sense than we can today. Yet this won't denature its phenomenology; or it would be something else, a property of a different kind in a different kind of world.

The story of value is more complicated on account of of its accumulated ideological baggage; but phenomenologically at least, maximally valuable and maximally happy worlds would seem to be coextensive. A world without misery is a world without moral dilemmas. A maximally happy post-Darwinian cosmos is unsurpassable in both its quantity and quality of apprehended value. It's impossible to feel blissfully fulfilled and find blissful fulfillment valueless. Conversely, a world or Everett hell-branch which was literally full of suicidal despair and pain would not just seem utterly valueless. It would quite literally lack any positive value at all. If the predictions of HI are borne out, on the other hand, the world of our descendants will be biologically super-charged with value to a degree exceeding our present notational resources. Images of hyper-intelligent but jaded alien civilizations of sophisticates, bored beyond measure with their meaningless lives, are misconceived. They owe too great a debt to watching repeat-episodes of Star Trek; and not enough to contemporary biomedical research.

The likelihood of an ultimate total reconciliation of the phenomenology of well-being and value is not obvious. Traditional and unbiologically-inspired utilitarianism poses various ethical dilemmas, or at least uncomfortable consequences. Superficially, one can imagine possible worlds which were bliss-ridden in a "baser" and more debauched fashion than merely moderately happy but "edifying" worlds. But the comparison is deceptive. "Empty" or "base" happiness [the sort of happiness most commonly associated with taking dirty street-drugs or the furtively pursued pleasures of the flesh], insofar as it is indeed apprehended as "empty" or "base", is sullied happiness and ill-deserving of the name. Such happiness certainly won't be maximal; so the dilemma of possible trade-offs doesn't arise.

There's still an obvious problem here. The sort of naturalistic analysis advanced here conceptually entails that values are real but mind-dependent. Alarm-bells start ringing here. "Mind-dependent" makes them sound ontologically second-rate. The tension between the two categories arises, however, only if one thinks of mind as somehow outside the world "looking in". If mind weren't a natural feature of the cosmos, then the mind-dependence of value might indeed impugn its status. Yet mind is as much a part of the natural world as are atoms and molecules. The subjectivity of value no more threatens its reality than the subjectivity of pain makes surgical anaesthetics redundant. For sure, it's all in the mind. But minds are all in the world. What's morally pernicious is third-person metaphysic of contemporary science. That metaphysic muddles the two senses of "objective" and thereby sows confusion. The behavior of the stuff of the world is indeed amenable to description by a mathematical formalism. This formalism encodes how, and to what degree, it matters to a creature that (s)he's undergoing extreme pain. It is objectively true that the world contains such phenomena that matter desperately. The suffering of someone I have never met and don't know of doesn't matter to me - and preventing can't be desperately important to me - but this doesn't mean it is actually any less desperately important. All first-person facts are created equal. Simply because it doesn't matter to [misleadingly called] other 'observers' (who are, in perceptual irrealist perspective, actually nothing of the kind) then it's easy to suppose that it's more "objective" to suppose that the plight of others doesn't really matter. Yet moral apathy in the guise of observer-independence reflects a morally harmful fallacy of equivocation, not a scientific fact.

Isn't this value-naturalist position self-subverting? The critic who finds the status quo, or DeGrazia's tidied-up state-of-Nature, preferable to ubiquitous happiness may charge that the immense value self-ascribed by our ecstatic descendants to their lives and consciousness is delusive. Phenomenologically, of course, their biological wonderworld is more valuable, just in virtue of the sheer number, intensity and variety of experiences apprehended as worthwhile. Yet the ubiquity of their value-steeped phenomenology no more means earthly paradise is really more valuable than the medieval penchant for finding witches means the medieval world was really more witch-ridden. So, surely, I am disagreeing with the critic's position. Yet if value is, as claimed here, a distinctive texture of experience rather than something-who-knows-what expressed by propositional content, then I can't self-consistently say that the critic is wrong. For this would be to propositionalise value rather than treat it as a distinctive quality of consciousness. Propositionalising value is the very practice being argued against. And yet if one can't contest judgements of value, then what's the point of this review?; straight studies in the neuroethology of mind might as well be left to the academic journals. Surely this rejoinder counts as a reduction of the whole neo-naturalist argument against the value-sceptic?
But this is all far too quick. What's happening here is that the appalled critic is himself occupying a valueless, malaise-infected state of consciousness. Within that malaise-infected state, (s)he is no more capable of semantically capturing the nature of mature post-Darwinian life than my current state of mind can capture the excruciating agonies of an Ottoman torture-chamber. The critic's frame of mind testifies to the value-starved and mean-spirited nature typical of psychopathologies bred by the present DNA-regime; not the illusory imperfection of our outrageously wonderful future.

7. Darwinism With A Human Face?

"Because one species is more clever than another, does it give it the right to imprison or torture the less clever species? Does one exceptionally clever individual have a right to exploit the less clever individuals of his own species? To say that he does is to say with the Fascists that the strong have a right to abuse and exploit the weak - might is right, and the strong and ruthless shall inherit the earth."
Richard Ryder


    Don't cause unnecessary harm.
    Make every reasonable effort not to provide support for institutions that cause or support unnecessary harm.
    Don't cause significant suffering for the sake of your or others' enjoyment.
    Apply equally any standards allowing the causing of suffering.
    Don't kill sentient animals unnecessarily.

8. If You Think It's Murder, Act Like It

Final statement:
    "Animal Liberation will require greater altruism on the part of human beings than any other liberation movement. The animals themselves are incapable of demanding their own liberation, or of protesting against their condition with votes, demonstrations or bombs. Human beings have the power to continue to oppress other species forever, or until we make the planet unsuitable for living beings. Will our tyranny continue, proving that we really are the selfish tyrants that the most cynical of poets and philosophers have always said we are? Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending the ruthless oppression of species in our power, not because we are forced to do so by rebels or terrorists, but because we recognize our position is morally indefensible? The way in which we answer this question depends on the way each one of us, individually, answers it."

    An old philosophical tradition consists in simply expounding the truth as one sees it. One then just waits until sheer force of argument allows one's conclusions to become generally known and luminously self-evident. Perhaps this sort of dispassionate engagement with the issues will indeed prove enough to rescue billions of presently unborn victims of human inhumanity to non-humans in decades to come.
    Unfortunately, disembodied rationality, even if it existed, would be causally impotent; and very little good to anyone. Certainly, placing one's faith in the dawning light of reason isn't always a recipe for success where immensely powerful and hostile vested interests are at stake. And the vested interests defending animal-exploitation are very powerful indeed.
    So what should be done - or, much better, what should we ourselves do - to try and stop the holocaust?
    First, here's a schematic review of some of the options.
    Acts of violence against the abusers rarely help the abused. They are part of the very Darwinian heritage one is trying to transcend. This isn't a call for sanctimoniousness - as distinct from clarity - in condemning the actions of the minuscule handful of activists tempted to pursue this sort of radical activism. Passive, turn-the-other-cheek acceptance of unprovoked violence directed against oneself may be admirable. Acquiescence in its institutionalized and unprovoked infliction on others demands less stoicism and no great heroics.

None of these caveats changes the fact that violent action against other persons is - in general - disastrously ill-conceived. Most of us are ourselves, in any case, so implicated by our consumerist life-styles in the exploitation of others that singling out of some abusers rather than others is often a matter of punishing visibility rather than objective consequence. Typically, it is the ramifications of our acts that are frightful, not the inherent character of the agents who commit them. Thus condemnation of animal-abusers - or those who in vain try physically to stop them - should at best be seen instead as a rhetorical tool of purely instrumental value. It's not a matter of some metaphysical assignment of guilt. Under the eye of eternity, even a Hitler or a Pol Pot is no more guilty - or innocent - than a smallpox virus. For we are all animals. Our behavior is exhaustively described by a set of natural laws which we didn't choose and of whose playing out we are all a part. Fortunately, it transpires that a non-obvious consequence of these laws is the development of a species blessed with a capacity to overthrow the Darwinian regime to which those same laws gave rise. Suffering, it transpires, has temporal boundaries as well as spatial ones.

    For there is an incongruity to our hand-wringing over Why Didn't We Bomb the Death Camps? for instance, and our condemnation of the Nazi experiments on humans as the ultimate abomination - while at the same time we collaborate with regimes guilty of sanctioning the very same acts of killing and cruelty against highly sentient non-humans (who are invariably described as only animals, as though their vulnerability and helplessness meant they mattered less then the reigning Herrenvolk). We may be baffled how Eichmann and Mengele could be decent family men and yet do such terrible things to children. Yet their attitude to their helpless victims was not radically different from ours to "inferior beings". Only a few of us actively enjoy causing suffering to those we exploit and kill. For the most part, we are simply oblivious to it. Or we (mis-)conceive it as too trivially insignificant to worry about. In our case, our victims are, after all, sub-human - not even untermenschen - and our use of the very word "animals" coveys a sense of superiority and disdain. For the most part, it is simply a matter of convenience to treat non-humans in the way we do. Abusing animals for money, taste or curiosity and even fun has for long simply been a part of the way the world works.
    Of course, in the wake of the growth of the animal-rights movement, there has recently arisen a hitherto unfelt need to demonize and demean our non-human victims - and those who try to help them - now that our previously well-nigh unquestioned right to kill and exploit them is being challenged. Bloodsports enthusiasts, for instance, currently spend a lot of time cataloguing the alleged depredations of our victims on the environment. Recreational animal-killers go to extraordinarily lengths to avoid admitting that they themselves enjoy hunting and killing other creatures for fun. But then until a few years ago such rationalizations seemed scarcely called for. Selfish DNA had honed our intuitions so that the most agonizing bloodshed seemed simply "natural".
    Tactically, on the other hand, there are certainly strong arguments in favor of legalism. Despite the strict pacifism of most ALF activists, it's inevitable that the profiteers and the bureaucrats in charge the non-human killing-apparatus, and the beneficiaries of the whole economic empire of ancillary services on which it depends, will talk - invariably without irony - of the violence and terrorism of their opponents. In the Orwellian lexicon of the killers and their apologists, the destruction of 'private property' - i.e. the instruments of mass-killing - is invariably dubbed 'violent' and "terroristic." The institutionalized physical abuse and killing of non-humans, on the other hand, is bizarrely categorized as law-abiding and peaceful(!). Transposing the respect due to sentient beings as subjects to physical objects is simply one of the more grotesque examples of the ideology of animal-abuse. Whatever the grisly ironies, the fact remains that the power of the modern state is always likely to snuff out direct action. The only possible exception is the co-ordination of mass civil-disobedience which follows breakthroughs to a critical mass of public support; after which it should be unnecessary. Moreover direct physical action against the material infrastructure of abuse also distracts attention from the arena where the decisive battle will actually be lost or won. The battle for the "hearts and minds" of the human population is a phrase lamed by over-use; but it's as relevant as ever.
    On balance, then, the slaughter and abuse of our victims will probably be preventable only when a majority of the population in mainstream human society can be induced to accept that our present-day systematic abuse and killing of non-humans is morally wrong. If enough of the population come to recognize that institutionalized killing and abuse of non-humans is morally wrong, then such killing and abuse can be curtailed; and subsequently abolished in law. The full resources of the state can then be deployed to enforce that abolition.
    The machinery of the animal holocaust is likely to be dismantled by essentially peaceful and legal means.
    So there is a clearly a daunting struggle ahead. Life-stylism by itself is not enough. Animal-abuse itself needs to become a criminal offence. It can't be left as a matter of consumer choice or personal taste. This can only happen if most people can be persuaded that it is morally unacceptable for anyone to do it.
    This transformation depends on inducing a fundamental shift in their beliefs and values, an extension of the kind of love and privileges given to Rover, the adored family pet, to the similar creatures we are paying to have abused and butchered. A whole range of life-forms typically treated as objects must come to be treated as fellow subjects.
    Just how likely is this shift to occur?
    Ir's likely to be generational rather than the product of mid-life change. The defensibility of animal-abuse tends to seem less "obvious" to younger people. The struggle that will be waged is both ideological and scientific.
    Trusting that the weak and the vulnerable might ever be protected by the powerful might seem na?e in the extreme. Yet once the incentive of self-interest has been stripped away, and genetic-engineering allows us to produce whatever food-products we like without causing death and suffering, our argumentative blind-spot is likely to disappear.
    Sound-and-video-footage of the kind that simply wouldn't be allowed on traditional TV must be smuggled out from the factory-farms and death-factories. It must be disseminated over imminent Web-TV to the widest possible audience. For if one had to watch the life and death of the creature the remains of whose body was sitting on one's plate, then one almost certainly would be too revolted to eat it.
    One final plea: It's important that meat-eating should start to become socially unacceptable. Only later is it likely to be criminalized if practiced on the corpses of once-sentient animals.
    Is widespread social stigmatization of eating dead animals really a serious prospect within the foreseeable future? Yes. Couched in the abstract, the infliction of needless suffering on other beings is acknowledged by most people to be morally wrong. We need merely to make the connection between what we're doing and the suffering our actions cause. Over the past twenty years or so overt racism has become socially taboo within more and more parts of society. So have the more virulent forms of, say, sexism and homophobia. Violence against children, too, a habit universally recognized by child-abuse experts as the cause of potentially long-lasting psychological damage, is heading in the same direction; though likewise in practice there is a fearful way to go. One may predict - as well as advocate - that some time over the next few decades, a similar growth of stigmatization will attach to eating traditional meat-products derived from "livestock".
    It would be nice to end on an uplifting note. Such uplift would also be misleading and facile. Right now as you read these words, mass-killings and systematic animal-abuse continue at unimaginable levels. We are paying, quite literally, its perpetrators to kill their victims on our behalf. A sense of guilt and horror, not complacency, is needed to stop us. At the very least, if one is looking for a postscript to the call to take animals seriously, then it might well be: "If you think it's murder, act like it."