Acting Like Animals

» January 10th, 2013


I don’t fully believe what I’m preparing to propose here, but some very intelligent people do so I want to put it out there. Plus, I’ve been wrong more than a time or two and have deep respect for the power of unintended consequences. Finally, as someone who happens to be quite comfortable doing nothing more for animals than reading, writing, and thinking about them, this task of second guessing conventional claims hits the bullseye (apologies) of my comfort zone. So here’s the idea: by collapsing the species barrier in an effort to treat animals with due moral consideration, we may—in our intimate interaction with them—justify the adoption of animal habits that would be atrocious for the prospects of human decency.

I don’t know. It sounds crazy. But think it through. Animal rights advocates work hard to create porous boundaries between humans and non-humans—especially relatively intelligent invertebrates. A primary justification for doing so is the hope that, in tearing down these walls of separation, humans will incorporate animals into our circle of compassion and treat them with appropriate dignity and respect for their ability to suffer as sentient creatures. Very rarely do we wonder, however, about the influences animals might have on humans if, indeed, the boundaries between us and them were made more fluid. The bad influences, that is.

Yes, yes, animals can be altruistic and cooperative—I get that. But they can also be, sorry, “animals.” They can, in other words, adhere to a vicious form of justice and retribution, one admittedly unmarked by free-will, but still marked by violence, survivalism of the fittest, and blatant prejudices rooted in biological realities. Humans have spent a great deal of history striving to wean ourselves away from racism, sexism, violence, and other forms of maltreatment that degrade the potential of our species. What if animals—the beings to whom we want to intermingle with in the realm of moral equality—offered us an excuse to indulge in what we have worked so hard as humans to minimize? What if they erased our progress, as it were?

I know many people—most of then warped by institutional thought—for whom any door even slightly opened to the prospects of “animal behavior” would be one that they’d charge through like a rhino. Most of them are gun toting Republicans who have to work hard to repress their racism while seeking to abolish all vestiges of the welfare state—but I digress. Actually, I don’t. In any case, I think there is a lot to contemplate when it comes to the impact animals might have on humans in a world that many animal rights advocates want to see emerge. At the least, we need to consider how our coevolution with animals in a post-speciesist environment would look like before we put our shoulder behind this idea and push it into the public forum. As usual, I’m just thinking out loud here, which is mostly what I do, but I do think much of what we envision happening as we meld with animals is a lot of magical thinking. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


28 Responses to Acting Like Animals

  1. John T. Maher says:

    Darwin was pnto this thought 160 years ago “differences in degree not kind’ of course his vision was one thing but his critical thinking was polluted by his Christian faith. “Humans have spent a great deal of history striving to wean ourselves away from racism, sexism, violence, and other forms of maltreatment that degrade the potential of our species.” — really James? A sad cultural illusion you buy into which is as much “institutional thought” (doctrine) as what any gun toting Republican is told to think. When you study human consciousness you realize these things take other forms. The reducio ad absurdum of this very worthy and interesting line of thought you bring on is that such an ethical standard justifies human conceptions of: rape, cannibalism, killing, infanticide and eating with one’s toes — much as beta versions of human’s did. The difference is as unbounded interspecies beings we would cease to define and view the disconcerting acts of which you write in the same way. I guess I am for it as just about anything would be an improvement on the presently constituted humanity. 3 good posts in a row James, keep ‘em coming

  2. Lori says:

    What animals do in survival situations is often very different from what they do as pets or captives or when food sources are abundant. However, they are usually “aethical” in their actions. Animals are not empty of empathy of empathetic actions, but I doubt these action are based on a sense of morality. We humans do seem to be the only animals capable of religion and moralizing and making decisions based purely on those notions. (Or am I wrong on this?) So I don’t see the real point of this line of inquiry, unless it’s in relation to the omnivore’s constant argument that because animals kill other beings to survive, why shouldn’t we kill them?

    • John T. Maher says:

      Evocations of post humanism in your post. Interesting idea you raise about animals and religion. PH says animals have agency and must therefore have ethics. A grad student contacted me about animals and religion (I have no idea why anyone would contact me about this) and I think he just recd his doctorate based upon that the thesis that animals do have religion, so you are on the cutting edge of something

      I thought there would be a great deal of eco feminist perspectives on this but no one has posted.

      • Lori says:

        Interesting on all fronts. I’m certainly intrigued by the idea that animals may have or at least display some kind of religion. As for morals or ethics, an article I read years ago about the “lab” Gorilla Koko, described how she had lied to the human about something she had done (I think tearing up her doll) to get out of trouble. As a matter of fact, she said she hadn’t done it (though she’s on camera so they knew she did) and even blamed it on someone else. That certainly indicates a wrong vs. right understanding. Or perhaps she just knew that the particular behavior she had displayed would be frowned upon by the human, much like my dogs knows they are not supposed to run out into the street from simple repetitive training.

        As for an ecofeminist comment…it is interesting that no thoughts on the subject came to mind. However, now that you mention it, it is very related isn’t it?

    • Mountain says:

      I thought it was clear by now that we– humans– are NOT capable of acting purely on the basis of religion or morality. I don’t mean to deny that they can have some effect on some of our decisions, but I thought neuroscience had shown clearly that our rational thinking is primarily about justifying decisions after the fact, not influencing the actual decision-making process. If I’m wrong about this, please inform me.

      • Lori says:

        Well, I suspect it’s highly individual.

      • Lori says:

        BTW, what about this scenario: I want/like half-and-half with my coffee–it tastes the best to me by far. But I don’t have it because of moral/ethical considerations. That doesn’t seem to be a process of my rational thinking justifying my decisions after the fact.

  3. Rucio says:

    To break down barriers does not mean to stop respecting differences.

    The fact is that humans have long (always, probably) used other animals to justify our behavior, so there’s little chance of that getting worse. Instead, in recognizing other animals as unique and complete beings with as much right as ourselves to live on their own terms, we might take more responsibility for our own behavior as uniquely human.

    Of course, that could be just as bad. After all, any system — religion, government, etc. — is only as good or bad as the people involved in it. But at least we might leave other animals out of it.

  4. Taylor says:

    Some thoughts on this subject: “Electric Sheep and the New Argument from Nature”, pp. 177-193.

    • Lori says:

      Thanks for posting this. It’s a great piece.

    • CQ says:

      Thanks for linking us to your essay. I didn’t realize until now that you, Angus Taylor (featured in with your permission), are the commenter “Taylor”! What you wrote does indeed tie in with James’ musings in this post.

      And in it you’ve unwittingly supplied James with a fictional antidote to the depressing drones: Philip Kindred Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (see the previous post “Perspective” to understand what I’m saying).

      James, our desire meld with animals may seem like “magical thinking” — loony thinking to many — but I prefer to see it as moral thinking. And I have to believe that as humans evolve morally, both individually and collectively, our nonhuman friends will follow suit.

      There’s no reason for anyone of any species to remain stuck in “animalistic” traits. I think that just as humans learn to overcome carnivorous thinking and behavior — granted, it will take centuries of gradual advancement — so, too, can other creatures. Why restrain or limit them by insisting that they are biologically predetermined and predisposed to be a certain way? Why not think of cross-contamination or contagion as the rubbing off on one another of good, of progress, of morality?

      Ten years ago, who would have thought that dogs would be happy and healthy eating vegan food! Yet more and more of them are thriving on V-Dog and Nature’s Balance and Evolution.

      Soon, the barrier we’ve erected between cats and vegan fare will fall (well, it has already started toppling). That will be one less argument in defense of carnivorism being a “law” that must be obeyed.

      If we are actually mental constructs, with our real, enduring substance consisting of our good thoughts and feelings — our biology, including brain, simply manifesting, or living out, those thoughts and feelings (which is what I believe is the case) — then there’s nothing holding back all beings from advancing beyond our seemingly set-in-stone predatory nature, our so-called brutish or bestial behavior. Again, I’m talking centuries. Centuries of improving our consciousness. Centuries of de-materializing our perspective, our perceptions, our lives.

      Since I’m fully aware that these concepts don’t resonate with all vegans, much less with most carnists, I’ll offer a metaphor. Those of us who are awake and alert early in the morning see the sun come up. It’s not just a new calendar day, it’s a new period for new ideas to unfold, new actions to be taken, new growth to take place. Ideas, like light, have always existed, but each day reveals more of them — brings them out from under cover of darkness. And that’s how I think our moral evolution happens. With our animal friends being equal beneficiaries of that light.

  5. Lori says:

    After some thought and reading, I feel I need to clarify my statement above when I said, “I didn’t see the point of this line of inquiry…” I was completely wrong. It is a very important one indeed. I think my point was more that whether we act like animals or they act like us, or whether we are the only animals who can morally reason or not, does not change our moral obligations to non-humans anymore than it does to humans. The bottom line is that we ARE moral animals and we must act morally and for the best (or at least good) interest of all. Although what is the “best interest” can be certainly debatable, I can’t imagine anyone successfully arguing that exploiting animals (especially when this exploitation leads to suffering) is in the animal’s best interest.

  6. Karen Harris says:

    The problem with this line of thinking is that is equates granting animals equal moral status with melding with them. Animal rights theory has never attempted to level all of the differences between humans and animals, but rather demands that we stop attaching superior moral significance to human behaviors and abilities. The issue of whether or not animals are moral is a complex one – I would personally suggest that they are in every sense of the word. A wonderful book on the subject is Gary Steiner’s “Animals and the Moral Community.”
    Finally, the notion that humans have moved away from racism, sexism,and violence is refuted every time I pick up a newspaper.
    On a slightly different topic, did anyone happen to read about the new mega study that just came out refuting the fact that obesity is bad for you! I can’t help but think that the beef and dairy industries are somehow behind it.
    I fear it could be a real set back for the animals.

    • Lori says:

      Yes, I agree with your post.

      As for the new “study,” if one reads the actual study and the author’s comments, we learn that it’s not as cut and dry as the media is portraying it to be. It doesn’t comment on morbidity, but just mortality. In addition, the author states that the significance of this study is not clear and that it is highly possible that the slight increase in life duration from being slightly overweight (the study does not conclude obese people live longer) may be simply because these overweight people are being treated more for chronic conditions associated with their weight, and therefore are getting early intervention and early detection for acute illnesses.

  7. Mountain says:

    This animal (me) can’t help but be amused that another animal (James), whose primary purpose in this blog is to break down or overcome tribalism, can’t get through an entire post without throwing a completely irrelevant jab at tribes of “others”– gun owners, Republicans, and gun-owning Republicans. It is every bit as dissonant as an animal rights advocate giving a presentation while wearing leather or eating fried chicken.

    • carolyn z says:

      Gun owners and Republicans are not Others because they are not an oppressed social group. How insulting to the very concept of The Other–a concrete philosophical idea regarding domination. Animals, women, people of color, and colonized people are Others. Republicans and gun owners are not. In fact they basically rule the world and should be called out on it.

      • Mountain says:

        How interesting that you have the power to decide who is and isn’t an oppressed social group. Though I am neither a Republican nor a gun owner, I know some– I’ll be sure to let them that no matter what the ruling majorities decide for them, it can’t be considered oppression.

        I don’t suppose you know much about the history of the Scots-Irish, do you? Though they are hardly the only gun owners or Republicans in America, they have a strong culture of gun ownership and they tend to be more Republican than the population at large.

        They came to America, by and large, in response to British colonization of their home lands (does that mean they get to be Others, since they have in fact been colonized). They largely settled along the Appalachians, unwelcome in the flat coastal areas where people of English descent owned large slave plantations. Living on small, hilly homesteads far from “civilization” and the protection of the state, they had to protect themselves. They’ve never been the ruling social group in America, let alone the world.

        So, what exactly should they be called out on?

      • Mountain says:

        ps– I hope it’s clear just how offensive your claim is. Gun owners very clearly are “others” to you, unable to exist as anything other than a stereotype. Many women are gun owners, and view guns as a great equalizer, since men are generally larger and stronger. Many people of color are gun owners, since many live in neighborhoods where police protection is non-existent, or so slow it’s useless. And I know enough history to understand how often colonized people have used guns to fight back against their colonizers.

  8. Lori says:

    James, just saw the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Completely apropos to your post. And brings up some important questions: Does poverty render animal rights irrelevant? And, like the criticisms of the women’s movement, are animal rights a luxury of the white, middle and upper classes?

    • Karen Harris says:

      The questions posed are so anthropocentric.
      The right of non-human sentient beings to live their lives is not a luxury accorded to privileged humans. Rather, is should be viewed as an inherent right independent of the desires or beliefs of humans.

      • Lori says:

        It is a luxury for those who are struggling to find their next meal. The last thing on their minds is animal rights. Which begs the question, should vegans be actively working to alleviate poverty? I’m talking practicalities here.

        • Mountain says:

          Of course vegans should be working to alleviate poverty, since everyone should working to alleviate poverty. Whether being vegan creates any ethical obligation to alleviate poverty is beyond my ability to evaluate.

          • Lori says:

            That’s what I meant. Does being a vegan create an ethical obligation, on top of just plan empathy for the poor, in order to help alleviate the animal suffering caused by people who live in poverty. And is this elitist?

          • Mountain says:

            I don’t know about an obligation, but if you are serious about ending the suffering of sentient beings, the suffering of humans is one kind of suffering. Of course, there are far more animals suffering, so numerically, one’s efforts might be better spent there. Then again, efforts at alleviating the suffering of humans might be more likely to succeed. Don’t know that there’s a clear answer.

    • Lori says:

      BTW, one of the main themes of the movie, that takes place in the rural South, is that there is no line between humans and animals. The little girl’s “teacher” tells the children that “We are all meat.” And when the father makes dinner for the child he yells out “feeding time.” For these poor people who live basically off the land (and some farm animals who run around loose and live with the humans), they are part of the food chain in every sense.

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