A recent post highlighted the fact that dung beetles navigate by the light of the Milky Way galaxy and suggested the possibility of cultivating a greater compassion for insects. This is a precarious yet common form of reasoning on behalf of animals.
Animal rights and animal protection organizations regularly point out the amazing range of abilities that nonhuman animals possess. In a video released by PETA titled “Who Cares”, we learn that rats and mice are “affectionate”, “clever”, “resourceful”, that they “form lifelong relationships”, and even “giggle when they are having fun”. In laboratories they are said to feel “lonely, anxious, and depressed”.
In Defense of Animals (IDA) describes elephants as “complex, social animals” who “live in extended family groups” and develop “lifelong bonds”.
Note that this is often quite different from learning about animals for the express purpose of skillfully caring for them and/or being sure not to unwittingly cause them harm. It may be practically important to know about familial bonds amongst animals but probably less important to know if they regularly laugh (or sing).
I am lightheartedly calling this the Zoobooks Approach to animal liberation. It could just as easily be described as the David Attenborough Approach. The core idea is to encourage people to learn about animals as a means of heightening their respect and consideration for those animals. So for example, one might think that if people know that pigs enjoy, and arguably excel, at playing video games they will act differently toward pigs (but then again, given that such video game research has been done by animal science professors and apologists for animal agriculture it is probably not the best example!).
The danger in this line of reasoning is that one mistakenly takes the presence of such abilities and/or intelligences as requisites for moral consideration. The danger is amplified when the ability or intelligence in question is deemed to be “human-like”; animals are then often seen as worthy of concern only to the extent that they are like us. But as Gary Francione notes, “there is absolutely no logical relationship between the possession of humanlike intelligence and the morality of using animals as resources.”
So how do I explain seemingly engaging in this form of argument last month and then calling it into question this month? My explanation is that this shouldn’t be considered a “form of argument” in the first place and that problems only arise when it is considered as an argument.
I do not wish to suggest that insects warrant compassion because they navigate by starlight, recognize their peers, experience loneliness, or may be able to count. We do not need to know these things about a particular individual or species in order to grant it moral consideration. The facts presented in an issue of Zoobooks are not presented as premises in a moral argument.
That dung beetles are “celestial navigators” is closer to a dramatic and memorable story than an academic argument.
It should be clear that philosophical arguments alone cannot bring liberation for animals; if it were otherwise, the task of liberation would be behind us. And while scientific experiments continue to reveal a great wealth of information about our animal relations the findings rarely cause even the experimenters to set aside cruel and invasive techniques.
It has been said that scientists could discover that dairy cows spend their time praying the rosary and awaiting the return of Jesus and it wouldn’t add a day to their life. To wit, the person who discovered that rats laugh—Jaak Panksepp—is himself an unapologetic animal experimenter who, as recently as August 2012, was a co-author on a study in which rats were forced to fight one another before being decapitated and having their brains removed and cut into slices.
So it is clear that facts are not enough and even when strung together into cogent arguments remain insufficient to affect the behavior of most people. We therefore need to do more than aspire to allot moral consideration based on the result of an algorithm, moral calculus, or peer-reviewed article; rationing compassion in this manner is unlikely to work.
We—in the broadest and most inclusive sense—need stories.
The Dark Mountain Manifesto, released in 2009, comes to a similar conclusion stating that: “borrowing the guise of science and reason, we began to deny the role of stories, to dismiss their power as something primitive, childish, outgrown…Yet for all this, our world is still shaped by stories.”
We need stories that inspire and leave us in awe of our animal relations. Stories that are informed in part by science, in part by lived experience but stories that make us grateful for the company of our four-legged, our feathered, our finned, our scaled, and our cold-blooded relations.
Philosophers, scientists, and theorists all have a role to play but the contributions of skilled storytellers and gifted artists must not be overlooked .