Humans and non-human animals are similar in important respects. Should these similarities influence our moral relationship with these creatures?
“A dog believes his master is at the door. But can he also believe that he will come the day after tomorrow?” -L. Wittgenstein.
“We know that animals are like us in many ways — in terms of their evolution, their genetic structure, the structure of their brains, and their behaviour. Given these known similarities, when we see animals behaving in ways that seem to be similar to the ways we behave, then do not assume a difference in motivation unless there is some evidence that supports this difference. ”
Non-human animals are not like us; yet neither are they so different. The memetic thread of anthropocentrism is increasingly tenuous, and in our own time we see it unravelling quicker and quicker with unparalleled haste. Surely, animals, when faced with an ethical dilemma, do not say, “I am inclined to drag my companion to safety. Is this an inclination I should act upon or ignore?” Yet, in many similar instances, can we claim to do so ourselves? The metric by which we judge a being’s moral significance must not be its ability to engage in higher forms of reasoning–lest we should neglect a significant portion of our homo sapien siblings.
Further, recent psychology suggests that higher reasoning is inaccessible even to humans: factors over which I have no control or of which I am unaware skew my cognition, and we are faced with a problem of regress : “the ability to engage in critical scrutiny of my motivations will give me control over them only if I have control over the critical scrutiny.”
So–if we cannot ascribe moral behaviours to intention, then from where shall we derive our criterion of moral significance? And what has this to do with animals? “On one account of morality, our natural sentiments — the empathy and sympathy we have for those around us — are basic components of our biological nature. Our morality is rooted in our biology rather than our intellect, is as much animal as it is intellectual.”
We must humble ourselves before the fact of our agential impotence, and develop a morality founded on the values of compassion, pity, and sympathy, for all beings–for we are much closer to them than our pride bears to admit.
Quotations from ‘The Kindness of Beasts‘ hosted by Aeon Magazine: