Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No. 2, 2016
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
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David Solway
Nancy Snipper
Louis René Beres
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Nick Catalano
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Daniel Charchuk
Farzana Hassan
Betsy L. Chunko
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
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Irshad Manji
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Ernesto Zedillo
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Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




It’s 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.

Cognitive 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.

The proof 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.”

Doubters, preferably before having dined on the dead, are invited to examine the following published works and their telling titles: “Five 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.

Professor 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, 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.”

The animal 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.

Concerning 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 not intelligent.”

It’s 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.

I propose 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).

We need 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.

We begin 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.

Little Billie 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.

In respect 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.

We know 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.

With all 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.

Observing 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.

The philosophy 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.

Heidegger 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.

Human beings 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 Mark Kingwell.

In order 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.

However 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.

Sophocles 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.

What favourable 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 relationship between being persistently uninterested in our miraculous transition from the animal to the human (from Little Billie to William) and our collective failure to raise to eminence the gifted leaders in our midst?

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."















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