dormant_dragon: Sleepy Stan from 'All Yesterdays' (Default)
[personal profile] dormant_dragon
This evening I have been inspired by this article, by The Philosopher and the Wolf author Mark Rowlands, to consider the subject of the consciousness of nonhuman animals and whether they can be said to exhibit any form of morality. You'll notice right away that I avoid the dichotomy of speaking of 'humans' and 'animals' as two distinct categories - of course I recognise that we humans are animals, as a matter of biological fact; and based upon my own experience, we have far more in common with other animal species than many people seem comfortable acknowledging.

From my earliest days, my life has been spent in the company of nonhuman animals. When I was born, it was into an immediate family that consisted of my then-three-year-old brother, my parents and their beagle, Angus. There was never any question that Angus was a member of the family; though my actual memories of him are rather vague and nebulous, like all my memories from my first few years, looking back I know that at some level, I was aware that Angus was one of us. I have pretty much been a 'dog person' from birth, and an 'animal lover' all my life. Indeed, there are times when I explicitly prefer the company of my furred, four-footed cousins to that of my own species. I think it's fair to say, then, that I do not approach the subject of nonhuman animal consciousness with the same aloofness as someone like Peter Singer, who acknowledges in the original preface to Animal Liberation that he feels no particular sentimental attachment to other animals; though I am inclined to agree with his argument that one ought not to need such attachment in order to deplore any treatment of nonhuman animals that ignores their needs and interests as fellow sentient beings.

To my way of thinking, it ought to be obvious to anyone who has ever had any interaction with other animals that they are, after their various fashions, thinking, feeling beings who behave purposefully. Yet throughout human history, at least in the West, they have, for the most part, been treated and spoken of as objects, as possessions, as means to ends rather than ends in themselves. Indeed, I believe it is still customary, in formal English discourse, to refer to any nonhuman animal as an 'it'. Perhaps there has been an element of necessity involved in this - considering the way humans have treated other animals over the centuries, it might be less distressing to suppose that they don't experience pleasure or suffering as we humans do, if at all; although the way humans often treat each other would seem to give the lie to this interpretation.

Apart from the weight of history and custom, the other great bedeviller of any discussion about nonhuman animal consciousness and behaviour is the spectre of anthropomorphism - to make any inference about how other animals might think or feel automatically leaves one open to the accusation that to do so is to incorrectly invest them with human characteristics, as though humans somehow have a monopoly on intellect and emotion. As far as I am concerned, it is just as unhelpful to suppose that other animals only act on instinct and biomechanical programming as it is to imagine that all human behaviour is the product of thoughtful reflection and consideration. Much as I despise the concept of human exceptionalism, I also think there are times when anthropomorphism can be taken too far. It won't do to consider other animals as if they were human - to do so would be to ignore the unique context in which their thoughts and feelings occur, how they have been shaped by their particular environments and evolutionary histories. To really respect another being, one must meet them where they're at. Sure, they might not think and feel like we do, but that does not mean their thoughts and feelings are absent.

This is the way I like to observe our own nonhuman companions. This evening, our two cats have been facing off against each other. They've never been friends, as such; but they have reached an accommodation of sorts. Yuki, whom we've had since she was a tiny kitten, has always been the queen in our household. Jellicle, our foster-cat, she has always seen as an interloper. It seems to us that Yuki has been working to maintain her dominant position and thus keeping Jellicle's ambition in check. Does this sound anthropomorphic? Perhaps so. Yet consider the fact that this is merely our human interpretation of the complex array of behaviours the two cats have been exhibiting. Much of it we don't know how to read - there is a whole language of gesture, gaze, posture, scent-laying, food- and territory-claiming that we simply don't understand, so of course our assessment of the relationship dynamic between them is painted with a very broad brush. Yet I have never felt the slightest doubt that there is emotion and thought going on behind our cats' behaviour. The only thing that could possibly make me suppose their actions to be purely mechanical and informed only by instinct from moment to moment is acceptance of the notion that thoughts and feelings are an exclusively human province. In the face of the varied and intricate set of cat behaviours we witness on a daily basis, it seems not just counterintuitive but highly artificial to simply reject out of hand the possibility that they have conscious experience.

To me, it seems self-evident that other animals think and feel, if not in precisely the same ways humans think and feel - how could they be the same when their actual experience of living in the world is obviously different from our own? - but what of the question of morality? Do other animals exhibit the capacity for ethical behaviour? It's certainly clear that some, particularly the social species, demonstrate altruism, even if only towards kin and offspring; but it also seems likely, from an evolutionary perspective, that human moral behaviour had its origins in the same kinds of modest demonstrations of care for others. Mark Rowlands, in the article I referenced above, wonders if the patient tolerance and apparent concern displayed by his two dogs towards his baby son could be called moral. Maybe there was not much, if any, conscious calculation in the dogs' behaviour; some human philosophers might insist that without a conscious decision to behave morally, morality as such is not present - behaviour is just what it is, whether it looks like moral behaviour or not. It's the thought and intention behind them - the calculation - that turn mere actions into moral or immoral actions. The misanthrope in me, I freely admit, finds great satisfaction in Rowlands' thesis from The Philosopher and the Wolf - that the innate nastiness and deceitfulness of the ape is what made it necessary for us to develop morality in the first place, to keep our wicked natures in check, to turn our capacity for calculation to less destructively selfish ends.

It's at this point that I find it worthwhile to draw some comparisons. Late last year we adopted a rescue dog, Max. His behaviour and demeanour when we brought him home suggested to us that he had come from an abusive background. So we lavished attention and love on him, and gradually it seemed that he was coming to trust us and feel affection towards us. A few months into his residence with us, he killed one of our cats, Spooty. Whilst I was understandably horrified and distraught, Max seemed not at all conscious of having done anything wrong, as such, even when I locked him in the garage for the night, simply because I couldn't stand to look at him after what he had done. The next day, when I let him out, he seemed as happy to see me as he'd ever been. I found that I just couldn't blame him for his behaviour - clearly he had a strong prey drive that had been triggered by seeing Spooty run from him. I justified his behaviour to myself, and it was primarily for the practical purpose of keeping Yuki safe that I brought him back to the shelter from which we had adopted him. In this instance, I think it's fair to say that Max didn't know he had done anything wrong or unacceptable - I doubt very much that any of it was premeditated in any way. But does this mean that he was in all other ways incapable of the kind of caring behaviour that might be considered a primitive form of morality? I couldn't say so with any confidence. His actions were, after all, no different to those of a human hunter who is infused with the thrill of the chase. Humans can be similarly overcome by emotional excitement - even our legal system recognises the existence of crimes of passion.

At the end of the day, it might simply be the case that the differences between humans and other animals, in terms of moral capacity, are differences of degree rather than of kind. Much as many of us have an innate sense of empathy and altruism, consciously moral behaviour, I am convinced, is learned behaviour. I see examples all around me and in the news of human behaviour that makes me marvel that any person could possibly imagine such actions to be acceptable, yet it seems there's no limit to what some humans might do if they think they can get away with it; and the only difference between me and those other people is our upbringing and social environment. Other animals are not greatly different to us in that regard - they can be taught to behave in ways that look remarkably similar to the exercise of morality, whether or not they understand any actions in terms of 'right' and 'wrong'. It's true they are propelled by instinct and raw desire - but so are we, to a much greater extent than we often seem to appreciate. Sometimes we simply do the right thing because it feels right, whether from an innate sense of justice or because of social conditioning. Is that moral behaviour or just...behaviour, plain and simple? Ultimately, I wonder if we can simply say that morality is as morality does.
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