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Does ‘it’ feel pain? How a pronoun can desensitize us in our attitude to animals

Unthinkable: A new book on animal dreams pushes us to rethink their moral status

Sometimes your heart would go out to rats.

In 2015 a team of scientists investigating the source of nightmares exposed a group of such rodents to physical and psychological torture, alternating between electric shocks and forcing them to watch others being zapped before it was their turn.

Sure enough, the rats’ sleep patterns became disturbed: they had terrifying dreams that would trigger what the researchers called “startled awakening” in their Nature journal study. At some point in their sleep cycle, the rats would experience an accumulation of fear before waking up suddenly “with jumping behaviour”.

The Peking University study is part of a body of research that is explored by David M Peña-Guzmán in one of the year’s most original philosophical publications, When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness.


That at least some animals dream has been obvious to biologists going back to Charles Darwin. Humans, however, have been slow to ask how this might have moral implications. Peña-Guzmán rights that wrong, examining how an animal’s capacity for dreaming should make us think twice about how to treat it. Or should that be “treat him”, or “treat her”?

The correct pronoun to use for an animal is another concern of Peña-Guzmán’s. The academic, who is based at San Francisco State University and co-hosts the philosophy podcast Overthink, explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest:

Do humans have a different type of consciousness to other animals, and if so how does that affect our relative moral status?

“The problem is that the term ‘consciousness’ is slippery. What does it mean to be conscious? And which animals are conscious?

“Recently, experts in the philosophy of mind have started differentiating between phenomenal and access consciousness. The first is associated with raw sensations, feelings, and experiences, while the second is tied to thought, rationality, and language. And there is a debate unfolding now about which of these kinds of consciousness is the one we need to have in order to matter morally.

“My view is that although access consciousness is important, it is not the source of our moral value. When all is said and done, we deserve to be treated ethically because we feel, sense, and perceive, and not because we are thinking creatures who reason and use language. Those who cinch moral status to access consciousness place the bar for moral status way too high, leaving many living beings – human and non-human alike – outside the realm of ethics along the way. I find this exclusion deeply problematic.”

The fact that animals feel pain is arguably enough to confer moral status. Why does dreaming confer additional moral value?

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that dreaming confers additional moral value. I would say that it is another path to conferring moral value. What do I mean by this? Moral value is a destination that can be reached by different routes.

“If we establish that an animal suffers and convalesces, that suffices to show that said animal is entitled to at least some basic moral rights: eg, not to be subjected to pain. But we reach a similar conclusion if we establish that said animal is a dreamer even if we haven’t yet reached consensus on the question of suffering. The reason is that dreaming is a good example of ‘phenomenal consciousness’ rather than ‘access consciousness’.

“Dreaming is an experience that is primarily felt and embodied. It is not a particularly rational or logical one. As such, we can say that an animal who dreams is a phenomenally conscious creature and, as I said above, I think this is what elevates us morally.

“One possible example here is spiders. Recent experiments suggest that jumping spiders dream during REM-sleep. But there are people who question whether spiders are capable of feeling pain. Now, I believe that they feel pain and that their pain is morally relevant, but in theory one could concede that jumping spiders don’t feel pain and still come to their moral aid based on this new finding about dreams.”

Is the evidence compelling that all animals dream?

“The evidence is compelling in part because it is consistent. We find similar patterns of behaviour and neural activity in animals of the same and different species. And these patterns form a mutually supporting structure.

“For example, we know that suggestive sleep behaviours and suggestive neural events don’t take place in isolation. They are coupled, indicating that they are behavioural and the neural manifestations of a single underlying experience – the dream.

“This evidence is also compelling because it cuts across an outstandingly wide range of species. Dreaming occurs in species that parted ways evolutionarily aeons ago, which means that dream experiences may be much more common in the animal kingdom – and perhaps more fundamental to what it means to be an animal – than we realised.”

If the evidence for dreaming is stronger for certain animals, should they be treated better?

“It depends. One way to think about this would be to say that dreaming gives all dreamers moral status equally. Hence, all dreamers should be treated with basic respect. Another way would be to say that dreaming reveals important differences in the needs, interests, and capacities of animals and that we should tailor the moral rights of animals to their specific circumstances.

“In When Animals Dream, I give the example of chimpanzees trained in sign language who sign in their sleep. One could argue that the fact that these primates dream of communicating with others during REM sleep demonstrates that communication is essential to their way of life.

“If we take this seriously, it may follow that we threaten their wellbeing when we deny them opportunities for meaningful socialisation and communication – say, in zoos or laboratories. We may have a moral responsibility to protect chimpanzees not just as animals but as social and communicative animals.

“And these options are not mutually exclusive. Dreaming can provide all dreamers with an equal baseline of moral protection while also driving us to acknowledge important differences in the moral interests of different species.”

You say that to be conscious is to be “someone” rather than “something”, a “thou” rather than an “it”. Should we end the use of “it” as a pronoun for an animal?

“Language is a powerful screen that shapes how we describe and experience the world. The use of ‘it’ in connection to other living creatures does contribute to their objectification and otherisation, even if that’s not our intent when we speak. Language creates patterns of thought that are hard to spot and even harder to break, patterns that then go on to shape our perception of other animals.

“For instance, I believe there is a link between the fact that we use ‘it’ to refer to animals and the fact that we classify animals as ‘property’ under the law. These are two sides of the same coin, which is the thing-ification of animals under capitalism. This logic of thing-ification keeps us from treating animals as sentient creatures who have a right to be treated with dignity and care – a ‘thou’. It also desensitises us to the systemic violence we carry out against them in virtually all areas of social life.”

When Animals Dream by David M. Peña-Guzmán is published by Princeton University Press.