Animals, Humans and Moral Purpose

by Bruce Walker

The frontiers of animal research are discovering that some animals think more critically and feel much more deeply than previously believed. Although this research should be taken with a grain of salt - ideology, sadly trumps science these days - these studies of animal behavior also confirm generally accepted ideas of grief, love, fear and sociability which predate the scientific method, and blend well with common sense.

Chimpanzees, octopuses, parrots, whales, elephants and dolphins may comprehend a great deal more than people have assumed. These animals may also have a range of emotional depth more powerful than those domestic canines and felines with whom humans feel most at home. They may recall and nurse psychic wounds, and they may cognate at levels that would have seemed impossible a few decades ago.

The conclusion that homo sapiens is simply an animal substantially the same as other animals, however, is premature and may be intellectually dishonest. The bond of self-sacrifice and the awareness of death which smart animals appear to grasp is qualitatively different in several key ways from homo sapiens as a creature, and from the civilization that this special creature has invented.

Animals demonstrate those unselfish emotions which make them seem so like humans only in the company of humans (who demonstrate those feelings themselves), or in the company of their own species. Coyotes may well remember and mourn the death of a pack member, but coyotes experience no sense of remorse or conscience when killing the young offspring of prey.

Humans, in contrast, have adopted behaviors which run counter to self-preservation for reasons that are wholly ethical. Hindu metaphysics have embraced various forms of vegetarianism for millennia. The Kosher killing of animals is based, at least in part, upon reducing or eliminating the pain of the livestock. Zoroastrianism, perhaps the first religion of ethical monotheism, makes moral distinctions based upon the treatment of animals.

Moreover, homo sapiens in a primitive and preliterate condition still seem to have an empathy for the death and suffering of animals which is simply absent from the nonhuman animal world. Amerindians of the Great Plains, for example, consciously chose not to kill more than they needed - behavior that wolves, lions and hyenas do instinctively, but not intentionally. The natives of the Kalahari, who closely approach man as nothing more than a naked ape, apologize to the animal which they kill for sustenance.

The argument that man has also been sadistic in treatment of animals merely reinforces the proposition that humans, unlike other creatures, have a capacity for compassion and cruelty that transcends the boundaries of species.

Nature does not seem to have prescribed a particularly gentle way for one species to kill another. The efficacy of the killing - not its speed or painlessness - is critical for pure survival. The term "humane" may involve subconscious hubris by homo sapiens, but the term is nonetheless descriptive. Life above a certain level exists at the expense of other life. Notions of "fairness" or "mercy" or "conservation" simply do not exist in the minds of any other creatures that our species has discovered.

The narrowness of animal life compared with human civilization extends beyond the species line. Nonhuman animals all seem drenched in the sort of tribalism and xenophobia that makes Hitler's anti-Semitism or medieval Japan seem positively tolerant. The "otherness" that has caused humans to commit genocide is considered normal - even endearing - in nature.

Territoriality is deeply ingrained in the behavior of almost all intelligent animals. Except for limited purposes of procreation, which sometimes appears indistinguishable from what people would call rape, those animals genetically closest to our species view tribal differences in scent, appearance, and family tree as matters justifying the animal equivalent of street fighting.

This aggression is hardly alien to homo sapiens, but it is almost universally condemned as counterproductive, unethical and limiting. The human capacity to see beyond family, tribe, and racial appearance did not make our species more intelligent than our primate cousins, but it did enable us to use our superior minds to create systems to improve our health, extend our lives, preserve our accomplishments for future generations, and appreciate the beauty and charm of lesser animals.

The hidden tug of pseudo-ideologies which proclaim scientific and metaphysical "proof" of the equality of all life are themselves throwbacks to prehistory and perhaps even to protohuman dullness. Hitler is the most famous example of a frightened creature yearning for the security of the bestial womb.

Feminism displays the same reaction to reason which the earliest human cultures had overcome long, long ago. The radical Arabist form of Islam likewise views much of the world as "life unworthy of life." The ranting and raving of Louis Farrakhan about white devils created by space aliens is likewise so ridiculous that the abdication of serious thought is the prerequisite for listening to these absurdities.

What is conspicuously absent from these perspectives on human existence is the much maligned process of discrimination. Although our power to discriminate has become in modern parlance synonymous with bigotry, discrimination is actually a high virtue which like any virtue may become at times a vice. A discriminating mind can distinguish between the noble and the ignoble behavior of individuals who are not part of the family or the tribe.

Discrimination creates individuals who are creatures sui generis. It empowers us to find areas of commonality which the parochial view of dolphins and primates cannot perceive. This ability allows us to connect with pets, and to make pets as individuals part of our world. Through discrimination, we can analyze, compare and judge that vast mass of past events which we call history, and to consider species higher than ourselves in science fiction stories.

Most critically, as technology allows our species to unravel more and more puzzles of reality and so acquire also great power, discrimination allows us to develop and maintain ethical principles. Since very early history, we have considered whether the might of the Athenians compared to the people of Melos made right. We have pondered whether Epicurean enjoyment of life was superior to Stoic acceptance of fate, or whether it was the other way around.

We can use the tool of discrimination to dissect thought, emotion, behavior and expression with an implied goal of refinement. Light readers of history so often overlook this major theme in human thought. Adam Smith, for example, is tagged as simply a good economist. This would have surprised and disappointed Smith, whose magnum opus was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and whose academic chair was in Moral Philosophy.

Philosophers with utterly antipathetical viewpoints, like Ayn Rand and David Hume, both of whom in different fashions challenged the notion of transcendent morality, still focused enormous time, energy and study into the nature of individual ethics. Dystopian novelists like Orwell in 1984, Huxley in Brave New World, and Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 each painted a landscape of Hell in which human beings lived lives of animals.

The courage to wander beyond the boundaries of species and clan requires a vision unknown in the animal kingdom. It is inherently "antisocial" because it rejects the notion that a group which replaces one alpha male with another alpha male is simply conforming to a natural good, and instead wants to know much more. It is also the root of all the art, science, and morality which we naked apes have created. Before melding our identity into that of the animal kingdom, humans should consider the cost of abdicating individual consciousness, and with that abdication, all hope of moral purpose.

Return to Port Of Call Home Page
Return to August/September 2002 Table of Contents