The famous philosopher René Descartes advocated the vivisection of animals (dissection while the animal is alive) and practiced it himself.  He argued that this is ethical because animals are biological machines and therefore suffer no pain, even if they seem to scream in agony.  Human beings are different, because our bodily mechanisms are linked to a nonmaterial substance we call the mind or soul (a view known as Cartesian dualism).  The soul can experience pain when the human body is assaulted, but we need have no ethical concern about animal suffering.  Is Descartes right?

Dilemma 11 in 101 Ethical Dilemmas by Martin Cohen.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    In discussing this dilemma, Cohen suggests that cruelty to animals is the “first stage of cruelty” and, as depicted by William Hogarth’s engravings The Four Stages of Cruelty, tends to be followed by cruelty to people.

    This sounds plausible, but it’s a psychological question I’m not equipped to answer. The underlying ethical question is whether it’s right to cause (what appear to be) pain and suffering in animals. Many would push this further by asking whether it’s ethical to slaughter nonhuman animals painlessly for food.

    To take the latter question first, it’s OK in the Western ethical tradition, because nonhuman animals are not viewed as moral agents. The issue is not whether animals have immaterial souls (Descartes thought not), but whether they can be reasonably viewed as moral agents that act deliberately on the basis of reasons. The traditional answer is that they cannot.

    One might argue for an exception in the case of pets. Particularly in cultures with Western European roots, people often regard their pets as scarcely less than human, attributing to them a deliberative faculty that would make them moral agents. If this practice makes sense, it commits pet owners to regarding pet slaughter for food as murder (we have to think harder about mercy killing). This is perhaps why Westerners who gobble down hamburgers recoil at eating roast dog in a restaurant, while cultures that don’t keep house pets think it’s fine. I’m not sure, however, that it’s rational to regard dogs and cats as moral agents. At the very least, one must be willing to grant the same status to smart animals that are not so cute, such as pigs, rats, and octopi.

    Causing animal pain and suffering may be unethical on utilitarian grounds, however. The arguments that oppose causing human pain may work equally well for nonhuman pain, at least if there is suffering as well; that is, if the pain is self-consciously experienced. Descartes would say that nonhuman animals aren’t self-conscious, because they don’t have a soul (psyche) to experience the pain. However, more intelligent animals may be self-conscious in the sense that they have second-order awareness: their brains monitor some of what is going on in their brains. At least, it seems irrational to deny this outright, given the current state of neuroscience. This means that we should be concerned about animal pain. It should factor into the utilitarian calculation, at least sometimes.

    Many non-Western traditions are much more solicitous of animal welfare. Jains, for example, have a legendary respect for life in all its forms, including insects, microorganisms, and even raindrops. These traditions deserve careful reflection.

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