Imagine you are on a bus ride to an unknown destination. The road is little more than a dirt track, littered with potholes, and you are constantly bounced around in your seat. There is no air conditioning. Sweat is dripping down your back and you are starting to smell. The same is true of your fellow travelers. Some of them have brought livestock and other animals on board. Kids are screaming; the bathrooms are blocked and overflowing. It is clear that no one on the bus has any idea where you are going, and only the haziest idea of where you are coming from. Nevertheless, all around you people are making up stories—ungrounded in logic and untethered to evidence—about where they are going to alight and what their prospects will be once they get there.
This situation might give rise to feelings of difference and superiority: I am not like these others; I am better. But suppose, out of the corner of your eye, you caught one of your fellow passengers looking at you, and you looked back. In that person’s eyes, you would see the same anguish, the same recognition of hopelessness and futility, the same disgust, the same fear. At that moment, you would realize that you were both in this together—indeed, that everyone on the bus was in this together. This was the kind of realization articulated by the German idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “From this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be not Monsieur, Sir, Mein Herr, but my fellow sufferer, Soci Malorum, compagnons de misère. This…reminds us of that which is after all the most necessary thing in life—the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor of which everyone stands in need and which, therefore, every man owes his fellow.”11xArthur Schopenhauer, “On the Suffering of the World,” Essays and Aphorisms, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London, England: Penguin, 1970), 50.
With regard to those of our fellow travelers who were not human-born, our attitude has almost always been of the first variety. Indeed, an anthropologist from Mars might regard us humans as singularly insecure animals, curiously obsessed with identifying some quality that decisively distinguishes us from the rest of animal creation. If we were more reflective creatures, we might realize that the answer has been staring us in the face all along: We are the animals curiously obsessed with distinguishing ourselves from the rest of animal creation. Alas, being insufficiently elevating, this definition would not be what we were hoping for. A nasty case of status anxiety is hardly an enviable distinguishing characteristic. What we really want is not merely differentiation from the rest of animal kind but elevation above it. Below the angels maybe, but above the animals definitely. The Great Chain of Being and all that.
But why can’t other animals be important precisely because they are different from us? Why can’t we just celebrate differences? The answer, of course, is that we are not very good at that. If anything, judging from our online activity during the last couple of decades, we appear to be getting worse at it. But group polarization is not something we accidentally fell into. On the contrary, we have embraced it. A pronounced preference for ourselves is, in fact, built into the way we value things.
Take moral value, for example. Morality, for us, is like a club—a moral club. There are things that merit moral consideration: These are in the club. And there are things beneath such consideration: They are outside the club. Rocks would be good examples of things outside the club. Humans are supreme examples of club members. What about other animals? In part, it depends on your preferred moral theory. Suppose you are a utilitarian. Utilitarianism tells us to maximize happiness (whatever that is). So, you can be in the moral club only to the extent that you can experience happiness or unhappiness. We humans know that we can be happy and unhappy. We are in the club. But if we are not sure about the consciousness of animals—their capacity for happiness and unhappiness—then we must also be unsure whether they are members of the moral club.
Perhaps your tastes run more to the Kantian. According to Immanuel Kant, the moral club is occupied solely by rational individuals. We know we are rational, or so we tell ourselves. But to the extent that we are unsure about the rationality of animals, we must also be unsure whether they really belong in the moral club.
The specifics—happiness, rationality, etc.—are of only secondary importance. Of primary importance is the general picture of how we humans come to value things, and what those things are. Our valuing has a decidedly human center. Unfortunately, it is a sad quirk of human nature that things matter to us only to the extent that they are like us. And to the extent that they are not like us, they really don’t matter much at all. I am not endorsing this view. I wish things were different, even while harboring serious doubts they ever could be. The question of whether and to what extent animals are like us is, therefore, of critical importance. Indeed, it is so important that it has become the animating question behind considerable scientific and scholarly work in such diverse fields as anthropology, ethology, cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy. This work variously focuses on what might or might not distinguish humans from their fellow creatures (consciousness being the paramount example) and, more broadly, on what might be called the inner lives of those creatures with whom we share the earth.
The stakes of these investigations are particularly high in our age, one which some scholars call the Anthropocene, in recognition of the unprecedented mastery the human species has achieved over the planet and its biosphere, for better and for worse. The environmental problems we face today, for example, are all arguably consequences or expressions of an extremely anthropocentric framework of value that has accompanied the rise of human mastery over the world. This framework is, in turn, an expression of the differentiating and elevating impulse that constitutes the first attitude of the passenger on the bus. So we might be well advised to try to consider or even cultivate the second attitude, one of recognition. We need to learn to see animals for what—and maybe who—they really are.