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Animal Consciousness.

Animal Consciousness.

The debate over the place of animals in ethical, philosophical, and religious discourse has reached a pitch not seen since the late nineteenth century. Viewing animals as creatures sharing many physical, behavioral, and mental attributes with people is Darwin's major legacy. Those who oppose evolution on religious grounds have almost always done so in the belief that it would lead to immoral behavior by people. Interestingly, many leading humanistic intellectuals suspect the same outcome of an embrace of the full implications of mental continuity. In contrast, the two books under review, among many other recent writings, suggest that while the supposed degrading impact of accepting evolutionary thinking has had no demonstrable effect on human behavior, not fully accepting evolutionary thinking has given license, if not active support, to cruel, if not immoral behavior toward animals. More generally the major message of both books is that how animals are treated in inescapably a moral issue tied to many assumptions about people, mentality, suffering, science, values, and the nature of the relationship among all organisms in our biosphere.

Both books emphasize animal consciousness and are written by philosophers. Both cover historical aspects of how animals have been viewed and treated in Western philosophy and science plus historical and recent developments in animal psychology and ethology, and both criticize the way animals are and have been treated. Nonetheless, the two books contrast sharply in the style and substance.

The Radners' book should really be titled "Animal Mentality and the Legacy of Descartes: The Long Nightmare and the Darwinian Dawn." The book is organized into two parts of five chapters each. The first part is a quite thorough analysis of Cartesian theorizing as it applies to animal mentality. It is heavily philosophical and deals with fine definitional points and the nature of thought, volition, perception, reflection, and consciousness. One extended treatment deals with Cartesian theses on the accuracy of our own perceptions such as pain, and our knowledge of them. The issue here is Descartes' view that "believing something and knowing that one believes it are different acts of thinking." To insist that thought is always self-reflection makes it easy to argue that animals do not think. But this avenue was not open for Cartesians because they held that thinking can occur without reflection, even by the fetus in its mother's womb.

The argument by analogy from behavior to subjective experience is perhaps the most common today in positing that animals may have feelings and awareness comparable to our own. Who could not believe a kicked dog feels pain when hearing its yelps and cries? Yet the Cartesians denied this very notion, viewing animals as unconscious, albeit complex, machines. The Radners evaluate in detail two tests, language and action, that Descartes advanced to exclude animals from having thoughts and feelings. The test of language is the most familiar, having spawned demonstrations and refutations of semantic language in animals, especially the great apes. The action test acknowledges that animals can do some skillful things that appear to involve thought. But since in a different context all animals can be shown to act stupidly (thoughtlessly), their clever skills are due not to mental ability but merely to their organic construction (machinery). The action argument is terribly weak, given human stupidity and irrationality. Such arguments were desperate maneuvers to avoid conclusions antithetical to the prevailing religious clime. I am referring, of course, to the theological problems in allowing animals any kind of immortal soul, the existence of which, for Cartesians, was tied to consciousness and thinking.

One chapter goes into considerable detail over the argument that is implicit in much fundamentalist Christian anxiety about the "animal issue." The following kind of argument is carefully examined:

1. God is just (not to say omnipotent and omniscient).

2. No sinless creature deserves to suffer.

3. A just God would not alow any creature undeserved suffering.

4. Human creatures do suffer without deserving it.

5. But people who suffer undeservedly in this world, having an immortal soul, obtain their recompense in the next.

6. Animals, not having an immortal soul, are not able to obtain recompense for their suffering.

7. Animals are sinless, thus no animal deserves to suffer.

8. If animals suffer, God is not just.

But premise 8 contradicts 1 (God is just), therefore animals cannot suffer. Regardless of the evidence of our senses, animals are only machines. The Radners point out that the premises could be changed by building on other biblical themes, such as the covenant made by God after the Flood not only to Noah and his kin but to all living creatures.

Arguments about sin, recompense, and immortal souls seem to me important for three reasons. One, they help us understand the great opposition to animal mentality and evolution in general by fundamentalists, while highlighting the fears among humanistic intellectuals concerning cognitive and affective continuity. Two, they show that as Cartesian thinking was both inspired and constrained by Christian theology, critiques of Descartes and Mind-Body dualism cannot ignore religious issues. Three, they suggest that concern about the arbitrary omission of animals from our conception of souls, suffering, divine mercy, and justice forms the atavistic underpinning of the beliefs of animal activists.

The second part of Animal Consciousness jumps abruptly to the nineteenth century, providing an overview of the study of animal consciousness by the early evolutionists and its suppression, largely on methodological grounds, by laboratory-based behaviorism. It also includes the role of naturalistic ethological data in revitalizing our appreciation for the complexity of animal behavior, the work of psychologists on ape language, and the recent cognitive ethology sparked by Donald Griffin.

Ethics is addressed in the final chapter, the aim being not to advance "one ethical theory over another but only to show how information gained from the study of animal consciousness can be put to use in ethics." The ideas of Mill, Kant, Bentham, are updated with those of Regan and Singer in a discussion of the distinct, but often conflated approaches of utilitarianism and rights theory. But the Radners offer little that actually integrates animal consciousness and ethics, other than a call to know both the "life style" of animals and explore what "satisfaction of desires" means to them. The Radners criticize both utilitarian and rights-based approaches for not using data on animal consciousness to discriminate among animal species in other than a cursory manner, and call for what has been termed "critical anthropomorphism" (See Special Supplement, "Animals, Science, and Ethics," Hastings Center Report 20, no. 3 [1990]).

The longest part of this chapter is devoted to the issue of whether we should help save animals being preyed upon by others ("the predator question"). While not going so far as to advocate "humane predator extermination" in the wild, they argue that animals used as food for carnivorous predators (such as owls) in captivity have moral claims against the human offering them for this purpose. Further, reintroducing predators back into nature gives prey species claims against "the person who set this evil in their midst." Although some provocative ideas are presented here, the authors shortchange, even trivialize, the growing area of environmental ethics in philosophy and ecology, of which predation is an integral but minor component. The authors' casual acceptance of species extinction is also disturbing and reflects a narrow conception of morality that I predict will soon be as outmoded, but perhaps as invidious, as the Cartesian legacy so thoroughly explored earlier. It is for these earlier sections that I heartily recommend this book.

Gordon M. Burghardt is professor of psychology and zoology and directs the Graduate Program in Ethology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
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Author:Burghardt, Gordon M.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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