Peter Carruthers: Why the question of animal consciousness doesnít matter very much

According to higher-order thought accounts of phenomenal consciousness (e.g. Carruthers, 2000) it is likely that few, if any, non-human animals will undergo phenomenally conscious experiences. Many people believe that this result would have deep and far-reaching consequences. More specifically, they believe that the absence of phenomenal consciousness from the rest of the animal kingdom must mean that the sufferings of animals canít be appropriate objects of sympathy and concern; and that it must mark a radical and theoretically significant divide between ourselves and other animals, with important implications for comparative psychology. I shall argue that these beliefs are mistaken. Since the suffering involved in pain and grief is primarily a first-order (non-phenomenal) affair, the absence of higher-order states in non-human animals neednít mean that their states arenít appropriate objects of concern. And since phenomenal consciousness might be almost epiphenomenal in its functioning within human cognition, its absence in animals may signify only relatively trivial differences in cognitive architecture. Our temptation to think otherwise arises partly as a side-effect of imaginative identification with animal experiences, and partly from mistaken beliefs concerning the aspects of common-sense psychology that carry the main explanatory burden, whether applied to humans or to non-human animals.


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