Monday, March 26, 2007

Guest Blogger: Moral Status of Rats

[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...


  1. I'm tempted to think that one could only form contracts if one was self-aware - isn't a contract explicitly an agreement between two entities across time? If that's true, then (3) is redundant and there are only two sufficient conditions for moral status.

    However, I'm not sure why pain is seen as the marker, and not, say, the ability to form aims or desires, or the free exercise of will. That's not to say that I have an argment in favour of these, but just that I'd like to hear the reason for thinking that only pain and self-awareness are sufficient for moral status, and not some larger list of things that impinge on well-being.

  2. I think that one big problem in forming a coherent theory of moral objects is the desire to separate into black and white - moral persons and moral non-persons. This seems completely irrational to me. If someone has an interest then that interest can be violated, regardless of the status of the being in other terms.

    So the ability to feel pain makes it wrong to cause pain. Self-awareness is important to some dignity-based interests. Ability to contract is important to determining whether they have expectation interests in a contract's completion. But none of these necessarily means that one has any other particular interests to be violated.

    What this means is that any animal which can feel pain can be violated by it, regardless of any higher cognition. It gets more tricky when it comes to death as a moral wrong (although I would say this applies to pretty much any animal too) but pain just seems necessarily wrong.

  3. I'll respond to Alex first, then Pejar.

    In terms of the contracting condition, it will make more sense if I give a bit more back story.

    You will no doubt be aware that traditionally moral theories focus on one necessary and sufficient condition to be granted moral status, so for the Utilitarian it is classically sentience (though the utilitarian could opt for some alternative such as preference holding etc), for the Kantian it is rationality and for the Contractarian it is the ability to contract. In each of these cases there are obvious counter-examples which I will let you dream up for yourselves. What I noticed was that whilst every theorist gave a solid argument for why their favoured characteristic was sufficient, few addressed why the characteristic was neccesary. So in effect I am just lifting the three characteristics suggested by what I see as the three major moral theories.

    I am aware this is harshly excluding virtue ethics, but firstly I am yet to find an account of moral status from a virtue ethicist that doesn't simply piggy back on other theories claims, such as how Hursthouse handles the question in Ethics and other Animals by basically using both Singer's sentience account and Reagan's subject of a life account. Secondly I view virtue ethics as a theory of character as opposed to behaviour and as such it plays a different role in our moral deliberations.

    Now to further develop the idea it struck me that the sorts of moral wrongs we can do towards different agents depends on the sorts of claims the agent can make, and it makes sense to think that these different claims are related to the different sources of moral status (since these are the characteristics which are morally relevant). So if something is sentient but lacks the other characteristics then we might have duties not to cause them suffering, but we would have no reason to feel we should treat them as if they are autonomous since they lack the relevant characteristic. Likewise if something was self aware, but not sentient (think Robot or AI) they would still have claims to have their self awareness respected.

    So you might be right that the ability to contract supervenes on self awareness, but there might still be a reason to keep it in, since there might be specific moral duties related to contracts.

    Another reason for keeping it in is that at least one entity which we often want to ascribe moral duties to and responsibilities towards, namely businesses, seem to form contracts but are not sentient nor are they self aware.

    As for the larger set... Actually I welcome expanding the set of characteristics, the 3 I have suggested aren't intended to be exhaustive. That said I don't think these can be reduced just to things relating to well being, but that's another story.

    Pejar, I will start with a question, namely is the point you are making an epistemological point or a metaphysical point? By this I mean does what bother you about the notion of separating the world into morally relevant and not morally relevant that it will be difficult to determine which things will count as morally relevant or not? Or do you think the world is such that the notion of moral status is incoherent?

    in terms of the examples you give I think I agree with you, if something can feel pain then that ought to be respected, and if something has self awareness then that should likewise be respected.

    As a btw, it is better to avoid the use of the term "persons" in this debate, I know what you mean but it often confuses the issue. (Since many people think that only humans can be persons)

  4. "So you might be right that the ability to contract supervenes on self awareness, but there might still be a reason to keep it in, since there might be specific moral duties related to contracts."

    I'm not sure if you disagreed with this, but it's worth pointing out that what morally matters, and what qualifies something as a being with moral status, needn't be the same thing. For instance, one could be Kantian but still believe that sentience was required in order to be deserving of moral recognition.

    Establishing such positions might be difficult, but "the ability to form contracts is sufficient for moral status" doesn't logically follow from "contract formation has moral significance".

  5. David, my problem is the idea of searching for a simple dichotomy because it seems ridiculous with regard to varying interests, and you seem to agree. I use the word persons because things like the Great Ape Project attempt to include apes as persons, to some extent reinforcing the idea that there is a simple test which should be employed to separate the morally important from the non-morally important.

    Of course many will accept that non-person animals should be generally treated with respect, but many will often say that while there are many things that should just not be done to persons, non-person animals can be abused as long as it is for the greater good of people (meat farming, animal testing). This seems again completely ludicrous and self-serving.

    So while it's interesting that rats have mental abilities that we didn't know before, it doesn't seem to me to change the moral status of the tests we perform on them, since we have been violating their faculty to feel pain and discomfort for a long time.

  6. Alex I don't disagree with you and think it is an important point to emphasise. Part of where this originally came from for me was discussing Singer's arguments in regards to the ethics of eating animals. I agreed with Singer's arguments in regards to the importance of sentience and the implications of this in regard to the moral status of animals. I however (and I know this is close to blasphemy here on Richard's blog ;) didn't agree with his utilitarianism. But I then realised that almost all of the objections to Singer's account were actually objections to his utilitarianism, not his account of moral status and so it was possible to reject one but retain the other. So yes that something is morally relevant doesn't logically entail that it is relevant in terms of moral status, although there is a neatness to there being some connection.

    Pejar, I think we are on the same page then, I have simply rejected the attempt to find an account of moral status that relies on one single characteristic that is both unnecessary and sufficient. While it would be nice if the world was this simple it is complex in many other ways and there seems no reason to think the moral sphere is any different.

    I take your point if you already consider rats to have moral status this will do little to change your position. However many of those who reject an animal rights view do this on the basis of our supposedly superior mental abilities, if the differences between us are less than they believe, then they may be persuaded to revise their position.

  7. I think it is useful to consider that while we - Homo Sapiens - might be separate from, for example, Pan troglodytes, we are linked with them in something of a continuum with homonids. Now it may be the case that none of these other hominids are still around, so their moral status might not come up in practice, but what if one of these just happened to be found today?

  8. Cognition is not one of the conditions identified. Nor is linguistics. Nor is ratiocination. Lacking the "basics" to form a moral or ethical perspective, to assert a value or a right, I think we should treat rats like the rodents that they are, a useful species for experimentation, useful for balance in the biosphere, and without any moral or ethical standing whatsoever. Sentience suggests we not be cruel unnecessarily, but nature itself can be pretty cruel in the survival of the fittest.

  9. Postscript: People still take Singer's utilitarianism seriously? Samuel Scheffler (et alia) put consequentialism to rest permanently. "The greatest good for the greatest number" justifies slavery, Auschwitz, Israel's eviction of Palestinians, but not apartheid (one isn't good enough). Has anyone taken a recent course in ethics/morality? Appiah, Williams, Scheffler, Searle, et alia might be worth consulting. Utilitarianism is not even good public policy. Mill's Harm Principle, on the other hand, would appear to have the sole moral claim on us.

  10. '"The greatest good for the greatest number" justifies slavery, Auschwitz...'

    Only if those things really do promote the greatest good, which seems an awfully dubious claim! (It's true that people might appeal to consequentialism in their attempts to justify atrocities. But that's a rather different matter. It's also true that there is, according to consequentialists, a distant possible world in which slavery etc. is genuinely justified. But that should be uncontroversial.)

  11. When has slavery been controversial? It's one of the oldest institutions. If Auschwitz did not fit the utilitarian calculus, nothing does. The "greatest good for the greatest number" is too relative, amorphous, and contextual to have a moral claim on anyone other than majoritarians.

    On the other hand, Mills' Harm Principle is universifiable, without contextual relativism, and is not subject to majoritarian whims (the irony of his utilitarianism, nothwithstanding). It remains consequentialist, as do most moral claims, but it is NOT controversial, because it is self-evident. This is basic philosophy 101.

    No serious moralist embraces utilitarianism, because it isn't even a moral claim. At best, it is a political calculus, but the absence of minority rights, ultimately makes it useless. It's embarassing that a philosophy website still touts it. If Oakeshott's indictment of rationalism, Appiah's, Scheffler's, Williams's, et alia's indictment of utilitarianism hasn't shown philosophy students the atrocious consequences of the UC, our educators have failed, or our students haven't learned the implications of antedeluvian ideas.

  12. Auschwitz didn't fit the utilitarian calculus. A utilitarian might conceivably approve of a death camp (in theory) but it would be very odd if he approved of THAT death camp. To suggest that it does implies a lack of understanding of utilitarianism.

    > have a moral claim on anyone other than majoritarians.

    Are you saying that a minority could never see it as legitimate to make a sacrifice on behalf of a majority? If so then its amazing all the thousands of movies that relate to self sacrifice do so well.

    > On the other hand, Mills' Harm Principle is universifiable.

    Mills harm principle results in utilitarianism. No mater what you do you will always end up with the question of what are the results of your actions.

    > but the absence of minority rights, ultimately makes it useless.

    useless for what ends? (the arguments above are rather like the playground "you sux") aside from the argument that possibly many humans aren't ready to understand utilitarianism evidenced by the apparent misunderstanding here (ie that we need to 'dumb down' philosophy for some).

  13. Wait, Anon. You're making categorical mistakes. Morality is a universifiable claim, almost always deontological and proscriptive. Utilitarianism is not universifiable, deontological, nor proscriptive. It is merely a rule. It is majoritarianism, pure and simple. But even most majoritarians recognize minority rights. Not so utilitarians. "Majority rule" may be a DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL principle, but not a moral one. But without minority rights, not one I embrace.

    Mill's Harm Principle does not necessarily lead to the utilitarian calculus. That's a non sequitir. The Harm Principle is indeed a moral claim standing in isolation: Universifiable, deontological, and proscriptive, and consequentialist: "do no harm." Not so utilitarianism. It's whatever a majority claims it to be, which could be anything determined to be "good." If the majority approves of slavery, death camps, internment camps as "goods," ("goods" that a minority might need to sacrifice itself to), then the majority rules, and utilitarianism has not done a good deed. Majorities do not make morality. They may make policies, they may determine tastes, they may define "goods," but they do not constitute a morality. And without minority rights, utilitarianism is more pernicious than benign.

    Yes, both political and moral claims are consequentialist by nature, but not ethics! Ethics is not deontological or consequentialist, but teleological and purpose-driven, avoiding the vices of excess and deficiency for the golden mean of virtue which leads human excellence in practical reasoning to human flourishing (eudaimonia). The "end" is a life well-lived, not what consequences follow! Perhaps the wisdom and prudence of ethics will be restored for individual arete.

    Mills' Harm Principle and Smith's Sympathy (Empathy) Principle are the only two moral claims that meet the test of (1) universifiable, (2) deontological, (3) proscriptive (although Smith's Sympathy Principle is offered prescriptively to inhibit bad outcomes), and (4) consequentialist.

    As philosophers know all too well, Kant's categorical imperative fits the moral-claim test above, too, but its rigidness, not to mention its three-stage formation, is an albatross, and like utilitarianism does not account for kin selection. By violating our biological Human Nature, neither rule formation has a moral claim, at all. Both are reason gone amok.

  14. There is akways a wide array of options. If you add any other input to the equasion you will almost certainly change the result. So utilitarianism does consider minority interests. Also utilitarianism weights the requirements of individuals so that it is generaly more 'socialist', if you like, than democracy is.
    It is unlikely that me making you a slave would be utilitarian because it would be almost impossible to avoid causing more harm to you than benefit to me. Even if you acted as slave to multiple people.

    > Utilitarianism is not universifiable, deontological, nor proscriptive. It is merely a rule.

    huh? why would we care?

    > But without minority rights, not one I embrace.

    you may want to have more rights than others, and I understand why you would suport a principle that would do that.

    >Mill's Harm Principle does not necessarily lead to the utilitarian calculus. That's a non sequitir.

    OK lets say you take an action like 'lifting a axe' presumably you should not do that if it causes harm. (or at least do it only if it causes some minimal amount of harm) Does it cause harm?
    Should you consider the lifting of the axe? or what you will hit there after when you release it? or what will happen as a result of you doing that or what happens as a result of that?

    If you are smart you will soon find almost every action is 'prohibited'. If your stupid it works out just fine I guess, but who wants to be stupid?

    > then the majority rules, and utilitarianism has not done a good deed.

    utilitarianism only supports good deeds by definition.

    > The "end" is a life well-lived

    I think you would find richard sympathetic there. I think that might overemphasise the limited continuality of human life.

    > By violating our biological Human Nature, neither rule formation has a moral claim, at all.

    if you want to define ethics via what we do then we REALLY are dumbing down ethics. you might as well say 'what I do is good' and solve the problem entirely.

    Besides if you watch movies on TV about men commiting suicide on an asteroid to save the planet or white people helping some africans out of a danger zone etc it shows that racism and selfishness dont have to be part of our 'high culture' just because they may be 'natural'.

    you should know that since in many groups there seems to be a natural biological urge to single out minority groups and beat them up.

  15. TGS, you may like to read some of my 'favourite posts' (on the sidebar) on utilitarianism. This one explains how concerns about universalizability in fact lead many to endorse some form of utilitarianism, and this one offers a utilitarian basis for human rights.

  16. I was always interested in how people would debate ethical theories like christianity etc and resort to utilitarianism (ie "our threory creates the greater net good").

    It seemed that people had it 'arse backwards' compared to, for example, indirect or rule utilitarianism.

  17. > Utilitarianism is not universifiable, deontological, nor proscriptive

    key questions here are "what is an act?"
    is lifting an axe an act? is killing a person an act? is working a days work an act or is living a good life an act?

    then how do you justify the time and causal limits of that act?

    how do you place a moral weighting on that act (ie what jsutifies that weighting and are there really no situations in which it has a different weighting? (universifiable)

    one way out might be to suggest that it is the desire to kill not actuall killing that is the sin. of course that creates anomolies too..

  18. Praxeology, or more specifically, orthopraxy is generally approached by two different ofjectives: Ethical and Moral. Several writers are using the terms synonymously, and they are not synonyms. Ethics is teleological and prescriptive, morality is deontological and proscriptive. NEITHER Judaism nor Christianity are ETHICAL, they operate by DIVINE COMMANDS, and therefore are deontological and moral. The Greeks were ethical and decidedly teleological. (Aquinas tried to synthesize Christian morality with Aristotle's ethics, and for a synthesis was brilliant).

    >> Utilitarianism is not universifiable, deontological, nor proscriptive. It is merely a rule.

    >huh? why would we care?

    Why care? Why anything? Morality is a universifiable CLAIM that establishes STANDING as a moral AGENT that bars action(s) by proscription due to its adverse consequences. By applying the Harm Principle, I can assert my standing against being harmed, and deserve restitution when so harmed. It is universifiable. Particular claims cannot be moral claims, since they lack the force of universal acceptance. To claim a neighbor cannot water her lawn without another neighbor's permission is not a moral application.

    Utilitarianism is not a MORAL CLAIM, but a political principle of majoritarianism that simply maximizes the majority's ideal consequences.

    When advocates of utilitarianism pin-down "good," then the "greatest good," this political objective may have some force, but otherwise it is amorphous, ambiguous, and at best consensual (hardly a moral stance). Who will arbitrate what is "good?" Pat Robertson? What if the majority determines the greatest good is eugenics? Is that a political choice? Because it cannot be a moral claim. See, G. E. Moore on the equivocation of "good."

    The "Human Condition" and a biologically-based "Human Nature" are different species. Kin-selection is a biological fact of human nature. If a moral or ethical system cannot accommodate our biological Human Nature (cf., Human Condition), of what use is it? For Utilitarianism or the Categorical Imperative to DEMAND that I regard equally an unknown individual in Delhi, Moscow, Rio, and San Francisco with the same impartiality that I should regard a beloved or family member is preposterous. Kin-selection and beloveds have a greater investment by Nature (shared genes) and a particular commitment, that the others do not have. The use of reason sans emotions, evaluations, particular pursuits, principal parties (kin and beloved), and our innate dispositions is forcing too much through a single myopic prism. Life is not entirely rational, it is also emotional, social, linguistic, etc., but all of these and more.

    Martha Nussbaum, Samuel Scheffler, Bernard Williams, Robert Solomon, Matt Ridley, J. Q. Wilson, et alia have pointed to (1) empathy, (2) the duty to "do no harm," (3) the facts of Darwinism, and (4) a return to Greek ethics to integrate fairness, self-control, moral duty, and altruism as the foundations of an integrated ethical-moral system, wisely abandoning Kant and Bentham. Scheffler's critiques of consequentialism are decisive.

  19. How does utility serve either a moral or ethical claim? Utility is pragmatic beneficence at best, which again reverts to the political sphere.

    Hare's intuitive-cum-critical "levels" just complicates psychology of feelings with rational pyschology of a calculus, presuming the one "contains" the other, lest the feelings get the best of one, or the calculation become rationally over-determined. The two-level operation presumes a well-formed intuition about feelings (of what) and the ability to ignore all feelings to perform an impartial calculus which can create horrors, that presumably "balance" each other's tendencies to excess. How either of these levels create minority rights I cannot infer. If it's by our intuitions, our intuitions can intuit all sorts of feelings -- to what moral avail?

    Political, perhaps, but just like any isocracy it can morph into "mobocracy," which the utility of the mob would have to prevail.

    The Greek virtues of Justice, Temperance, Prudence, and Courage at least balance excess and deficiency (vice) to a prudent choice that is always just. Justice in ethics is the Cardinal Virtue, because fairness is the universal appeal to our real intuitions of right and wrong, good and bad, excellence and flourishing. The Universal premise, coupled with a Particular premise, yields a situationally prudent choice for particular actions.

    The "duty" to be just is dependent on the function of man in accordance with a rational principle (practical reason above) with the appropriate excellence of a certain kind of life: a life well-lived by human flourishing. The moral excellence is in the "mean," not in the excesses and deficiencies that lack excellence by definition.

  20. > I can assert my standing against being harmed, and deserve restitution when so harmed.

    You seem to value ethical systems as laws (i.e. how they create an avenue for you to get restitution). In that sense I guess “the laws of NZ” make a good system.

    "If a moral or ethical system cannot accommodate our biological Human Nature (cf., Human Condition), of what use is it?"

    It appears you value moral systems for their usefulness for some sort of ends. What ends are those? And if you have ends then why do you value universifiablity? Could you not support lets say Africa having one set of morals and Europe having another set because of different cultural context. Or people with various mental states wouldhave different ‘ideal’ morals and behaviours.

    Does universifiablity have value even if it contradicts all other ends?

    > For Utilitarianism or the Categorical Imperative to DEMAND that I regard equally

    so is this an argument against the harm principle also?

    Harm : "bad", "wrong"," Physical or psychological damage"
    Good: "correct" etc...

    The difference is the very wide definition we place on good and the narrow one we give to harm but on what grounds do we do that? How narrow? How can you tell if an action harms me? What level of harm matters? Who defines what is harm?

    Besides what use is morality that doesn't apply to every situation? Otherwise it leaves a huge range of situations it doesn’t apply and you have no moral guidance, which results in the need for a moral guidance just as the total absence of morality speaks for the need for moral guidance.

    But Utilitarianism can be used to tackle the proscriptive aspect. Utilitarianism provides an infinitely complex list of suggestions of what not to do. But it condenses down into basic rules like "do not kill" when you look at them from a distance. If you want instruction an indirect utilitarian can give you a list of instructions which is exactly what a utilitarian would want them to do.

    > For Utilitarianism or the Categorical Imperative to DEMAND

    Utilitarianism is always bound by what is good for the whole. It cannot collectively make an unreasonable demand on the collective because that would not maximize utility.

    > universal acceptance. To claim a neighbor cannot water her lawn without another neighbor's permission is not a moral application.

    Sounds very similar to the argument that I can’t kill you without your permission… except for the apparent magnitude of the harm.

  21. TGS,

    I don't have time to respond to your various points, but I think it's almost certain that you're being unfair to utilitarianism.

    For instance, the journal utilitas is still fairly well respected, which seems to indicate that Peter Singer is far from some lone voice espousing some outdated theory.

    Further, the references to Scheffler to back up your position strike me as odd. I've only read his "The Rejection of Consequentialism", but here are a few points. He's rejecting consequentialism because it demands too much of us, and NOT because it fails to grant minority rights. As he puts it, he wants consequentialism with more options but no more constraints. This would undermine utilitarianism, but not in the way that you're suggesting it's faulty.

    (Shelly Kagan also provided a (correct, IMO) response to Scheffler's work in his "The Limits of Morality".)

    As I say, you've said plenty that deserves a longer response in order to vindicate utilitarianism. However, I am certain that you're overstating your case if you think that there's an established philosophical consensus that utilitarianism is false.

  22. TGS, utilitarianism won't necessarily "DEMAND that I regard equally an unknown individual... with the same impartiality that I should regard a beloved or family member."

    Utilitarianism is simply the claim that the right action is that which best promotes human welfare. This doesn't (directly) say anything about how you should think or feel or reason about others. (Though it may if we add in empirical facts. E.g. if pure impartiality would impoverish the world by precluding human love, then consequentialism might entail that we should NOT be purely impartial.)

    You're criticising the use of the utilitarian calculus as a decision procedure in everyday life. But that's not something that contemporary utilitarians need disagree with. (In fact, I would expect most to explicitly denounce the direct employment of utilitarian reasoning in everyday life, as I do.)

    "How either of these levels create minority rights I cannot infer."

    Simple: if we reason in accordance with human rights, the result will tend to be better than otherwise. (Cf. Gibbard.)

  23. Having said that, I think it's entirely appropriate to ground our institutional framework on a utilitarian basis. That includes our research institutions, and so the utilitarian's "sentience criterion" is a perfectly legitimate basis for saying that rats have (some) moral standing.

  24. might as well link to your post on it alex

  25. Let me rejoin the gang... TGS, utilitarianism is not a dead option as a moral theory. Obviously it is if as you are doing you argue via definition and define a moral theory as deontological. But for obvious reasons that is a weak argument.

    I'm personally not a utilitarian or a consequentialist, and while Scheffler has a case, there are several compelling responses, such as the The demands of consequentialism by Tim Mulgan.

    Likewise many prominent ethicists now , Singer included are utilitarians, take John Harris for example.

    Consequentialism is still alive and well. But in any case, supposing your view was correct what would the implications be for claims about moral status?

  26. hope to gawd you're all wrong. I don't want you folk making "moral" choices for me. The Moral Majority is just too extreme for my tastes, even if comes wrapped in the hyper-rationalist utilitarianism of Bentham, Mill, and Singer. But YOU DO have plenty of company! Give Jerry Falwell my disregards. Morality by Majority is one Alain de Botton's discredits, but YOU morality folk KNOW better by your "moral intuitions" of a certain "calculus" that the "majority know." Liberty University will hire your "privilege intuitions," gawd-given and all, maybe GWB too, morality by consensus is still BIBLICAL folks. Pray it ain't true. I KNOW it ain't. Give "rats" credit for something you MAD MORALISTS don't seem to know: YOU WHO lurk in the academy of rational planners, along with Stalin, Bush, and Falwell. "The greatest good for the greatest number" still leaves you clueless? Yikes!

  27. Guys - can we claim 'victory' via a version of Godwin's Law?


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