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Pigs can’t fly, but they can probably feel pain

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Hey folks.  This is a continuation of an earlier post in which Maggie and I (I’m Seth) argued that the skeptic community, insofar as it cares about being good without god, ought to extend moral consideration to the non-human animals raised for meat production.  A consequence of this is to cease contributing to the so-called factory farming system, as it causes a large amount of unnecessary suffering.  One of our commentors challenged the rational humanist basis for such a view.  He said:

J: However, I know many people who are prone to practice this sort of anthropomorphism of animals (i.e., attributing human characteristics like cognition and complex emotion to them) which as far as I can deduce is not based on truly rational humanistic philosophies.

Anthropomorphized pig: A manipulative tactic from the animal welfare movement?

Here’s my response:

Here’s the basis for attributing the ability to suffer and feel pain in a morally significant way to non-human animals.
1. The non-human animals that are used to mass-produce meat in the CAFO system are avians and mammals.
2. Humans share relatively recent common ancestors with avians and mammals. In particular, the parts of the human brain that experience pain and some emotional suffering developed in those early common ancestors; we share many relevant parts of the brain with avians and mammals.
3. When in situations that would be painful to a human or cause a human to suffer, non-human animals exhibit similar pain/suffering-avoidance behavior.
4. The ability to experience pain and suffering has an evolutionary benefit: it encourages the animal to avoid harmful or otherwise damaging situations.

So, they have the same relevant parts of the brain, they exhibit behavior that one would expect if they were in fact feeling pain and suffering, and the ability to feel pain and suffering has an evolutionary benefit. The best explanation of these data is that the non-human animals do in fact experience pain and suffering. The conclusion is based entirely on rational inference and evolutionary biology.

However, not to commit the genetic fallacy, but you should examine the foundations of your intuitions that non-human animals suffering is either non-existent or insignificant. This tradition in our culture to deny non-human animals such moral significance traces back to Descartes, who denied that non-human animals had souls, and maintained that they were merely mindless automata. This, combined with the Christian view that humans had god-given proper dominion over the non-human animals, encouraged a cultural speciesism which regarded non-human animal suffering with apathy. Even though you are no longer a Christian, I think you still have some views about non-human animals that are a relic of your cultural past. You should carefully examine those views with a skeptical disposition, and see if your intuitions that non-human animals can’t suffer, or that their suffering doesn’t matter morally, wins out.

A completely secular moral view cannot appeal to god for justification. Some members of the humanist movement take it as a given that all and only humans matter morally. A skeptic should question this claim. What is it, exactly, about humans, that matter morally? If one thinks that causing a human unnecessary pain and suffering is wrong, then it is hard to see why intelligence matters. It is not due to our greater intelligence that a broken nose hurts. It is reasonable to identify unnecessary pain and suffering as at least one type of moral badness. But, due to the reasons I laid out above, we have good reasons to believe that the non-human animals raised for meat/dairy production are capable of experiencing pain and some levels of suffering. Without begging the question that humans are all that matter morally, it is rational to extend our moral consideration to those non-human animals that can suffer. In fact, attributing moral significance to avians and non-human mammals is not only based on rational naturalistic philosophy, it is demanded by it once one tears down the religiously motivated doctrine that humans are divinely placed on an exceptional pedestal.

Here’s  Peter Singer, holdin’ it down:


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

8 comments on “Pigs can’t fly, but they can probably feel pain

  1. delahar
    July 19, 2011

    Some very entertaining contrasting viewpoints are entertained by Peter Singer and “Spengler”, here: and here:

  2. Jerry Winn
    July 19, 2011

    Very few of my views hold any relic of my Christian past… in fact I had more favorable views towards animal rights at that point in my life. My views now are based primarily on a rational application of psychology, and humans are decidedly exceptional in most aspects of psychology. I’m not trying to be defensive or confrontational here– I know we have clashed in the past on what I would consider intellectual differences, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t draw assumptions about biases I might have. Simply, you don’t know me well enough that you should be doing that. Forgiven and moving on…

    I certainly acknowledge that animals experience pain and suffering, but that’s not even remotely unique to our genetic ancestry. Even many of the least intelligent of animals are trainable with behaviorist methods to seek rewards and avoid punishments (this merely requires an animal to make an association; it does not require understanding). My argument is that without -at least- sentience, suffering is unimportant. Arguably, suffering (the enduring state of despair) doesn’t exist without sentience- only pain. For example, when we were infants, we lacked sentience, and we surely felt great pain and even suffering at times. What is your earliest memory of suffering? My earliest memory of great pain came after I learned to walk (stepped on a bee), at a time when my IQ was already higher than all but the most exceptional animal intelligences. Even though I apparently was a very ill baby and suffered constantly, never at any point was I self-aware enough to think, “This isn’t right.”

    That isn’t to say that infant suffering doesn’t matter… it’s widely acknowledge that infancy is a sensitive period of development, but that’s taken with respect to the fact that the infant WILL develop. An animal won’t ever achieve the ability to interpret its pain as suffering… it lacks that cognitive ability. Humans have exceptional working memories that allow them to contextualize their circumstances, but without that ability, we would simply live discrete moment after discrete moment.

    I’m also not saying that any of the above is justification for cruelty, of course, just that I don’t think there’s a substantial case for granting human rights to creatures who aren’t even remotely comparable to human intellect. Like most things, exceptionalism is not a dichotomy: there are some ways in which humans aren’t exceptional and some ways in which they are. The question is how those exceptions should translate into different ethical considerations. To me, that’s a mostly arbitrary line no matter how you slice it (sheer guesswork at best), and while as I previously stated, I think it would be ideal if people drew the line away from concern for animals, I don’t think that the issue itself is important enough that I’m bothered by those who disagree. I’m sure that’s no consolation to those who do, but such is the nature of irreconcilable differences, which absolutely love subjective judgments like these.

  3. Seth Kurtenbach
    July 20, 2011

    Hey Jeremy,

    You said, “My views now are based primarily on a rational application of psychology, and humans are decidedly exceptional in most aspects of psychology.”

    Can you explain your moral view, and how the rational application of psychology justifies it?

    You say, “I certainly acknowledge that animals experience pain and suffering, but that’s not even remotely unique to our genetic ancestry.”

    Given that non-human animals experience pain and suffering, can you explain why we needn’t take their interests into moral consideration? It seems like a pretty good minimum principle that one should try to diminish the amount of pain and suffering one causes on creatures that are capable of such experiences. Also, I agree that such capacities are not unique to our genetic ancestry. The ability to experience pain and suffering is had by almost all animals to some degree. This indicates that they all count morally to some degree.

    You say, “An animal won’t ever achieve the ability to interpret its pain as suffering… it lacks that cognitive ability.”

    This seems like a contradiction with your earlier acknowledgment. Could you explain why an interpretive/cognitive ability or ‘working memory’ is necessary for a being to experience suffering? It seems like one can experience suffering without being able to reflect on the situation or intellectually recognize it as suffering.

    You say, “…never at any point was I self-aware enough to think, “This isn’t right.””

    Again, why should the ability to reflect on one’s situation be necessary for the experience itself? It seems like one can be aware of the experience of suffering without being self-aware, just as one can be aware of loud noises without reflectively thinking, “I am hearing a loud noise.” If an infant were placed in a similar situation as that of the pigs, cows, and chickens in CAFO’s, the infant would experience suffering, even without the ability to reflect on the moral implications of its experience. Do you disagree with this?

    You say, “I don’t think there’s a substantial case for granting human rights to creatures who aren’t even remotely comparable to human intellect.”

    First, I said nothing about human rights being extended to non-human animals, nor did I mention rights at all. Second, why think that intellect is a measure of a being’s moral worth? Do you think that the more intelligent humans are worthy of more moral consideration than humans of lower intelligence? Why think intelligence matters at all, morally? Perhaps intelligence enhances a being’s capacity to suffer, but this just reduces the issue to a matter of the degree to which a being can suffer.


  4. Jerry Winn
    July 21, 2011

    I can’t/won’t address nearly all of that, and most of it requires an understanding of psychology that I didn’t acquire over the course of one comment section reply, so I’m not at all naive enough to think that I have the personal capacity to convey it as such. I will try to offer a brief response (as I always try, but often fail at).

    Pain is merely a sensation like our sense of temperature, touch, sight, etc.. Even prolonged pain doesn’t create suffering. Surely anyone reading this can recall a time, perhaps even right now, where they experienced pain but largely ignored it. Suffering must be interpreted and contextualized through a filter of identity and self-awareness. It requires one to realize that THEY are in peril. Without the “ME” pain cannot be interpreted as such. It is merely a discrete sensation of pain after another… if you’re familiar with the old adage about the memory of a goldfish, it’s akin to how you might imagine that to be (though goldfish actually have a much better memory than that). And even with identity/sentience, pain can act merely as an associative deterrent. That is, most animals try to escape pain and seek pleasure in a mechanistic, rather than interpretive way. Certain stimuli are associated with pain, others associated with food/reproduction/etc..

    To speak as plainly as possible, pain and suffering cannot be “bad” for an animal if the animal cannot consider it bad, which most lack the cognitive ability to do (it requires a great deal of working memory). Pigs may be the sole relevant exception, but I won’t presume to say that they are intelligent enough, and they certainly seem content enough even in factory farms, at least as best I can tell. If nothing else, it’s presumptuous to think that their “prison life” is cruel to them because it would be cruel for us.

    To clarify some other things, in both of these posts the distinction of rights vs. treatment has been brought up. I just want to say that I’m not acknowledging a distinction between the two, and I’m not prone to speak with strict technical accuracy because it rarely absolves conversations like these of ample quibbling anyway. I at least assume that other readers will interpret these as arguments for animal rights, which I think is a fairly safe assumption.

    Likewise, when I use the term “suffering” as it applies to non-sentient intelligences, I am merely speaking colloquially, and trying to treat it with the same perspective that many people would take. I’m not about to debate what is/isn’t suffering, except to acknowledge that the “suffering” is qualitatively /different/.

    And unfortunately, from a personal vantage, it’s difficult to justify why I should say any more about my views. It would take a lot of time that seems unworthy of the number of readers it would address, and in my experience people aren’t prone to changing their mind about subjects that they’d take the time to write a blog post about. I mean that as no specific challenge to anyone’s open-mindedness, and apologize if it comes across that way. Simply, for as many misunderstandings as there are between the relatively simple exchanges we’ve had, I shudder to think of how many more would inevitably be involved if we really “got into it.” That is, of course, nothing unique to our exchanges. It happens thousands of times a second online.

    While that position may seem utterly bereft of faith in humanity’s ability to converse productively, I actually just think that if someone were truly, openly curious about my view, they could work it out for themselves better than I could do it for them. But perhaps I’m just rather good at playing devil’s advocate; I don’t know.

  5. Seth Kurtenbach
    July 21, 2011

    Thanks for the response. Do you have some sources regarding the requirement that beings be self-aware in order to interpret pain as suffering? I’ve never encountered such strong denial of non-human mammals’ capacities to suffer in the literature.

    I encourage you to look into the conditions of factory farming, particularly regarding pigs.

    Here’s an introductory link:

    It is a good idea to examine one’s positions in detail, because this is the best way to identify pockets of flawed reasoning and contradiction.

    You seem to suggest that my conclusions about pigs in CAFO’s are the result of presumptuous assumptions, but I gave you reasons based on basic evolutionary biology to think that pigs can suffer in morally meaningful ways, and in fact do suffer in the factory farms.

  6. Jerry Winn
    July 22, 2011

    I’m not saying that they can’t suffer (though nor would I say that there is no god; it’s a matter of skepticism). I’m saying that I strongly doubt that they can importantly suffer. Certain mammals more than others, for sure, but this is a question of intelligence and there’s a lot we don’t know about animal sentience/intelligence. Here’s an informative article (from a vegan site, no less), though I’ll spoil for you that they don’t go so far as to name which animals (if any) can suffer:

    I’ve looked into factory farming before, but I looked more specifically into pigs since they are generally considered to be the smartest of the factory farmed animals. I still don’t see any real evidence that they’re made to suffer. They are made to endure conditions that humans would consider awful, but if we don’t anthropomorphize them, I just don’t see any evidence that they are legitimately suffering. They may even experience significant pain… Iike many human males did when they were circumcised, but that doesn’t mean that the pain is suffering or that if it is, it is important. When I say important, to clarify, I mean having adaptive significance that is beyond a temporal state of pain.

    It’s not my intention to suggest where your conclusions come from, only to raise questions about their validity. In the scheme of things, with particular consideration to the human understanding of this issue, I think that any conclusion relies too heavily on presumption.

  7. maggiesaurusmay
    July 22, 2011

    Your basic argument here seems to be that absence of evidence in evidence of absence. We have plenty of good reasons to believe these animals suffer in factory farms (they develop neurotic behavior, experience pain, are highly social, have good memories, are very intelligent) but even without certainty, it is ethical to err on the side of caution, rather than just selfishly claim ignorance so that we can keep eating bacon because it tastes good.

  8. Jerry Winn
    July 24, 2011

    I guess that depends on what you consider good reason. Based on my understanding of psychology, I’d say we don’t, and in that case, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Neurotic/ social behavior and pain are not indicative of anything in particular; insects exhibit these. And animals aren’t particularly intelligent. If my own experiences with children at the same (theoretical) operational level of intelligence are any indication, any suffering animals endure is contentious at best and unimportant regardless.

    Either way, I think we’ve already established that I’m not concerned with always doing the right thing, and animal rights (ethical treatment of animals, whatever you want to call it) aren’t important to me, so even if I agreed with the premise, it’s too low on my list to address. That is to say, I’m not being disingenuous with my belief that animals can’t suffer importantly… if I believed they could, I’d simply argue that they can but that it’s not worth addressing (which I would probably believe if that were the case, but then I don’t ruminate on hypotheticals like this).

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