As mass extinctions loom, these philosophers could help us rediscover our place among other animals


Children think pigs deserve as much kindness as dogs and cats, and condemn cruelty to hamsters as easily as cruelty to other children, a recent study showed. The moral hierarchy of animals – with humans at the top, followed by pets, farm animals and pests – that governs much of adult thinking is not, it seems, innate. Although she was born in 1919, this result would not have surprised the late philosopher Mary Midgley.

While raising her own children, Midgley noticed that infants are raised in a mixed community. They can grow among cats, dogs, hamsters, horses, and parakeets, as well as the young of their kind. At the beginning of their life – first on all fours, then standing – their vision of the living room is, literally, closer to that of Tabby (table legs and sides of chairs) than to that of their parents.

Species fingerprinting, the means by which an animal acquires its sense of species identification, tells the cub that it is a lion and the cygnet that it is a lion. swan. This mechanism has its work cut out for a human infant who may list the family dog ​​ahead of its cousins ​​in a friend ranking.

In fact, children should be taught to think they have only moral obligations to other humans, Midgley wrote in his book. Animals and why they matter. The species barrier – the boundary that seems to exclude other animals from the moral and social world of humans – she observed:

as imposing as it may seem, it looks more like one of those high chain-link fences whose impressiveness is limited to the upper part… Below, where it is full of holes, it presents no barrier. The young people of Homo sapiens… rush there all the time.

The image of an impassable wall, with humans on one side and animals on the other – and dogs and cats on temporary visas – is a construction of the human imagination. And so does, Midgley wrote, the idea that humans belong anywhere other than with animals. As she wrote in beast and man“We’re not just more like animals; we are animals”. The fact that we are on our hind legs and look down on other species is no reason to consider ourselves separate.

For Midgley, the task of understanding our animal nature was not just scientific, but something that would require a leap in our imagination. This conceptual leap has never been so urgent. Without transformative changes in the way humans live around the world, nearly a million species are at risk of extinction.

Scientific studies can remind us of our kinship with animals, but they alone cannot help us understand the meaning and importance of this kinship, nor its moral and political implications. For this we must examine our concepts and ideas about animals – a task that requires philosophy.

Language and human life

As children grow, they learn to think in terms of various dichotomies, such as man and beast, nature and reason. The work of the philosopher, according to Midgley, is twofold. It must examine how these dichotomies act on our imaginations and affect our ways of acting and being; and it must articulate, or produce, new images that unleash our imagination of their hold.

Humans, of course, have exceptional abilities that make them different and especially dangerous to other types of animals. The idea that humans are different must be respected. We are not alone in eating other species, nor in hunting and harming them for play, as all cat lovers know. But language transforms these natural activities and gives us the power to alter our environment in ways that go far beyond that of other animals.

Midgley’s friend and fellow philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote about how the acquisition of language affects human life. She noted that there are some things you can get a person (or even a dog) to do without talking. But if you can get them to make a promise or sign a contract – two activities that rely on human language – the possibilities of involving them in your projects become vast.

Advanced technology, industry, culture and art depend on the kinds of cooperation that would be impossible without human language. And each of these changes the way our natural animal instincts work out in the world. Money, banking, commerce and trade allow our animal desire for warmth and shelter to come true through the hoarding of resources. Territorial instincts, common to most animals, are reshaped by property rights. We farm on an industrial scale and eat other animals not just because we are hungry, but because it culturally signifies wealth or status.

How to overcome the species barrier

Although it is our language that makes us the most dangerous of all animals, Midgley believed that it was nevertheless in language – rather than science or technology – that our environmental salvation must lie. In his book Science and Poetryshe writes about how metaphor and meter can take us back to our childhood perspective – to look under the fence that separates humans from other animals.

The alleged separation of animals is less obvious to children.
Irina Wilhauk/Shutterstock

When Midgley and Anscombe were teenagers, studying philosophy at Oxford in the late 1930s, it was widely believed that the days when philosophy and poetry were seen as sources of knowledge were over. But when the war came, other voices were raised: women and refugees, academics and conscientious objectors. One of them was Donald MacKinnon, later a well-known theologian – though he is still a (virtually) forgotten philosopher today. He wouldn’t drop the old way of thinking. “We are metaphysical animals,” he taught Midgley and Anscombe, metaphysics being the branch of philosophy that asks the most general and fundamental questions about what exists and why it matters. Wonder and poetry are as natural to us as play.

What would it mean to take up Midgley’s way of thinking about our relationship to other animals and to the natural world more broadly? If Midgley is correct, then we can learn an important lesson from the children who participated in the scientific study. Their attitude reminds us of what we adults have learned to forget: that we are animals, like dogs and pigs, and that only our imagination prevents us from extending the moral concern we have for humans to other species. of animal.


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