People Who Think Animals are Just Machines and People Who Love Them

Are animals just machines? Or do they care and feel and matter?

Some who study animals say they are just machines.  They also learn a lot about them by experimenting on them — for example seeing how well they see if you destroy different pieces of their brains, which helps us understand the brain, and vision, and ultimately cure blindness.

You might think that they view animals as machines and that makes it not a problem to blind them.  After all, it’s not a problem to take a camera apart to see how it works.

But it might be that we want a cure for blindness, so we make some of us cut up the brains of animals, and the only way to live with yourself and get up in the morning and go to work and cut up the brain of a cat say, is to tell yourself that the cat is just a machine.

So on this view, if you love your cat, don’t be angry at the person who thinks the cat is a machine, because he has to, in order to do the work you’ve asked him to do, such as coming up with vaccines to protect your cat.

This insight generalizes.

Don’t hate the soldier who thinks life is all about who wins and loses — you asked him to defend you.  Don’t hate the spy who thinks life is all about tricks and counter-tricks.  You need him to make sure nobody is plotting a sneak attack on you and yours.

Needless to say, don’t hate yourself either.


4 thoughts on “People Who Think Animals are Just Machines and People Who Love Them

  1. All true, but painful to contemplate if we have any empathy at all.

    I’m not sure how many people explicitly think animals are machines, in the sense of being *only* machines that either feel no pain or whose pain is morally insignificant. I’d expect it to be more common that people either (a) don’t think about the subject at all, or (b) try to distance themselves emotionally from any pain they inflict.

    Those strategies appear in other contexts.

    Unless they are heartless sociopaths (which a few of them are), corporate executives cannot allow themselves to think or feel about the people whose jobs they’ve offshored.

    In the “trolley” thought-experiment, people believed they should sacrifice one life to save five lives, but it made a big difference how they did it. If they only had to throw a switch that routed the trolley onto a different track, they could do it more easily than if they had to physically touch someone and push him onto the track. Up close and personal, it was much harder to turn off awareness of the other person’s status as a living being.

    Therefore, I disagree with Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a cat: “A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.”

  2. Susan says:

    Animals deserve compassion. We ‘put them to sleep’ just as we hike the morphine drip that stop the heart of a dying patient that is in pain or taking too long to die. To use animals for study or use sick and dying children’s bodies for testing new drugs (as in research hospitals) is an abomination. Should I want a untested drug or treatment to save my life, or to save my limb or my sight or my mind, I am able to decide for myself. Children and animals can not make their own decisions. Let human adults who are cognizant be the white rats.- – – – – – – Foot soldiers in a war with another country are regarded by their government as expendable. Young men’s lives matter.

    • I am a big fan of the diphtheria vaccine although it required the deaths of many guinea pigs. On the whole it was worth it. Diphtheria was truly horrible — slow death for infants from a membrane closing off the throat. Throw away the vaccine because of the guinea pigs? No. More vaccines and cures should be developed, even if animals must suffer to do it. IT helps everybody, including animals. My cats just got their rabies shots. I’m glad. DEath from rabies is truly horrible. I saw a Buddhist monk kill a puppy in Thailand by smashing it on the head with a piece of wood. He had to — the dog had rabies. It was going to die horribly otherwise and infect other dogs and people.

  3. Who asked for Pandora’s box of delights to be opened?

    ‘I want a cure for blindness’ isn’t a moral blank check, allowing the holder to do anything they want while fulfilling the want. That’s the sort of deal devils offer.

    And don’t insist people asked anyone to do anything – we are all born into societal structural elements who’s structure was decided hundreds or even thousands of years ago. We are born, witless of these structures, even as our fragile heartbeat continuance relies on them, and we grow thinking ‘this is just how the world works’, while still witless of what goes on backstage of ‘how the world works’.

    And when we finally get a peak backstage, to say ‘you asked for this’ – that is the chant of learned helplessness.

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