I recently had a discussion with someone who did not believe the basic premise of my animal rights advocacy. When tabling, I always begin discussions by asking "Do you believe it is wrong to harm or kill animals unnecessarily?" In this context, everyone always agrees, and then I do my best to argue that if you believe that, then you ought to be vegan. Really, it's not that difficult.
The subject came up in another general conversation about ethics. My interlocutor agreed that if animals matter, veganism is the logical conclusion. He disagreed, however, that (most) non-human animals matter morally at all.
His basic argument was this. It is "self-awareness" that makes experiences matter to individuals, and most non-human animals lack the capacity for self-awareness, and therefore it doesn't matter what happens to them. Now I'm not sure what self-awareness is when most people use it, but I accept that there are some higher-level, meta-cognitive and reflective functions of which fully developed humans, and perhaps a few other species, are fully capable.
The first line of defense against this argument is the AMC, but he accepted the radically revisionist implications that follow from his belief. Had I been tabling, and if I had other people interested in conversation, I probably would have moved on at this point. Since most people do believe animals matter morally, I think it is not efficient to engage with people who don't think animals matter. As a philosopher, however, I wanted to know what kind of response is best to this line of reasoning.
As I've discussed previously, I follow Nagel, Parfit, and others in believing that morality is best understood in terms of reasons. I take these reasons to be necessarily universal, which I believe gives morality its normative force. Let me explain.
Parfit's example of extreme agony is clearest. If I am in extreme agony, I have reason to not be in agony. What does it mean for me to have a reason to not be in agony? It means that the nature of agony, and what it is like to be in agony, count in favor of not being in agony.
"Counting in favor of" is best thought of as "providing a reason for," so I cannot further describe what a reason is better than this. Of course, I cannot really describe what agony is better than an extremely painful sensation that involves suffering, and extremely painful suffering is best described as agony. Though these definitions are circular, the context in which they are understood brings forward the relevant concepts in your mind. (One more useful thing to say about agony might be that it is something we have prima facie reason to avoid, though I mean this to be substantive rather than definitional.)
Now, because of the universality of reasons, I understand that the agony of other people also provides reason to avoid their being in agony. What of animals, then? Might their experience be different enough so as to not provide reasons to avoid their suffering?
If we accept that they are sentient (which is a hidden premise in my initial argument, but again, few people dispute this), then this means that their suffering is as real as ours is. Now, many people claim that most animals are not "self-aware," but I'm not quite sure what people mean when they use the term. One sense of being self-aware is being able to think about your own thoughts as thoughts, and being able to engage in self-reflection. It is this ability I engaged when I tried to explain what a reason is. With any luck, the reader will consider their own experiences, and how I have described them, and begin to formulate the concept I intend them to understand.
This is a very important ability to have--it is what enables us to be moral agents! But I think if my explanation of a reason is accurate, it should be clear that this ability could not be the quality that makes us matter morally. Because the very point I've made is that it is the nature of being in agony, what it is like to be in agony, that provides our reason for avoiding it. Our ability to perceive this reason allows us to deliberate conscientiously about what to do about these kinds of reasons, as we should. But if animals are sentient as we are, what it is like to be in agony for them is similar to what it is like for us to be in agony. Although there will likely always be a gap in our understanding of what it is like to be a bat, or a bird, or a lizard, there is no reason to doubt that the features of pain and suffering that we share with animals are the very features that provide reason to avoid it.
Perhaps it will seem I've begged the question.This is, indeed, a slippery point to make. But I think that to deny what I've said, which is that the painful experiences of non-human animals are meaningfully analogous to ours, is in fact to deny that animals are sentient. One could coherently deny this fact, though the overwhelming opinion in academic and conventional thought is that such denial is deeply implausible and ad hoc.
The reflective experience I've described is what I take to be best meant by self-awareness, if used as a rough-and-ready distinction between us and most other animals. Self-awareness in the simplistic sense, that is, an awareness of one's own body as distinct from others and the surrounding environment, surely something all sentient animals possess, if they are sentient in any meaningful sense. If a lion couldn't tell that it was its own paw that was injured, or its own cubs being threatened, or its own hunger being satiated, it would not be able to survive at all.
If I am right, then "self-awareness" as the distinction between us and the other animals is better called meta-cognition, that is, thinking about thinking. And meta-cognition could not be what provides the reasons that agony ought to be avoided. It is the method we use to discover that such reasons are there, and without it we would have no knowledge of reasons. But for meta-cognition, thinking about thinking, to reveal reasons, those reasons must be present, and logically prior. Which means that the reasons that exist to avoid agony derive from all forms of agony, whether or not it is experienced by a self-aware, or meta-cognitive, animal.
So why do animals matter (in particular, why does their suffering matter)? Well, when people ask "why" questions, the proper response is to provide a reason. And the reason animals matter is the same reason we matter.