I came across an interesting argument in a book edited by soon-to-be-podcast-guest Jeffrey A. Schaler. The book (Peter Singer Under Fire) is on the philosophy of Peter Singer, with whom I am in a great deal of agreement it seems. However, stimulating this post is the question of vegetarianism, and the accusation that by not abstaining from the eating of meat, we are directly causing the suffering of animals.
Firstly, a personal aside: I grew up with animals, and have a great deal of time for animal lovers. My cat Ziggy gets more attention and devotion than most living things in my life. My mother goes too far though, and this was always my assessment. Some of my earliest memories are of the films of Lassie reducing my mother to a quivering wreck. Or some badger baiting documentary causing howls which could easily be mistaken for a banshee, as a badger gets bludgeoned with a spade. Even today, as she is rapidly entering her 60th year on the planet, she will cry for dead vermin as though it were part of the family. Is this a bad thing? Well let's progress with the post.
So I am not a vegetarian, and I consume the meat of other animals with delight. Sausages? Love 'em. Chicken? Delicious. Lamb? Cute as fuck, pass the mint sauce. Don't get me wrong. The meat free alternatives are fine and dandy. Quorn is a very nice change from the usual suspects on occasion. But I do eat meat. Is this eating of meat the direct cause of suffering? Do I cause animals to suffer?
The main question, as I see it, is what does it mean for a non-human animal to suffer? I do not dispute that some animals live pitiful lives. That pain is inflicted upon animals for the benefit of us. But although we share a common ancestry with the rest of the animal kingdom, we are not, per se, animals. Or if we are an animal, we are also a special kind of being. An existential being. And it is this existential being that makes our own pain so intolerable.
Let me illustrate what I am getting at. We have just bought a copy of a new operating system for our computer. Windows 42. This updated version comes with a host of new features. But the one we're interested in, is this: a new driver has been written for the hardware. Now, whenever you plug a USB drive into a USB port, the computer screams in pain, and does not desist until you remove the drive. The longer you leave it in, the louder the scream becomes. And if you insert several drives at the same time, there is an overwhelming and almighty din. Is my computer suffering when I insert a USB drive into it? It certainly acts as though this is a painful thing for it. We even have a way of asking the computer. Bring up the command prompt and type: >are you in pain? The cursor flashes briefly and then the computer prints out: Obviously, dickhead! [charming]. If this were to be an added feature of Windows, we might find that we use external USB drives less. People might become, I don't know, the vegetarian equivalent regarding using USB drives in computers. You may even get people protesting for computers to be freed from their human servitude, and released back into the wild, where no USB stick can ever be inserted into them again...
Okay ludicrous eh? But what is pain for an animal? As I write this sentence I have a small spider crawling across my keyboard. Its brain is miniature. It has no understanding about what the world is or its place in it. As I flick it away, it may sense the pressure against it. Nerves transmit information, as the organism scrabbles to initiate evolutionarily prepared behavioural responses. It may even scream (okay not the spider). And? How is that different from the computer? It isn't. Most life on this planet is akin to a biological machine. If it has the appearance of having a human being inside it, that is anthropomorphism, and is a bias caused by our inability to recognise that a creature is not inferior because it is not human. A computer that says it is in pain will no more elicit from me sympathy, than a spider, mouse or any other animal.
Humans are (on the whole) existential beings and a different order from the rest of the animal kingdom. Animals may well experience pain. And computers may wail when we insert drives into their ports. But their experience of pain and suffering is far removed from our own. If you have no conception of yourself or your mortality, then how can your pain be the same? Yes it's there. Yes there are signals, But signals do not imply an identical emotional component or experience. Consider a favourite quote from Darwin:
It is often difficult to judge whether animals have any feeling for each other’s sufferings. Who can say what cows feel, when they surround and stare intently on a dying or dead companion? That animals sometimes are far from feeling any sympathy is too certain; for they will expel a wounded animal from the herd, or gore or worry it to death. This is almost the blackest fact in natural history, unless indeed the explanation which has been suggested is true, that their instinct or reason leads them to expel an injured companion, lest beasts of prey, including man, should be tempted to follow the troop. In this case their conduct is not much worse than that of the North American Indians who leave their feeble comrades to perish on the plains, or the Feegeans, who, when their parents get old or fall ill, bury them alive. (Darwin, 1871, pp.77–78)
You see I am not a speciesist. I am an existentialist. And only existential beings elicit my sympathy, because only existential beings suffer in quite our unique way. This is why I frequently say, that if one day we were to meet an intelligent extraterrestrial (we won’t, but if we did), we would share more with them than we do with any single terrestrial creature that has ever existed. Because meeting another existential being would just prove that point. Their pain would be our pain (and vice versa).
To end this post, let us return to the personal. My mother has never cared for humans. All her life she has chosen animals over human beings. This perverse and frustrating philosophy has always annoyed me slightly. Recently she has taken to writing to some prisoners on death row in the US. And for the first time she has first-hand experience of the great existential pain that can only be inflicted on other humans. Every day that these men are incarcerated (in horrible conditions) is one less day they have alive. Is one day nearer to being executed. And interestingly, every second that they can be removed from the confines of their cells, even if it is just through the contents of a letter, is an immeasurable relief from the stark pain and misery of their existence. And for the first time in my life, my mother shows a modicum of sympathy for the pains of other humans.
As to the suffering of animals? A battery hen should be thankful it is not a human!Go Top