Does personhood belong exclusively to human beings, or do animals have some of the moral characteristics of personhood too? This is an ethical blog. I intend to explore how we should treat animals, most particularly those that have some obvious kind of consciousness. At the same time I will investigate what personhood might be or what are the necessary ingredients that belong to it.
[Disclaimer: I am not an extreme animal rights type of person. This crowd believes that animals should not be used for any purpose once so ever; some do not even believe animals should be owned as pets.]
I believe most of all mammalian species have some kind of consciousness. I base my believe for one on the similar basic brain structures that mammals share with the human species. The main component here is the cortex. I grant that the human brain has far superior brain power due to the prefrontal cortex and the amount of brain that is squeezed into the human cranium compared to other animal brains.
Second, I base this belief on observation of animal behavior. If you observe animals, and I do this directly mostly with Baxter, you can just see them thinking, trying to figure things out. At least you would say the same thing about human beings when they are trying to work things out just by observing them without any verbal clues. With humans though, they often talk aloud when thinking, which is never seen in any other animal. Of course, just observing something does not prove much, but it does seem to make it somewhat plausible. We are smart enough to figure out that other people think by are experience with them (remember speech acts), so experience tells me that there is some kind of thinking going on in mammalian minds.
When I talk about minds I am really talking about brains (I am a materialist), but since mind is the more popular term I will stick to it more often, unless I have something specific to say about brain function or structure.
So, what are minds? The mind is a pretty slippery creature. I doubt that there is perfect agreement among philosophers, scientists, and the person on the street. The mind is something almost everybody claims to have. Of course, I do not believe any animal claims to have one.
Here are a few views on mind or where it comes from or its relation to the brain. There are materialist like me that claim the mind is the brain—no separation. I will say that not all materialists expressed it like this. Then there are the dualists of which there are two types. They all (or most) pretty much hold that the mind and brain are two separate substances (i.e. mind stuff and brain stuff). The difference comes in when one considers the interaction between the two. One group (basically represented by Descartes) holds that there is an interaction going on (Descartes thought it might be the pineal gland deep in the brain that is responsible for this interaction). The other group (basically represented by Leibniz) holds that neither the twain shall meet. Somehow the mind and the brain run parallel with each other. Some others define the mind by its functions. Functionalists could be either materialist or dualists. Some functionalist believe that machines or different forms of living matter could possess a mind. Hilary Putnam I think is of the materialist stripe. And, then there are the eliminative materialists (more or less represent by the Churchlands), who claim there is no mind, or what we ordinarily mean by the mind.* This, of course, does not cover all the views of the mind/brain interaction that have been or are held.
To begin to explore a little bit further let us have a look at Oxford Reference online, which gives as a quick reference for the mind: “Essentially an abstract concept, the word used to describe the sentient parts of the brain responsible for intellectual function; emotions; ability to conceptualize, formulate creative thoughts, and translate these into tangible form, for instance as physical structures, works of art, musical compositions, or literary works.”¹
Since I see mammals as holding some form of personhood, and since I believe mind is necessary for personhood, let me compare some of the things in the above quick reference with any animal with a cortex. This certainly includes Baxter and other mammals. Conceptualization maybe out, but other forms of thought, including some creative maybe imagined for mammals. In our terms, not Baxter’s (he does not have any), he becomes puzzled (an emotion) about something, and he seeks a solution, or to resolve the puzzlement. Baxter becomes puzzled over why there is not any food in his dish. He seeks to resolve this by coming over to Bette (it is usually her, except in the mornings) and climbs onto where she is sitting and begins to purr and rub his head against hers.† Now I will fully admit Baxter does not produce any structures, art, musical compositions, or literary works, except maybe a sand pile in his litter box. There are elephants and chimpanzees that use paint and brushes, but the work would be considered abstract if done by a human being. I will say that some argue that abstract art is not art (I will not even attempt to give their arguments).
I mentioned Baxter’s puzzlement emotion. According to Daniel Dennett and his coauthors in Inside Jokes, what they call cognitive emotions are necessary for cognition (thought) to occur at all. Puzzlement is one of those cognitive emotions. Now, I am the one who is certainly applying this emotional state to Baxter, so there is room for error whether or not he actually possesses it. But, if he does, this gives some evidence that he thinks, and hence other mammals possess thought to some degree too. I grant that there is not much to Baxter’s mind when compared to a human’s mind. But, if the mind is necessary for personhood, does Baxter and his follow mammals have enough of a mind to qualify for partial personhood? To answer this, at least provisionally, I will have to discuss what makes a human being a person.
Kant thought that rationality was key to personhood, pretty much Aristotle’s view too. The short answer as to what makes up rationality is that it is the use of reason or cognition as oppose to emotional responses to some object (physical or mental). We see above how this opposition is probably wrong. Is there some other criteria for personhood than?
Self-awareness is also considered an important component of personhood. Almost all animals are aware of their environment and act accordingly, more or less. When they do not—game over. Is self-awareness the awareness of the self (self as a separate being or awareness of individuality)? If it is, this opens the door for other animals. Baxter appears to go through life aware of himself or at least parts of his body such as his paws when he is navigating the coffee table full of items. And, some animals (e.g. chimpanzees) can recognize spots of dye on their foreheads. Animal behaviorists claim that this shows self-consciousness because they actively explore the spot (see next).
Is self-awareness the same as self-consciousness? At a minimum self-consciousness would be some sort of awareness of a mind. It could be something as simple as if I do this what would happen. This does not necessarily mean that this needs to be posed in language. The kind of self-consciousness that uses language is only found in human beings (sorry Baxter). So, I would hold that animals, especially mammals have some, or a minimum, amount of self-awareness, but maybe not self-consciousness.
Intentionality might be another criteria for personhood. On a google search a dictionary entry had this definition: “the quality of mental states (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, desires, hopes) that consists in their being directed toward some object or state of affairs.”² If this is the criteria for personhood, how much of these components of intentionality does an animal, say Baxter, have and to what degree? Well, I think he has thoughts—he looks like he thinks. He must hold some beliefs, such as if I get up on Stevie’s lap in the morning will he feed me (of course, not in language, but I do not think we think in language anyway‡); he definitely has desires—feed me. Hopes I am not sure of; does waiting by the door for one of us to come home count as a hope?
So, rationality and self-awareness are two big components that go into personhood along with intentionality. [The reason I tacked on intentionality is that I have not seen this or remember it as a requirement of personhood, but do think it should be one.] I think it is plausible that Baxter has a wee bit of rationality. Certainly a lot of his behavior could be considered rational if done by a human being. As for self-awareness I again think it is at least slightly plausible that he is aware of his body if not a small portion of his mind. The latter part of this claim is certainly lower down on the plausibility scale than the former. He also seems to have some intentions.
As an aside all these requirements for personhood does deny some human beings of it. Babies may have reduced capacity in these areas. Someone with advanced stage Alzheimer’s probably has none of them. And, someone in a coma also, at least temporarily, does not have them either. A couple of others are the severely retarded and possibly active schizophrenics.
I think that Baxter along with most mammals may have a small portion of personhood under the above consideration. But, I think it could be the case that to claim personhood for anyone, that person needs to have some sense of right or wrong. This sense would be all but excluded from most mammals, including Baxter. The exceptions maybe great apes, dolphins, whales, and elephants. However, few if anyone I have read would grant this to even these animals. Marc Hauser does not think they do, and he credits a good deal of thought to some animals, and at least some to most, at least mammalian species.³
Based on my above thoughts and feelings (yes their important too) I have a certain amount of respect for other animals, but this respect does not approach the respect I have for the human type of person. I cannot make a promise (that they would understand) to another animal like I can to another human being. I maybe dedicated to Baxter and try to meet his needs and desires, but it does not compare to the dedication I have to Bette.
Speaking of feelings, I think being a person would include a full range of emotional expression with the accompanying feelings. This may rule out the sociopath. Some feelings are said to be only found in human beings, but I am not completely sure. These human feelings include guilt and, on the upside, mirth, or an emotional response to humor. Animals, certainly mammals, have emotional expression of at least some of the emotions seen in human beings. All of these mammals can show fear, anger, and pain, while some can express many more.
For feeling as a component of personhood I would definitely include mammals and maybe some other animals (I am not certain about this) as having some personhood. I think it is via emotions that we mostly interact with the mammalian species, at the very least. So, what actually does this imply?
This being said, or asked, I cannot ignore Baxter’s feelings, even if he would let me. It is the expression of feelings (or perceived expression) in Baxter and other animals that really turns the page for me. But, where does this leave me with animals I have no personal interaction with, but yet take advantage of ? Are there two zones of treatment for me toward other animals? It appears so because I eat animals and animal products, as well as use products that have probably been tested on or experimented on with animals (e.g. the medicines I take at a certain point in their development).
But—out of sight, out of mind. I have limited personal experience with farm animals of which I eat their meat. But, looking at their eyes and the way they move around at the local agricultural fair they do not seem to have much of the components to personhood. They look rather vacant of all but some rudimentary thought. Of course, I will grant them feelings, so they should be granted humane treatment. I do not know how they are humanely slaughtered, but I imagine it is not to humane. As for chickens, Bette says, “they are stupid.” However, some birds are quite intelligent, such as crows and birds of prey. Consider the owl—they do seem to look wise. And, crows are said to be able to count.
If I were consistent about the ethical treatment of animals, I should probably avoid slaughter animals, and only consume well treat animals’ products, like milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs. I do not know how stupid chickens are, but they are able to understand the pecking order, or so it seems.
What about research animals? Here I may not have any choice; I am on a number of medicines that I just could not do without. These include the drugs I take for bipolar disease—these are an absolute must. But, since the research on the two drugs I take for it is over with I could get a free pass. And, this may be the case with all the medicines I take. I can only hope that the animals, if any, that were use were treated humanely.
So, were does this leave us? Marc Hauser believes we should treat animals as moral patients; however, he does not spell out what that would entail.³ I do think that animals, mainly mammals, but maybe some birds and other creatures, should be treat humanely. I suppose this means to treat them as close to how you would treat a human being. However, I do not think it adds up to a psychological belief for me because as I stated in another blog [Can You Believe That?] a belief of this kind requires that it is actionable. One must act according to the belief if it is to count as a psychological belief, and I could be found wanting in this area of indirect harm (see next paragraph ¶).
Another author I have read is Walter Sinnot-Armstrong who in his book Morality
without god thinks that morality should be built on the concept of harm. Morally wrong acts are those that cause harm to another. However, he did not discuss our moral obligations to not harm animals; although he might have mentioned it. Using this criteria, it is hard to see how anything, but a strict adherence to it would be indicated. But, is this to strict if animals, mainly mammals, only have partial personhood?
I will leave off here, possibly to return to it in another blog. Certainly, there will be more blogs on ethics, but a further investigation in what is the moral status of animals may not be the first of them.
* Eliminative materialists (at least the Paul and Patrica Churchland’s version) think that folk psychology (applying intentional qualities) is not valid with human beings. They intend to replace it with a complete reduction to brain states. Good luck there, but I do think it is a solid endeavor, whatever the status of folk psychology. In other words folk psychology could stick around even if the reduction program would be completed This is pretty doubtful at the moment, but not because of there being emergent properties which intervene (which I will not go into now—perhaps in another blog post).
† Some would call this instinct. Maybe purring and head rubbing would be an instinct, but the application of it could not be because it would mean that every situation that calls for this behavior that Baxter faces must already be hardwired in his brain. This hardly seems likely.
^ I may return to these issues and what it may mean for our own ethical treatment in a future blog.
² It appears to come from google’s own dictionary. It is interesting that if you click on the arrow down beneath the definition it will give, along with word origins (if any), options for translations, further definitions, and a graph of use over time (by the italics you can tell I find this pretty interesting). You can also search for other word definitions in the search box. There is no link to a webpage though. I tried copying the page address and paste it here, but is was not clickable.
³ See his book Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think.