an old story, or another variation on the theme of elitism that
pits the righteous against everyone else. With visions of Jericho
and the soundtrack of The Lord’s trumpets in their higher
than holy heads, the great empathizers, or the compassionata
as they like to think of themselves, are comprised of individuals
and advocacy groups who vigorously argue the case for animal
sentience or sapience. Extrapolating data from the field work
of ethologists and neurological research, and then submitting
the hard-up facts to academic and scientific journals, they
are convinced that animals are thinking, feeling beings, and
that the rest of us – the fork and knife contingent --
are complicit in a daily animal holocaust for the sake of the
chicken and red meat we put on our plates for dinner and supper.
ethologist Mark Bekoff, from the University of Colorado, a
state where cannabis sativa just happens to be legal, wants
to declare a Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience. The
good professor and fellow animal rights activists contribute
to and support the literature
contending, for example, that chickens are capable of empathy.
is indeed in the pudding. At the turn of the present century,
one of gallus domesticus's most noted members, having
successfully reduced the aggregate of species clucks to their
ontological essence, formulated the now celebrated “I
lay eggs, therefore I am.”
preferably before having dined on the dead, are invited to
examine the following published works and their telling titles:
Animals with a Moral Compass,” which
includes the lachrymose chapter “Dogs Feel Remorse.”
And an article that might make minimalists painters uncomfortable
in their thin skins, “Five
Animals Who Make Art.”
Bekoff, the author of Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed,
defines sentience as “the ability to feel, perceive,
or be conscious, or to experience subjectivity.”
From an article posted in livescience.com,
he goes on to explain: “Scientists know that individuals
from a wide variety of species experience emotions ranging
from joy and happiness to deep sadness, grief, and post-traumatic
stress disorder, along with empathy, jealousy and resentment.
There is no reason to embellish those experiences, because
science is showing how fascinating they are (for example,
mice, rats, and chickens display empathy) and countless other
"surprises" are rapidly emerging.”
sentience movement-manifesto is a cause that is attracting
more and more adherents, confident that it is occupying the
moral high ground. Where actions speak louder than words,
moral integrity is measured by what goes in and stays out
of your digestive tract. Overheard at an all-the-meat-you-can
eat breakfast buffet, and to the chagrin of the Toothpick
Manufacturers Guild: “I’d like to replace my order
of beef stroganoff with a plate of eucalyptus leaf and a side
order of freshly cut prairie grass sautéed in purified
air.” This and similar declarations have become the
rallying cry of the burgeoning movement.
the immoral majority for whom animals are either a source
of pet pride or protein, the argument most commonly put forward
is “well, since you’re not one of them, how do
you know that animals can’t think, or get depressed
or feel jealousy or empathy? Just because they don’t
write novels or compose opera doesn’t mean they’re
the kind of argument that stops many of us in our human tracks
since we cannot scientifically demonstrate that animals aren’t
intelligent, just as agnostics can’t be 100% certain
there is no God.
But if we
offer thought to our evolution from birth through the transition
to adulthood, we will discover that animals cannot think,
are not sentient, capable of empathy, are not self-conscious,
because we ourselves were once 100%, unadulterated animal.
We merely have to revisit and deconstruct ourselves as we
were at the age of six months to ascertain the above contention,
and by extension, that animals are 100% dumb, and rightfully
without any rights. "The lamb licks the hand just raised
to shed its blood," writes Pope in An Essay on Man.
that apart from his potential, there is absolutely no difference
between the six month old child, let’s call him Little
Billie, than any other animal, one of whom we’ll name
Bessie the cow. At six months, the only difference between
Little Billie and Bessie is that the former’s genetic
code will allow him to evolve into a sentient, sapient, self-conscious
human being (William).
not demonstrate what they have in common, which is everything.
Instead, our challenge is to make explicit their commonality,
which will correspond to what are commonly (universally) regarded
as either animal traits or animal behaviour.
with language. At six months old Little Billie has no vocabulary.
Like Bessie the cow, in respect to his basic needs and well-being,
he makes sounds. When Little Billie is hungry he whines/cries,
while Bessie moos. When Little Billie is happy, he’ll
babble and perhaps slobber. Bessie will unquietly release
flatus (methane) into the atmosphere.
doesn’t know he exists, doesn’t know that he is
alive, or what it means to die. Hold up a gun to Bessie’s
or Little Billie’s head and they won’t respond.
Little Billie and Bessie exist solely in the present; when
they recover from their hurts or come down from their highs,
they have no recollection of ever being hurt or happy. For
both Billie and Bessie there is no such thing as time (a yesterday,
a now, or future). Yes, they are categorically temporal, but
they do not exist in existential time.
to bodily functions, urination, excretion, they do it wherever
and whenever nature calls: there is no self-consciousness,
there is no observing critical public, there is no proper
place or evacuatory etiquette to follow.
all the above to be true because when we, in good faith and
in pursuit of objective truth, reflect on our selves as we
were at the age of six months, we realize that we were exactly
like Little Billie and Bessie the cow. At six months old I
didn’t know I existed, much less was capable of empathy.
due respect to Jonathan Swift’s mouth watering “Modest
Proposal,” what spares Little Billie, who is pure animal,
from becoming an intricate link in the food chain, is that
he has the potential to become a human being, while the animal
does not. When we speak of the severely retarded we are isolating
a gene malfunction that does not permit Little Billie to become
human. The severely retarded cannot speak. Present them with
a bag of money or a naked photo of Miss Universe and they
do not respond, just as they perform their bodily functions
without a nano-trace of self-consciousness. While they are
morphologically human, they are psychologically animal. And
if we decide to keep them around it is because we love them
like we love our pets.
Little Billie through an ontological lens, we find no behavioural
evidence that he is human. Which means – and of course
to the upset of loving parents everywhere -- all the Little
Billie’s we hold in our arms are animal and not (yet)
human. At the risk of being taxonomically incorrect, I propose
that only when Little Billie (as William) becomes self-conscious
does he merit the classification of human being.
of Martin Heidegger persuasively argues that we are born not
once, but twice: first as animal, and then again -- and only
very gradually until adolescence at which point the decisive
transition (metamorphosis) takes place and we become self-aware
-- as sentient/sapient human beings.
introduces the term Da-Sein to mark the appearance and standing
still of the now fully realized human being taking his first
breath as a being with a 'there,' which is the world. Little
Billie and Bessie are nowhere; they have no there. They simply
are, like trees are, like amoeba are.
are uniquely privileged in that they can preside over and
reflect on the miracle of their becoming human, a miracle
that dwarfs the sum of all the metamorphoses in the plant
and animal world. When we ask of all that which human thought
is capable of offering thought to, surely this transition,
since we all undergo it, is most worthy of thought. Especially
if we become convinced the destiny of the planet is not unrelated
to making this extraordinary transition a priority of thinking.
“Only I can know for sure that what I am doing is a
way of not doing something else,” writes Canadian thinker
to find our way out of a world “too much with us,”
brimming with diversions whose first effects are to steal
us away from ourselves, we look to metaphysics (the discipline
that designates “becoming” and “being”
as its first questions) to help make more explicit the transition
from the animal to the human. Biology and the sciences can
describe the event, but only philosophy can open up a realm
where the meaning of this transition can appear and be made
to stand still. That most of us, for our entire lives, leave
this transition ‘unexamined’ speaks to a value
system that is totally out of whack with the exigencies of
our time and the foreboding that throws the entire fate of
the planet into question.
discreet and incremental, the movement towards becoming self-conscious
is nothing less than growing out of our animal skins and becoming
human. To facilitate -- not the transition itself which is
biologically determined but -- the thinking that discloses
and articulates its existential significance, it is incumbent
that we grant the animal (the Little Billies that we once
were) his standing and category, at which point we will be
in a position to better grasp, in its full implication, our
humanity as it pertains to human conduct and the well-being
of the human habitat.
wrote “many are the wonders of the world, but none is
more wonderful than man.” Of all of man’s wonders,
surely none is more wonderful and worthy of thought than the
transition of Little Billie from animal to human being.
or dire confluence of events will persuade us to make this
transition that which most deserves our undivided attention?
If we decide that our political systems have decisively failed
to identify those who are best fit to lead us to a better
place, what must happen in order to excite the necessity of
conceiving that better system? Is there a fundamental flaw
or conceit in our transitioning from the animal to the human
(from Little Billie to William) and the appearance of those
gifted leaders we have failed to appoint?
In An Introduction
to Metaphysics, Martin Heidegger describes the creative
man who “sets forth into the un-said, who breaks into
the un-thought, compels the unhappened to happen and makes
the unseen appear."