Applying Pascal’s Wager to Animal Ethics

pascals wager and animal ethics

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was a French mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and Catholic theologian. One of his most influential contributions to the philosophy of religion is a philosophical argument known as Pascal’s wager. This idea was published posthumously in Pascal’s Pensées (“Thoughts”). 

This post will describe how Pascal’s wager can be usefully applied to animal ethics, namely, by helping to support a vegan ethic that eschews certain practices where animal sentience or immorality is uncertain. Both Pascal’s wager and ‘erring on the side of caution’ with respect to moral grey areas in animal ethics can be viewed as risk-based approaches or a form of risk-benefit analysis.

The Logic of Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s argument posits that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not exist, such a person will experience some finite loss (some pleasures, luxuries, time, and effort) – but not ‘nothing’, which is often how this outcome is formulated. If God exists, then the believer stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and will avoid infinite losses (an eternity spent suffering in Hell). Finally, if you don’t believe in God and God does not exist, then you can experience the finite gains of spending your time more usefully.

Pascal believed that since reason alone cannot determine whether or not God exists, this question then functions as a coin toss – a wager, or pragmatic decision, that we are all forced to participate in.

Pascal’s wager has faced a multitude of criticisms. Firstly, there is the argument from inconsistent revelations: one cannot choose one religion over another since their revelations are inconsistent with each other and any two religions cannot be true at once. Pascal’s wager means that, according to its logic, we are required to believe in various incompatible theistic hypotheses. His wager was intended to encourage belief in the existence of God in Christianity. But as the French philosopher Denis Diderot put it: “An Imam could reason just as well this way.” Thus, Pascal has been accused of ‘proving too much’ with his wager since any rival god could be substituted for the Christian one.

Furthermore, if you choose one religion out of the thousands that exist, you can end up angering thousands of gods (except the one you choose to believe in). So it may be improbable that you will end up avoiding infinite losses after all. Pascal, however, dismissed the many-religions objection as a rhetorical ploy. He argued Christianity is unlike the other religions, including Islam, which he thought was devoid of divine authority.

Then there is the argument from inauthentic belief. This states that Pascal’s wager fails because it is based on believing in God out of self-interest; in other words, it is based on bad motives that are inconsistent with Christian views of character change. Pascal’s wager suggests feigning belief to gain eternal reward, which would be dishonest and immoral. It does not incentivise people to believe in God for (what are considered to be) more legitimate reasons, such as faith, love and gratitude for God, or other arguments trying to support God’s existence. Moreover, surely God, as an omniscient being, would see through the deceptive strategy of Pascal’s wager, thereby nullifying the benefits the wager thinks they could receive.

These criticisms so far, I believe, are not relevant in the case of veganism, an ethic that can still be supported by the logic of Pascal’s wager. 

Using Pascal’s Wager to Defend Veganism

Jeffrey A. Lockwood, an entomologist and philosopher, wrote an article titled Virtue ethics and the likelihood of invertebrate suffering (2020), published in the journal Animal Sentience. He defends a virtue ethics position when it comes to the question of invertebrate (e.g. insect) suffering, over and above the utilitarian and deontological stances. This is because, although we have evidence supporting the capacity of invertebrates to suffer, if we are mistaken on this, then our protection of invertebrate animals (based on either utilitarian or deontological considerations) would be unjustified. However, Lockwood contends that even with this uncertainty in mind, virtue ethics can help us protect the lives of invertebrates in a rational way, through the cultivation of virtue.

Lockwood begins by looking at an argument from Irina Mikhalevich and Russell Powell (2020) on the need for moral constraints on how we treat invertebrates. He represents their argument, from the perspective of the moral agent (i.e. humans), as a modified version of Pascal’s wager:

  • If you believe that invertebrates suffer and they do, then you avoid unethical actions.
  • If you believe that invertebrates suffer and they don’t, then this is no loss to you.
  • If you don’t believe that invertebrates suffer and they do, then you will perform unethical actions.
  • If you don’t believe that invertebrates suffer and they don’t, then there is no reward for you.

Lockwood maintains that virtue ethics fits best with this Pascalian logic and critiques utilitarian and deontological frameworks for interpreting this animal ethics version of Pascal’s wager. Utilitarianism (producing the greatest good for the greatest number) and deontology (respecting the rights of others by acting in accordance with duties, which are rules that apply to all rational beings) both align with the ‘harm principle’ and consider suffering to be the minimum standard for moral consideration. 

Both of these ethical theories, in light of the Pascalian version of animal ethics, entail a duty to avoid causing unnecessary suffering to invertebrates. Nonetheless, Lockwood states:

this assumes that invertebrates have morally relevant states of being which include, at least, the capacity to suffer (whether or not they have other morally relevant states such as self-awareness, experience of particular emotions, formulation of future plans that can be frustrated, or enjoyment of higher-order intellectual pursuits). What if this is not true, and we mistakenly adopt inconvenient and costly measures? For the deontologist, we may have failed to fulfill legitimate duties (e.g., conducting research that would benefit humans and other sentient animals), and for the utilitarian, we will have wasted resources in protecting organisms whose condition does not contribute to the greater good.

Likewise, there are losses involved in falsely believing in God (although not perhaps moral losses of the kind experienced by the deontologist and utilitarian who follows Pascalian logic when it comes to invertebrate suffering, as pointed out by Lockwood). These losses can include wasted time, effort, and donations, as well as the loss of certain pleasures, relationships, and experiences due to following certain religious dictates. Nevertheless, there may be moral losses in the case of religious practices like circumcision or the promotion of negative emotions, such as fear (through a belief in Hell) or shame (based on behaviour that is ‘sinful’ but arguably not immoral).

Invertebrates include not just insects but also bivalves (a class of marine and freshwater molluscs that have bodies enclosed by a shell consisting of two hinged parts). These include species of clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops. Diana Fleischman, an evolutionary psychologist, wrote two blog posts on the ethical case for eating oysters and mussels (see here and here). She herself is a bivalvegan or ostrovegan, which is someone who avoids animal products except for bivalves, based on the ethic of minimising animal suffering wherever possible and the belief that bivalves can’t suffer. However, Brian Tomasik, a writer and advocate of effective altruism, has made an evidence-based case for why bivalves might have the capacity to suffer.

There are many other moral grey areas in animal ethics:

  • Backyard eggs: using eggs from rescued hens you keep may not appear cruel or unethical in the slightest. But does this contribute to an ultimately harmful attitude of viewing non-human animals as things or commodities from which we can gain something? Also, selectively bred hens often need to eat the eggs they lay to restore some of the protein, calcium, and other nutrients they lose in the process of laying far more eggs than their bodies were ever intended to produce.
  • Having a pool: many types of domestic and wild non-human animals drown in pools, including deer, raccoons, dogs, gophers, rabbits, frogs, birds, mice, lizards, rats, snakes, bats, skunks, and insects.
  • Honey: industrial bee farming ends up killing bees, or affects their health by replacing honey taken from the hive with nutritionally inferior sugar water. The question of bee suffering is still uncertain, although recent evidence suggests bees may feel pain. Better practices can minimise suffering (should it occur) and bee populations also have a key role to play in our ecosystem. These populations are plummeting, which means increasing them is beneficial to us and many other species. Nonetheless, many vegans will consider honey unethical, regardless, because it involves the exploitation of animals.
  • Dental hygiene and health: nearly all floss is beeswax-coated and many medications (e.g. over-the-counter painkillers and hay fever tablets) contain animal ingredients and/or have been tested on animals. Vegan versions are available, but they can be difficult to find.
  • Secondhand clothing made from animals: if you buy secondhand wool, fur, leather, down, or silk, you’re not funding industries that profit from animal exploitation. Also, this means the clothes won’t waste away in a landfill. However, vegans might be concerned that doing so would perpetuate the fashionability of animal-derived clothes (which is separate from a general distaste for wearing such clothes).

There are many other moral grey areas, but for now, with some of the above examples in mind, we can apply Pascal’s wager and say that taking the vegan position potentially avoids suffering, although this can involve some inconveniences and losses (such as lost time, effort, pleasure, and health benefits). For many people, nevertheless, using Pascalian logic when it comes to these grey areas makes veganism the safer bet.

Where Pascalian animal ethics differs from the classic Pascal’s wager is that falsely believing in invertebrate suffering may yield substantial ethical benefit to moral agents (i.e. ourselves) from the perspective of virtue ethics. This moral theory requires that we cultivate particular character traits (virtue) while avoiding others (vices) so that we can fully realise our potential. Lockwood argues that avoiding gratuitous harm to insects could foster the virtues of empathy, compassion, helpfulness, and gentleness, even though we don’t really know whether insects warrant this kind of moral consideration. 

Given the problems of understanding the mental or subjective states of other beings (especially those so different from ourselves), we may never be assured that insects suffer. We can be more confident in the suffering of vertebrates, based on the evidence available to us. Nonetheless, Lockwood emphasises that “virtue ethics provides a moral justification for acting in accordance with the belief that invertebrates suffer”. This is because whether our belief is true or false in the Pascalian table, we stand to benefit greatly. Lockwood writes:

The key lies in the path to virtue — practice. Through repetition, we live out the virtues until they become our very nature, at which point our actions are moral. Even if we are mistaken as to whether invertebrates feel pain, as long as our beliefs about their lives are reasonable, refraining from harming them constitutes a virtuous practice.

The reasonableness (but not assuredness) comes from the increasing evidence in favour of invertebrates’ ability to feel pain, which is now reflected in legislation providing greater protection to decapod crustaceans (like crabs, lobsters, and shrimp) and cephalopod molluscs (which includes squid and octopus). Lockwood continues:

Everyday interactions with invertebrates provide ideal opportunities to cultivate virtue. We can develop positive character traits (e.g., empathy, compassion, and gentleness) through our frequent encounters with these creatures. Furthermore, invertebrates stretch our virtuous capacities by being alien, frightful or disgusting — qualities that M&P [Mikhalevich & Powell] note are poor reasons for rejecting ethical obligations toward other beings. It is easy to resist harming kittens, so avoiding that vice offers little challenge and hence limited potential for refining our virtues. However, choosing to step over an ant on the sidewalk, refraining from spraying a grasshopper in the garden, opening a window to let an annoying fly escape, or removing a wayward spider from the basement requires far greater consideration.

We can look to the example of the Jains, whose ethical principle of ahimsa (non-violence towards all living beings) leads them to avoid killing insects wherever possible. Adherents will even wear cloth masks over their faces so that they don’t accidentally swallow flies and other insects.

It could be true that any losses in veganism are greater than those incurred by falsely believing in God, although this really depends on how strict and rule-bound one is with respect to either veganism or a particular religion. There could also be (significant) differences in probability between grey areas of animal sentience and God’s existence. Atheists would argue that the absence of any evidence for God’s existence and/or the weaknesses of arguments in favour of God’s existence make it extremely unlikely that such a being exists. In contrast, the sentience of insects can appear far more believable, especially in light of more recent studies suggesting that insects may be able to feel pain. 

Matilda Gibbons, the lead author of a 2022 paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, told Newsweek:

The function of…dampening in nociception [the detection of painful stimuli] in humans is to reduce our pain in situations where feeling pain is unhelpful. Thus if insects also have this capacity, it is conceivable that insects have evolved a similar pathway to deal with feelings of pain.

She and fellow researchers found insects have brain controls for nociception, which makes it plausible that insects have painful experiences. This is the accepted argument for mammals such as mice, where a reduction in nociceptive behaviour is accepted as equalling a reduction in pain. These new findings, then, have important implications for ethics, given that insects are subjected to potentially painful stimuli in research and farming. Feeding the world with insects may not be morally justified after all. Gibbons adds:

We cannot ask these animals [insects] about their experiences, nor can we observe manifestations like wincing or facial contortions, as we might in a dog who experiences pain, so the existence of neural mechanisms that might mediate pain in insects is an important finding.

Criticisms of Pascal’s Wager That May Apply to the Vegan Position

There are some other criticisms of Pascal’s wager that the believer in invertebrate suffering may also face. Firstly, Pascal’s wager does not prove the existence of God. As the French philosopher Voltaire said, “the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists.” Similarly, choosing to believe in invertebrate suffering (let’s here pick the more ambiguous case of insects) fails to show that these creatures do, in fact, have a subjective experience of pain. But again, the decision to believe may at least be considered more reasonable in this latter case because we have (accumulating) evidence that invertebrates are able to feel pain.

Another counterargument to Pascal’s wager is that it can lead to absurd logical conclusions (reductio ad absurdum). If you accept the reasoning behind it, then, by the same logic, you would have to believe many absurd things, no matter how improbable they are, as long as this involved an infinite payoff or, because of disbelief, an infinite loss. This could involve newly invented (and ridiculous) gods – just let your imagination run wild here – or certain superstitious beliefs like how failing to do a minor, arbitrary ritual every day will cause the universe to end.

In the case of Pascalian-based animal ethics, one could argue that the logic of the wager could lead to absurd conclusions like believing that mushrooms and plants can feel pain – since we can’t be certain that they don’t – and so we would need to all become fungal and plant rights advocates. This is despite the fact that fungi and plants have no central nervous system. However, the difference would be that it is not at all clear how absurd or ridiculous a belief in fungal/plant sentience is; there are now many scientists – who call themselves plant neurobiologists – who believe there is evidence to support the notion of plant consciousness. Also, from a practical ethics perspective, even if you believe in fungal/plant sentience, this doesn’t mean you could no longer be vegan. After all, this diet would still be the most effective way to minimise the suffering of all sentient beings. This is because we need to use many more plants to feed the non-human animals that we consume. Hence, eating the plants directly would significantly reduce crop production. 

Another criticism of Pascal’s wager is that it assumes doxastic voluntarism: belief is a matter of the will, not the intellect. We have voluntary control over our beliefs, in other words. But who can really just decide to believe something out of sheer willpower, rather than due to actual reasons? Can an atheist just suddenly decide to be a theist? The intellectualist would argue it is impossible to adopt a belief simply because we choose to. This applies to both committed atheists and theists; neither can make an immediate and simple decision to join the opposite camp. This is because humans don’t have perfect free will. So we end up back to an earlier criticism: at best, Pascal’s wager leads to a ‘fake’ belief in God, not a genuinely felt one.

Nonetheless, while you cannot simply decide or will to believe in God (known as direct doxastic voluntarism), you can decide to take certain steps that will encourage that belief: reading one-sided literature, joining a highly religious community, inducing mystical experiences through the use of psychedelics, chanting, praying, and so forth and so on. When you voluntarily seek out experiences in order to change your beliefs, this is known as indirect doxastic voluntarism. This means we have indirect control over some of our beliefs.

It also might not matter whether we can choose our beliefs, or to what degree choice is involved. According to Pascal, it is still pragmatically better to believe in God than not. The issue of doxastic voluntarism may apply to the case of insect suffering or other moral grey areas in animal ethics. We cannot simply decide to believe that insects feel pain. Yet perhaps we can through indirect – not direct – doxastic voluntarism. In this case, perhaps reading up on the research of entomologists who study the possibility of pain in insects may lead us to adopt this belief. The case of believing in invertebrate suffering may also differ from belief in God because of the natural reactions that many of us have: we might feel sad or remorseful when killing insects (consciously or accidentally). Using these experiences to support a belief in invertebrate suffering could be another example of indirect doxastic voluntarism.

The Precautionary Principle

A Pascalian approach to animal ethics bears a resemblance to the precautionary principle, which has been defended by the philosopher Jonathan Birch. In the context of animal sentience, this principle states that when the evidence of sentience is inconclusive, we should ‘give the animal the benefit of the doubt’ or ‘err on the side of caution’ in formulating animal protection legislation. As Mikhalevich & Powell argue, “we are not in a position to rule out or even deem unlikely the possibility that tiny brains can give rise to sentient lives with interests that merit moral protection.” We all have opportunities to apply the precautionary principle to non-human animals since it is legal (through various food, fashion, and entertainment choices) to participate in the use and killing of various animals.

Even if you don’t want to believe in invertebrate suffering or accept the position that certain practices that sit in a moral grey area are definitely wrong, you can still apply the precautionary principle to these questions and act ‘as if’ insects feel pain, despite the uncertainty that exists. And, as Lockwood argues, adopting a virtue ethics perspective can make this Pascalian, risk-based approach to animal ethics even more rewarding.

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