(Note: this is half of what will be a two-part post. UPDATE 20 July 2009: the second part is here)
Uriah Kriegel, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona, has posted this draft paper which seeks to advance the discussion on animal rights in light of progress in the study of consciousness. The most important part of the paper, in my view, is his formulation of how to explicitly make the (likely) presence of conscious experience the key component of a framework for assigning moral status to animals.
Before getting to his own proposal, Kriegel considers how the most influential consequentialist approach to animal rights (prominently associated with Peter Singer) suffers from a lack of an up-to-date analysis of the science of consciousness. This consequentialist framework, which emphasizes maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, typically doesn’t incorporate a sophisticated understanding of exactly which animals might have conscious experience of pleasure and pain, as opposed to an unconscious functional analogue of these feelings. The former are presumably the intended recipient of moral consideration, not the latter.
Kriegel uses his own work on (human) consciousness to show how the view of animal rights would be influenced by a more detailed account of consciousness. Kriegel starts with his own proposal for locating the neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) in humans. This proposal, which he calls the cross-order integration hypothesis (COI), is detailed in a paper published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. Then he argues that a comparison of brain structures between animals and humans should inform a view of whether animals share the NCC, and hence are conscious.
Without getting into all the details here, Kriegel’s COI theory implicates activity in cortical structures, presumed to be involved in higher order monitoring work, as a necessary part of the NCC. Because our mammal cousins share these structures while non-mammals lack it, this would provide evidence that the former are conscious, but the latter are not. In considering the consequentialist approach to animal rights sketched above this analysis would serve to help define the circle of moral consideration: in this case, mammals are on the inside, other animals are on the outside (“looking in”).
While Kriegel has some confidence in his approach, he clearly notes in the paper that his moral stance will be tempered by the uncertainty around the empirical conclusions underlying such a moral calculus (his preference is to couch any moral formulas incorporating the empirical claims in terms of probability). And I should stress that the general point on methodology has value even if one’s theory of the NCC differs: just plug in your own preferred NCC and try to judge how far it extends into the animal kingdom. For myself, while I like Kriegels’s “top-down” approach to the question of locating the NCC (i.e. beginning with a theory before you look at the experimental data – see an old post on Kriegel’s philosophy of mind here), I don’t have a high level of confidence in his (or any other) specific NCC proposal yet. The field is still in its early stages.
Still, even if one gains confidence in identifying the NCC in humans, there is a very big step to cross when considering the consciousness of animals, which Kriegel may underestimate. Because brains and bodies have demonstrated a robust ability to adaptively implement analogous functions using distinct structures, I would be very cautious in assuming that the work performed by our late (evolutionary) vintage neural structures couldn’t be implemented differently in animals. Even cephalopods, whose nervous systems have little in common with ours, show behaviors very suggestive of consciousness. Reinforcing this concern is my own philosophical bias to see consciousness as something which comes in degrees. An animal without a cortex could have an attenuated version of consciousness, as opposed to a lack of consciousness.
After the lengthy discussion of the how his kind of empirical analysis can help in evaluating the consequentialist ethical approach, Kriegel shifts gears and discusses a different non-consequentialist framework for the problem.
(To be continued.)