Sunday, April 16, 2017

Twelve arguments in favor of speciesism

In the wake of my last post, I found this blog entry by Stijn Bruers, the self-styled "rational ethicist". It's called "Ten arguments against speciesism". In it he states,
In this article I will show that the human species is not a morally relevant criterion for rights and that giving humans a higher moral status than non-human sentient beings is a kind of immoral discrimination.
Note that he's set himself a rather high bar. He aims to prove that not only do animals have rights, but they have exactly the same rights as do human beings. Regardless of any victory conditions he chooses to set, in normal practice one only need show that animal rights are non-equivalent to human rights in order to rebut his conclusions. I know he wouldn't agree with that, but that's because he's wrong at least eleven times over, as you'll see.

But he does then go on to set victory conditions as follows: A speciesist who still wants to eat or use animals and animal products must first agree to his conditions (implied by the non-negotiable nature of the conditions). Then he must provide 12 arguments... one for each of his 10 arguments, plus one to rebut the conclusion of his first five arguments, plus one to rebut the conclusion of his second five arguments. In order to accept these terms you must also accept the implicit condition that if every single rationale for his conclusions are rebutted, then the conclusions themselves remain and must be rebutted separately.

I strongly question the use of the word "rational" on his blog, as he exhibits some severe difficulty with that concept. In logic, your conclusions are not valid if your premises are dismissed. They are, rather, unfounded, and do not need a separate rebuttal.

I also note that Bruers offers a 12 thousand euro "reward" for such rebuttals. Obviously there is roughly a 0.00000000000% chance of this being paid out, as the arguments must be "valid" as determined, not by an impartial judge, but by Bruers himself. An actual ethicist would not make such an offer. His ethics would forbid it. Lacking the ethics to make a serious offer, I do not expect him to make a serious judgement. Thus, I'm not writing this for his fictitious "reward", but for the sheer fun of it.

Failure to comply apparently results in getting called names. So be it.

I'll reproduce only as much of his arguments as is necessary to identify them. They're all on his blog. Make your browser work.

Replies to five arguments against the species boundary
1) The biological species boundary is arbitrary... 
Answer: Bullshit. The only thing that is arbitrary is what they are called. In principle, two members of a species can procreate, and we extend the definition to the issue of such union (to remove actual procreation as a requirement). In practice, it is enforced by nature, not human law, reason, or ethics. The boundary between extremely similar species maybe as fuzzy as the coastline of a landmass, but it is a fool who would argue that the tides render the coast irrelevant.

But nothing in Bruers' opening argument disavows that there are separate species; rather, Bruers merely argues against the way they are classified, and thus his argument summarily fails.
2) The biological definition of species is very complicated and too artificial and farfetched to be used in a moral system...
Answer: Bullshit. See above. Bruers' lack of imagination doesn't make it complicated. A wrist has no well-defined boundary; and this does not render anatomy "too artificial and farfetched" to be studied. See also the answer to argument #4, as Bruers' preference for well-defined boundaries did not lead him to make well-defined arguments.

Bruer's "ring species" example is merely a re-statement that a species boundary can be fuzzy where there are similar species; and illustrates the further observation, unnoticed by Bruers, that it nonetheless becomes distinct given a broad-enough boundary. It is, therefore, a re-statement of Argument #1, and Bruers has failed to give five arguments as promised.

Also, Bruers displays the logical fallacy of moving the goalposts. Bruers begins with a challenge stating that he will show that there is moral equivalence between humans and non-humans. This pre-supposes that there are non-humans. It is stated in the challenge itself. Failure to adhere to that supposition means that this argument summarily fails.
3) There is a potential fuzzy boundary: it is not unlikely that a human-chimpansee hybrid (humanzee or chuman) can be born.
Answer: Not if speciesists retain control. And as this is an argument of ethics, it must be pointed out that such a hybrid can only be bred through unethical behavior. This is unethical if for no other reason than a chimpanzee lacks the cognitive ability to make an informed and rational decision about the matter, its risks, and the potential consequences for the offspring. A human would have to force the union. This is rape.

Also, Bruers has some problems with definition. He says, "A chimera is an individual composed of genetically distinct cells that originate from human and animal zygotes." False. A chimera is merely an individual composed of genetically distinct cells. This does not require that they originate from human and animal zygotes. Nor does it require human genes at all. Most chimeras are same-species, and are formed naturally in the womb of the mother, as with fused eggs, or when cells of one embryo are absorbed into the body of a twin or the mother (a condition known as microchimerism). There are other situations where microchimerism can result, such as any viral infection or individual parasitic cells. But a person with a cold is never called a chimera, though he may meet the strictest definition. But more importantly, Bruers attempts to extend boundary cases to form policy for a much larger pool of standard cases. It is neither rational nor ethical to do so, and it certainly isn't "fair" to paint all beings with the same brush. Rather, it is a matter for judgement.
4) The species boundary refers to genes or appearance, and these are not morally relevant, because racism and sexism where also based on genes or appearances.
Answer: Bullshit.  Here, Bruers again simply re-states argument #1, which is already rebutted. He again charges that species boundaries are irrelevant, this time by "zooming in" on the genome to more subtle differences. Well, why stop there? Every individual is genetically distinct. That doesn't make every individual a unique species, nor does it invalidate that species exist, which -- again -- is pre-supposed by his challenge.

Furthermore, Bruers once again has a problem with definition. Racism and sexism can be based on genes or appearances, but are not necessarily so. Racism has often been historically practiced by genetically indistinct groups, such as the English and the Irish. In modern times, sexism is often not a matter of genetics, but of behavior.

Also, this argument contains the logical fallacies of false equivalence; of non-sequitur; as well as that of moving the goalposts. The scope of this challenge is not that of racism. Bruers is merely arguing outside of the subject that he initially established. Also note that as this is merely another continuation of argument #1, Bruers has failed to deliver five arguments as promised.
5) Belonging to a certain species instead of another is not something that we could choose, it is not something we achieved, it is beyond our responsibility, so we should not be rewarded for that. We do not deserve special treatment by having some genes. 
Answer: Bullshit. You might as well say you shouldn't be rewarded for having eyes by not bumping into walls. Remember, if you take Bruers' position and accept that there is no moral difference between Man and animals, you must of necessity hold all animals to the same moral standards as Man. Otherwise "you discriminate and you open the door for partiality, opportunism and inconsistency in your ethics."

You must therefore conclude that it is immoral for wolves to eat rabbits, for birds and bats to fly, for mammals to breathe air when fish can't, or any number of things that various species "do not deserve" as "special treatment" for "having some genes".

The entirety of this argument is absurd. More than absurd; laughable.

Survival of the fittest is not a reward, it's an achievement.

Summary of the first set

In summary, not one of Bruers' three arguments are valid. All contain logical inconsistencies and fallacies. One is only achievable through rape, and is therefore not an argument against speciesism, but rather in favor of it. The last is ludicrous and blatantly unethical, as it denies a species the freedom to exercise the powers granted it by its biology. It is therefore also unethical and argues in favor of speciesism. The fact that two of these three arguments are actually in favor of speciesism is completely overlooked by Bruers, and therefore constitutes an argument for speciesism in its own right.

Five arguments in favor of sentience

NOTE: The author doesn't offer a definition of sentience, and the American sci-fi fan might, through its common usage, conclude that it means "intelligence". It does not. It merely means the ability to feel, or suffer; as contrasted with rationality (the ability to reason). The five "arguments in favor of sentience" do not therefore have anything to do with the actual consumption of animals. They only argue against the inflicting of suffering, and are summarily dismissed as a group with a single argument that if animals are dispatched humanely, then all five arguments are completely irrelevant. Nevertheless, let's look at them individually.
1) Welfare ethics (consequentialism) and fairness ethics (contractualism).
Here Bruers argues that impartiality is important, and therefore you should not discriminate between the things that matter to you and the things that matter to any other sentient being.

Let's consider for a moment a court of law, where a judge and jury are expected to be impartial, and who decide between the claims of two sentient beings. Their impartiality does not require turning a blind eye to the evidence presented or the circumstances of the litigants. Quite the opposite, in fact. Impartiality allows us to prudently judge the relative value of those "things" that matter to the litigants. This is discriminating in the sense of "good judgement". Impartiality does not require that no one wins, nor does it require that everyone wins.

Bruers improperly assumes that the principle of impartiality be applied equally to disparate beings, even though impartiality is a concept devised by humans to apply among peers. There is no evidence offered that impartiality is practiced as a principle anywhere else in the animal kingdom as it logically must be if in fact animals share exactly the same rights as human beings.

Furthermore, he fails to demonstrate or provide any evidence that animals are peers of humankind.

Furthermore, his argument for sentience here is not evidence-based... it is an emotional appeal based on the mere existence of sentience, without regard to its quality.

Furthermore, as we will see in Arguments #2 and #4, below, Bruers fails to offer evidence that it is sentience and not some other aspect of consciousness that we should value.

Furthermore, this argument is sufficiently indistinct from the other two that Bruers fails to provide five arguments as promised.

Therefore, Bruers' first argument fails.
2) Virtue ethics and ethics of care.
Here Bruers argues that if you were non-sentient, how you are treated would not matter to you, because nothing done to you will influence your well-being. This is an obviously false premise, as a non-sentient thing ceases "to be" every bit as much as a as a sentient being should it be eaten or otherwise destroyed. But despite his use of the verb "being", I suspect that he is not using it to describe "existence", but rather "being-ness", which he unfortunately fails to define.

So while we're imagining, with the advent of computers and artificial intelligence we can easily imagine the existence of an intelligence that is rational, self-aware, and nonetheless non-sentient. Bruers describes such a non-sentient as a "thing", even though it may independently conclude "cogito, ergo sum" while still lacking the capacity to "feel". Such an intelligence would certainly have "being-ness" however it might be defined, and its "well-being", or proper functioning, would matter to it, even though it does not "feel" as would a sentient.

As Bruers' argument depends on a criteria that we can now see is not uniquely linked to sentience, his argument fails.
3) Rights ethics (deontologism).
Bruers fails to consider that all rights may not be equivalent. One can respect rights while understanding that there can be a hierarchy of rights. This is often seen in human society in discussions of such rights as free speech vs. safety or privacy vs. security.

Bruers also fails to consider the responsibilities that accompany rights. Accepting for argument that a hawk and a rabbit have a right to life, they each have a responsibility to defend that right to the best of their abilities. The hawk does so by hunting for sustenance; the rabbit does so by fleeing from the hawk. That the rabbit has a right to life does not place an onus on the hawk to defend it. Likewise, if should we accept that humans have exactly the same rights as do animals (as per contract), this alone does not place upon humans any onus to defend the rights of those animals for them.

Humans are also predators, and should reasonably have the same rights as the hawk. In practice, humans are unsurprisingly more humane than the hawk in their predation.

Bruers' argument therefore fails.
4) Ethics of respect and awe.
This argument focuses on "mental capacities such as consciousness", and not on sentience as promised. There are aspects of consciousness distinct from sentience. Bruers thus fails to deliver five arguments in favor of sentience.

He argues that we should protect and respect entities that have vulnerable and complex mental capacities. While I don't disagree in principle, nowhere does he provide evidence that sentience is a particularly vulnerable or complex mental capacity. I'll quote from Wikipedia for you here, because it is particularly concise:
In the philosophy of consciousness, sentience can refer to the ability of any entity to have subjective perceptual experiences, or as some philosophers refer to them, "qualia". This is distinct from other aspects of the mind and consciousness, such as creativity, intelligence, sapience, self-awareness, and intentionality (the ability to have thoughts about something). Sentience is a minimalistic way of defining consciousness, which otherwise commonly collectively describes sentience plus other characteristics of the mind.
Note that sentience is the minimalistic way of defining consciousness, and is far more "fuzzy" than any of the genetic criteria Bruers argues against in his first five arguments. But where Bruers dislikes fuzziness in the one case, he embraces it here. Clearly, he has opened the door for "partiality, opportunism and inconsistency" in his ethics.

Genetics is sufficiently distinct that you know at a glance one bird from another, or a bird from a bat, or horse. Sentience is sufficiently indistinct that scientists still conduct serious experiments to see whether it is possessed by plants. In its most minimal form it may be indistinguishable from programmed action toward survival. We really don't know because we have no experiment capable of determining the difference. To truly devise such an experiment we would first need to know what sentience is, and the honest researcher allows that we don't.

Here Bruers also offers a thought experiment in which a man is transformed into a non-human animal, losing some physical properties and genes and gaining others, as if the loss and gain were in equal proportion. This is not in evidence, so even at this point the thought experiment fails to demonstrate his premise. He then offers that "if a sentient being turns into a non-sentient being, he loses something valuable and does not gain anything in return." I'm glad he uses the word "being" here. In Argument #2 we saw that it is possible to have reason without sentience, and that such an intelligence is a "being". We can thus imagine being turned into an intelligent robot having all of our memories and recollections. We would give up sentience, sacrificing none of our creativity, intelligence, sapience, self-awareness, and intentionality, but would gain immortality. Furthermore, given intelligence and memory, one could comprehend emotion on an intellectual level though one lacks it for one's self. Contrast that with being turned into a mouse, retaining your sentience but losing the capacity for human reason. What is the greater sacrifice? Is immortality nothing?

Bruer's argument is insufficient to demonstrate that it is sentience, rather than some other aspect of consciousness, that is to be most respected and awed. He does not even demonstrate that whatever quality he's looking for is not uniquely possessed by human beings. Thus this argument fails.
5) The argument from marginal cases (Dombrowski, 1997, Babies and beasts).
This argument is dependent upon intuition, and is thus not an argument at all, but a mere appeal to emotion. In my very first response, I state, "In principle, two members of a species can procreate, and we extend the definition to the issue of such union." This alone is sufficient to cover the marginal cases that Bruers describes. An appeal to emotion is unnecessary, is easily cut by Occam's Razor, and thus his argument fails.

Summary of the second set

In summary, none of Bruers' arguments in favor of sentience succeed. In his own closing arguments he again conflates sentience and consciousness, as he does in the above arguments. He fails to show that the quality of sentience is consistent among beings or that any perceived qualitative differences do not matter. He fails to show that animal rights are equivalent to human rights to an extent where it is immoral for any animal to ingest any other. He fails to show that if animals rights were equivalent to human rights... or inverting the argument, that humans have no more rights than any other animal, that humans alone should be denied predation even though it is broadly practiced throughout the remainder of the animal kingdom.

Furthermore, Bruers fails to show that it is sentience and not any other aspect of consciousness, such as creativity, intelligence, sapience, self-awareness, and intentionality, that should determine whether conscious beings should be treated as peers.

It is commonly agreed that one should be against the unnecessary infliction of suffering, but this alone has no impact on any of the other arguments, nor does it invalidate the humane dispatch of animals used for food.  It is also commonly agreed that it is better to treat animals humanely than not, and to show respect for the environment and ecosystem in general. However, this does not require any acknowledgement that animals have the same rights as human beings. It is sufficient to allow that it is advantageous to humans to maintain a diverse and robust ecology, and to exist in a clean and pleasant environment; and that for their own well-being, humans prefer not to see animals suffer.

As many animals have grown dependent on humankind, the "unnecessary infliction of suffering" necessitates that we harvest and/or use certain animal products. Certain sheep, for example, grow much more wool than they can sustain... as much as 30 pounds from one sheep per year. To reduce their suffering, we shear them.  Silkworms are physically incapable of reproducing in the wild. The wings of the adults are vestigial. They are entirely dependent upon humans for reproduction, and we harvest and use silk (an animal product) in return. Chickens lay eggs even when they're not fertilized. Non-fertilized eggs have exactly zero chance of hatching, and they are laid like clockwork. Given these and other examples, Bruers' unqualified proscription against animal products therefore has no rational ethical foundation. Even in the eating of eggs there is neither harm nor benefit to the animal or its progeny.

The human boundary is a morally relevant boundary for the "moral community" (whatever that may be) in that of all the species on the planet, only humanity has demonstrated any ability to rationally discuss the point. If one truly allows that all creatures are equal, then to say the least it is hypocritical (!) and offensively condescending (!!) to "hu-mansplain" their needs. It is only when they are not equal that crusaders such as Bruers feel compelled to self-righteously act on their behalf. The fact that he has done so demonstrates the point quite well. Such a demonstration is worth many pages of "proof".

Bruers has completely failed to show that sentience is a valid competing morally relevant criterion. It's somewhat nonsensical for him to demand that someone disprove something that is not shown to exist. In fact, it's yet another logical fallacy... that of "proving a negative". What I have shown above, however, is that whatever reasons he had for arguing in favor of sentience are invalid, and that there are other competing morally relevant criteria which may be of higher value. That will have to do, until Bruers himself divides three by zero and returns the result to 15 decimal places.

Now I'm going to have a nice, juicy, delicious hamburger.


  1. Truly appreciate this analysis and criticism. I too have been thinking about this and trying to decipher how I feel about this. As humans we have created these constructs and they were not necessarily given to us if we look past religion in this context. I still can not get over how some people will claim there should be no such thing as a food chain and classification for species, but our "equals" (some other animals), would beg to differ. I believe that an animal can care for a human and protect one as it would another dog they like and live with, but they wouldn't put humans over other dogs in all circumstances, but maybe their master. I acknowledge the ability for animals to feel, but if we are using the argument against speciesism then I think its absurd to think that humans should hold the "moral obligation" that animals do not or if they do, they are not obligated to be "moral".

    1. That sounds like a perfectly rational position, Anonymous.