Octopuses can solve complicated puzzles and exhibit preferences for different persons. but whether they, and other animals and invertebrates, have emotions is a passionately discussed topic that, according to a York University expert in animal minds, might shake up humans’ moral decision-making.
Invertebrates such as octopuses, crabs, lobsters, and crayfish are not recognized as sentient animals capable of feeling pain in most nations. However, the United Kingdom is contemplating amending its animal welfare regulations to recognize this.
“A London School of Economics (LSE) report commissioned by the United Kingdom government found there is strong enough evidence to conclude that decapod crustaceans and cephalopod molluscs are sentient,” says Kristin Andrews, York University Professor and Philosopher, who is working with the LSE team.
Andrews and Professor Frans de Waal, head of Emory University’s Living Links Center, co-wrote “The question of animal feelings,” an essay published today in the journal Science that explores the ethical and policy concerns surrounding animals being considered sentient.
Andrews points out that other animals do not feel pain or have emotions, which has long been believed in Western civilization. “Even getting fish and mammals recognised as sentient under welfare law has been difficult. So, what appears to be happening with invertebrates in the United Kingdom is quite cutting-edge.”
Until the 1980s, it was thought that pre-verbal human babies did not feel pain. Many people still believe that animals, particularly invertebrates, are painless and have only unconscious reactions to unfavourable stimuli. However, research on mammals, fish, octopuses, and to a lesser extent crabs has demonstrated that they avoid pain and risky environments, and certain animals, such as cows, show symptoms of empathy — they become distressed when they observe other cows.
Recognizing invertebrates’ sensibilities raises a moral and ethical quandary. Humans can express their feelings verbally, but animals do not have the same capabilities. Andrews, who is engaged on a study project called Animals and Moral Practice, says, “However, the research thus far clearly suggests their presence.”
“We try not to do harm to other beings when we go about our daily lives. So it’s all about retraining our perceptions of the world. The precise treatment of other animals is still a study topic.” Andrews explains. ”We currently lack sufficient scientific knowledge to determine how some animals should be treated. We’ll need more collaboration between scientists and ethicists to figure it out.”
Humans may no longer be able to assume that crayfish, shrimp, and other invertebrates are immune to pain and other emotions.
“Invertebrate experiences will need to become part of our species’ moral landscape if they can no longer be deemed immune to felt anguish,” she argues. “However, pain is only one morally significant emotion. Other emotions experienced by invertebrates such as octopuses include interest in exploration, fondness for others, and excitement in expectation of a future reward. “It might be time to take a fresh look at our surroundings.