Intellectuals make things way too difficult. Case in point: Over at Edge, Marian Stamp Dawkins, a Professor of Animal Behavior at Oxford and author of Why Animals Matter, is asked, “What do animals want? Her over Darwinian thinking style–being a biologist married to Richard, and all that–may be causing her to slide right past the obvious: The real question should be: “What do we owe them as humans?”
The good news–particularly given the lawsuits soon to be filed to have courts declare some animals to be persons–Dawkins rejects anthropomorphizing creatures into so many furry people. From the story:
The questions I’m asking myself are really about how much we really know about animal consciousness. A lot of people think we do, or think that we don’t need scientific evidence. It really began to worry me that people were basing their arguments on something that we really can’t know about at all. One of the questions I asked myself was: how much do we really know? And is what we know the best basis for arguing for animal welfare? I’ve been thinking hard about that, and I came to the conclusion that the hard problem of consciousness is actually very hard. It’s still there, and we kid ourselves if we think we’ve solved it.
But then she slips into the temptation of so many evolutionary thinkers, believing that treating animals kindly requires a misanthropic view of us and a sales pitch urging others to treat animals well purely as a matter of self interest:
If you want to try and convince people who are not already convinced that animal welfare matters, you use arguments that touch on, as I said, their self-interest; good for their children’s health, good for their own health, good for the environment. Those are the arguments that are going to carry the weight. When people talk about producing enough food to feed the world or the problems of climate change, it is very striking that animal welfare isn’t mentioned. Most of the major reports talk about the importance of doing things for the planet; they don’t mention animal welfare.
Well, that’s because those issues are stalking horses for deeper political and culture agendas than they are about what they purport. But really, this is getting too, too complicated.
So, Dawkins says that a better approach than trying to paste consciousness on the animal is to ask “what they want:”
One of the things which I think has been really important recently is the development of a much more scientific approach to animal welfare. Clearly you can measure animal health and you can also measure what animals themselves want. To give you an example, we can ask a question, does it actually improve animal welfare if you give chickens more space, for example. A lot of people would say of course it does, they’re less crowded, there must be better welfare. But the scientific approach would be to say, well, no, before you assume that because a human might like that, it would be much, much better to look for evidence of does it improve their health if you give them more space, and do they actually want more space? If you’ve got proper answers to that, then you might actually have a scientific basis for your decisions.
And she suggests a lot of good and energetic methods of research to find out the answer.
But there real issue here is us, not animals. As conscious beings, as moral creatures, as empathetic experiencers, we promote animal welfare–in the context of human thriving and without–simply because we are human. It is part of our hard wiring to be moral beings, particularly once we get the past raw survival stage of existing. Thus, it is our duty to treat them well–not because of what they might want, but who we are.
I suppose in commercial enterprises, demonstrating that is what good for the animals is also good for the producer can promote reform–but what if it isn’t? The animal producers I have met treat their animals well because they know it is the right thing to do, even if it earns them a little less money. And I know some who have sacrificed their own economic welfare substantially in order to do what is right by their animals.
Or to put it another way: Other than being human, what gives us the duty to treat animals humanely? Not a darned thing. The whole issue arises out of human exceptionalism.