The Course of Reason

Pigs Can’t Fly, but They Can Probably Feel Pain

July 25, 2011

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.

This post originally appeared on the University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secualr Humanists, & Agnostics blog.



About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.




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