It is plain that the law against the slaughtering of
animals is founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on
sound reason. The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches
us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow-men, but not
with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own ... for
their nature is not like ours, and their emotions are natural different
from human emotions." Benedict Spinoza, a 17th century philosopher
The modern tradition of animal rights got underway in
England during the nineteenth century. Against those who denied animals
moral status because they allegedly lacked rationality and language,
philosopher Jeremy Bentham replied: "The question is not, Can they
reason nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" By displacing the
terms of debate, emphasizing that animals are sentient beings that
experience pain just as human beings do, Bentham and others (like Peter
Singer, author of Animal Liberation ) concluded that it is wrong
to harm or kill animals.
The argument for sentience is indeed a strong basis for
the notion of animal rights, and draws an important correlation between
animals and human beings. But an even stronger case can be made that
underlines more important similarities between human beings and animals,
one based on our shared emotional complexity. This case is presented in
clear and compelling terms in the new book by Jeffrey Masson and Susan
McCarthy, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, perhaps
the first work to seriously explore this topic.
The book documents how animals experience not only crude
emotions like fear, but far more subtle and complex emotions such as
love, grief, pride, shame, joy, and loneliness. For many of us with
pets, this fact should come as no surprise, for we can see on a daily
basis how our dogs and cats react to us with varied moods and
expressions (I have poster on my kitchen wall that asks, "How Does Your
Cat Feel Today?" and depicts dozens of different faces and attitudes,
all of which he seems to possess on any given day).
Yet the scientific community has denied what ordinary
experience confirms, largely because they fear being "anthropomorphic,"
a scientific sin which attributes human emotions to nonhuman life forms,
presuming to know how they feel or think without any basis for judgment.
Thus, the scientist would not say my cat experiences joy when I come
home from a trip (or perhaps resentment might be more accurate), but
rather that he "moves in a rapid manner, emitting loud cries." A monkey
never gets "angry," rather he "exhibits aggression."
Scientists also deny emotional complexity to animals by
offering reductionistic evolutionary explanations of their behavior. A
bird, for example, sings only to attract its mate, and not because its
happy or likes to sing, hearing the beauty of its own voice. Such
descriptions transform animals from living beings into mere machines.
I'm sure sometimes we do commit the anthropomorphic
fallacy, wrongly attributing thoughts and feelings to animals that they
may not have. Honestly, when I say my cat is "jealous" of another cat
that might be visiting, I don't really know what he feels and he may not
feel anything in particular. But, as the authors argue, just because
animal emotions are difficult to interpret does not mean they aren't
there; just because animals don't frame their thoughts and feelings in
human language doesn't mean they don't have them.
In response to the skeptic's claim that we can't know
for sure if animals really have feelings, because they have no
"language," one can respond that the same is true for human beings. How
can I really know that other people feel grief, joy, or even experience
pain if I [feel] them? They can indeed express thoughts and emotions to
me in language, but how do I know their language describes a true state?
In animals, no different than human beings, all we really have to go on
is their behavioral expression and what we can infer from that based on
our own experience. In the case of animals that can use sign language,
however, we do have a bona fide use of language that is directly
The scientific denial of complex animal emotions is an
anti-scientific dogma; there have been no serious scientific studies of
animal emotions because no scientist is willing to do them. Over 150
years ago, Darwin wrote The Expression of the Emotions in Man and
Animals, but his lead has not been followed.
And it is obvious why, for if animals have more thought
and feeling than scientists allow, their experimental work on animals
becomes morally problematic, if not wrong. As the film Project X
dramatized, for example, monkeys confined in cages experience deep
anguish, pain, and loneliness, yet their lives are sacrificed in the
sacred name of experimental science, which often is nothing but a
euphemism for cruelty and brings no valid results except to boost the
careers of men and women in white coats.
When Elephants Weep provides hundreds of examples to
refute scientific reductionism. We meet chimps and apes with a sign
vocabulary of over 100 words, communicating in a creative way not only
with human beings, but with members of their own species. We encounter
Alex the parrot who knows the names of over 50 objects, 7 colors, and 5
shapes, along with Michael the gorilla who loves Pavorotti and refuses
to go outside when he is on TV. The title of the book stems from one of
the more remarkable examples of animal emotions, the Indian elephant
which sheds tears of pain when injured, or tears of grief when a family
member is killed. Amazingly, elephants seem to have a concept of death
and enact long burial rituals.
If animals can experience a range of emotions similar to
human beings, they are not significantly different from us and we cannot
escape our moral obligations to treat them with kindness, love, and
respect. When Elephants Weep is an important work that all animal lovers
should read, providing much ammunition in our fight against complacent
carnivores and speciesists who think the world is ours to destroy.
This review originally appeared in "Life Giving
Choices", the newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso (VSEP).
Go on to
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