It surprises me, frustrates me, even angers me how quickly Japanese people confer souls upon animals in their speech and, by implication, in their thoughts. It happens so frequently that I am convinced it is a common and widespread belief among Japanese, probably other Asians as well and (I would not be surprised considering today’s social environment) probably among many Westerners, too. I encounter it if I try having a conversation with Japanese about animal rights in the context of current global issues. My speaking partners too quickly refer to animals’ souls as a basis for conferring rights upon them.
“It seems that they have souls!”
Remember that how things seem, feel, look or appear bears a lot of currency in Japanese and Asian cultures. (How things look is more important than how they actually are.) They are prone to say “I feel” when what they mean is “I think.” During my first years in JapanI often came away from conversations or presentations with a full sense of the speakers’ feelings’ but annoyed at the paucity their thought. Of course, in English we also use “feel” for“think” - particularly when we want to soften something up considerably - but not nearly as consistently or frequently as Japanese do.
The traditional Western position on this point is that humankind, made in the image of God, is invested with individual souls on that basis alone - our proximity to divinity. Our eternal spirit is unique to us, continuous with our bodies, but not consubstantial with the body. But animals - co-created with Man according to the Scriptures - are not - I mean, neither made in God’s image (less proximate to divinity), nor invested with a spirit. Pet owners are an obstacle in the debate because of their common insistence (based on long and close familiarity) that their animals possess personality, will, thought and emotion. Many pet owners stubbornly keep to their conclusions based on years of close observation and co-existence with household animals. The facts that animals yawn and stretch, and that some animals are known to dream - dogs, for example, and others - like bees and ants - communicate precise and complex information to their colonies - inflate the comparison.
My British friend Nigel has a pet bird. I like to use the bird as an example because, like a fish, it has a sufficiently small brain to allow me to more easily question the anthropomorphisms heaped upon it. The bird can open and close the door to its own cage and come and go unassisted (although when I watch it I feel like assisting it because, really, it seems to have a hard time of it). Nigel speaks of it coming and going as it“pleases,” and of it “wanting” to enter or exit its cage. I deny that the bird “wants” to do anything. Maybe it does indeed come and go from its cage on a whim. But I say that what that whim may be is beyond our ken.
Instead, it comes and goes from its cage not so much for reasons of desire as we understand it as for reasons that are nonsensical to us. I have no faith in analogizing animal cognition and human cognition. Neurology reliably tells us what centers of the brain are responsible for high order thought, and so we know for a fact that some animals are incapable of “thinking”anything at all because of the geography of their brains. But try saying that to pet owners
People - including Nigel - often interpret individual characteristics in their pets as evidence of individuality and therefore personality. They do not hesitate to equate individuality with personality, nor do they hesitate to anthropomorphize their observations of individuality, or question their anthropomorphizing. They present their anthropomorphisms to me in debate as evidence. I point out that they are anthropomorphizing, and they say,
“Yes, but look, you can’t deny ......”
as if I would be stupid to deny it. But I do deny it - and not because I am stupid. I do not deny that animals display evidence of individual personality in their behaviors. But I do not confuse personality with either individuality, cognition or soul. I think Nigel makes the mistake of confusing appearance with reality, like a Japanese. Even when animals demonstrate what humans interpret as fantastically advanced thinking, calculating, conscious behavior, I have no tolerance for listening to humans talk about what the animals are “like.” We only have the ability to explain animal behavior in human terms. We have no inkling whatsoever what the animal is really like or what it is doing.
I know that I am human, but I still cannot be certain about the rest of you.
About animal rights, the starting position for the contemporary debate was to analogize human neurology and animal neurology and thereby make conclusions about humane behavior and moral action based on our conclusions of animals’ experience of life. Feeling pain was the start, I think. If we consider that animals feel pain as humans do, then we must face the implications of animal cognizance of their pain. If animals are cognizant of their pain, then a moral principle to minimize it on humane grounds falls to humans. And, if we admit that animals possess any cognition at all, then we must deal with the question of the scope of their cognition and the proposition of animal consciousness - thoughts, wants, feelings, etc - stemming from it. (Perhaps this is where the notion of animals’ souls enters the discussion. Because if we can admit that animals are conscious as we understand consciousness, then maybe that invites consideration of a soul.) Hence the brain analogy, the common physiology of brains and their functions.
I think that too many people habitually over estimate the comparison of our experiences of consciousness. In truth, we haven’t the faintest idea what it is to experience life as a dog because the experience of consciousness is not just a question of the operations of the brain. It includes the manner in which we live. Come to that, we haven’t the faintest idea what it is to experience life as another human being, either, because it is a fundamental rule that no one knows the mind of another. We think we do because we think that being of the same species, living in community with our fellows, and sharing experience through language gives us that ability. But reality is always something other than what we imagine and the debate is far from settled. So, I know that I am human, but I still cannot be certain about they rest of you.
The brain analogy creates the framework for speculating how “like” us other species are. We assume that all human beings are equally alike, laying the groundwork for universal, “inalienable” human rights. Curiously, rights are extended even to those who seem quite unlike us, personally. I mean, we assign rights to the unborn, the underage and the infirm or incapacitated. But we do not legally award rights to animals that might possess a higher IQ than even some humans boast - for example, than a mentally retarded human, or a human fetus or baby. There is a paradox here. We may conduct medical experiments on a chimpanzee, for example, but we would never dream of doing so on a mentally retarded human with a lower IQ. Well, some of us might, especially in George Bush’s America, but ....
The debate based on brain analogy by-passes, or detours around the old argument that rights go hand-in-hand with responsibilities. So, for example, it could be said that no one “deserves” rights without either assuming social responsibility, or possessing the capacity to bear responsibility. That is why children do not vote or drive automobiles - but still, in a court of law an adult can claim diminished responsibility while still anticipating protection of his inalienable rights. Interesting. It is why we can/could deny legal rights to animals - because they have no capacity to bear responsibility in human society. On those grounds, I can confidently say that we may deny human rights to a wide swath of human people: the mentally retarded, the infirm, the unborn, those incarcerated in penal facilities, as well as all non-human creatures. It is an old argument, but not one without merit. In a classic sense, most humans alivetoday probably do not qualify to enjoy rights.
The scarcity of some animal species - the threat of extinction - is something to consider, but not a foundation of the rights principle. But it does present us with the notion of a species’ right to exist at all including our own, and it is cause for concern about the overall diversity of the planetary gene pool.