Interview with Prof Robert C. Jones

Date:  2013

Robert C. Jones (PhD, Stanford University, 2005) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University. His research includes investigation into the substantive cognitive properties that bear on the ethical treatment and moral considerability of both human and nonhuman animals.

Robert's latest paper, "Science, Sentience, and Animal Welfare", appears in the January 2013 issue of Biology and Philosophy.

One of your areas of research concerns the public understanding of animal welfare issues. Would you be able to summarise your thoughts or conclusions on this?

I have engaged in a number of public discussions and debates with experimenters at UCLA over the use of animals in biomedical research and with colleagues in the animal agriculture college here at my university over the commodification of animals used as livestock and food. I also contributed to the Proposal for an Accord between Animal Advocates and the Biomedical Research Community .I am on the Advisory Council of National Museum of Animals and Society where later this year I will be curating an exhibition on sentience and animal welfare. I do this out of an obligation to improving the lives of animals, but also because, as a philosopher, I am dedicated to the pursuit of truth and justice, in this case truth about animal exploitation and justice for the billions of voiceless, sentient beings, objects of speciesist domination who cannot advocate for themselves. The bottom line is this: the folks behind the biomedical industry, Big Ag, the captivity and entertainment business, etc., have deep, deep pockets and are able to wield significant power through lobbyists and campaigns that play on the public’s comfort with the status quo and the perception among some of animal advocates as fringe lunatics. The public understanding of animal ethics issues can be authoritatively addressed by academics and public intellectuals—in fact, we have an obligation to do so. Such outreach can be successful in combating those dark forces and effectively engaging with many communities, ultimately improving the lives of animals.

What are your views on giving certain species a greater moral status depending on their cognitive abilities and characteristics?


Lori Gruen makes a nice distinction that's relevant here. Moral status can be seen as being comprised of moral considerability and moral significance. A being is morally considerable if her interests count, making her a member of the moral community. To put it metaphorically, a being is morally considerable if she shows up on the moral "radar screen." In this sense, humans and kittens are morally considerable whereas a piece of gravel is not.

But just because both a kitten and a human have interests in the morally relevant sense and are both morally considerable, it does not follow that their interests count equally, that is, that they have equal moral status. That's a question of moral significance. Continuing with the radar metaphor, it’s one thing to say that a being shows up on the moral radar screen, but quite another to say how strong a signal she emits. For example, most people would agree that though a normal adult human and a kitten are both morally considerable, the human has greater moral significance.

Now, precisely how moral considerability and moral significance are determined is, to say the least, quite complex. However, on my view, what is clear is that properties and abilities such as sentience and specific cognitive capacities certainly play a role—and in my view, a salient role—in determining moral status. Thus, I think it reasonable to argue for greater moral status for a normal chimpanzee than, say, a clam, though—to be clear—it's not a simple correlation between sentience/cognition and moral status, but rather a quite complex dynamic involving intrinsic capacities, relational properties, and the kinds of properties, capacities, and relations one’s moral theory values.

There are many ethical issues around using sentient, non-human animals in scientific and medical research. What is the biggest change you personally would like to see in the future in regards to current practices?

That's an easy one. I see four changes that, at minimum, should be made immediately:

1. The definition of ‘animal’ in the U.S. federal Animal Welfare Act should be amended to include all vertebrate animals, and research-funding agencies should establish guidelines and regulations to provide for the welfare of invertebrates. Right now, mice and rats and birds and reptiles have absolutely no protections by statute whatsoever in U.S. labs. None.
By contrast, the British Animal Welfare Act defines ‘animal’ as “any vertebrate other than man,” certainly an improvement over its U.S. counterpart. Better still is the more scientifically-informed New Zealand Animal Welfare Act which protects not only all vertebrates, but ‘‘any octopus, squid, crab, lobster, or crayfish (including freshwater crayfish)’’ or ‘‘any other member of the animal kingdom...declared...to be an animal for the purposes of this Act’’ as well as ‘‘any mammalian foetus, or any avian or reptilian pre-hatched young, that is in the last half of its period of gestation or development.’’

2. In the U.S., the undergraduate and graduate educations of future biomedical researchers include virtually no instruction about basic animal ethics. That needs to change. All such students should be mandated to take at least one semester of animal ethical theory taught by a professional bioethicist.

3. All facilities in the U.S. that use animals for research, testing, or education are currently required to establish Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) comprised of representatives from inside and outside the biomedical research community. There is currently a requirement that one public member of the IACUC provide representation for general community interests in the proper care and treatment of animals. A second public member who is professionally trained in bioethics, particularly animal ethics, should also be required.

4. All research institutions should be required to have a designated public liaison official in an effort to provide a greater degree of transparency regarding use of animals in labs. In addition, to further the ends of greater transparency, systems of 24-hour video surveillance should be designed and installed within research facilities to record and archive all activities involving care and use of animals, including all experimental and veterinary procedures.

Where would you like to see the future of animal sentience going, and how would you like this to influence the moral decisions we make in the way we humans treat animals?

Research into animal sentience is exploding, and rightly so. I hope this trend continues or increases, and I think it will. The general public is fascinated by the results of these studies. The more we discover about the inner lives of animals, the easier it will be to increase the moral status of animals in the mind of the public, manifesting itself in more legislation favoring animals. A great example is how Sneddon, Braithwaite, and Gentle’s results into fish sentience prompted some countries like Germany to ban specific types of fishing. I'd love to see such research lead to further improvements in the lives of animals as well as increased interest in veganism.

Did you know?

The Rabbit Grimace Scale can be used to assess pain in rabbits based on changes in facial expression. Keating, S.C.J., Thomas, A.A., Flecknell, P.A., Leach, M.C. (2012). PLoS ONE