Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pain vs. suffering and animals vs. humans

People sometimes ask me whether I make a distinction between "pain" and "suffering." The answer is "yes, I do," although one reason this might not be clear is that I have the following quotation from George Orwell at the top of my page called "On the Seriousness of Suffering":
Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain.
Katja Grace wrote a blog post based on this quote, and in the comments, I made the following clarification:

First, I don’t entirely agree with Orwell’s choice of words, but I included the quote as he wrote it for the sake of readability. In particular, as many have pointed out, what matters is not “pain” directly but “suffering,” i.e., the response that “this feels really awful and I want it to stop.” The commenters raised several examples where pain itself isn’t aversive: Pain asymbolia, masochism, people given morphine, etc., not to mention self-cutting and other things people do in order to release endorphins/opioids to make themselves feel better.
I would also omit Orwell’s word “physical,” because because mental pain can be just as bad.

Pain asymbolia is the most clear proof that pain and suffering are distinct, because unlike masochism where one can imagine that pleasure chemicals are merely outweighing pain signals, in pain asymbolia, the quale of pain itself is not aversive.

This suggests the broader question, What gives valence to qualia? I think the details of how this happens are largely unknown, but presumably there are brain processes which "paint" a suffering gloss onto experiences in the same way as certain brain processes paint a hedonic gloss onto pleasure. It's these painting operations that I count as suffering and that I want to reduce.

A related theme is the classic distinction between nociception and conscious pain. As Jane A. Smith explains in "A Question of Pain in Invertebrates":
Invertebrates, it seems, exhibit nociceptive responses analogous to those shown by vertebrates. They can detect and respond to noxious stimuli, and in some cases, these responses can be modified by opioid substances. However, in humans, at least, there is a distinction to be made between the "registering" of a noxious stimulus and the "experience" of pain. In humans, pain "may be seen as the response of the whole awake conscious organism to noxious stimuli, seated.., at the highest levels in the central nervous system, involving emotional and other psychological components" (Iggo, 1984). Experiments on decorticate mammals have shown that complex, though stereotyped, motor responses to noxious stimuli may occur in the absence of consciousness and, therefore, of pain (Iggo, 1984). Thus, it is possible that invertebrates' responses to noxious stimuli (and modifications of these responses) could be simple reflexes, occurring without the animals being aware of experiencing something unpleasant, that is, without "suffering" something akin to what humans call pain.
And from Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens, as excerpted here:
Would one or all of those neural patter[n]s of injured tissue be the same thing as knowing one had pain? And the answer is, not really. Knowing that you have pain requires something else that occurs after the neural patterns that correspond to the substrate of pain – the nociceptive signals – are displayed in the appropriate areas of the brain stem, thalamus, and cerebral cortex and generate an image of pain, a feeling of pain.
So when I ask whether insects might be able to suffer, I don't mean just whether they can react against physical injury and learn to avoid it in the future. I'm asking whether they can perceive this injury as something that is happening to them and that they want to have stopped. I agree that the jury is very much still out on this question. If it seems as though I believe otherwise, it's because I'm trying to track the expected value rather than the most likely point estimate.

Now, given that suffering is different from pain and that suffering can involve strong non-physical emotional components, does this mean animals matter less than we might think because they don't suffer in high-level mental ways?

First, it's unclear whether the claim is true that animals have substantially less sophisticated mentation, at least for "higher" animals like mammals. Animals show many of the psychopathologies that humans do and are used as models for depression when testing drugs. Elephants have death rituals. Crows appear to go sledding for fun. Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, and other ethologists have written numerous books documenting the complex emotional lives of mammals, birds, fish, and even octopuses.

But, suppose it is true that non-human animals don't have a similar degree of psychological depth to their experiences. It's not obvious that this means they suffer less intensely. Maybe the brain applies normalization to its experiences, so that it can appropriately encode relative priorities of various drives without using excessive amounts of energy/storage. For example, say a mouse's suffering is between 0 and -10, while a human's would be between 0 and -50 due to emotional depth. However, maybe the human brain doesn't care about perfect granularity among all of the values between 0 and -50; it only needs a sufficient granularity to make the right tradeoffs, so it downplays the importance of physical pain. In other words, a physical pain that would have been -10 for the mouse might be -2 for the human, because the human has so much else to worry about. This is pure speculation, and I wouldn't rest my argument on this point, but it seems possible. This discussion also gets into philosophical issues about how we want to care about and measure emotional intensity, which lie beyond the scope of the current post.

Finally, what if animals do suffer less, even after taking account of the brain's normalization processes? Well, I guess I would ask, How much less do they suffer? I don't think it's orders of magnitude less, and if not, then the basic calculations showing that, at the margin, animal welfare takes priority over human welfare would remain. Suppose you were a chicken being scalded and drowned alive in a boiling defeathering tank. How much less bad would this experience be if you didn't have broader thoughts about the end of your life, the injustice of your situation, how much you'll miss your friends, etc.? I suspect that the raw physical pain would overwhelm these subsidiary thoughts during the moment, and even if not, I don't think the higher-level thoughts would be 10 times stronger than the raw pain.

Moreover, there are many times when humans may in fact suffer less because of their understanding of the situation. Humans enduring a bout of food poisoning can know that the agony will end after a day or two and can know that their friends and family will help them in the mean time. Animals going through the same experience may have no idea what's happening to them, whether it will end, or what will become of their lives.

The points discussed above are fascinating to ponder, and it's valuable to hear from other people which of their own experiences they've found most unpleasant. That said, we modern humans live extremely comfortable lives compared with factory-farmed or wild animals, so it isn't surprising that most of our worst memories may be of purely emotional injury. In any event, regardless of where we settle on the question of the relative magnitudes of animal and human pain, physical and psychological pain, I don't think it's likely to tip the balance of our calculations about where our dollars and hours will do the most good.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Why I prefer public conversations

Many of my richest insights into philosophy and reducing suffering have come from written conversations with friends. Some of these have been on public fora like Felicifia, while others have been in private messages and emails.

In general, I always encourage people to conduct non-sensitive discussions in a public forum, and I'm quite passionate about this recommendation. :) There are a few reasons I like public conversations so much:

  1. Linkability. There are many, many occasions when I want to refer someone to a previous thread on a very similar topic, so as to avoid re-explaining how the wheel works. This is much easier with public discussions, and I also don't have to ask the participants in the private conversation for permission to forward along their writings.
  2. Searchability. When discussions are indexed by search engines, they're easy to find. I can search my Gmails and Facebook conversations as well, but this is more clunky.
  3. Discoverability. Conversations indexed by search engines can be found by other people with similar interests. More than half of respondents to the question, "How did you find Felicifia?" said that they stumbled upon the forum through Google, rather than through friends or inlinks. Needless to say, this multiplies the impact of whatever you write, and it helps to keep your communities from being insular, since new people continue to join and discover the insights you have to share.
  4. Unexpected feedback. The world is a big place, and there are lots of really smart people with great ideas and useful experience. If you restrict your conversations to just people you already know, you're closing off the possibility of feedback from people you don't know. In some cases, comments from people you don't know may be the most useful of all, because you're least likely to have heard their ideas before. 
  5. Preservation for posterity. When the content is on a public website, it'll be available as long as the site remains up and running. If Internet Archive has a chance to crawl the content, it'll be available longer; this amounts to free file backups for you.
  6. Sharing with AGI. This point I include mostly for fun, but it's 5% serious. If someone builds an AGI that cares about what people think and wants to learn about ethics, helping others, altruism, etc., then it will read through the entire Internet as background material. If your conversations are online, you can play a small role in shaping the opinions of the AGI. More mundanely, in the short term, your content will be factored into aggregate statistics about what people on the web are up to -- e.g., trending articles and topics as displayed by search engines, bookmarking sites, popularity graphs, or whatever.
Of these reasons, I think #3 and #4 are most important, followed by #1. Public conversations really are a public good, and their positive externalities deserve to be kept in mind.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bekoff and Dawkins on animal consciousness

Here is another post that I originally made on a discussion thread in the Facebook group Reducing wild-animal suffering. It's in reply to two articles: (1) "Dawkins' Dangerous Idea: We Really Don't Know If Animals Are Conscious" by Marc Bekoff, and (2) "Convincing the Unconvinced That Animal Welfare Matters" by Marian Stamp Dawkins.


Thanks for sharing the pieces by Bekoff and Dawkins. I admire both of those authors, and I can definitely see where both sides are coming from.

I think the most important distinction that needs to be made is between “certainty” in science and “certainty” in ethics. Dawkins is right that science should remain skeptical of animal consciousness and that we should seek out proof independent of existing assumptions. Scientists don't like to stamp a statement as "true" until they're really sure about it from lots of angles.

But while Dawkins is correct that we don't know "for certain" whether animals are conscious, this statement is misleading to many laypeople who assume that she must mean the odds are around 50%. I don't know what she thinks the odds actually are, but I would give above a 90% chance of chicken consciousness and above, say, 93% for pig consciousness. With odds like that, it's best to say that the case is proved or else the public will misunderstand. Many people are not motivated by less than absolute certainty, and I think Bekoff is right that emphasizing scientific doubt is going to hurt animals on average. (Just look at what talking about uncertainty does for the global-warming debate.)

Now, Dawkins is totally correct that we don't understand exactly why animals are conscious. Indeed, we don't even know why people are conscious. What exactly does being conscious allow you to do that you can't do if you're not conscious? As blindsight shows, you can walk and avoid objects without being conscious of them. And as Libet's famous free-will studies showed, you can decide to move your hand half a second before you become conscious of your choice. If we ourselves didn't experience our consciousness through our own minds, then we would definitely have scientific doubts about whether people are conscious, too.

There are lots of excellent studies demonstrating sophisticated, self-reflective behavior in animals that Bekoff and others take to imply consciousness, and indeed these are excellent pieces of evidence. However, they are not conclusive proof of consciousness because we can't even prove that humans are conscious using such tests at the present time. (In the future, once we really understand how consciousness works in the brain, we should be able to assess consciousness just by looking at the brain itself. But that is a long way off.)

So I think arguably the strongest reason we should believe animals are conscious is that they're close to us on the evolutionary tree, and their brain structures are remarkably similar. In "New evidence of animal consciousness" (2004), Donald R. Griffin and Gayle B. Speck note that "the search for neural correlates of consciousness has not found any consciousness-producing structure or process that is limited to human brains" (p. 1). And in "Building a neuroscience of pleasure and well-being" (2012), Kent C. Berridge and Morten L. Kringelbach comment:
Progress has been facilitated by the recognition that hedonic brain mechanisms are largely shared between humans and other mammals, allowing application of conclusions from animal studies to a better understanding of human pleasures. […] 
Some might be surprised by high similarity across species, or by substantial subcortical contributions, at least if one thinks of pleasure as uniquely human and as emerging only at the top of the brain. The neural similarity indicates an early phylogenetic appearance of neural circuits for pleasure and a conservation of those circuits, including deep brain circuits, in the elaboration of later species, including humans.
There must be dozens of other papers that could be quoted in a similar fashion. Based on this, a probability for mammal and bird consciousness as low as 50% is completely unreasonable, IMHO.

Now, what about the effort that Dawkins proposes: Making people care about animals for human-welfare reasons? If we could press a button to do this, I'd be in favor of it. But when we're parceling out our scarce resources for helping animals, I think this undertaking should go pretty low on the priority list. It's great if we can help animals in the short term in this way, but if we're going to prevent future humans from multiplying wild-animal suffering into the galaxy or simulating vast numbers of suffering sub-human minds to make a profit, we had better make sure our descendants actually care about animals. The situations that cause harm to animals in the future may well benefit humans at that point -- we have no idea.

Finally, I did like this statement from Dawkins, as quoted in Bekoff's article: " ... 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) This is how I feel about insects. They easily may not be conscious (I'd give a ~55% probability that they are not), but we should actively consider the implications if they are conscious because of their great numbers. It's totally appropriate to talk about probabilities and expected values in the right context, but my complaint to Dawkins is that among the general public, the language of uncertainty makes people confused and less motivated.

Grounding animal ethics

Following is a post that I originally made on a discussion thread in the Facebook group Reducing wild-animal suffering. It's sufficiently stand-alone as to be a blog entry as well. This piece is in reply to "The Paradox of Paternalism: A Dilemma for Naturalism" by Paul Hansen, 10 June 2012. Thanks for sparking this discussion, Paul.

Interesting essay. I'm so accustomed to naturalist consequentialist philosophers these days that to read Paul's piece feels like landing on an alien planet. :) There's such a huge gap between how we understand ethics.

There are two ways to read what Paul is saying. First the less charitable account. I think the project of trying to ground ethics -- whether in naturalism or in religion or in anything else -- is confused. We care about what we care about. A lot of people, including myself, care about the suffering of other organisms, and we want to reduce that suffering. This isn't the same as the "ethics of care" that Paul tries to refute. I'm not saying that people should treat animals well in proportion to how much they care about animals. Rather, I'm saying that *I* care about animals, so I'm going to do what I darn well can to make sure everyone else respects animals to the degree I think they should. :) It's as simple as that -- there's nothing more to say about the ethical underpinnings of animal welfare.

Now, the more charitable interpretation of Paul's essay is to read it not as talking about anything metaphysical -- not as talking about absolute ethics built into the fabric of the universe -- but rather, just as talking about what kinds of intuition pumps will persuade others to agree with you. Indeed, the reason why people started talking in terms of absolute morality may have been because it's more persuasive to say "God commands you to do X" or "Absolute morality commands you to do X" than it is to say "I would really like it if you did X and really dislike it if you didn't. Pretty please? :D"

Each of the approaches to grounding ethics that Paul cites may appeal to different people. Some feel moved by moral rights, some by utilitarianism, some by care ethics, and some by religious or spiritual messages. It's a matter of choosing the marketing pitch that's most compelling to the target audience. Certain people do feel uneasy with non-religious groundings because they sympathize with the intuitions that Paul lays out, e.g., that nature is red in tooth and claw, so why should humans act any nicer if they're just animals? Needless to say, that instance of the naturalistic fallacy is not an argument; it's just a sentiment that some people find compelling. (I myself find it to be nonsense.) For those who can't easily be persuaded in other ways, probably Paul is right that appealing to religion could help.

That said, I'm wary of doing this too much. While caring about animals is really important, so is not having a deluded outlook on the world. Religious views especially can fall prey to perverse assumptions that make animals get hurt, like the belief that nature is "how it was created to be" and therefore we shouldn't "play god" by intervening. Some of the most passionate defenses of the view that nature teems with joy come from religious believers trying to prove that God isn't evil. I doubt this is what Paul had in mind when he said that religion "has been remiss or complicit in practice, with respect to animal abuse," but it applies here as well as to direct human-caused suffering.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

More on Humane Insecticides from Jeff Lockwood

Below is an email conversation with Jeffrey Lockwood on the subject of humane insecticides. Thanks so much for the insights, Jeff!

[me:] What's your tentative rank order for the humaneness of insect-control methods?

Also, I'd like to support research on this question in more seriousness within a few years. How would you recommend beginning that process? Would I contact professors and grad students to see if one of them would be interested in writing a paper on the topic? (Maybe for an ethics journal or maybe a more science-based one.)

Suppose the effort got a little more traction. How would we then go about advocating for the use of humane insecticides? For example, imagine that the Humane Society got interested in the cause and wanted to run a campaign. What could they do? Maybe find and support farms willing to switch to the better methods? Ask schools to buy from those farms (similar to the current cage-free-egg campaigns)?

[Jeff:] As for a tentative rank order for the humaneness of insect control methods, that's a real challenge! But let me try a very 'soft' ranking:

Cultural control: Preventing insects from occupying a resource (e.g., habitat modification) seems the most humane approach as no beings are directly harmed (at least [when] this is possible).

Physical control: [... Some] forms of physical control would likely cause suffering (e.g., picking and crushing) but the duration would be relatively brief.

Biological control - predators: Death from predators is often relatively rapid, although this is not certain. Larger predators (e.g., birds or skunks) are rather more efficient in their killing than small predators (e.g., ants or beetles).

Chemical control - neurotoxins: Depending on the dose, it appears that death comes quickly. Of course, at low doses the individual may be rendered physiologically and behaviorally dysfunctional and prone to a slow death. It should also be noted that many non-insect species are likely to be intoxicated, and these non-target species would substantially lower the ranking of this approach if taken into account. [me: This assumes they're not better off dead. I think killing non-target organisms may be a bonus because their lives probably aren't worth living.]

Chemical control - growth regulators: The insect, in my observations, often dies very slowly in a protracted state of dysfunctionality during which the individual is highly susceptible to scavengers and small predators.

Biological control - pathogens: The type of pathogen matters a great deal. Many viruses, for example, don't appear to inflict substantial suffering. However, various fungi appear to work rather slowly and erode the capacity of the insect.

Biological control - parasites: As with pathogens, there are many different parasites. However, it does not appear that death is quick and the quality of life appears to slowly erode. It has been noted, however, that some parasitized insects appear to act normally for much of the period of parasitization.

These are really brainstormed rankings and I'd be very open to refutation of my simplistic rationales.

As for moving the discussion into a wider venue, I can offer a few ideas. It might make sense to begin with a symposium as part of a national meeting. Perhaps the Entomological Society of America would be an interesting venue. Or you might go with a more philosophical setting for the discussion. There are also some organizations that fund/host workshops -- and I can imagine that a 1-week meeting to gather people together to hash out ideas, argue about positions, and exchange perspectives could be extremely exciting. Some journals are open to proposals for "special issues" (Psyche and Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics come to mind), and you might also approach some academic publishers with this concept (this would be particularly viable following a symposium or workshop).

In terms of taking the concept into the realm of application, I would think that the Human[e] Society might be a fine organization. The concept of human[e] pest control/management is very intriguing. Of course, most people won't put a great deal of energy or thought into the matter. However, if there were alternatives that were no more (or even less) expensive AND more humane, then it could well matter to many people. In the best of all worlds, the Humane Society might provide a scoring or ranking system for methods and products (and even provide some explicit endorsement for consumers). The Freedom Foods label through the RSPCA would be one such model (perhaps insects could even be incorporated into the considerations for producers who seek this label). I suspect that some of the "what to do?" possibilities might make a most interesting session in a symposium or workshop.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lockwood on Insect Pain

Jeffrey Lockwood is an entomologist with whom I've had several email conversations about insect suffering. He defends the possibility of insect sentience in several pages of Lockwood, J. A. 1987. The moral standing of insects and the ethics of extinction. Florida Entomologist 70: 70-89.

He has a new blog post, "Do Bugs Feel Pain?," presenting three lines of evidence that the answer to this question may be "yes."

After this, he says:

So, given that we can’t be sure whether insects experience pain, how should we treat these creatures? When I was teaching insect anatomy and physiology I insisted that the students anesthetized insects before conducting experiments that we would expect to inflict pain on a mouse. My rational[e] is two-fold.

First, it seems ethically obligatory to guard against the possibility that insects feel pain. If we use anesthetic and it turns out that insects don’t experience pain, the material cost of our mistake is very low (a few extra minutes to apply cold or carbon dioxide). However, if we don’t use anesthetic and it turns out that the insects were in agony, then the moral cost of our mistake is quite high.

Second, I think that treating insects as if they can experience pain cultivates an attitude of respect toward living organisms. And this seems like a good thing. We learn the methods of dissection through practices—and we also learn virtues such as compassion through practice. Perhaps we become overly careful in our actions by including animals that aren’t sentient, but world that is more mindful of other beings than is strictly necessary is okay with me.

Of course, there are circumstances in which we are justified in crushing, poisoning, or otherwise harming insects. Nobody wants to suffer hunger or malaria. We must protect our food and bodies. And so inflicting suffering and death is part of life; we live with the existential dilemma that we must kill to live. But we are also obligated to minimize the harm that we do—and insects are a part of this duty.

I agree that killing insects isn't necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, if I were an insect, because my lifespan would be so short, I would prefer to be killed with minimal pain now rather than die by parasites, dehydration, or in a spider's web a few weeks later. (This assumes that life itself would be pleasant, which is dubious.)

However, this killing should be as painless as possible. Jeff endorses euthanasia in the case of laboratory experimentation, but I maintain that it's quantitatively orders of magnitude more important in the case of insecticides on crops. There's a broad spectrum (pardon the pun) of painfulness in the realm of insect-control methods. Some insect-killing practices, like spraying Bt or introducing natural predators, would seem to be very unpleasant. Others, like pheromone disruption or prevention, are nearly free of suffering for the targets, and as a bonus, they reduce insect populations for the future, preventing many lives of suffering before those lives get started.

I hope eventually to do more research and perhaps advocacy in the realm of encouraging farmers to adopt more humane methods of pest control that simultaneously continue to prevent insect lives that aren't worth living. Suggestions from readers on how to begin this are welcome!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Matched Donations for Vegan Outreach through 30 June 2011

Since 1 May 2011, Vegan Outreach has been matching donations dollar-for-dollar, and the matching drive continues through the end of June. One way to donate is to sponsor someone on the Team Vegan page, although contributions to the general fund will be matched as well. I encourage you to donate!

Below is a powerful video about factory farming from February 2011. The information is nothing new, but the footage and presentation is very compelling. Keep in mind, of course, huge quantitative difference between milk/beef and chicken/fish. (You can even observe the contrast visually from the shots of huge numbers of small fish being harvested.)

It's heartening to see how much suffering we can prevent by just a little bit of money donated on our part.