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I have recently been reading about Neanderthals who apparently buried their dead

I have recently been reading about Neanderthals who apparently buried their dead, cared for their sick, hunted with fairly sophisticated tools, made fire, made an instrument out of a bone (this is disputed), and certainly had the physical capacity for language (also much debated - hyoid bone etc). Can they be called "human" for want of a better word? Is language the key in defining us and them? Clearly they are a far cry from chimps so what criteria should we use? It is impossible to establish their thoughts but there was compassion and empathy surely at our level if they cared for their sick - one old skeleton with no teeth lived to an age which would have been impossible without him being "spoonfed". Does this imply a moral sense? From reconstructions they looked almost identical to us. So what, if anything, would set us apart?

Thank you for your excellent question. Assuming that your evidence about Neanderthals is approximately right, I think that you are asking not so much the question whether they are human--that tends to be understood as the question whether they are members of the species Homo sapiens, which they are not--but rather whether they are *persons*. Some people will indeed put forth the use of natural language (like Hopi, Swahili, or French) as the defining characteristic for being a person. However, that is problematic because, for instance, many autistic individuals are incapable of language--yet most would count them as persons nonetheless. By the same token, the Great Apes Project holds that non-human great apes, such as gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, should be accorded the status of persons in spite of their not having a language. (By the way, having a system of communication is not enough to have a language. See Anderson's book, _Dr. Doolittle's Delusion_ for a detailed defense of this point.)

So language is problematic as a criterion of being a person. Other suggestions include: the capacity to recognize the existence of other minds than one's own. Your remark about empathy suggests that Neanderthals might have been capabable of empathy, which is often construed as being able to adopt another's psychological point of view. On that criterion, Neanderthals might do fairly well. Yet another suggestion would be that to be a person, it is enough that one be able to reflect on one's own psychological make-up or personality and resolve to modify it in some way. I might, for instance, be frustrated with my short temper, and take steps to control it. This could cause my temper to mellow over time. This "exercising control over one's will" conception of freedom is popular among some philosophers. It is hard to know how we might find evidence that it existed among Neanderthals.

I've laid out a couple of options for thinking about what would show another hominid species to be a species of persons. Less theoretically but more intuitively, I might also note that if we were to come across a heretofore undiscovered group of Neanderthals--living in a remote Indonesian island, perhaps--there might be some debate as to what (if anything) to do with them. Probably we could overcome them, and take them into captivity if we chose. Should we put them on display for everyone to see, for instance in a zoo? Some might advocate this. Others might say that this would be inappropriate, and in particular, morally wrong. Those who think this probably would also be holding that Neanderthals are persons, and not just hominids.

I believe that speciesism is correct. However I am confused about how I should

I believe that speciesism is correct. However I am confused about how I should feel about campaigns to kill pests like possums, rats, stoats etc which destroy native and often endangered birds, animals and plants. I understand that speciesism doesn't say that you can never kill an animal, you merely have to give it equal consideration. In this sense killing the pest could be justified if doing so produced a better outcome. But then I arrive at the problem of humans, which (I assume) would in many situations be a greater threat to our native birds, animals and plants. I can't help but feel that the answer may lie in the fact that we can do something about humans which destroy the environment by convincing them we shouldn't, it's not as easy to reason with the average possum. However this seems inadequate given the fact that these people are very, very unlikely to ever be convinced. How can we justify killing pests in moral terms in light of speciesism?

I have nothing to add to Douglas Burnham's response, but can't resist a terminological quibble. "Speciesism" is the term Peter Singer (following Richard Ryder) uses to mean a prejudice against animals. So if you think animals should receive equal consideration, as Singer does, you're going to want to call yourself something other than a "speciesist." Unfortunately, there's no standard term for your view. Singer says "all animals are equal," as the animals say in the book Animal Farm. As I recall, the pigs who use that slogan call themselves "animalists," but it doesn't have much of a ring to it.

I remember reading that Descartes considered animals as nothing more than

I remember reading that Descartes considered animals as nothing more than automata incapable of experiencing pain because they do not possess "souls" (define that!). Viewing this favorably you could say he was an intellectual living in a rarefied world of his own, simply a product of his age. Less intelligent people of his time, however, liked, say, dogs and understood that if you kicked them and they howled and ran away then they were experiencing pain. Was there something the matter with Descartes and his view of animals if he couldn't make this simple connection, so clearly cognate with the human experience of pain? I know Hume had problems with causation but surely not in such a painfully obvious empirical manner!

Actually, it was because Descartes thought that animals lacked language and reason that he believed they were mere automata. (I say "mere", because we need to leave open the option, supported these days by, e.g., Daniel Dennett, that we are automata!)

As for "experiencing pain", we need to distinguish between actually feeling pain and (merely) exhibiting pain behavior. An automaton can do the latter; whether or not it can also experience pain is a separate question.

Consider a computer outfitted with a pressure-sensitive device connected to its operating system and an operating system that can be in one of 3 states. It begins in the "super-user-friendly" state and greets me with "Hi Bill; what can I do for you today?". I ask it to open my word processor so I can edit my philosophy essay on Descartes. It says, "Sure thing! Here ya go!". I edit for a while, and then hit its pressure-sensitive device very hard. This causes it to go into its "normal" state: When I exit my word-processor, the operating system merely gives me a new prompt. I log out. The next day, I log back in. This causes the operating system to go into its third state; it says "Rapaport. Oh yes; I remember you. You hit me. That hurt!".

Now, it seems to be exhibiting pain behavior. Does it feel pain? Is it anything more than an automaton? (Clearly, a lot more needs to be said, but this is enough to think about for now.)

If animals have rights, shouldn't they have responsibilities? For example,

If animals have rights, shouldn't they have responsibilities? For example, dolphins have been known to kill porpoises, or even other dolphins, for fun. Do not the dolphins deserve the death penalty for these heinous actions? You might argue that dolphins are not developed enough to have moral responsibility. But dolphins are not developed enough to have morality, why should they be developed enough to have rights? Most animals rights activists (call them ARA's) assert that a humans right to life and well-being comes not simply from being human (that would be speciesist.) Instead, they assert that our rights come from from our functionality or development. Part of our development includes a moral dimension. So by the standards of ARA's, any agent with rights also has responsibilities. I doubt the PETA would approve of me stabbing a porpoise to death. Why aren't dolphins held to the same standard?

Humans have both rights and responsibilites, but other beings may have either, both, or neither. Think of infant humans: they have rights but no responsibilities. As children mature, they get some responsibilites. Mentally disabled adults have rights, but sometimes not the full range of "normal" adult responsibilities. Responsibility depends on the capacity to distinguish right from wrong. Having rights depends on (most people think) being sentient.

Are animals self aware?

Are animals self aware?

It is true that a number of psychologists treat intelligent use of mirrors as evidence of self awareness. But I am not convinced. Animals can gather information about their own bodies via various forms of perception, including, of course, vision. Some can also use a mirror - extending the range of their vision - to get information about their own bodies. But I don't see how that implies that they have any concept of self. My guess is that lots of animals do have something that we might reasonably call 'self awareness'. But I don't know of any serious evidence for this.

I am a recent vegetarian, as well as a lifetime determinist with an anxiety

I am a recent vegetarian, as well as a lifetime determinist with an anxiety disorders, which typically manifests itself in obsessions with my health and my obligation to myself to maintain physical health without unnecessary detriment to my mental health and the lives of other animals and the environment. Since becoming a vegetarian, I find myself in a bind regarding the amount of stress that has been placed on me, in concern for my health, compared to the rather small impact my vegetarianism has on the environment. I CANNOT, in keeping with my principles, eat a terrestrial animal that suffers as I do. However, my reasons for not eating fish are mostly environmental. Since my stress would be mostly alleviated by the inclusion of fish oil in my diet, over say flax---which, like soy, messes up my estrogen levels, thereby exacerbating other psychological problems, and the alternative (flax instead of fish) has such a minimal effect on the fishing industry and the environment, is it ethically justifiable for...

You cannot live an impact-free life. Our actions affect the environment, often for the worse. The goal should be to minimize detrimental impact. Another goal should be to try to influence others to minimize their detrimental impacts. You sound like you are doing a lot towards both of these goals. Taking fish oil or eating fish, in your case, seems to have greater benefits for you and your ability to work towards these two larger goals than any detrimental impact it would have. And it sounds like it is possible that the amount of guilt and anxiety you are taking on regarding these issues may end up making it harder for you to carry out your positive efforts. Good luck!

Omnivores are often defined as opportunistic feeders, in other words; they eat

Omnivores are often defined as opportunistic feeders, in other words; they eat what they can get their hands on. As vegetarian sources of food are generally plentiful in the developed world; are there any valid reasons for eating meat? I’m finding it extremely difficult to think of any rational reasons for eating meat in my own life since I’m entirely able to survive on vegetarian options whilst still getting the nutrients I require. The strongest ‘weak’ argument I’ve came up with is it is ‘natural’ for us to eat meat – our bodies are able, and ready, to digest it. Like I said; this argument doesn’t win me over; there are many ‘natural’ things in this world that aren’t necessary for one to live a good life (and many more to contradict living one). For example; cancer is entirely natural – it is observed in the natural world. Likewise; the process of rape as a means of propagating has been observed in the animal kingdom (i.e. in chimpanzees and even dolphins), but I would never use the ‘natural’ argument...

Suppose someone asks: "What rational arguments can be used to validate drinking wine?"

You can survive without wine whilst still getting the nutrients you require (well, so they tell me). But so what? Wine is a great pleasure to the palate, it makes you feel deliciously intoxicated, it is a delight to share with family and friends. ("Wine is sure proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy", Benjamin Franklin.) What better reason for drinking the stuff?

Well, maybe you don't actually like good wine (shame on you!). But assuming you do, what more "validation" do you need?

Likewise, let's sit down to (say) a wonderful plate of salami, prosciutto, coppa and lardo from cinta Senese, followed by perhaps ravioli stuffed with pigeon, then a tagliatta from Val di Chiana beef ... Well, food doesn't get much better than that: it is a pleasure to the palate, it makes you feel content and deliciously replete, it is a delight to share with family and friends. What better reason for eating the stuff?

Well, maybe you don't actually like (say) good Tuscan food. Maybe you actually prefer a totally vegetarian diet (Tuscans of course will think you are quite mad). But assuming you do like that sort of carnivorous feast from time to time, on high days and holidays, what more "validation" do you need for tucking in?

But perhaps you'll say I'm just crassly missing the underlying question. Of course, on the pro side of eating meat of various kinds, there are the wonderful pleasures of the table (just as on the pro side of drinking wine, there are the pleasures of imbibing): and there's a whole wider culture bound up with husbandry and hunting. But there is a not inconsiderable con side to meat eating. In particular, there are horrible aspects of factory farming. There are the ecological arguments against using scarce resources to produce some kinds of meat.

Fine. But bringing in those considerations rather changes the issue. The original question seemed to be wondering whether there was any reason at all to put on the pro-meat-eating side of the scales. But any decent chef can supply such a reason! The revised, and more serious, question is: how do we weigh the evident pro-reasons against the con-reasons. And that different question is much disputed. An overall low meat diet, with the meat decently sourced (and rather favouring animals like sheep or wild boar raised on marginal land) is what the balance of reasons inclines me to. Others of course differ.

If humans didn't exist, would animals still have rights?

If humans didn't exist, would animals still have rights?

We might start by pointing out that there's a controversy about just what rights are and also about whether animals have rights, but let's try to finesse those issues. On one common way of understanding rights, for me to have a right is for people or institutions to be obliged to treat me in a certain way. Whether that's the whole story, it's plausibly at least part of it. But cats, dogs and so on aren't obliged to act in any way; creatures who aren't capable of understanding obligations can't have any obligations.

If we put these two bits together, we get a plausible answer to your question: if there were no humans, then there wouldn't be anyone who had any obligations. (Of course, if there are non-humans who have the right kinds of minds, the story is different.) If there aren't any creatures who could have obligations, then the animals don't have rights.

We can back off this a bit. Let's use the term moral agent for any creature who is of the sort that can have moral obligations. Then even if there weren't any moral agents, it could still be that animals have what we might call "hypothetical rights": if there were any moral agents, they would be obliged to treat the animals in certain ways. But the idea that animals might have rights apart from any questions of how moral agents would be obliged to treat them is hard to fathom.

There is a strong enough moral argument for vegetarianism. However, it does seem

There is a strong enough moral argument for vegetarianism. However, it does seem that if applied globally, such a standard would cause a loss of livelihood (e.g for African nations that export tons of beef to Europe). In the dramatic event that a panel of EU ethicists decided to ban all non-vegetarian commodities (leather, meat, some forms of milk) on the grounds that these were borne from the undue suffering of animals, would the inevitable suffering of human beings that would result from such a move (through job losses, economic stagnation, etc. - assuming that in countries that thrive on the meat industry, e.g. Botswana, alternative livelihoods are virtually unsustainable, due to the poor agricultural space) provide a suitable argument for the continued non-vegetarianism of human beings on Earth, or is this a mere technicality?

These are really good questions and there are definitely many empirical issues that should be settled before we can adequately evaluate a proposal such as global vegetarianism, or a ban on animal products by the EU.

First, it is worth noting that not all vegetarians are utilitarians, or even consequentialists, and some may think that animals have rights that should be considered even at the expense of some degree of human suffering. How much human suffering is a hard question for such views.

Second, for the reasons you suggest, those who support global vegetarianism should probably not support the immediate end to all use of animal products. The goal would be, I think, to find alternative ways to feed and clothe ourselves in ways that are consistent with the well-being of animals. This won't happen over night. But we can take steps every day to reduce the pain, suffering, and death we cause to animals. (A nice statement of this "do your best" approach is in Sue Donaldson's Foods that Don't Bite Back, Ottawa: Evergreen Press, 2000, esp. p. 64-5, though I'm not sure it is still in print.) It is true that there are some regions of the world where currently the only way to support humans off the land is to graze animals and eat them. But this leaves many questions: could livestock be bred for such environments that could support a (humane) dairy industry? Are there kinds of crops that could, in fact, be grown there with enough ingenuity? Could the communities move from a meat economy to a different economy over time?

If the issue is global hunger, the longstanding argument has been that fertile parts of the world can easily produce enough vegetarian food to feed us all; the problem is one of distribution. So vegetarians need to work on distribution issues also.

Finally, there are many interesting arguments that suggest that the meat industry (as we know it) is environmentally problematic. It is possible to change the meat industry to be more ecologically sound so this isn't an argument against all meat eating. But it is relevant to the issue of global suffering. Likewise, many health problems would be reduced if we were all vegetarians. Meat-eating causes human suffering too; and this must be weighed in the balance.

I recommend looking at Diet for a New America by John Robbins (this is a bit dated now) and The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan (very recent, and an excellent read).

Here is an attack on vegetarianism: Is it better for an animal to exist or not

Here is an attack on vegetarianism: Is it better for an animal to exist or not to exist? If it were better for it not to exist, wouldn't it be a virtue sterilising all the animals out there, so that no more come into an unfortunate existence? This would seem absurd. Thus let us conclude that in some cases it is better for an animal to exist. Now the cows, for example, on a farm only exist because someone will eat them later. Assuming also that the cow is kept in humane conditions, and has all the things a cow would want in life, we might conclude that it is better that the cow has been. As this good is wholly dependant on a human being a meat-eater, we conclude that it is virtuous being a meat-eater.

Sorry, but this is a silly argument. Replace "animal" with "person", and you get an argument in favor of breeding children for slaughter. (Apologies to Jonathan Swift.) But yet, surely, it's better for a person to exist than for it not to exist, right? Actually, that's not so obvious, as we'll shortly see. But if it's not obvious in the case of people, it's certainly not obvious in the case of animals.

The argument purports to show that it's (objectively) better for an animal to exist than for it not to exist by showing that, if it were (objectively) better for it not to exist, then we ought to sterilize all the cows. But this assumes that, if it's not (objectively) better for an animal to exist than for it not to exist, then it must be (objectively) better for it not to exist. But the obvious reply is that there's just no better or worse about it. It's neither (objectively) better for one more cow to exist nor (objectively) worse. But then the argument goes nowhere.

What's fundamentally wrong with the argument, however, is its underlying "utilitarian" premise: that we can judge what's right and wrong by adding up what's valuable and what's not; that's the basic idea behind utilitarianism. And utilitarianism has well-known problems in this area. For example, there seems to be some positive value to each human life. Otherwise, it wouldn't be wrong to kill people. But then it seems as if we ought all be making sure that there are as many people as possible. The mere discomfort people would experience due to the effects of over-population surely can't outweigh the value attaching to a single human life: Otherwise, it would be all right to kill someone and feed him to hungry people, which is absurd.

But the right conclusion here isn't that we should all breed ourselves as often as possible. It's that there is something fundamentally wrong with utilitarianism. The reason it's wrong to kill people isn't that there is some value to each human life, value that outweighs any degree of human suffering. It's wrong to kill people because people have certain rights, for example, the right not to be killed. Fundamentally, it's wrong to kill people not because it's bad, in some objective sense, that that person should die. (Maybe it is, but that's not why it's wrong to kill them.) Rather, it's wrong to kill Fred because it is bad for Fred or bad from Fred's point of view that Fred should die, and Fred's point of view is deserving of a certain degree of respect.

The central arguments for vegetarianism are arguments based upon the idea that animals too have certain rights. One can argue that animals do not have such rights, or one can argue that, even if they do, it's still permissible to kill them for food. But you can't argue against this kind of view in the way illustrated here. To counter such arguments with broadly utilitarian reasoning is to miss their point.

I should add, in closing, that there are people who still want to defend utilitarianism in one or another form. But such people have their own ways of evading the let's-all-make-babies argument, and the moves that work there are likely to work in response to this argument, too.