By James McWilliams
The task of establishing hierarchies in the animal world is ultimately instigated by the need for some guide as to how we should treat animals. Why is it that I would, in good conscience, swerve to miss hitting a deer while driving (and potentially endanger myself and other humans) but would not do the same for a beetle?
When discussing animals, there’s often an implication that we should not think about them in hierarchical terms. To do so is fall into the trap of anthropocentrism. The presence of hierarchy, ipso facto, implies value judgments that humans have no right, much less ability, to make. Thus we’re advised to avoid imbuing animals with externally imposed qualitative differences that might lead to them being “ranked” according to a human-determined scale of meaning. This advice, on the surface, seems sensible enough.
However, while I agree that there’s always the danger of imposing warped meaning onto the animal world, I’m stuck on two things when it comes to the hierarchy-avoidance mode of thinking. First, I cannot imagine, even remotely, not making even the most basic judgements about animals thorough anything but a human lens. As a human, it’s the only perspective I know. Second, as much as I would like to avoid the establishment of hierarchies, I think they’re unavoidable. Humans are categorizers; we rank. The key is to categorize and rank in a just, equitable, non-dogmatic way, and in a way that honors as much as possible the holistic nature of biological life.
The task of establishing hierarchies in the animal world is ultimately instigated by the need for some guide as to how we should treat animals. Why is it that I would, in good conscience, swerve to miss hitting a deer while driving (and potentially endanger myself and other humans) but would not do the same for a beetle? Assuming that there’s nothing profoundly unethical in making this distinction (which my gut tells me there isn’t), I therefore need a rubric (read: hierarchy) to explain my behavior and exonerate my squishing of the beetle to minimize the risk to humans.
It is for this reason, I think, that so many discussions of animals and our relationships with them center on questions and evaluations of sentience. To say that some animals are sentient and others are not is, in a way, to rank them. Of course, sentience demands that we project onto animals qualities that they appear to have but, in fact, may not at all have. We must make evaluations about sentience. But we must do so with caution and humility—qualities that, regrettably, might be inherently impossible to achieve given that, again, we are the ones making the judgments.
So, what do we do when it comes to understanding sentience? Philosophers have written endlessly about this question. For me, relying on the presence or absence of a nervous system is vaguely useful, but by no means determinative. Recognizing that an animal appears to situate himself in historical time—that is, she sees experience as somehow cumulative—is important. To grasp that an animal experiences and has at least some basic understanding of pleasure and pain—and makes equally basic choices accordingly—must have some bearing. And I also seek to acknowledge intentionality. That’s a short list, but it gives the gist.
I make these evaluations with tremendous trepidation because, in a way, I know that from a Darwinian perspective every species is, well, perfect. The hard thing for me to admit is that, at the end of the day, I’m most comfortable making evaluations about sentience and, in turn, granting moral consideration based more on my proximity and familiarity with certain animals than any objectively measured and commonly agreed upon standard of measurement. That’s uncomfortable.
There is no question that a plant, a protozoa, and a puma are radically different forms of life. There is also no question that pinpointing why they are radically different, and how those differences bear on our relationship with these forms of life, are daunting intellectual challenges. When faced with them, I always take solace in the simple and undeniable imperative that it’s wrong to exploit animals for food we do not need. Easy. But that solace, I believe, requires us to dig deeper for an explanation as to why that basic moral truth is what it is.