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March 11, 2011


alan nelson

There is a large literature on groups of humans "dehumanizing" other humans. A classic is Anthony Pagden's account of the encounter between Europeans and Central Americans. This seems relevant to Justin's point that moral/philosophical presuppositions might contribute to a perceived gulf between humans and other species. If philosophical presuppositions can lead to the perception that some creatures are only apparently human because they lack fundamental capacities, surely they could be operative in parallel judgments about other species.

Justin E. H. Smith

Alan: Yes, I love Pagden's The Fall of Natural Man. I'm afraid however that many people will simply refuse to consider any possible parallels between well-known forms of oppression and domination (e.g., of indigenous peoples, slaves, women), on the one hand, and the ill-treatment of animals on the other, on the grounds that, so they think, to do so is to suppose that, e.g., women or Native Americans are no better than animals. This is fallacious reasoning, but it has a powerful purchase on many people's (including many philosophers') attitudes about our moral responsibilities towards animals.

David Hammer

And yet it seems to me that ordinary people are often very willing to see intelligence and moral qualities in animals, and its the philosophers who are the ones to object.

Kai Matthews

@David Hammer - it depends on which philosophers you're referring to, I suppose. And ordinary people often have roughly accurate intuitions justified after the fact for wrong reasons, and so can easily draw wildly unrealistic conclusions about natural phenomena just as readily as they stumble into correct ones. (Although I'd say the Venn diagram circles of the thought processes of philosophers and "ordinary" folk overlap more than one might think. Even Aristotle, brilliantly insightful in some aspects, was dead wrong about laws of motion and was unchallenged until Galileo's experiments.)

But I'd still agree that the preemption of the a priori assumption of human uniqueness is a task more for philosophers rather than evidence-amassing scientists; from what I know of de Waal's work (mainly from his book Primates and Philosophers), the concept of a continuum of animal intelligence including our own, rather than a sharply demarcated boundary between humans and other animals, would seem to be crucial to this preemptive effort. WIthout getting too deep into the choppy waters of the contentious field of evolutionary psychology, I must observe that there is a well-documented history, in evolution in general, of great deal of repurposing of existing structures for new uses, and one must question why the development of intelligence, as the functioning of higher nervous systems, should be considered as proceeding any differently than the functions of other bodily systems.

The socio-historical (and religious) basis of this human exceptionalism is a matter for sociologists as well as philosophers, but philosophers are probably best suited to the task of unpacking the structure behind this deep-seated attitude.

Quinn O'Neill

Thank you, I really enjoyed this. I suspect that our tendency to view the other as lesser, be it a human or non-human animal, is as "pre-programmed" and biologically based as behaviors considered as such when found in non-humans. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/4/1262.abstract

The condescending terms we use for non-human phenomena may be more fitting than fancy labels, like "philosophy" and "morality", that elevate human animals above their majestic non-human relatives. Our view of human intelligence may well be more distorted than our view of non-human varieties. A deeper understanding of ourselves may lie in the realization that "animal intelligence" is a category to which our own intelligence belongs.

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