A scientific conference recently concluded that animals – at least mammals and birds – are conscious. But can science prove an ethical duty of care? (More)

Animal Consciousness and Our Duty of Care (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature has considered a number of scientific questions with political and social implications. Thursday we pondered physicist Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality and what multiple universes would imply for our sense of meaning. Yesterday we explored the Republican Party’s acceptance of the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory in response to the scientific consensus on climate change. Today we conclude with animal consciousness and the role of science in a democratic society.

“Well duh?”

You’ve probably seen the touching photos and read the stories of Amanda, the German Shepherd who rescued her puppies from a house fire in Chile. Amanda repeatedly went back into the blaze to carry her ten-day-old offspring, one by one, to a fire truck. Once she had them all out, Amanda guarded them until firefighters and a local veterinarian convinced her they were safe. Amanda insisted on staying while the vet treated her puppies. One was too badly burned and did not survive. The rest, and Amanda, are recovering well.

That story of maternal love and devotion, and other stories and experiences of pets and other animals, tug at our heartstrings. They also leave many of us shaking our heads that a distinguished conference of scientists at Cambridge University recently concluded that humans are not the only animals capable of consciousness, including self-awareness and emotions.

Indeed the title of the Psychology Today article about the conference – Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings, subtitled “Didn’t we already know this? Yes we did” – captures one common response to the conference declaration: “Well duh.”

“Prove it!”

But another common response, in reader comments at Psychology Today and another story about the declaration, was a demand for proof. Animals can’t tell us about their emotions, after all.

Yet consider Koko, the gorilla who learned to communicate in sign language, and who shared her grief over the loss of a pet kitten that slipped out of her cage and was hit by a car. When her trainers signed the news, Koko cried out in a sound they recognized as pain and grief. They wept with her and, after a few minutes, Koko finally signed “Sleep. Cat.”

Still, skeptics insisted that Koko’s speech was merely operant conditioning: behavior tied to rewards or punishments, without any human-like understanding of concepts. Koko’s grief, skeptics claimed, was an example of anthropomorphism: projecting human qualities onto non-human actors.

The science …

As the Cambridge document and the responses to it make clear, that skepticism is grounded less in science than in a reluctance to let scientists approach the subject of ethics. The Cambridge Declaration concludes:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

In plain English, other animals – including at least mammals, birds, and octopuses – possess the same basic neurological wiring that humans use to experience emotions and carry out deliberate actions. That does not quite prove that animals have feelings and intentions, but it does dispel the longstanding view that animals are incapable of feelings or intentions. That presumption was held up like an impenetrable shield against common experiences of animals behaving in ways that looked like feelings and intentions. “It may look emotional or deliberate,” the skeptics insisted, “but animals’ brains don’t have the wiring for emotion or intention.”

But the evidence now shows that many animals do have that wiring.

… and the Ethics

And as one of the scientists who contributed at the conference commented at her website:

What concerns me more about the Declaration is the fact that it is devoid of any ethical dimensions. It is not enough to make such a declaration without considering the consequences of that knowledge.

And there other readers disagreed. Ethics is the province of philosophers, many readers argued. Conservatives might disagree, arguing that questions about humans’ duty to care for other species and our environment should be the province of religion.

The dissenting arguments always wind back to human exceptionalism, a topic we explored Thursday in discussing Brian Greene’s work on multiple universes. But if physics suggests (albeit cannot yet prove) that we are not even unique as individuals, and if neuroscience suggests we have no monopoly on consciousness, where does that leave us? Can advances like these prove that the fossil-fuel-profit-driven Agenda 21 conspiracy theories we discussed yesterday are not merely incorrect … but are also immoral?

No, science cannot prove that. That is, scientists cannot declare – as a matter of rigorous, predictive theory supported by empirical evidence – that anything is or is not “moral.” Science can, often, show that given actions make given results more or less likely. But science can’t tell us which results are morally right or wrong, nor should we want that. That is our job, as citizens in a democratic society. We the People have both the right and the duty to discuss such questions, to let elected officials know what we think, and to vote for candidates who share our moral values.

If the scientific evidence leads me to reason that we humans have a moral duty to care for other species and for our environment, and that moral duty stands equally beside our duty to feed and provide for each other, such that it is immoral to steal our planet’s future resources from our children and grandchildren – and other species – in the reckless pursuit of today’s profits and conveniences …

… then I have a duty to make that case, to you, to other voters like our archetypal Fred, and to candidates and elected officials. There are no shortcuts to that debate. I can’t declare “science says” and expect you, Fred, or anyone else to agree. I have to persuade you, and them, difficult and frustrating as that may sometimes be.

That is how “We the People” struggle, and must struggle, “to form a more perfect Union.”

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Happy Saturday!