March 5, 2005

Cows are people, too

As someone concerned with and supportive of non-anthropocentric personhood ethics, I've long insisted that any agent capable of subjective and emotional experience--no matter how subtle or simple--deserves moral consideration. Consequently, even the most "lowly" non-human animals IMO qualify for personhood status of varying degrees; it's been long known that many animals have their own personalities and emotional life. Moreover, most of them are capable of suffering, so as animal rights activist Peter Singer has bravely and cogently argued, we need to look out for their welfare.

Reinforcing this notion, recent studies have shown that farm animals do in fact exhibit human-like qualities in terms of their emotional life and in their relations with other animals. Cows in particular, who are often used as an example to showcase mindless docility in animals, do in fact have a complex internal psychological life in which they bear grudges, nurture friendships and become excited over intellectual challenges. They're also capable of feeling strong emotions such as happiness, pain, fear and even anxiety.

And very importantly, it's now suspected that they are even capable of worrying about the future--a psychological attribute that is often considered a critical threshold in personhood determination (i.e. a person should be capable of making plans and having intentions over time). If cows are worrying about the future, that means that i) they have a sense of self, ii) they are concerned about their welfare (which is intention), and iii) they can imagine themselves in the future (which it can be argued is a type of planning, in that they "plan" or expect themselves to exist in the future). Sounds like a person to me.

Many of these characteristics have been observed in other farm animals, including pigs, goats, and chickens. Consequently, animal rights advocates are urging that animal welfare laws need to be significatnly rethought and reconsidered. Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at Bristol University, believes that because remarkable cognitive abilities and cultural innovations have been revealed, "[o]ur challenge is to teach others that every animal we intend to eat or use is a complex individual, and to adjust our farming culture accordingly.” She argues that even chickens should be treated as individuals with needs and problems.

Other observations about farm animal behaviour include:

- cows within a herd form smaller friendship groups of between two and four animals with whom they spend most of their time, often grooming and licking each other
- cows will also dislike other cows and can bear grudges for months or years
- dairy cow herds have a complex and intense sex life
- cows become excited when they solve intellectual challenges; when solving problems, their heartbeats go up and some even hump into the air in excitment
- sheep can remember 50 ovine faces (even in profile) and they can recognise another sheep after as much as a year apart

John Webster, a professor of animal husbandry at Bristol, has just published a book on the topic, Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden. “People have assumed that intelligence is linked to the ability to suffer and that because animals have smaller brains they suffer less than humans. That is a pathetic piece of logic,” he said.

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Anonymous said...

Hi George. It seems to me that you would like reading "Animals in Translation" by Temple Grandin. A book on animal welfare by a non-vegetarian para-human who agrees that cows are people.

STAG said...

Of course, a cow can be converted to roast beef in under 30 minutes just down the road at the local abattoir. Every time I slap another sizzling steak on the bar bee que, I waste a moment thinking...gee, that cow coulda bin a coulda gone to college, who knows, maybe it coulda wrote the next Piano Concerto #5 in moo minor. Or maybe not.

Ryan said...

Great post. I agree completely. Peter Singer's Practical Ethics set me on the road to becoming a vegetarian many years ago, and I am now just shy of one year meat-free.

I think one of Singer's most effective arguments against the "they're stupid so we can eat them" claim is asking whether a person would feel comfortable caging, killing, and eating a mentally-retarded human or a human infant, both of which are as relatively unintelligent as a cow or a pig. Unfortunately, on the rare occasion I have used that argument amongst others, they get turned off the instant I suggest that there is any comparison between humans and animals and therefore ignore the point.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely do not understand reasoning behind "non-anthropocentric ethics". To me it sounds like "non-graphical photo".

I see that the "non-a ethics" covers cows. What about fish? incects? bacterias? Where are the limits if any? Are inanimate objects included? Stones? No? What about planets?

Or is it kind of religion - either believe and obey without thinking, or f**k off, you, bloody meat-loving pig?

Or is it a manifestation of psychological inability to face the reality (ie nature)?

Still I am open to discussion... Anyone care to enlighten me? Cows? (i mean: chickens? (pun))

Or are you like evangelical rights: ready to preach, but do not stand up to reasonable discussion..."read the bible, it says all you need" ?

justin said...

Is it wrong when a lion runs down a zebra and eats it? I think people get very caught up in reading about things that they want to make sense to themselves. So when someone comes along like Peter Singer and makes somewhat decent points, people look at the surface value and love to accept it. And who's to say that animals should be judged based off of human standards (comparing cows to babies and mentally handicapted people)? Why not give every sentient being equal consideration based off of a dolphins characteristics? Also with the whole infant thing, pootential is the difference. Human infants have the potential to be much more intelligent than a cow. I suppose Singer denies any type of human essence as well. I wonder what singer would say to someone if they were to say his death would maximize happiness, since he makes quite a few people mad(handicapted people mostly). He is a Utilitarian, is he not? So based on his own views his death would be morally okay. So why not kill himself to maximize the happiness of the whole?

There are a lot of flaws in Singer's views

Sentient Sister said...

STAG misses the point entirely. The point of pointing out that animals have intelligence is not to argue that they are as smart as humans or that they are capable of contributing great works of art or science to the world. The point is that they have enough intelligence to experience both negative and positive emotions. Therefore, they deserve to pursue a life which will maximize their happiness – a life with the pleasures of companionship, of motherhood, of being nurtured by a mother, of sunshine, of shade, of breezes, of a natural environment, of fresh water, of fresh tasty food, of sex, of rolling in the dirt, of play (standard behaviour for the young of many species), of roaming and exploration. And furthermore, it is immoral to impose on them a life which not only deprives them of that happiness but inflicts misery, fear, and suffering.

There’s virtually no doubt that humans are the smartest of the animals. But does greater intelligence mean a greater capacity for joy and for suffering? Anyone who has witnessed an eighteen month old human squeal with delight during play or wail with anguish in a tantrum knows this isn’t so.