Lobsters and Sentience: Commentary on Jonathan Birch’s Article

Hello! Welcome to Philosopher Ad Absurdum. This article will be a review of “Crabs and lobsters deserve protection from being boiled alive” by Jonathan Birch in terms of utilitarianism and Singer. It will critically challenge the consequences of the suggested “animal sentience precautionary principle”. Enjoy!

There has been uproar over the last week at Parliament rejecting the incorporation of article 13 into an amendment to the European Union for the transfer bill. This rejection has been interpreted as a rejection of the fact animals are sentient beings. Was this the right thing to do? According to Jonathan Birch, even crabs and lobsters have sentience, and the cruelty that they experience being boiled alive is morally wrong. As a result, he proposes the animal sentience precautionary principle. This article will go into the ethics behind this proposal and the strengths and weaknesses of following this principal.

Singer and Sentience
The idea of animals having rights as a result of sentience was an argument within utilitarianism presented by Singer. Singer argued that the basis for moral equality among humans cannot be derived from specific talents, such as intelligence or sporting achievements. This is because not all humans have these talents or the same amount of a talent.  He argued that, because all humans experience pain or pleasure, sentience should be the basis on how grant moral equality. As a result of this, if animals also experience sentience then it is morally wrong to treat them poorly and cause them pain through suffering. However, Singer argued that it is still ok to eat meat because animals do not have specific preferences for the future. Therefore, they do not have a preference to stay alive, which is what counts in preference utilitarianism.

Are crabs and lobsters sentient beings?

Valuing moral equality based on sentience seems to be a good method of establishing when equality should be granted as we seem to have equality to protect minorities from suffering, such as exclusion of woman in the work place or discrimination by color of your skin. However, it leads to the question of whether animals are sentient. In the article, Birch applies this to crabs and lobsters. His conclusion was that even such animals which we don’t give protection to and boil alive give credible indications of sentience.

He discusses a series of experiments which were carried out by Robert Elwood and his colleagues at Queen’s University Belfast. One experiment showed how Hermit crabs would vacate a good shell in favor of a poorer one when the shock became too severe. In fact, they were able to decide whether it was worth going through a certain intensity of shock in order to keep a better shell. This is known as motivational trade off, and demonstrates that not only must crabs feel pain because they abandon a good shell, but also can reflect on whether this is justified by other needs. On top of this, crabs exhibited a phenomenon known as “conditional place avoidance”. This was were the crabs refused to return to a shell they had previously occupied due to the electric shocks, despite hermit crabs preferring shells they have inhabited before. This demonstrates that not only do crabs feel pain, but they remember it and their future actions are influenced by it. As a result, Birch argues that the behavior shown cannot be purely a reflex behavior but a result of the experience of pain.

We can never be certain that crabs and lobsters or any other animals experience pain. This is the same as the fact we can never know whether other humans feel pain. However, Birch accounts for this, and this is one of the strengths of his argument. Despite not being able to prove for certain whether animals are sentient beings, he suggests  that there are credible indicators to suggest that lobsters and crabs are sentient beings, as shown above. Therefore, there is a possibility that they are sentient. As a result of this possibility, we should take precautions. As a result of this being a mere possibility, we can not criticism the argument for proving for certain that animals are sentient beings. It becomes more of a question on whether you want to take the risk. This is the idea the “Precautionary Principle” is based upon.

The Precautionary Principle
In the face of the uncertainty of whether animals are sentient beings, Birch proposes what he calls a “common sense approach” in order to avoid risk which, because of the credible indicators described above, is a high one. He creates his own version of the following idea:

When your uncertain about the link between human actions and a seriously bad outcome, don’t let your uncertainty prevent you from taking effective precautions.

That is to say that instead of merely carrying out an action as there is a chance that it could be a good outcome, we need to be protected against the possibility of a bad outcome, as this would have worse consequences than a good outcome. We should not be lulled into a false sense of security just because there is a possibility of the bad outcomes not occurring.

Birch’s Animal Sentience Precautionary Principle
Birch carries on this line of argument by making the principle more specific;

When there are threats of serious, negative animal welfare outcomes, lack of full scientific certainty as to the sentience of the animals in question shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent those outcomes.

Birch believes this is pretty vague and so goes on to clarify the meaning of this.

We should act to mitigate risks to animal welfare when there is at least one credible indicator of sentience in at least one species of the order of  of animals in question.

When the evidential standard is met, we should bring the order of animals within the scope of animal welfare legislation in a way appropriate to their particular needs.

What this principle argues for is, in the face of not knowing whether animals are sentient are not, we should use methods that is used in the legislation of the EU to prevent the series neglect of animals. By doing this, there is no harm done to the animals in question and in a way a good outcome is guaranteed as we have prepared for the worst instead of praying for the best.

How effective are these principles? What limitations do they have?
Birch does his best to clarify the principle into an idea which would have practical use within the law. However, there is still some vagueness within the principle. What counts as “threats of serious, negative animal welfare outcomes”? It may seem obvious to some that boiling a crab alive comes under this heading, but for some it might not. For instance, they argue that there is no serious threat as it only takes a few minutes to boil a crab. You could compare this to the battery farming of chickens, where chickens are kept for days on end in cages where there legs eventually break. Does this change the stance of whether boiling a crab is a threat of serious negative animal welfare outcomes? If so, where is the line between what does count as serious neglect and what doesn’t.

However, some people may argue that this is a strength of the principle because it allows flexibility for specific situations. If we had a list of set rules of what is the right way to treat animals in every situation (which I highly doubts as there would be too many situations to list) then it would be difficult to factor in situations which may challenge these rules and should probably break them. By having a vaguer principle, it allows human intuition into the equation. However, this doesn’t mean there is a cost to this.

The argument also fails to deal with some of the consequences of the principle as a moral standard. Birch makes it clear that this is a guide to policy in legislative animal welfare law. It argues that this doesn’t instruct people to  do things such as not eating meat or fish. However, when a law concerning rights is put forward, then surely there must be an ethical judgement behind it. So should we stop eating meat? There are many questions this enquirey raises. For example, what level of pain is it acceptable to cause to animals. Is it ok to stun them and them kill them? Or is this too much pain. Where should we draw the line between animal cruelty, being cost-effective and the fact the human body is designed to eat meat and fish? These are a small sample of the questions which the article and the principle fail to answer. However, yet again, this could be overturned by the fact it allows us to decide our own moral standards and allows human intuition into the equation.

There is also the question of credible indicators and whether we can measure them numerically. Birch suggests that there is only one credible indicator needed for precautions to take place. But are all credible factors equal? Is the credible factor of motivational-trade off equal to conditioned place avoidance. If it is not, then this blurs the lines further, and requires re-clarification of how strong a credible indicator needs to be before we take precautions and how we balance this with the chance that the animal is sentient.

As already mentioned, the main strength of this principle is how it deals with certainty. That is because it does not depend on the proof that animals are sentient which is great as we could never prove animals are definitely sentient in the first place. Instead, it is a case of weighing up risks of negative animal welfare and the effectiveness of precaution. This makes it easier to persuade people to take precautions. As Birch finishes on, we might regret not taking precautions about global warming. Therefore, we should take measures now to prevent animal suffering instead of paying for poor decisions later.

Thank you for reading this week. If you have liked what you have read then please subscribe using the subscribe bar on the right of the page. If you have any questions, comment below or email me. I always love hearing from you guys. This weeks Philosophy Basics will be published on Sunday and will discuss how philosophers such as Hume and Russel have challenged Direct Realism through perceptual variation. See you then.

Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

Student studying MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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