Conflicts of Vital Interest

Re: Thagard, Paul: “Why Pets Are NOT People

(1) Calling non-human animals “people” is the same as calling them human (members of our species), which is of course nonsense. But seeking the legal (and technical) status of “person” for non-human animals if they are to be afforded protection in court is not nonsense.

(2) The analogy with slavery is not invalid, but the common point is not being human beings but being sentient beings (i.e., capable of feeling, suffering).

(3) Well-treated domestic pets are not the problem (if they are rescues and do not reproduce), but even they are in the tiny minority among domestic pets (most of whom are bought from breeders and not well treated, and some of whom reproduce). The problem is needless human-induced suffering in sentient beings, the amount and proportion of which is monstrously, obscenely, and increasingly enormous.

(4) People enjoy having pets, eating meat, wearing fur, going to rodeos, hunting: does this trump the needs and suffering of the countless sentient beings who are the victims of this human enjoyment?

(5) There are interests and there are vital (life/death/survival) interests. Obligate carnivores (like lions) in (what is left of) nature must kill and eat their prey to survive. That is a vital interest. The water-buffalo needs to try to kill or rout an attacking lion to survive. That is a Darwinian conflict of vital interests.

(6) But human interest in having pets, eating meat, wearing fur, going to rodeos, hunting… are not vital interests. (Notice that I skip over that deeply troubling conflict of vital interests that is the small minority of biomedical research that saves [human] lives.)

(7) To have a vital (life/death/survival) interest, a sentient being must be born.

(8) Purpose breeding of sentient beings by human beings to serve human non-vital interests is morally wrong, if anything is morally wrong.

(9) The only one entitled to judge whether it is better for a sentient being to be born is that sentient being — not the breeder.

Bull-Baiting in California Rodeo in 2019

Dear Governor Newsom and Attorney-General Becerra,

California has much to be admired for by the rest of the country and worldwide.

I hope very much that you will now do the right thing by condemning, punishing and enforcing the banning of rodeo cruelty, which has reached a wrenching new low in the bull-baiting reported, documented and now taken to court by Showing Animals Respect and Kindness.

Prompt, prominent and direct attention to this abomination will be greatly appreciated everywhere and another welcome sign of progressiveness in California.


Stevan Harnad
Editor, Animal Sentience
Professor of Psychology, Université du Québec à Montréal
Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science, McGill University
Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Science, University of Southampton

Downgrading Hungary’s ’56 Uprising

Ervin Kulcsár of the Vitézi Rend delivered a xenophobic speech at HungaroFest in Toronto

H & H: Horthy had established the “Vitézi Rend” in 1920
Insignia of the “Vitézi Rend”

Well, well, a simple-minded bigot, and member of a fascistoid organization (Vitézi Rend) has been invited (by whom? why?) to give a talk at an event commemorating the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Apart from making some incoherent, triumphalist remarks about the “freedom fighters” (even then a mixed crew of genuine democrats alongside crypto- and overt fascists and xenophobes), this grateful “$5 immigrant” (whatever that means) — who in the ensuing 6 decades managed to earn a living in his new home, but not to learn its language — uses the occasion to malign subsequent generations of immigrants to the country that generously and humanely took him in, managing to insult Canada’s current Parliamentary Secretary of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Arif Vinari, in the process.

And this shameful spectacle was no doubt orchestrated and bankrolled by Hungary’s current fascistoid, anti-immigrant government. What an irony! Hungary has long lost whatever admiration it inspired in the rest of the world in ’56. Kulcsár is right that (some) Hungarians are different. But not in the way he imagines…

Tree Hugger (2)

“If you love trees, don’t read The Overstory: it will break your heart.  I kept having to put it down to read something else.”

Yes, I love trees, and, yes, it breaks my heart, whether or not they are sentient (or essential in the support of planetary life).

The wanton way we exploit and destroy trees, whether or not they are sentient, is of a piece with the wanton way we exploit and destroy animals (nonhuman and human) even though they are sentient.

We destroy art that way too (the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan) but there the only victims (if any) are the art’s creators and admirers, not the art.


Although I don’t think trees feel, I share your feelings about trees, Simon.

And whether or not they are feeling, plants are certainly living; and treating them like inert materials feels wanton.

Not to mention the dependence on them of all life — sentient and insentient.

Life is a product of evolution — Dawkins’s “Blind Watchmaker” — who is blind not just in the sense of lacking foresight and design, but in lacking moral sense (or any sense).

Evolution is merciless, psychopathic. Life feeds on itself, literally.

And although no one knows what the causal function of sentience is (the very query has been dubbed “the hard problem.” it is indisputable that sentience evolved, hence it must have conferred adaptive advantages.

The advent of sentience was also the advent of suffering.

But the advent also of compassion, at least in some sentient species — chiefly, I think, the mammals and birds and other species that did not just split in order to reproduce, like microbes, or lay and leave countless eggs, like turtles, but spawned only a few helpless (“altricial”) young that had to be cared for to survive. Thus was empathy born — and that “mind-reading” ability that is perhaps the most acute in our own species, paradoxically the most monstrous as well as the most merciful of them all.

So it’s a complex problem on which you are embarking, Simon, in pleading for mercy for trees. Not the “hard problem,” but a heart-rending one, coupled as it is with the fate of all living creatures, suffering or not.

Moral Necessity

“gastronomically necessary”? 
On Tom Nagel’s review of Christine Kosgaard’s book, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals.
Philosophers’ make commendable (but unavailing) efforts to rationalize (and even formalize) morality.
It’s all much simpler than all this, but I haven’t the time to sketch it long-hand.
The only biological necessity (vital interest) is survival and freedom from suffering.
it is sentient living organisms who have vital interests.
There can be conflicts between the vital interests of different sentients (e.g, predator and prey).
The only moral imperative is to not cause unnecessary suffering.
Taste is not a vital interest.


When I was 9 or 10, I used to feel sorry for bus transfers and candy-wrappers. I felt it was wrong to throw them in the garbage as if — as if they were just objects. So my mother kept a drawer in her office in which I could put them. They grew for several years, until I realized what I had really been feeling. I became a vegetarian when I turned 17, and told my mother she could empty that drawer now. But it was only in 2012, when I was 67, that I became a vegan and realized what I should be doing — and what I should really have been doing, all along.
Anthropomorphism — natural in children — is what makes humans humane. Easily cultivated, easily ignored, easily snuffed out.

Trump’s Korean Kaklomacy

One finds oneself almost — but not quite — wishing that Trump’s Korean kaklomacy fizzles. But one must suppose, I suppose, that nuclear war is a greater menace than the metastasis of Trump’s vulgar, ignorant, infantile, egocentric, amoral and anarchic buffoonery.


Explaining Feeling

All we have to do… is to define ‘consciousness’ explicitly to mean what you call ‘feeling’ (I usually use the word ‘experience’ to avoid ‘conscious’, and define ‘experience’ accordingly). We know what we mean!

A conscious/mental/experiential/phenomenological/subjective state is a state that it feels like something to be in. Hence I prefer to stick to feeling: its much the simplest, most direct and face-valid descriptor.

I think [stones] may be constituted of experientiality.

It feels like something to be a stone? (Or a part of a stone?)

I can even accept ‘decorative’. I understand this to mean that classical zombies are logically possible even though Kirk zombies aren’t.

I think leptons, stones, toasters — and probably also microbes and plants — are zombies. But I can’t explain how and why we (sometimes) aren’t. (It never feels like anything to be them, but it [sometimes] feels like something to be us.) (“Decorative” because we cannot explain feeling’s function.)

Mistake to think [feeling] is a theoretical ‘cost’, for [1] radical emergence is a greater theoretical cost, [2] non-feeling reality is already a cost, because it’s a unwarranted theoretical posit.

I have no problem with molecules and stones and toasters and microbes and plants being zombies. Nothing to explain. Their states are unfelt. I have enormous problems explaining how or why other organisms are not zombies too. But they’re not. Having (genetically coded) traits is surely more costly than not having them.

the biologist doesn’t need an explanation for the very existence of feeling, and has an excellent explanation for the existence of feeling tuned to serve adaptive purposes.

I have yet to hear that adaptive explanation; if (as I believe) feeling is a biological trait, it does need a causal (adaptive) explanation.

One useful terminological option here is to define ‘mind’ in such a way that feeling doesn’t entail mind (see e.g. Russell, perhaps also Damasio) … feeling is v low-level, mind is essentially useful in some way

Hi or lo, I see no causal explanation of this “usefulness.” It’s doings, and the capacity for doing them, that are useful. And if a state is not felt, I have no idea what is meant by calling it mental (and vice versa).

[feeling is physicists’] problem insofar as they propose to offer a general theory of concrete reality

It seems to me feeling’s just biologists’ problem, just as, say, digestion or photosynthesis is. No new physics there.

[functing, ordinary causal explanation, whether in physics or in biology] doesn’t explain the existence of non-feeling matter … to explain that, one would need to answer the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing’?

Here I show my non-metaphysicians’ pedestrianism: Try as I might, I can’t help but feel that that sort of onticism is otiose.

the view that consciousness is everywhere but isn’t all there is) is [1] independently motivated and [2] explains this for free. Biological evolution sometimes produces an organism O that is not simply made of feeling stuff, in such a way that it (O) isn’t itself a subject of experience, but is also itself a subject of experience, be it is adaptive.

Unfortunately, to my naive realists’ ears this sounds more speculative (and complicated) than explicative. Shouldn’t the explanans be simpler than the explanandum? All I wanted was to know how and why (some) organisms (sometimes) feel rather than just funct!