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Tallis in Wonderland

A Conversation with my Neighbour

Raymond Tallis replies to Joel Marks.

I have always believed that we should do our best to get on with our neighbours. After all, you never know when you might need their help. Philosophy Now is a happy street, and I particularly like the chap who lives next door to me at ‘Ethical Episodes’, Professor Joel Marks. You can tell that he’s a regular guy because he has a beard like mine, and, as with me, the heat of philosophical thought has burnt off the hair that once adorned his cranium. What’s more, he usually talks excellent sense.

Unfortunately, a little awkwardness has broken out between us of late. As is so often the case, the trigger has been the behaviour of pets – in this case, his dog. It’s nothing serious. The creature hasn’t eaten a long-awaited grandchild or chased a cat into permanent exile. It’s about the dog cocking its leg. As always with seemingly trivial disputes, there is a bit of hinterland. So get yourself a beer, sit down, and I’ll tell you the full story.

In The Dog House

In my article ‘An Introduction to Incontinental Philosophy’ in Philosophy Now Issue 85, I argued that our fundamental difference from all other living creatures – including even our closest primate kin – is evident not just in hifalutin activities such as writing symphonies and fretting over transfinite numbers, but in every aspect of our lives, including the humble project of keeping ourselves dry by emptying our bladders in the right place at the right time. The article was another shot in my long-running battle with those who seem unable to see what is in front of their noses – namely, that while the organism H. sapiens is readily understandable in biological terms, people are not. Humans have taken the biological givens they have inherited from their animal ancestors and transformed them out of all recognition. Consequently, we live lives entirely different from those observed in the animal kingdom. One such biological given is urination. Our relationship to this simple and essential biological act is quite different (so I believe) from that of any other living creature.

Pretty unexceptionable stuff, you might think. But my neighbour did take exception to it, and was moved enough to write to our Editor in defence of the good name of his dog (Letters, ‘Marks on Animals’, Issue 86). Professor Marks argued that his (the dog’s) relationship to urination does not illustrate “the great gulf that separates us from the animal kingdom.” It is humans, not dogs, who are slow to grasp the rules governing appropriate micturition: “it takes far longer to train a human being than a dog,” he wrote. Dog walkers know that dogs “exercise a good deal of discrimination about when and where” to relieve themselves. And, finally, in the wild, dogs (and wolves) exercise “a pre-occupation with the niceties of marking.”

None of this undermines my argument. The dog’s spraintish behaviours are preprogrammed, and driven by present stimuli – quite unlike my decision to go to the loo now in order to bank some space in my bladder because I will not have an opportunity for several hours; or, indeed, my making an appointment with the doctor to discuss my difficulty controlling my bladder. Humans take longer to be toilet-trained than animals because in our case it is about grasping rules rather than conditioning behaviour. The rule-governed choices of humans are not the same as the programmed responses of animals that prompt them to send messages by p-mail. To put it another way, the ‘toilet space’ of humans has no analogy in the umwelt or world of the dog, mapped out by accidentally encountered scents left by other dogs.

I could bang on about the difference between the world of factual knowledge that is the theatre of our lives and the randomly-encountered sensory world of animals; or about the way we live in a ‘semiosphere’ (a dense realm of symbols) as well as a ‘biosphere’, but I think my point is made. It is more important to look at what lies behind our disagreement. Professor Marks, I suspect, fears that if we acknowledge the incontrovertible truth that human consciousness is fundamentally different from that of other animals, we might be more inclined to collude in their ill-treatment. This does not follow. The fact that animals are profoundly different from us does not mean they do not have the capacity to suffer or that we do not have a duty to minimise this – at least insofar as this is compatible with a due regard to our own welfare. I presume that my neighbour agrees with this proviso, and would have no compunction about swatting flies, stamping on scorpions roaming round the nursery, or shooting to kill (without trial) a rampaging lion.

There is still, however, an important area of disagreement between us, and I think this explains his resistance to the notion of a fundamental difference between the consciousness of humans and that of other animals. It relates to the exploitation of animals for our own purposes. He thinks that it is categorically wrong, and I think it is sometimes right.

Human Values

In Issue 85 of Philosophy Now, Marks argues in his ‘Ethical Episode’ that the Veterinarians’ Oath should change its first priority from “the benefit of society” to “respect and concern for non-human animals,” and that the relevant ‘society’ includes “all sentient beings”. This does not seem compatible with due concern for our own lives or for those of our fellow citizens. After all, sentience (i.e., some kind of awareness) is manifested in quite primitive animals. According to Antonio Damasio’s latest book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, even invertebrates have minds. Marks therefore seems to commit himself to behaving like Jains, who walk barefoot and sweep the ground before them so as not to kill insects. But an uncontrolled insect population would not be a very healthy environment for humans – particularly in less friendly parts of the world than those in which Marks and I live.

If this is Marks’ position, it is at least more consistent than those who promote animal rights in general but tend to focus on pretty, furry, cuddly, non-aggressive, non-toxic mammals, rather than, say, poisonous insects that arrive in death-dealing, disease-transmitting or crop-stripping plagues. But this absolute position is non-sustainable. Marks’ hostility to the idea of exploiting animals for our own purposes would for example forbid the use of animals to lift and carry and transport in places where the relevant machinery is unavailable. Yet it ill behoves those who have access to cars or tractors to deny others the use of bullock carts or horse- drawn ploughs. If beasts cannot carry burdens, then humans will be the beasts of burden.

Marks’ position most obviously leads to an anti-vivisectionist stance, as he makes clear in a book review, also in Philosophy Now 85. This is something my neighbour and I definitely disagree over. “No-one,” he writes, “has a right to impose significant suffering or premature death on another who is innocent and non-threatening” – and ‘another’ includes lab animals. Medical research involving animals is therefore evil.

Time to declare an interest. I have never carried out animal research myself, but for nearly forty years I was a doctor. The fact that the remedies I had to offer were more effective than those available over the preceding 10,000 or so years in which humans have sought medical treatment for their woes is entirely due to biomedical research, which inescapably involves experimenting on laboratory animals. Without such research, my treatments would have been as brutal, blind and worse-than-useless as they were in the fifteenth century.

Every reader of Philosophy Now will have benefitted both directly and indirectly from animal research: it is essential not only for testing drugs and other medical technologies, but also for the background knowledge which enables us to understand diseases and to know where to begin in developing drugs, surgical procedures and other strategies to prevent premature death and alleviate suffering.

It is of course right that we should be constantly endeavouring to improve the welfare of laboratory animals and to reduce the number of animal experiments. (I have been involved with the Reduction, Refinement and Replacement initiatives that attempt to do just that.) But we cannot eliminate them. It is true (as has often been pointed out by anti-vivisectionists) that the findings in animals may not always translate to humans – as is evident in my own area of stroke medicine. But in the overwhelming majority of cases the discoveries do translate, and animal research is still a necessary precursor to clinical trials with humans. The alternative – experimentation on human subjects without prior animal testing – would not be possible for lack of volunteers; and to proceed on people without consent is not acceptable outside of Dr Mengele’s laboratory.

So the case for animal research is clear cut; or it is if one subscribes to the view that human suffering and premature death is more important than animal suffering and premature death. And I do subscribe to such a view. It may be ‘speciesism’ to care more for humans than animals, but this is a charge to which I plead guilty: I am willing to sacrifice mice in order to cure children – not because we are more rational than animals (as this would lead to valuing infants and mentally-impaired humans less), but because humans properly have priority for humans. The world would be a ghastly place if people placed the suffering of frogs or badgers on a par with that of their own children, or would be happy to allow their neighbours to starve if this were necessary to keep animals well fed.

Opponents of speciesism, who argue, often from a utilitarian standpoint, that we should equate animal with human suffering, are not thinking of their own suffering or that of people they are close to. A utilitarianism that does not privilege human suffering, such that ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ translates into an utterly impartial calculus of pains and pleasures which seeks the ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest quantity of living stuff’, leads to some deeply unattractive conclusions, exposed by the ‘trolley’ thought experiment [see Issue 86]. A runaway trolley approaches a fork in a railway line. One limb leads to a human baby on the line, the other to ten kittens. Which way should we throw the switch? Should we save ten kittens, or just one baby? I don’t have any problem answering that question. Should I?

The fundamental solidarity of humans – our acknowledgement of each other as equals – is often frail, but it is precious; and it is in part based on the assumption that we value our fellows more than we value members of other species. Overturning this assumption takes us to some pretty dodgy places. Am I alone in feeling outraged at Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, who asserts that hunting dolphins or capturing them for aquariums is “roughly the same thing whites were doing to blacks 200 years ago in the slave trade”? (see The Sunday Times, 17th January 2010, p.13.) Roughly the same?! I would love to hear Martin Luther King’s eloquent response to that equation. But it is a logical consequence of those who oppose what they call ‘speciesism’ – whose very name implies an equivalence with sexism and racism. This doesn’t sound at all like the kind of thing my genial, generous, wise and thoughtful neighbour believes, although it is a logical conclusion of his advice to the vets. I think I’ll invite him round for a drink to talk things over.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2012

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His latest book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity is reviewed in this issue.

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