Are Members of Some Species More Equal Than Others?
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Are Members of Some Species More Equal Than Others?

Last essay I suggested that the existence of subjective experience was evidence for a divine creative being. Why does subjective experience exist? Biologists would generally agree that feelings encourage behaviors that favor survival. Seeking to avoid pain and to experience pleasure ultimately increases the likelihood that an individual will survive and pass on genetic material to offspring. However, we can program inanimate computers to learn and adapt, and it would seem that living organisms could adapt to their environment and even make rational choices without having subjective experiences.
A biological explanation for subjective experience does not tell us how inanimate atoms can generate things with feelings, nor does it tell us which living things can have subjective experiences. Indeed, we can’t prove that other humans have subjective experiences, though it is reasonable to believe that they do. Why should we as individuals have subjective experience and other humans do not? Similarly, it is reasonable to think that other mammals have subjective experience, given their anatomical, physiological, and behavioral resemblances to humans.
What about all other vertebrates? Can fish, for example, feel pain? Fish do not have the same brain structures that light up on brain scans when humans feel pain. However, just as nature has independently devised many ways to use light to gain useful information about its environment (i.e., to see), if conscious experience is needed for creatures to learn and adapt to its environment, then there would be strong evolutionary pressures to develop the ability to feel pain. A problem is that, just as we have difficulty imaging what a fly sees with its compound eye that differs markedly from the human eye, it is hard for us to know whether the fish’s experience of a hook in their mouths is similar to what we would experience in a similar situation.
And what about other animals, such as insects, whose brains differ so much from our own? Can they feel pleasure and pain? I think we should give all creatures the benefit of the doubt and do our best not to cause distress. We should try to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) in our dealings with all of God’s creation. I think it makes sense to focus our attention and our activism on those individuals who most clearly can experience pain and pleasure as we understand them, but we should be mindful of everyone. 

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