[By David Hunter]
I've written about the science of this more at the INPAB blog in this post: Rats have metacognition And the implications for medical research, here I want to concentrate on the theoretical issue.
Basically new research seems to have shown that rats are capable of metacognition, in other words rats can think about thinking. Now non-human animals have been shown to have metacognition before, but thus far this has been restricted to what we might think of as the higher mammals, namely apes and dolphins. To have discovered this in rats seems to suggest that many animals may be capable of metacognition, something that we thought was restricted only to the highest of intelligences.
This may present a challenge to common accounts of moral status (ie what ought to be counted morally). On many accounts various mental capacities such as self awareness, memory, a consistent sense of self over time, the ability to feel pain might give something moral status.
Classically on the first 3 accounts, rats would fall outside the moral realm. However if they, and other animals are capable are capable of higher cognition then they would now be included in.
Personally this comes as no great shock to me as my account of moral status is a set of three separately sufficient conditions:
1. Sentience (The ability to feel pain)
2. Self Awareness
3. Being capable of contract forming
I'm curious to see what you think about this theory of moral status, and for that matter what this means for how we should treat rats...