Animals, Robots, and the Religious Right: A Response to Two Reviews

By Michael Dorf


A recent article by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker asks whether arguments for animal rights have implications for the rights of robots. In the course of getting there, Heller first discusses the excellent new book by ethologist Jonathan Balcombe, What a Fish Knows, and then discusses Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, by Prof. Colb and me. Heller likes both books. He calls ours "a worthwhile new book", for which I'm quite grateful. He also correctly reports the core of our argument, which I don't take for granted (more about that in Part II, below).

Nonetheless, I disagree with what appear to be Heller's theoretical and practical conclusions: respectively, that moral intuitions are an unreliable basis for moral judgment and that humans have no moral obligation to refrain from exploiting animals for food, so long as the animals are treated humanely. (I say "appear" because Heller's style is discursive, speculative, and somewhat detached, making it difficult to tell when he is merely reporting the views of others and when he is stating anything like a firm conviction.) En route to his conclusions, Heller also accuses Balcombe as well as Colb and me of anthropomorphizing animals. After tackling the anthropomorphism claim, I'll explain what I think is wrong with Heller's conclusions.


Heller has many nice things to say about What a Fish Knows but also says that the "book is peppered with weird, anthropomorphizing anecdotes about people sharing special moments with their googly-eyed friends." What makes the anecdotes weird or instances of anthropomorphism Heller does not say, even as he concedes Balcombe's core point: "If we count fish as our cognitive peers, they ought to be included in our circle of moral duty."

Likewise, Heller accuses Colb and me of anthropomorphizing. He invokes Thomas Nagel's terrific 1974 essay What is it Like to be a Bat? for the proposition that we humans can never really know what it's like to be members of another species. I like the Nagel essay, but it is not chiefly about animal versus human experience. It is mostly about the inadequacy of existing approaches to the mind-body problem. Nagel expressly avers that bats and other complex non-human animals are conscious, that it indeed feels like something to be a bat. He goes on to say, however, that some elements of bat subjectivity--especially echolocation--are beyond our capacity to understand subjectively. We can describe the physical phenomenon of echolocation, but that doesn't tell us what it is like to be a being who uses echolocation. And that, Nagel argues, shows that there is a gap between understanding a physical phenomenon in an objective sense and understanding how that phenomenon gives rise to subjective experiences.

None of this really has anything to do with Heller's claims about anthropomorphism. Nagel doesn't say that we can't imagine what it's like to have any of the experiences that bats have. We can well imagine what it's like for a bat to experience pain or cold, for example, because these are feelings that we experience as well. Nagel chooses to focus on perceptions and experiences where bats and humans differ because it advances his point about the mind/body problem, but he makes no claim that sympathetic imagination across the species line is completely impossible with respect to all manner of experiences.

In any event, even if that were Nagel's claim, so what? Nagel is a philosopher, not a biologist. He has no special competence in understanding what might make subjectivity different across the species line. Balcombe, however, has devoted his career to understanding the behavior of other species and what might give rise to that behavior. He sees more similarities than differences or, conceding as much as plausibly can be conceded to Heller, Balcombe sees differences of degree rather than kind between, on one hand, human consciousness and human experiences, and, on the other hand, the consciousness and experiences of other animals.

Where does the burden of proof lie? People who accuse Balcombe or Colb and me of anthropomorphism begin with the assumption that humans are unique and that therefore when we observe behavior in other species that, were it to occur in humans, we would attribute to various motives with which we are familiar--love, altruism, curiosity, etc.--we are mistakenly attributing human characteristics to other animals.

But why should we assume human uniqueness? Is Heller a creationist? If we are to be guided by science, we should surely expect that animals that evolved from common ancestors as humans and that have similar or homologous brain structures and neurochemical pathways, would also have roughly similar subjectivity. Put differently, Occam's razor suggests that animal behavior that looks like human behavior should presumptively be treated as reflecting roughly similar internal experiences, unless and until proven otherwise. Heller needs, but does not provide, a justification for anthropocentrizing.

Moral Intuitions, Moral Realism, and Virtue Ethics

Heller's tendency to see anthropomorphism also leads him to question the utility of moral intuitions as the basis for moral judgments. Some of his examples undoubtedly have force. He points to circumstances in which clearly non-sentient robots elicit feelings of empathy from people who see them acting in ways that in some ways resemble the actions of sentient humans or other animals. From these genuine examples of anthropomorphism, Heller draws a too-sweeping conclusion, however.

As I have written elsewhere, questions about animal rights and the possibility of robot sentience do have implications for one another. But the right way to think about those questions is to ask what really matters. A computer that passes the Turing test or a robot that elicits feelings of empathy in us does not qualify for moral concern in virtue of either fact--except insofar as the Turing test or our empathy are reliable markers of computer or robot sentience.

Why? Not because of unexamined moral intuitions, but because, after reflection, we have good reason to think that sentience is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for interests, and thus for rights. A robot that is merely programmed to fool us into thinking it is a being with its own subjectivity does not have interests. It is something, not someone. By contrast, a sentient robot would indeed be entitled to moral consideration. The fact that our brains can be tricked into inferring sentience when there is no ghost in the machine does not imply that our moral intuitions lack validity even when there is a ghost in the machine or in the animal.

To be sure, some people think that moral intuitions are not reliable indicators of morality. Some of those people are moral skeptics, that is, they doubt that moral propositions have truth value in the way that empirical propositions do. To a moral skeptic, propositions like "slavery is wrong," "torturing children for sport is wrong," and "killing animals for food when there are plentiful and delicious non-animal foods available is wrong" cannot be true because morality itself is an illusion, at most a matter of preference.

I do not read Heller to be endorsing moral skepticism, because his essay treats morality as a real subject. To the extent that he is offering a view about meta-ethics at all, then, he is a moral realist, albeit one who thinks that moral intuitions are unreliable.

But Heller leaps from the unreliability of our unexamined moral intuitions and his misplaced concern about anthropomorphism to the conclusion that we cannot know what animals want or even what would be good for them. Instead, he thinks that the obligations we owe to animals are rooted in concern for the sorts of beings we want to be. Although Heller doesn't name his moral philosophy, it appears to be a form of virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the actor rather than the rightness or wrongness of the act or its consequences.

For example, Heller says: "Give salmon a chance to outsmart the net in the open ocean, instead of living an aquacultural-chattel life. We cannot be sure whether the chickens and the fish will care, but for us, the humans, these standards are key to avoiding tyrannical behavior."

Yet what makes it tyrannical for humans to confine, immiserate, and slaughter fishes, chickens, and cows but not at all tyrannical for humans to cultivate, harvest, and consume rice, beans, and bananas, is the fact that fishes, chickens, and cows experience their lives--they are someones--in a way that (so far as we can tell) plants and trees that grow rice, beans, and bananas do not--the plants and trees are somethings. Plants and trees are impressive living things, to be sure, but not they are not (again, so far as we can tell) beings who experience the world from their own subjective perspective.

In Beating Hearts, Colb and I suggest that virtue ethics makes most sense if it leans on some external account of value. With respect to virtuous treatment of animals, that external account is the value that animal lives have because animals are sentient. Heller thinks that we can and should act virtuously towards animals without taking a position on their consciousness and sentience--which he dismissively calls "abstract qualities."

I suppose I am glad that Heller reaches even the imperfect bottom line that he does. If someone is skeptical of animal consciousness, I'd rather he nonetheless conclude that humans owe animals at least some moral consideration rather than treating them as Descartes did, that is to say, as no more entitled to moral consideration than inanimate objects. But I confess that despite having read Heller's essay several times, I do not know why he thinks he can bracket animal sentience and still conclude that we owe animals moral consideration. If animals are not sentient or if their sentience differs so much from our own that it does not harm them for us to treat them as we do, then why does such treatment display a lack of virtue? Heller does not begin to answer this question.

Fortunately, there is no need to bracket animal sentience, because the evidence for it is overwhelming, as Balcombe shows in What a Fish Knows and his other books. And as Colb and I argue in Beating Hearts, that animal sentience has important moral implications.


Although I've disagreed here with Heller, I acknowledge that his essay is thoughtful, which is more than can be said for a review of Beating Hearts that appears on the website of the Witherspoon Institute. The review is by Ave Maria law professor Ligia De Jesus Castaldi. It consists mostly of her calling various of our views "extreme" or "radical" without providing any indication of the arguments we offer for our views, much less reasoned refutations of those arguments. Responding to Castaldi's charges would require reproducing much of the book, so I will simply urge interested readers to consult the book. However, Castaldi does not merely dismiss our views as radical. She also repeatedly misstates our views. Indeed, in some instances, we set forth the exact opposite of the views she critiques. Castaldi is, to put it mildly, not the most careful reader. I'll give six examples.

(1) Castaldi says that our endorsement of sentience as a sufficient condition for moral consideration "seems to be particularly inspired" by Peter Singer’s utilitarianism even though we say throughout the book that we are substantially closer to deontology. Our argument that sentience grounds a right to live, not just to avoid suffering, rests on a rejection of utilitarianism generally and of Singer's views in particular.

(2) Castaldi seems not to grasp the distinction between law and morality. For instance, she writes:
A logical application of their [i.e., our] own theory would lead to the conclusion that abortion of sentient fetuses would be morally illegitimate unless “necessary,” which would make many (if not all) such abortions morally unacceptable. Yet the authors deliberately avoid that conclusion.
What?! We draw exactly the conclusion that Castaldi says we avoid: that many (not all) post-sentience abortions are morally unacceptable. We go on to say, however, that it doesn't follow that the law should ban such morally unacceptable abortions because not all moral duties should be legal duties.

(3) Here's another illustration of Castaldi's confusion about law and morality. She writes that we "do not provide any legal justification for sentience as a legal standard." Castaldi thinks this is a criticism, but she is badly mistaken. As we say repeatedly, we are mostly offering moral arguments to guide individual behavior. Where we think that our moral arguments should also result in changes in the law, we say so. One can offer a wholly moral justification--and thus "not provide any legal justification"--for a change in the law.

(4) Castaldi writes that we "reject fetal pain laws . . . even though they could actually provide support for their own case in favor of sentience." This is yet another gross error. At page 86 and again at pages 114-15, we say that the existence of laws that ban abortion of pain-capable fetuses shows that either legislators, their constituents, or both believe that sentience creates an entitlement to life, not merely to avoid further pain. It's true that we "reject fetal pain laws" in the sense that we don't favor them (because we distinguish moral and legal obligations), but false that we disregard them as a source of "support for [our] own case in favor of sentience."

(5) Castaldi says that we "deplore the sentimentality of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in the Gonzales v. Carhart Supreme Court decision that upheld a ban on partial-birth abortion, and criticize the inclusion of detailed descriptions of the procedure’s violence and resulting fetal suffering in sentient fetuses,” which is plainly ridiculous, as we use Kennedy’s opinion in Carhart at the very beginning of chapter 1 to illustrate what we say is the strength of the pro-life position with respect to sentient fetuses. Here's the flavor of what we say, from page 15: "Only a psychopath can read" Justice Kennedy's "description" of a partial-birth abortion "without viscerally reacting with sympathy for the fetus." Did Castaldi read a different book?

(6) Castaldi says that we propose in our book "that the government should provide aid to needy animals in the form of healthcare and other benefits," which is absurd. We say (on page 40) the exact opposite. We do pose the question why it is justifiable for humans to provide healthcare and other benefits to humans but not to non-human animals. Our answer turns on the act/omission distinction.

I wouldn't expect a pro-life scholar who has no special sympathy for animals to like our book, but Castaldi does not merely express disagreement with various points we actually make. She grossly mischaracterizes the book. What might account for Castaldi's breathtakingly inaccurate description of the book? I don't really know. Prior to my having received a link to Castaldi's review from a friend, I was not familiar with her and so I can only speculate about some possibilities.

(1) Prof. Colb and I are terrible writers who failed to make our ideas clear.

I suppose this is possible, but other people, including those who hold normative views similar to Castaldi's, seemed to understand the book and to disagree with our actual views, not with some fantasy version of those views.

(2) Castaldi didn't read our book.

I entertained this idea briefly. Castaldi refers at one point in her review to "a lecture on the book" by Prof. Colb. It's not obvious what Castaldi is referring to, but perhaps she attended the bioethics seminar at Princeton a few weeks ago (which I previewed here and which Prof. Colb discussed in her Verdict column last week). Although Ave Maria Law School is in Florida, the Witherspoon Institute is in Princeton. I suppose that Castaldi could have been in the audience and then could have written her review on the basis of what she heard, not what is in the book. However, this hypothesis strikes me as quite implausible. Much of what Castaldi writes refers (albeit in a very distorted way) to material in the book that was not discussed at the Princeton seminar.

(3) Castaldi has a disability that impairs her reading comprehension.

In favor of this hypothesis is the fact that English is not Castaldi's first language. Overwhelmingly against it are the facts that her substantively dreadful review is well written, that she has a Harvard LLM, that she has published numerous articles in English, and that she is a professor at an ABA-accredited law school.

(4) Castaldi read and understood our book but deliberately chose to mischaracterize it.

As I said, prior to a few days ago, I had not encountered Castaldi or her work, and therefore I have no reason to accuse her of bad faith. Moreover, making obvious misstatements about the contents of a book is not a very effective means of critique, especially because there's plenty of material that is actually in our book that Castaldi could have chosen to critique from her normative viewpoint. There was no need for her to make stuff up. Mischaracterizing our views only serves to discredit Castaldi and undermine the legitimate criticisms she might have offered instead.

(5) Castaldi is working from a "natural law" perspective.

Both the Witherspoon Institute and Ave Maria Law School promote natural law--the idea that there is a higher law that infuses positive law. Because many of Castaldi's mischaracterizations of our book rest on her misunderstanding the difference between moral and legal arguments, it is possible that she simply doesn't recognize the difference. Yet surely someone who believes in natural law must be aware that most American legal scholars do not share that belief. And in any event, some of Castaldi's biggest whoppers (such as 5 and 6 in the prior list) have nothing to do with the distinction between law and morality. They're simply errors.

(6) Castaldi is so blinded by her anti-abortion ideology that she cannot follow basic logic or recognize where we say things with which she agrees.

This is my working hypothesis, partly because it is the most charitable reading of Castaldi's review that I can muster but also because it makes sense of her otherwise preposterous and error-ridden review as an instance of the psychological phenomenon of projection: She inaccurately accuses us of being blinded by "abortion rights dogma," which is the mirror image of her own too-real affliction.