Professor Jerry Coyne cares deeply about people and sentient animals. But when he attempts to explain why we should care about others, his whole theory of ethics comes apart at the seams. Curiously, Professor Coyne does not seem to notice. In today’s post (which will be short), I’d like to explain what’s wrong with Coyne’s ethical theory. In a nutshell, it fails to address the following three very simple questions:
1. What matters, ethically speaking?
2. What ultimately matters: the individual or society?
3. How can we know whether an animal has feelings or not?
What matters, ethically speaking?
The first question is fatal to Professor Coyne’s ethical theory because he doesn’t believe in a self, but at the same time, he still wants to say that people matter. A recent post by Coyne, titled, Two bloggers argue that the only morality that makes sense is based on the Christian God (January 11, 2014), contains the following passage, which lays bare the inadequacies in his ethical theory:
Even if our notion of a self-directing homunculus in our skull is an illusion, we certainly feel pain, misery, and happiness, and many of those emotions are the result of evolution (pain, for example, alerts us that something is wrong with our bodies, and happiness, like orgasms, can tell us that we are doing something that furthers our reproductive output). But regardless, so long as those qualia exist, it is good behavior for us to promote them, in both ourselves and others. If you ask me why, my answer is because well being is better than ill being. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
From the foregoing passage, we can see that Coyne believes in the existence of subjective feelings (or qualia, as he calls them) and of course, he believes that these feelings occur in certain kinds of organisms (namely, sentient organisms). What he appears not to realize is that a sharp twinge of pain is no-one’s problem if there is no-one (i.e. no “self”) at home. As Professor James D. Rose et al. aptly put it in their article, Can fish really feel pain? (Fish and Fisheries, published online 20 December 2012, doi: 10.1111/faf.12010):
…[O]ne of the most critical determinants of suffering from pain is the personal awareness and ownership of the pain (Price 1999). This is why dissociation techniques, in which a person can use mental imagery to separate themselves from pain, are effective for reducing suffering (Price 1999). In contrast, without awareness of self, the pain is no one’s problem. It is simply there, something to be reduced or avoided if possible, but not a ‘personal’ problem. The known importance of self-awareness for pain contradicts, Sneddon’s (2011) claim that an absence of self-awareness in fishes would make their ‘pain’ worse. (p. 27) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Professor Coyne writes: “Even if our notion of a self-directing homunculus in our skull is an illusion, we certainly feel pain.” But who is “we”? If the term “we” refers to someone (i.e. to myself and other selves), then Coyne is contradicting himself: he’s saying that we don’t exist and then turning around and saying that we do. But if “we” refers to something (e.g. bodies, or sentient organisms), then Coyne owes it to his readers to explain why this “something” matters, ethically.
Coyne goes on to say that “qualia exist… in both ourselves and others.” But this does not help matters: why is the fact that pain occurs in an organism any more significant, ethically speaking, than the fact that pain occurs in a piece of matter, or the fact that pain occurs in some corner of the universe? If Coyne were a biocentrist, attempting to argue that all organisms matter because there’s something special about being alive (namely, having a built-in “good of one’s own,” or telos), then he would have a defensible position from which to argue.
To sum up: it makes no sense to say that free-floating feelings should matter, ethically speaking, unless there is someone who experiences them. The fact that feelings occur in some biological organism is neither here nor there, unless organisms matter in their own right.
What ultimately matters: the individual or society?
In his recent post, Professor Coyne writes: “my argument largely coincides with that of Sam Harris: our moral feelings, by and large (but perhaps not invariably) coincide with what promotes the ‘well being’ of individuals and societies.”
This is a fence-sitting ethical position, for it side-steps the question: whose interests are more fundamental: those of the individual, or those of society? For instance, is the relation of an individual to society like that of a cell to the body? (This is the “ant-hive” conception of morality promoted by utilitarians.) Or do individuals matter in their own right, independently of the society they belong to? This is a fundamental question, of vital ethical importance, to which Coyne gives a frustratingly vague answer. With regard to “trade-offs among individuals and societies,” Coyne writes that questions such as “Is it ‘moral’ to torture individuals to save a large number of people, or, even if that worked, does it create a bad precedent for society, yielding less well being down the line?” are “not easy problems to resolve, and often come down to judgment calls.” But on what basis is one to form a judgment? If one views the overall flourishing of society as the ultimate ethical yardstick, then the act of torturing individuals to save a large number of people will be judged right, if it results in a better society. And if such an act is judged wrong, it will primarily be wrong because in the long run, the interests of society are not served by performing such an act – and not because it violates the rights of an intrinsically valuable individual.
This, I have to say, is an inhuman conception of morality – and I call it “inhuman” because it elevates an abstraction (“society”) above the human beings that create it. The late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was, after all, right: there is no such “thing” as society, and talk of the good of society derives its intelligibility from the fact that certain things (e.g. health and education) are good for the individual people who compose it. (This, by the way, is why the “cell in the body” analogy is so badly flawed: the good of a cell is not prior to, but posterior to, that of the body it belongs to, whereas with the individual and society, it’s the other way round.) People suffer; but when 100 people die, there is no entity which undergoes the pain of 100 deaths, and utters a scream of collective agony.
Professor Coyne writes that his argument “largely coincides with that of Sam Harris.” Sam Harris is an avowed utilitarian: for instance, he would solve Judith Jarvis Thompson’s fat man problem (“Imagine that you see a trolley which is about to hit and kill five people. The only way to stop it is to push the fat man in front of you to block the trolley”) by pushing the fat man onto the track, and he openly mocks the irrationality of people who wouldn’t do so, but who would at the same time be prepared to divert the trolley by pulling a switch, even though doing so will unfortunately result in the trolley’s running over a person who was lying on the other track (the trolley problem). (Coyne, to his credit, doesn’t commit himself on this question, but elsewhere he approvingly writes that “Sam’s book [The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values] is very good, and you should definitely read it, but it doesn’t solve all our moral problems”, even though he criticizes what he regards as Harris’ failed attempt to derive an “ought” from an “is” within the book.)
In a critical article titled, Sam Harris and the Moral Failure of Science, atheist blogger Robephiles astutely identifies the fatal flaw in Harris’ ethical thinking: Harris doesn’t regard human beings as “ends in themselves”:
In the case of the man being pushed in front of the trolley we are using another human being as a means to an end and that is unacceptable to most of us…
He [Sam Harris] doesn’t see what else is important other than the maximizing of human welfare, so your religious rights don’t matter, your civil rights don’t matter, due process doesn’t matter. Kant claimed that every human being had intrinsic value and an inherent right to be free. Kant thought that it was better to let humans be free to make bad choices than to enslave them in the interest of their well-being. For the last few hundred years civilizations that have lived by these principles have done pretty well. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
For Harris, in the end, overall “human well-being” is the supreme good, and human lives can be sacrificed to protect this greater good. The words of the British philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe in 1958, quoted by Joseph Bingham in a critical review of Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, are particular apposite here: “[I]f someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration—I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.”
Finally, I would put it to Harris and to Coyne that treating people as cogs in the “greater wheel” of society is profoundly demotivating, and that it makes people care less about the society they belong to, thereby reducing the greatest good of the greatest number. (I know I certainly wouldn’t feel any sense of loyalty to a society which regarded me as expendable.) Paradoxically, the societies that flourish best are precisely those which treat individuals as sacrosanct, and which are constructed on the ethical principle that there are certain things (such as rape and torture, or desecration of people’s corpses) that you simply may not do to other people, no matter how bad they are. Why do such societies flourish? Because people will willingly give their lives to protect a society that values them in their own right.
I happen to know that Professor Coyne is a big fan of secular democracies such as Sweden and Denmark: “those countries, with their liberal social views and extensive aid for the sick, old and disadvantaged, are even more moral than America,” he writes. I wonder whether he has ever had a look at the Swedish Constitution, which expressly upholds “the freedom and dignity of the individual” (Chapter 1, Article 2), guarantees its citizens freedom of expression, information, assembly, political demonstration, association and worship (Chapter 2, Article 1) and universally prohibits capital punishment, corporal punishment and torture (Chapter 2, Articles 4 and 5). That’s not utilitarian thinking, Professor Coyne. It’s much more Kantian.
How can we know whether an animal has feelings or not?
For Professor Coyne, the only animals that matter are sentient animals, or animals which experience subjective feelings. But how are we to identify these animals? The question is a vital one for Coyne, as he is an outspoken defender of the view known as scientism, which states that all genuine knowledge comes from the sciences, and that there is no “extra-scientific” knowledge. In a post entitled, The trouble with “The trouble with scientism”, Coyne defends this claim, defining science as “the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge.” In response to the claim by a critic that the humanities (including history) have yielded valuable knowledge, Coyne replies:
Who among scientists denigrates these achievements? Not I! But all of these achievements rest on observation, questioning, reason, and testing—the methods of science. There is in fact no strict demarcation between “science” and “non-science” when it comes to the methods for ascertaining what is real. One commenter on this site even noted that the classic chestnut of “another way of knowing” —does my partner love me? — is also amenable to empirical scrutiny.
Coyne is also a great cat-lover. In a post entitled, William Lane Craig argues that animals can’t feel pain (4 October 2012), (which, incidentally, misrepresents Craig’s actual position), Professor Jerry Coyne argued that it was “well established” that some non-human animals do indeed feel pain, and regard it as unpleasant:
It’s pretty well established now that many species do experience pain as an unpleasant sensation…
Really, if you step on a cat’s tail, you don’t think it feels pain?
Although I believe that mammals and birds are sentient (which is one reason why I don’t eat meat) and I am also prepared to grant that these creatures may have a very rudimentary sense of “self” (but see here for why this is doubtful), I should point out that Coyne’s argument for feline sentience is a biologically faulty one, as decorticate cats (whose cortices have been removed) also exhibit the reaction of biting and hissing when their tails are pinched, and as Professor James D. Rose has convincingly shown in his articles, The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes and the Question of Awareness and Pain (Reviews in Fisheries Science, 10(1): 1–38, 2002) and Can fish really feel pain? (Fish and Fisheries, published online 20 December 2012, doi: 10.1111/faf.12010), there are very powerful reasons for believing that a neocortex – or in birds’ case, an avian homologue – is essential for sentience.
Surprisingly, however, there is no conclusive scientific evidence showing that any non-human animals are conscious – even cats. Indeed, there aren’t even any arguments showing that they probably feel pain (say, with an 80% probability). At the present time, the assumption that some non-human animals are sentient remains scientifically unverifiable. (I’ve written more about this here.)
This point is explicitly acknowledged by Marian Stamp Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behavior and Mary Snow Fellow in Biological Sciences, Somerville College, Oxford University, in her recently published book, Why Animals Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012). Dawkins is herself highly sympathetic to the view that a large number of animals may be conscious. However, in her book, Dawkins forthrightly accuses animal researcher Marc Bekoff of going in for “full-blooded, genuine anthropomorphism” (p. 21) in his ascription of conscious emotions to animals, and she takes particular issue with the following statement made by Bekoff: “To live with a dog is to know first hand that animals have feelings. It’s a no brainer.” In her response, Dawkins describes the detrimental effect that this anthropomorphic way of thinking has had on science: “It began to look as though no further thought or investigation were going to be necessary. Even worse, this new wave of anthropomorphism threatened the very scientific basis of the study of animal behaviour itself, particularly that branch of it known as cognitive ethology.” (p. 26)
Dawkins then goes on to discuss the different areas of animal consciousness. Throughout the discussion, she maintains a skeptical outlook, because the scientific evidence is “indirect” (p. 111) and that “there is no proof either way about animal consciousness and that it does not serve animals well to claim that there is.” (p. 112). Summarizing the data surveyed, she writes:
The mystery of consciousness remains. The explanatory gap is as wide as ever and all the wanting in the world will not take us across it. Animals and plants can ‘want’ very effectively with never a hint of consciousness, as we can see with a tree wanting to grow in a particular direction. Preference tests, particularly those that provide evidence that animals are prepared to pay ‘costs’ to get what they want, are perhaps the closest we can get to what animals are feeling, but they are not a magic entry into consciousness. They do not solve the hard problem for us because everything that animals do when they make choices or show preferences or even ‘work’ to get what they want could be done without conscious experience at all. We have seen (Chapters 4 and 5) just how much we humans do unconsciously and how powerful our unconscious minds are in making decisions and even in having emotions. What is good enough for us may well be good enough for other species.
…In the case of other humans, we use words to ask them what they are feeling, and use what they say as a reasonable working substitute for direct knowledge of what they are experiencing. Preference tests and their variations could be seen as the animal equivalents of asking people in words and it is tempting to say that they are as good as words, if not better. So if we are happy enough to use words as a rickety bridge across the chasm, why not use preference tests, choice, and operant conditioning to do the same for animals? This argument seems particularly compelling when we look at the evidence that animals will choose to give themselves the same drugs that we know have pain-relieving or anxiety-relieving properties in ourselves. Isn’t this direct evidence for conscious experience of pain in animals? Doesn’t this show that their experience of pain is like ours, not just in the external symptoms that they show but also in what they feel?
… The similarity between the behavioral responses of animals and humans to such drugs make it tempting to assume that because the behavior is similar, the conscious experiences must be similar too. Of course they may be, but there is no more ‘must’ about it than in the claim that animals ‘must’ consciously experience thirst before they drink or ‘must’ consciously experience hunger while they are searching for food. They may well do so, as we saw in Chapter 8. But there is no must about it. Animal bodies have evolved by natural selection to restore imbalances of food and water and to repair wounds and other kinds of damage. Neither food deprivation nor water deprivation, nor the symptoms of inflamed joints, are necessarily accompanied by any conscious experiences at all, although they may be. Just as our wounds heal up without any conscious intention on our part and we like certain foods without knowing why, so other animals, too, have a variety of mechanisms, for repairing and restoring their bodies to proper working order. Preference and choice and ‘what animals want’ are part of those mechanisms. They may well be accompanied by conscious experiences. But then again, they may not be. Once again, our path to finding out the answer is blocked by the implacable, infuriating obstacle known as the hard problem.” (pp. 171-174)
Finally, Marian Dawkins argues that since at the present time, scientists don’t know which (if any) animals are conscious, it is better for animal welfare advocates to refuse to commit themselves on the question of which animals are conscious: ” … it is much, much better for animals if we remain skeptical and agnostic [about consciousness] … Militantly agnostic if necessary, because this keeps alive the possibility that a large number of species have some sort of conscious experiences … For all we know, many animals, not just the clever ones and not just the overtly emotional ones, also have conscious experiences.” (p. 177)
Marian Dawkins’ militant agnosticism reminds me of a similar situation in the field of mathematics. Some mathematicians accept the continuum hypothesis, that there is no infinite set with a cardinal number between that of the relatively “small” infinite set of integers, aleph_0, and the much larger infinite set of real numbers, while other mathematicians reject it. The hypothesis is currently undecidable (if we assume the truth of the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms together with the axiom of choice). Likewise, the question of animal sentience is (at the present time) scientifically undecidable: an animal researcher can do perfectly good science in the laboratory, regardless of whether she believes that animals are sentient or not.
The verdict of science, then, is that it is currently impossible to
establish, even with a high degree of probability, which animals have subjective feelings, and which don’t. And yet Professor Coyne claims to be quite sure that his cat feels pain. I don’t wish to undermine his feeling of certainty; all I will say is that it does not come from science but from somewhere outside science, which means that Coyne’s claim that scientism is true, as a theory of knowledge, is simply wrong.
To sum up: Professor Coyne cannot tell us which creatures are sentient, which means that (on his own account) he cannot tell us which creatures matter, ethically speaking; nor can he even tell us how to find out which creatures matter, since the only road to knowledge which he recognizes (the scientific method) comes up empty-handed, in its attempt to answer this question. Nor can Coyne tell us why we should value sentient creatures, as their aches and pains, their joys and sufferings, have no “owner”; there is, he says, no “self” that experiences them. There are just feelings, and then there are organisms in which these feelings occur. Coyne has failed to explain why raw feelings (or qualia) should matter, if no-one feels them, and why organisms should matter, if they are objects rather than subjects. Finally, Coyne fails to address the question of whether a sentient being’s welfare is important in its own right, or only important insofar as it affects the well-being of the society in which that being lives.
I conclude that whatever the merits of Coyne’s criticisms of other ethical views (and I have already explained why I think these criticisms fail, in my August 2011 post, Why morality cannot be 100% natural: A Response to Professor Coyne), his own theory of ethics is sadly lacking.
What do readers think?