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Turning The Tables: We Matter Because We Are Animals
by Joel Marks
Recent times have seen an ever-increasing interest in our similarity to other great apes and ultimately to all other animals. While sometimes this research has been motivated by sheer curiosity, it also forms a backdrop to a heightening moral concern about other animals. Earlier philosophical efforts tried to establish human uniqueness by distinguishing us from other animals: for example, Aristotle took us to be the rational animal, and Descartes highlighted our language ability. The new research program seeks to establish the opposite thesis of the moral considerability of other animals by demonstrating their similarity to us. Sometimes the similarity is found at the genetic level, where human and animal genomes turn out to be much more alike than different. At other times the similarity is found at the everyday level, such as the sentience, emotions, and even cognitive abilities we share with many other creatures. Such common characteristics are taken to warrant according other animals the same (or a similar) kind of moral regard and treatment we owe to our fellow humans.
But while well-intentioned, the new program is, I maintain, just as misguided as the earlier one, for two reasons. The first is that all animals, ourselves included, matter ‘in themselves’ – that is, for being whatever they are. Other animals do not require demonstrating their similarity to any other animal in order to possess their own intrinsic value, any more than we do. Just as surely as a human is a human is a human, a mouse is a mouse is a mouse. Why would anyone have thought that a mouse needed to be human in order to merit moral consideration? In part no doubt this attitude is attributable to simple bias or narcissism or arrogance: it is an extension of egotism to think that one’s kind, however that might be identified – whether by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc ad inf, and in this case by species – is superior to all others.
But a more reasoned explanation can also be given. Morality is sometimes thought of as a kind of unwritten contract whereby one’s security is buttressed by agreeing to certain constraints and obligations owed mutually to and by others who are similarly vulnerable. Thus, since we all can be harmed by others, we agree not to harm one another; since we can all benefit from the assistance of others, we agree to aid one another; and so forth. But obviously an agreement of that sort can only be entered into by beings who are as rational and cognitively well-endowed as we humans are. Therefore our moral concern extends only to other humans. There is nothing to be gained by keeping a promise to a mouse. Even if the mouse could benefit, it has no way of reciprocating.
However, if morality is not a business deal, but is conceived instead as arising from the relation between moral agents and other beings who have intrinsic worth or dignity, then there does not seem to be any obvious reason to deny moral regard to beings just because they happen not to be capable of being moral agents. In other words, there could be so-called moral patients (as Tom Regan calls them), whose moral status is determined not by their being moral agents, but by something else. Any pet owner understands this implicitly, when it is a matter of what kind of care is owed the animal who lives under her roof. One does not feed one’s cat only out of kindness, but also obligation (or the kindness may itself be one’s obligation). If the cat fails to ‘return the favor’ and maintains her aloofness, one is not justified in ignoring her or dumping her into the river – no more so than if your child did not thank you for the meals you prepared for her, day in and day out. Perhaps one gets pleasure from observing the cat’s behavior; but this mere accident of one’s interests is not a sufficient account of one’s responsibilities to the cat, even if it might explain why one purchased or adopted her in the first place.
Another way the intrinsic valuing of pets is revealed, is in the Westerner’s typical reaction to the eating of dogs in other cultures. What seems wrong about that consumption is precisely the treatment of the animal merely as a means to an end and not an end-in-itself. It is exceedingly curious, then, that humans, Westerners or otherwise, feel no obligation to the pig – an equally intelligent and lovable animal – whom they not only eat but treat, or allow to be treated, cruelly its livelong days, until its mercifully premature (and gruesome) demise. The moral worth of a being should depend on the nature of the being and not on our attitude towards it. (I made an analogous point about the nature of other beings and our interdependency in the last issue.)
The second reason I reject the moral pretensions of any research program that seeks to discover human traits in other animals is that it gets the direction of dependence (somewhat) backwards. For it is not that other animals matter insofar as they are human-like, but rather that human beings matter because we are animals. The ‘something else’ I alluded to above that makes a being morally considerable is, it seems to me, that it has interests – that it cares about things, that it values certain things. We might put it this way: a thing matters insofar as things matter to it.
Admittedly that slogan trades on an equivocation between ‘mattering’ in the moral sense and ‘mattering’ in the psychological sense. But I think there is a meaningful equivalence underlying this equivocation. It is because the cat cares about eating and staying warm and not being stepped on – because she values these things, because these things matter to her – that the cat has some kind of moral purchase on beings, such as us, who are capable of responding to her concerns. I do not mean to say that any valuer is thereby entitled to be given whatever she wants – only that her being a valuer gives her the right to have her values considered by beings capable of doing so.
To complete my argument: so far as we know, the only valuers are animals, and all animals are valuers. Therefore animals move to the center of what ethics is all about. The discussion of nonhuman animals turns out to be not some special issue of ‘applied ethics’, but rather part of ethics’ core (we human animals are the rest of it). I would say, then, that ethics is animal ethics.
© Joel Marks 2008
Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. More of his essays can be found at moralandothermoments.blogspot.com.