In this OUC-WEH Joint Seminar, Irina Mikhalevich argues that the moral status of invertebrate animals is often overlooked, and sets out why animal ethics should be more inclusive and comprehensive.
Invertebrate animals account for approximately 95% of all extant species and an astounding 99.9% of all animals on Earth, ranging from the sessile and brainless sea sponge to social-learners such as bumblebees and flexible problem-solvers like the common octopus. Despite this diversity, these animals are commonly lumped together as a group and subsequently excluded from subject-centered moral consideration and legal protections. This is likely due to a range of cognitive biases (such as biases in favor of more attractive, larger, longer lived, less numerous, and less disgust-provoking animals), false empirical judgments (such as the belief that very small brains cannot support cognition or consciousness), and unjustified moral anxieties (such as the concern that extending moral consideration to invertebrates threatens to make morality overly demanding). Recent developments in comparative cognition research, however, indicate the presence of sophisticated cognitive abilities and emotion-like states in many invertebrates, and neuroethology is beginning to reveal how the tiny brains of these animals can give rise to cognition and, perhaps, consciousness. At the same time, conceptual and methodological problems in animal cognition science result in significant uncertainties about the presence of complex cognition in animals generally and invertebrates in particular, and it is unclear how these scientific uncertainties should affect our ethical analyses. Perhaps even more fundamentally, studies of invertebrate cognition may prompt us to rethink vertebrate-centric approaches to moral standing, including some of its operative assumptions about the behavioral indicators of pain and the relevance of pain states to moral standing. This talk lays the foundation for a more comprehensive, inclusive, and scientifically engaged animal ethics – one that responds both to the novel scientific evidence and to the philosophical challenges that confront the scientific study of these ‘alien’ minds on Earth.