We may put too much effort into animal rights

Singer’s Animal Liberation is undoubtedly a work that resulted in a great deal of consciousness-raising. In it, he makes the point that beings capable of suffering demand our attention, irrespective of their specie, gender, sexual proclivity etc. Far reaching consequences from this book gripped, even unknowingly, the emancipatory power of Darwin in that suffering of animals can be thought to be on a contingency with humans based upon humankind’s place in the animal kingdom. This could have only been a good thing. However, it is often seen through the actions of certain terrorist organizations and overbearing animal compassion that the point is made too strongly in favor of animal welfare.

I am not saying that animals cannot suffer. However Animal Liberation is showing its age. I queried the quote from Singer:

“Pain is a state of consciousness, a “mental event”, and as such it can never be observed… …although human beings have a more developed cerebral cortex than other animals, this part of the brain is concerned with thinking functions rather than with basic impulses, emotions and feelings. These impulses, emotions, and feelings are located in the diencephalon, which is well developed in many other species of animals, especially in mammals and birds.” [Animal Liberation 1975 p36-37]

Let’s not talk about the fact that mental events have perfect capacity to be observed within an MRI (a device that was created in 1980s so Singer here has no blame by ignoring it). However what the MRI would also elucidate is that human emotions are housed in the rhinencephalon. Well developed in other mammals would be a correct estimation- the rat brain (if memory serves) is roughly 30% rhinencephalon. However it is not the development of that part of the brain that is the issue, rather what that part of the brain actually does. I’ll write a large post on human olfaction at some point as it’s what I feel to be an excellent evidencer of evolution, but for this purpose I’ll point out that while the rhinencephalon is responsible for emotions in humans, it is mostly an olfactory map for all other mammals. It makes sense- humans tend to be top carnivore and our dependence on vision combined with sophisticated emotional requirements has meant room in our craniums for these needs were taken from our ability to identify smell. We still can identify about ten thousand independent odors, but imagine the information our nostrils would give us considering how nuanced human emotions can be! But I digress. We can clearly point out differences in, at the very least, a capacity for suffering between humans and other animals by this instance. You might turn around to say that it doesn’t matter where the suffering lies, that one area of the brain is just as good as another to “allow” suffering. However this may be false for two reasons. The first reason, related to the ever-changing and imperfect nature of evolution, shows that based on situation and history, different areas of the brain will behave differently. A pertinent example is that we have an enormous perfume industry based wholly on the fact that our emotions and memory can be tapped via olfaction for perhaps no other reason that it lies close to, and is in some ways a part of, the system used to detect odors. The second reason is that we can say conclusively that this emotional part of humans is less important than a capacity to smell for animals. Therefore some capacity for suffering is not applicable.

This is not to say animals cannot feel pain- they certainly can. It is also not to say they cannot feel things such as loss, grief etc. They certainly can do that too. However sophisticated emotional suffering, the sort of suffering that we as a human civilization cherish and admonish, is lost on most animals. Dogs may get bored, but their lack of appreciation for the passage of time means it is temporary, for instance. I would say that the differences are significant enough for us to, with reservation and investigation, accept eating meat as an ethically passable position.

Another way in which I feel animal suffering has been overemphasized is the feature of language. Lera Boroditsky is an excellent and oft-quoted researcher who looks at how a language may shape emotions and feelings. I particularly like one concept around this area: if you grow up with a language that has many words for ‘pain’ but few for ‘happiness’, would that make you prone to being an unhappy person caused by your capacity to communicate and “think” your language? I say that this is tentatively the case. What of language in animals? What possibility of sophisticated suffering is there for animals that have no language to draw on? Would this actively halt emotional development, or put development on a path so alien to humans that we may not call it suffering at all?

This is a fair bit of conjecture I’ll admit. Basic pain and suffering is obvious and evident- Animal Liberation has done necessary wonders for the lives of animals including those destined for the dinner plate. I still love my animals, and I still love them with my own emotions. I think they love me back in their own way. However I feel we must be careful when it comes to anthropomorphizing suffering or indeed any emotion other species possess.


~ by freeze43 on January 9, 2011.

2 Responses to “We may put too much effort into animal rights”

  1. What a thought-provoking post.

    One question I have (I’m a layman, so maybe the question is terribly dumb): if the ability to feel pain depends on emotional development, would it, in a related sense, be “less bad” to cause, say, pain in a child or someone not fully emotionally-developed than in a normal adult?

    • Thanks for your interest. I can only suggest I’m a layman myself.

      When I talk about emotional development in this instance I’m not making divisions between human beings, rather between human beings and most animals. The division isn’t due to what might be classified as emotional development either- I’m talking about physical differences in the brain as to where emotions exist. A human child, for instance, has the same area in the brain for emotions as an adult and we can presume it has an emotional capacity on a similar scale. A dog, with emotional development elsewhere in the architecture, probably does not fit into that scale.

      When it comes to not fully formed and “zero culture” brains, such as say, a fetus, it would probably be fair to say that their suffering (if any) would not be on a comparable human scale. But that’s a whole kettle of fish that I’m not as confident to talk about.

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