Friday, October 29, 2010

Eating Stupid Things

Jonathan Balcombe, a popular science writer and animal activist, author of Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals, gave a Chautauqua Lecture at EKU this evening. He gave a very nice, accessible presentation of the various ways in which animals can perceive, recall, communicate, and enjoy things in ways that rival and often exceed human capacity. The aim of this was to demonstrate that animals have inner lives that are meaningful and that matter--points well made. But the framing of the talk seemed off. In the beginning, he warned us of our tendency toward "intellicentrism": the moral favoring of more intelligent beings. He clarified in the Q&A that he really meant this as a bad sort of "ism" like racism and (presumably) speciesism. But I pointed out to him that if intellicentrism is bad, then his very effort to convince us that animals deserve moral consideration in their own right by showing us that animals really are smarter than we often think simply plays into the very intellicentrism that seems morally problematic.

His response: guilty as charged. But people respond well to this information; it makes them think more carefully about animals. I don't disagree that that's a good thing.

I'm just not convinced his response is acceptable. That is, it seems a bit intellectually dishonest. I do think what he's doing in the main part--educating the public about animals--is important and good. And it may be right that it is psychologically easier to identify with a being when there's some kind of graspable common ground. Interestingly, when I asked him this question, I gave him an easy way out: I asked whether he meant that people are intellicentric simply in thinking that humans are more intelligent than animals, or if it involved the moral bias mentioned above. He opted for the latter. But his talk really only addresses the former. And that's really enough, given the general ignorance about animals.

He also claimed over and over again that sentience is the foundation of all ethics. Argh. If that's right, then we should all go dancing atop human corpses for Halloween...and eat a few innocently killed cadavers, too. And if you happen to come across any anencephalic infants, you should crush them beneath your utilitarian boot. No pain, no foul.

(Interesting side-note: J.M. Coetzee wrote the preface to Balcombe's book. There's a nice paragraph where Coetzee notes the general hesitation of scientists to attribute complex mental states or traits to animals, or to trust anecdotes ascribing such traits, but that the one place where scientists fail to apply their usual skepticism is to their own "ethos" of skepticism.)


  1. It would be OK to say that we shouldn't think humans are more important than other species just because we're smarter than they are and, besides, they aren't so dumb after all. Wouldn't it? I don't know why he doesn't just say that.

    And, to be fair to the sentience crowd, it's only anencephalic infants that no sentient being cares about that are fair game. So check before you stomp.

  2. Well, since there's nothing in the anencephalic infant that has utilitarian value, any hard feelings would be irrational, so we can more or less discount those feelings--especially if we enjoy a good stomp.

  3. Ah, good point. We might even be helping people get over their irrational feelings, which would increase utility still more in the long run.

  4. I was unimpressed by the chimp example, which I probably don't fully understand, but which struck me as more of a display of superior perceptual adroitness than of the sort of computational sophistication I tend, perhaps wrongly, to associate with "intelligence". But in consideration of the massive needless suffering inflicted on other animals, I'm not too bothered by the tactical use of "intellectual dishonesty" to reduce it during a presentation before perpetrators.

  5. Rob: I actually liked the chimp example, though perhaps the problem is that it doesn't "prove" what Balcombe seems to want it to prove. Maybe the lightning fast perceptual skills don't show much about the chimps' inner life, but it's nevertheless amazing. One might compare it to the beauty of a spider's web, or something like that.

    But the chimp thing might also be an example of the sort of thing Elizabeth Costello speaks of, in discussing classic experiments with the chimp Sultan--where he was challenged to retrieve hard-to-get bananas--the scientist is looking to see whether the chimp can "reason," but is only really testing for one form of reasoning--namely, means-ends reasoning. You can't learn what chimps think about metaphysics from that kind of experiment. She suggests that these kinds of studies often force the animal to think the less interesting thought. (Not: "why is he doing this to me?" but rather, "How do I get the 'nana?")

  6. Hi, I just stumbled on this blog-post, 2.5 years late. Thanks for attending and commenting on my Chautauqua lecture. Regarding the comment about corpse dancing and anencephalic infant stomping, when I say that "sentience is the bedrock of ethics," it does not follow that sentience is the only trait that matters, as you imply. I mean only that the reason we have ethics at all is that conscious beings have feelings. I don't believe a tree is sentient, or a mountaintop, but I am intrinsically opposed to the gratuitous (and corporate) destruction of either, and not just because such destruction directly affects sentient beings who depend on them. Ethics do extend beyond sentience.