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.)