This article appeared in the Gauntlet on September 8th, 2011.
Morality and animals is an undeniably sticky subject. However, it seems to be the case that there is, at minimum, one particular animal who is a possible candidate for, as I hope to show, significant moral consideration due to its capacity to produce entheogens. That animal is the Sonoran Desert toad.
Forthwith, ‘entheogen’ (Greek for ‘generating God within’) is, as writer-explorer James Oroc defined it, “an ethnographic term used to describe a plant or drug that invokes a sense of the numinous or a mystical experience.” Entheogens are defined independently of drugs as they are markedly different. Entheogens are often produced naturally within the plant and animal kingdom, and produce states of mind not valuable in the context of pleasure — unlike most things considered drugs — but are instead valuable for the spiritual or mystical experiences they create. The most peculiar and significant example of an animal that produces an entheogen is our friend, the Sonoran Desert toad (Bufo alvarius). This creature bears the burden of being the basis for the infamous and deadly act of toad licking. To delve into the science of the matter, the Sonoran Desert toad secretes two chemicals: the venom dehydrobufotenine, which is quite poisonous if consumed (hence why toad licking is actually unwise); and also the chemical 5-MeO-DMT, an entheogen from the tryptamine family that naturally occurs throughout the plant and animal kingdom, but occurs in particular abundance in bodily glands of the toad in question.
The unique identity as a producer of entheogens places the Sonoran Desert Toad in a position of high — or simply unique moral worth — for two reasons. Firstly, the value or veracity of mystical experiences that can result from consumption of entheogens. Secondly, the significant, symbolic, and unique role in delivering said important entheogens, as occupied by animals such the Sonoran Desert toad. Of the first proposition, we must accept the notion that mystical experiences have a value or veracity due to the elementary immediacy of conscious experience itself — a position we can dub ‘phenomenology.’ From the starting point of phenomenology, which since it is pure subjective experience and nothing more it is devoid of secondary preconceptions and judgments, we can avoid any spookiness that discussions of mystical or spiritual revelation often contain. Thus, even if you believe that a mystical experience is the work of certain molecules acting within the brain, and I believe the contrary wherein a mystical experience is a divine presence entering my mind/spirit, both viewpoints are leveled redundant when we startfrom the reference point of phenomenology, since we must withhold all secondary judgments and metaphysical assumptions and instead focus on the subjective perceptual experiences themselves. It follows, phenomenologically speaking, that a mystical experience is more interesting than pleasure, and obviously far more interesting than regular phenomenological experience. To deny this claim suggests a lack of insight or familiarity with the contrast between mere pleasure and mystical experiences. This hierarchy of ‘interestingness’ can, again from the phenomenological perspective, allow us to attach a certain degree of value and veracity to mystical experiences before they get discounted as secondary judgments often cause.
If the arguments just explicated can be taken to be the case — at least tacitly so — then we can progress to the second proposition, that being that animals — specifically the Sonoran Desert toad — represent a case of moral peculiarity on account of their production of said valuable entheogens and the resulting mystical states, and of their valuable and unique role as the deliverers of said entheogens and of the aforementioned mystical states. That is, if we accept that the mystical experiences produced by entheogens are of a veridical and valuable nature (minimally in the phenomenological sense as previously explained), then it follows that if the originator of entheogens occupies a role of similar or contemporaneous being, then it too, being the Sonoran Desert toad, has an equally veridical and valuable nature equitable with, and resulting from, the entheogens it produces — allowing us to declare it to be a candidate for moral peculiarity. Thus, the Sonoran Desert toad is an excellent example of moral peculiarity.