As we’ve written previously, we aim to extend empathy to every being that warrants moral concern, including animals. And while many experts, government agencies, and advocacy groups agree that some animals live lives worthy of moral concern, there seems to be little agreement on which animals warrant moral concern. Hence, to inform our long-term giving strategy, I’ve prepared a new report on the following question: “In general, which types of beings merit moral concern?” Or, to phrase the question as some philosophers do, “Which beings are moral patients?”

For this preliminary investigation, I focused on just one commonly endorsed criterion for moral patienthood: phenomenal consciousness, a.k.a. “subjective experience.” I have not come to any strong conclusions about which (non-human) beings are conscious, but I think some beings are more likely to be conscious than others, and I make several suggestions for how we might make progress on the question.

In the long run, to make well-grounded decisions about how much we should value grants aimed at (e.g.) chicken or fish welfare, we need to form initial impressions not just about which creatures are more and less likely to be conscious, but also about (a) other plausible criteria for moral patienthood besides consciousness, and also about (b) the question of “moral weight.” However, those two questions are beyond the scope of this initial report on consciousness. In the future I hope to build on the initial framework and findings of this report, and come to some initial impressions about other criteria for moral patienthood and about moral weight.

My goals for this report on consciousness and moral patienthood were to:

  1. survey the types of evidence and argument that have been brought to bear on this question,
  2. briefly describe example pieces of evidence of each type, without attempting to summarize the vast majority of the evidence (of each type) that is currently available,
  3. report what my own intuitions and conclusions are as a result of my shallow survey of those data and arguments,
  4. try to give some indication of why I have those intuitions, without investing the months of research that would be required to rigorously argue for each of my many reported intuitions, and
  5. list some research projects that seem (to me) like they could make progress on the key questions of this report, given the current state of evidence and argument.

The report’s first section explains how to read the report, including brief descriptions of each section and major appendix.

In short, my tentative conclusions are that I think mammals, birds, and fishes are more likely than not to be conscious, while (e.g.) insects are unlikely to be conscious. However, my probabilities are very “made-up” and difficult to justify, and it’s not clear to us what actions should be taken on the basis of such made-up probabilities.

For more details, see the full report.

Comments

“In short, I think mammals, birds, and fishes,10 are more likely than not to be conscious, while (e.g.) insects are unlikely to be conscious. However, my probabilities are very “made-up” and difficult to justify, and it’s not clear to us what actions should be taken on the basis of such made-up probabilities.”

“I used my intuitions to generate my probabilities.”

“Given that we don’t yet have a compelling theory of consciousness, and given that just about any behavior194 could (as far as I know) be accomplished with or without consciousness (consciousness inessentialism), it seems to me that we can’t know which potentially consciousness-indicating features (PCIFs) are actually consciousness-indicating…”

“Should one take action based on such made-up, poorly-justified probabilities? I’m genuinely unsure. There are many different kinds of uncertainty, and I’m not sure how to act given uncertainty of this kind.”

“A good theory of consciousness could help us understand which animals and computer programs we should morally care about, and what we can do to benefit them. Without such knowledge, it is difficult for altruists to target their limited resources efficiently.”

We humans know that we are conscious. Whatever it is that causes consciousness, we have it. Therefore, the more like us an animal is, the more likely it is to be conscious. But it does not follow from this that the animals most like us are likely to be conscious. A chimp is more likely to be conscious than a mosquito, but that doesn’t mean a chimp is likely to be conscious. Just as a mosquito is more likely to be conscious than a grain of sand, but that doesn’t mean a mosquito is likely to be conscious. The report’s chimp, cow and chicken probabilities of consciousness of 85, 75 and 70% could just as plausibly be 20, 10 and 5. Just as plausible and just as arbitrary. Equally meaningless.

Without knowing what behavior is necessarily conscious, or what sort of neural activity necessarily correlates to consciousness, we have absolutely no idea what the likelihood of consciousness is for any animal. In the absence of such knowledge any proposed probabilities are completely meaningless.

Many philosophers and neuroscientists think consciousness is unique to humans. The report cites several. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re wrong. Who knows?

As a basic moral principle I think we ought to presume that animals are conscious until proven otherwise. So, for example, we ought to avoid factory farmed meat and animal products and encourage others to do likewise. But this presumption is not at all helpful in trying to decide where to give most effectively. Effective giving decisions are based on evidence, not presumptions. And when it comes to animal consciousness, there is no evidence.

Given the complete mystery of consciousness and consequent lack of evidence for animal consciousness, is there any reason to believe that funding animal welfare projects is an effective way to give? Perhaps supporting research to find out whether or not animals are conscious would be a better idea?

If some task was found that normal people could easily perform, but that people with ‘blindsight’ could not, then you’ve possibly pinpointed necessarily conscious behavior. You could then test animals, starting with chimps, to see if they can perform the task. If they can’t, then that’s a good indication that they are not conscious. If they can, then that’s a good indication that they are conscious.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and philosopher William Hirstein have proposed just such a task. They believe that qualia cannot exist apart from self-consciousness, and that therefore only humans are conscious. In a 1997 paper they proposed ‘three laws of qualia.’ “First, they are irrevocable: I cannot simply decide to start seeing the sunset as green, or feel pain as if it were an itch; second, qualia do not always produce the same behaviour: given a set of qualia, we can choose from a potential infinite set of possible behaviours to execute; and third, qualia endure in short-term memory, as opposed to non-conscious brain states involved in the on-line guidance of behaviour in real time. We suggest that qualia have evolved these and other attributes (e.g. they are ‘filled in’) because of their role in facilitating non-automatic, decision-based action.”

To test the theory, they proposed a task that they predict people with ‘blindsight’ will not be able to perform. A ‘blindsight’ patient “can correctly rotate an envelope to post it in a horizontal or a vertical slot, even though he does not consciously perceive the slot’s orientation.” They suggest that “if you give the patient a choice, the system should go haywire. Not only should it not have short-term memory as Goodale showed, but also it should be incapable of making choices. For example if the person is asked to mail a letter and shown two orthogonal slots simultaneously, he should fail, being unable to choose between the two (or alternatively, the system might go for the first one it detects.)”

According to Ramachandran (email) the test has never been tried. (In the email he also suggested another possible test.)

“Three Laws of Qualia”
https://www.sciencedharma.com/uploads/7/6/8/0/76803975/qualia.pdf

The latest findings in the search for the neural correlates of consciousness, from Christof Koch and others, identifies a temporo-parietal-occipital ‘hot zone.’ I would think that similar tests could be done on animals and that if the same hot zone was identified then that would be a good indication of consciousness.

The test used pupil dilation as a correlate to conscious perception. Could we forget all about neurons and just look at pupil dilation to see which animals are conscious? According to Koch (email) pupil dilation is being looked at in mice and primates. Koch, by the way, believes that many other species are conscious.

“Neural correlates of consciousness: progress and problems”
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301567963_Neural_correlates_of_consciousness_Progress_and_p…

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your comment.

I agree that my probabilities are (unavoidably) pretty arbitrary, and that’s why I so insistently flagged how “made up” they are, and that I cannot justify them. Nevertheless I decided to provide them, for the reasons given at the end of section 4.1.

I won’t try to reply to all the different points you raise, but I’ll make a quick comment about this paragraph:

> If some task was found that normal people could easily perform, but that people with ‘blindsight’ could not, then you’ve possibly pinpointed necessarily conscious behavior. You could then test animals, starting with chimps, to see if they can perform the task. If they can’t, then that’s a good indication that they are not conscious. If they can, then that’s a good indication that they are conscious.

Have you seen the studies of blindsight in monkeys? Cowey & Stoerig (1995) is the classic paper; see Cowey (2010) for a more recent review. Though possibly those aren’t quite the sort of test you have in mind. It’s too bad the test by Ramachandran & Hirstein hasn’t been done, though even if it was, I still wouldn’t consider it to be proof (or even “quite strong evidence”) either way, for the sorts of reasons surveyed throughout my report, e.g. in section 3.2.3.

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