There is an extensive bibliography on animal ethics. There is also, a growing number of studies to find the roots of human morals based on animal behaviors of reciprocity and altruism. In face of that, can we envisage a philosophical approach to an ethics of animals? Not in the sense of human ethics towards animals, but as a search for some contributions to ethics extracted by moral behaviors identified in animals. Probably someone is already doing it, in the following I will start my first attempt.
I will try to show how animal behavior may prove the necessity for us to refine our notion of ‘person’. This, I hope, will have an important influence on our own ethics (including the above mentioned already traditional field of animal ethics). I am happy that the philosophical vein of the text will allow me to proceed only through thought experiments. This discharges me of the responsibility to experiment with living beings. On the other hand, I’ll bear some second order suffering in my hands because I’ll use the results of some scientific experiments to develop the argument, mostly with rats.
Since a few years ago there is evidence that rats have some simple form of empathy. Bartal et al. identified an emotional contagion in the capacity of rats to feel in themselves what another rat is feeling. I hope to give a more deep treatment of empathy in a following essay. Now I want to proceed to the supposition that maybe they have some distinction that we use the vocabulary of ‘person’ vs. ‘object’ to convey.
In a recent study Nakashima et al. wanted to verify if rats could see and feel the pain in another rats face. To do so, they took pictures of rats with a neutral expression and rats with pain expression. Then, they decorated the walls of two rooms. One had the pictures of rats with a neutral expression and the other those with the pain expressions. When put into a structure composed of both of these rooms rats showed a pattern. They preferred to stay in the room decorated with the neutral pictures. This suggests that they can recognize pain in the face of the other and that they don’t like what they see.
However, they also tested another scenario. They repeated the same set up, but now the photos of rats with pain expressions had their bodies airbrushed. Surprisingly, this time rats did no repeat the pattern of avoiding the room with pain faces. The scientists then assumed that the bodies of the rats may communicate some essential part of the pain information. It is based on this unexpected reaction that I want to develop another hypothesis.
I do not buy the explanation that bodily cues are somehow essential for rats to reckon the pain in the face of the others. It could be easily tested by putting pictures of montages of rats with pain faces over the bodies of rats not feeling pain. I guess they would once again avoid the room with such pictures. This hypothesis leads to the new interpretation I want to propose. What if rats failed to recognize the rats with airbrushed bodies as ‘persons’ and treated them as ‘objects’, therefore, feeling no empathy towards them.
I put ‘person’ and ‘objects’ in quotation marks because these concepts at first seem too human for the reader to accept that rats could have some primitive version of it. Concerning human beings we do know that when we see another human being as a person we perceive it as a whole. On the other hand, when we see them as an object (of desire, for instance), we analyze them by parts. Gervais among others have shown that men treat pictures of hot models as a bunch of (hot) pieces. Why can’t complex animals as rats show a similar behavior of recognition?
If they do, they would need to see the other rats as whole to treat them as ‘persons’. In the airbrushed bodies condition they simply failed to do so. Now we can start to see that our first skeptical reaction to the attribution of a concept of personhood in rats may be part of the problem. Note that the question is not if rats deserve the rights we humans attribute to persons (as is usual within the context of animal ethics). The question is if rats have themselves some concept equivalent to the human concept of person.
Usually a humans beings talk of a person to refer to someone who they recognize as being basically like themselves. The indeterminacy lies on what counts to be ‘like themselves’. Europeans didn’t consider indians to be like themselves for a period of history and maybe neither vice-versa. This doubt was put in christian terms of having a divine soul or not. In our times this may be translated as ‘having whatever we think it is that makes us humans’. The candidates for these can be cultural like religions, arts and mathematics; corporeal like feelings of pain and pleasure or those concerning the mind like self-conscience, memory of past experiences and planning towards the future and so on. We could spend some time trying to better determine this definition. It does seem as a useful enterprise, but I shall content myself with the start-up.
Just to refresh: Rats identified themselves with the rats in pain in the photos. They also did not mind with the grimace faces seen on airbrushed rats. These reactions seem close enough to the ones we would suppose of someone treating the first groups as ‘persons’ and the second one as ‘objects’. If so, we have two main alternatives. Either we acknowledge to rats the specific concept of rat-person. But in this case we could fall into an infinite regression and be obliged to postulate concepts of horse-person, monkey-person and so on. Or we can expand our concept of person to be suitable for other complex animals to have it. This means extracting the determination of ‘human’ in the definition of person.
Note once again that to attribute the concept of a person to rats is different from extending to them the rights that we human beings assure to those under our concept of person. The effort here is to see how an inconsistent notion of ‘being like ourselves’ are part of the working brain of a rat. Once that is understood, one must suppose a broader definition of person. My first attempt came out as: ‘identifying some individual as having approximate complex internal experiences in the face of existence as oneself’. For the rats, rats in the photos have that while rats with airbrushed bodies don’t. Conversely, humans that see only their small tribe as worth the categorization of a person are being (expectedly) as close minded as the rats in the experiment. They all treat as an object whatever small deviations they find to exclude an individual from what they believe is the norm. Happily enough, other complex animals show that personhood does not need to be an interspecies concept. For instance, when horses or dogs recognize the feelings of human beings they are using their concept of person to identify themselves with other individuals. Note that on this version it will be easy to include computers in the category of persons.
One last problem. If the concept of ‘person’ needs to be broad but remains subjective will it become senseless? I mean, I just need to identify myself with the booger I have just taken out of my nose for it to be referred as a person? It will be nice not to have to allow that. But then we will have to accept that person will always be a biased term? Maybe a little self-predication may be of some help at list once in the history of philosophy. What if ‘having a biased concept of person’ is the unbiased condition that we need to determine what it is to be a person? Some individual or species that can identify others (even if in a biased manner) as being like themselves, do not make these others persons, but prove that they (those able to do the identification) are to be considered as persons. To cut it short: seeing others as persons makes you (not the other) a person. Thus, seeing my booger as a person makes my a person (maybe a crazy one) but it does not say anything about the personhood of the booger.