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THE PHILOSOPHERS’ GROAN: These philosophers could help us rediscover our place among other animals

The image of an impassable wall, with humans on one side and animals on the other, and dogs and cats offered temporary visas, is a construction of the human imagination. And so too is the idea that humans belong anywhere other than with the animals.

RACHAEL WISEMAN: Children think that pigs are as deserving of kindness as dogs and cats, and as readily condemn cruelty to hamsters as cruelty to other children, a recent study has shown. The moral hierarchy of animals – with humans at the top, followed by pets, farm animals and pests – that governs much of adult thinking is not, it seems, an innate one. Despite being born in 1919, this result would not have surprised the late philosopher Mary Midgley.

When raising her own children, Midgley noticed that infants are brought up in a mixed community. They may grow up among cats, dogs, hamsters, horses and budgerigars, as well as young of their own kind. At the start of their lives – at first on all fours, then standing – their view of the living room is, quite literally, closer to Tabby’s (table legs and the flanks of chairs) than to their parents’.

Species-imprinting, the means by which an animal acquires its sense of species identification, tells the cub it is a lion and the cygnet that it is a swan. This mechanism has its work cut out in a human infant who may list the family dog ahead of her cousins in a ranking of friends.

In fact, children have to be taught to think that they only have moral obligations to other humans, Midgley wrote in her book Animals And Why They Matter. The species barrier – the boundary which seems to exclude other animals from the moral and social world of humans – she observed…

The image of an impassable wall, with humans on one side and animals on the other – and dogs and cats offered temporary visas – is a construction of the human imagination. And so too, Midgley wrote, is the idea that humans belong anywhere other than with the animals. As she wrote in Beast and Man: “We are not just rather like animals; we are animals”. The fact that we are on hind legs and peering at the other species from above is no reason to think ourselves apart.

For Midgley, the task of coming to understand our animal nature was not just a scientific one, but something that would require a leap in our imagination. This conceptual leap has never been more urgent. Without transformative changes to the way humans live in the world, nearly a million species face extinction. Scientific studies can remind us of our kinship with animals, but on their own they cannot help us understand the meaning and importance of that kinship, nor its moral and political implications. For this, we need to examine our concepts and ideas about animals – a task that requires philosophy…

Midgley’s friend and fellow philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote about the ways in which the acquisition of language affects human life. She noted that there are some things you can get a person (or indeed a dog) to do without language. But if you can get them to make a promise or sign a contract – two activities reliant on human language – the possibilities for involving them in your plans become vast… Though it is our language that makes us the most dangerous of all the animals, Midgley thought it was nevertheless in language – rather than in science or technology – that our environmental salvation must lie…

What would it mean to take up Midgley’s way of thinking about our relation to other animals and to the natural world more broadly? If Midgley is right, then we can draw an important lesson from the children who participated in the scientific study. Their attitude reminds us what we, adults, have learned to forget: that we are animals, just like dogs and pigs, and that it’s only our imagination that stands in the way of us extending the moral concern that we have for humans to other kinds of animal. SOURCE…


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