Monday, May 24, 2010


It takes a sincere effort to understand someone else. We may think that we understand them, but all we are really doing is interpreting their experiences through the filter of our own. It is even more difficult to understand the life of someone who we have never met, or the life of a different species. I'm not any kind of an expert, so all of my understanding is based only on my own assumptions and observations. Nevertheless, I try to understand other creatures. I try to understand what they want and need and fear. I want to know what motivates them and what makes them happy, or if that is too anthropomorphic of a concept, at least what makes them content.

I don't think that the world has anything to teach us. I don't believe in any kind of duality; humans don't have souls and no dogs (or whales, cats, chimps, or pigs) go to heaven. As I have said before, humans are not more valuable than mosquitoes or squirrels. We are simply more capable of asserting our will. All of this does not mean that morality is irrelevant. In a cosmic way, I suppose, morality is irrelevant, but on a global scale - and certainly on a social scale - it is very important. As you all know, I have been trying to sort out my moral philosophy on this blog. It is a very difficult thing to do because the more honest I am with myself, the more inconvenient I find morality to be. It is easy to give up eating meat, but then do I give up eggs and milk? Do I also give up leather? For those who are curious, I do not buy leather products if I can avoid it (I usually can) and I do still consume eggs and milk (and the occasional fish) but I try my best to buy from local sources whose animals are treated with respect and given comfort (it does bother me a bit, to be honest)

As is the case with many ideas, I found the subject of animal intelligence coming up repeatedly in conversation. Animals are dumb. That seems, on the surface, to be an objective fact. Some animals are more clever and adaptable than others (crows, chimps, and everyone's own dog are good examples) but since none of them have a real language and cannot communicate with humans, we are clearly more intelligent. And yet the fact that humans have a larger capacity for understanding does not mean that we have more rights than others. Take squirrels for an example. They are manic and unpredictable, dashing out into streets right in front of cars. Sometimes they cross the street safely only to double back and get killed. To us this looks like complete foolishness. How could they not know better? I may be speaking only for myself, but I subconsciously think of our history with squirrels and know that they have all grown up with cars as a fact of life and should have figured out not to cross the street in front of them. And this, I think, is where understanding comes in. A squirrel does not know what cars are or what they are capable of doing. Although squirrels and automobiles have coexisted for decades, that is nowhere near enough time for them to develop any kind of evolutionary understanding of them. And I don't know for sure, but I imagine that when a squirrel heads into the street in front of a car, it is terrified. Bugs caught behind windows buzz against the glass because they simply cannot understand why they are unable to pass the barrier. 

So what? I don't intend that we should stop driving cars for the sake of the squirrels. I would encourage everyone to slow down and try not to hit them, but that is all. What I do want is for us to try to understand the perspective of animals who do not understand the world around them. Intelligence is not a reasonable category to judge worth. Non-human animals necessarily do the best that they can with the understanding that they have. If they do not perform to the best of their abilities they die.

This kind of consciousness raising is difficult and painful. At some point I am going to have to stop trying to empathize because it will reduce me to complete immobility. I can't drive past roadkill without thinking of the confusion and fear that animal must have felt when it found itself on a roadway surrounded by cars. I don't want to buy leather, I don't want to hit squirrels or kill spiders. I even give mosquitoes a kinder eye before I kill them. It's a slippery slope and it is a good deal easier not to care or think about what goes on around you.


emma wallace said...

Hmm... I always think it's odd to talk of animals in terms of being dumb, as though there's some kind of standard of hierarchy of intelligence (not value, of course).

My cat can sense when a storm is coming, when lightning will strike, moments before it actually happens. She can even identify our yard guys' truck when it's blocks down the street! Your dogs have intuitions and senses we can't fathom.

I think you're right when you say we're more able to assert our will, but I don't know that I'd say that makes us more intelligent.

Ed said...

>And yet the fact that humans have a larger capacity for understanding does not mean that we have more rights than others.Take squirrels for an example. They are manic and unpredictable, dashing out into streets right in front of cars. Sometimes they cross the street safely only to double back and get killed. To us this looks like complete foolishness. How could they not know better?< I agree, and in the above passage I found myself replacing "squirrels" with "children". Obviously children don't often "cross the street safely only to double back" but they (and teens) regularly engage in behaviors that on the surface may look nonsensical to an able minded fully developed adult. Tom Regan refers to children and animals as moral patients (something that must be cared for) and developed, normally abled, adults as moral agents. We still must respect and care for moral patients, even though they themselves are incapable of participating in the moral community.

Emma mentioned animal difference and intelligence and I thought she might appreciate thisprecepts. It is compassion and "doing the best one can" (no matter that it continually falls short) that keeps one going when faced with the impossible task of eliminating suffering.

Ed said...

hmm my html made errors- here is the link I thought Emma might like http://www.msnbc.

Ed said...

Then the last bit I wrote which got mutilated by my html, said most of your post reminds me of the difficulty Buddhists are faced with when attempting to uphold the precepts. with a link to this