Animal Ethics and the Autonomous Animal Self
eBook - ePub

Animal Ethics and the Autonomous Animal Self

Natalie Thomas

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eBook - ePub

Animal Ethics and the Autonomous Animal Self

Natalie Thomas

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This book presents a radical and intuitive argument against the notion that intentional action, agency and autonomy are features belonging only to humans. Using evidence from research into the minds of non-human animals, it explores the ways in which animals can be understood as individuals who are aware of themselves, and the consequent basis of our moral obligations towards them.

The first part of this book argues for a conception of agency in animals that admits to degrees among individuals and across species. It explores self-awareness and its various levels of complexity which depend on an animals' other mental capacities. The author offers an overview of some established theories in animal ethics including those of Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Bernard Rollin and Lori Gruen, and the ways these theories serve to extend moral consideration towards animals based on various capacities that both animals and humans have in common. The book concludes by challenging traditional Kantian notions of rationality and what it means to be an autonomous individual, and discussing the problems that still remain in the study of animal ethics.

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© The Author(s) 2016
N. ThomasAnimal Ethics and the Autonomous Animal SelfThe Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics Series
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction

Natalie Thomas1  
Media Studies University of Guelph-Humber, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
End Abstract
Despite an increasing awareness of the welfare of animals, and an evolving interest in animal minds, animals are still treated, by and large, merely as resources for human use. Practices involving animals—such as factory farming, entertainment, and experimentation—demonstrate a general view of animals as objects, rather than as subjective individuals who have awareness of themselves and of their own experiences. On the one hand, it is fairly easy to recognize another self when we interact with dogs, cats, or other companion animals. Most people would not deny that their dog or cat is someone, rather than just something. This is because there seems to be something unique to interacting with another creature that has a mind, and we are able to recognize that individual as someone that shares certain traits with us. Dan Zahavi (2005), in his examination of selfhood, writes, “What must be realized is that bodies of others differ radically from inanimate objects, and that our perception of these minded bodies is unlike our ordinary perception of objects.” (155). For him, the experience we have when we interact with another is distinctive as we experience behaviour as an expression of a mind. This is what allows for empathy, where we are able to feel or imagine our way into the experiences of others, and which motivates us to treat them with moral consideration and care. But even when we do treat certain animals with care and consideration, we tend to turn away from and dismiss the cruel treatment of other animals from a failure to acknowledge inconsistencies in our own beliefs and actions. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on our emotions to consistently guide us towards the ethical treatment of all animals, as emotional connections are based mainly on direct encounters with others. This means that we need also to take into consideration rational reasons for believing that most animals are in fact self-aware, without relying solely on experience or emotion for such beliefs.
Our reluctance to take the moral consideration of animals seriously and consistently suggests that we view animal ethics as optional, and dependent upon our own changing needs and desires. As a philosopher, I believe that being as consistent as possible in our beliefs is important in pursuing true knowledge; as an ethicist, I believe that this can lead us and others, both human and animal, to living better and happier lives. To achieve greater consistency in our ethical decisions and actions we need to consider on what rational grounds an individual is owed direct moral consideration. This means identifying which traits or characteristics of individuals are morally relevant, and then determining which individuals possess these morally relevant features. Many theories of animal ethics adopt this method, by looking at whether or not animals possess certain capacities that make them morally considerable, and I follow this trend to a certain extent. I too ask the same fundamental questions as other ethical theorists, such as “Do we owe animals direct moral consideration, and if so, on what grounds?” and “To what extent do we owe animals direct moral consideration?” However, I believe that many of these other theories have overlooked the importance of certain key features of what makes individuals morally considerable and valuable. These features are agency, self-awareness, and autonomy. My main claim in this book is that many, if not most, animals are self-aware, autonomous agents. Certainly, these capacities and characteristics are included in various ways in some of the most well known theories of animal ethics, but they are left as secondary considerations to the issues of rights, the ability to suffer, and the weighing of or equal consideration of interests. These views tend to fall into distinct categories that are labelled as rights views, abolitionist views, and welfarist views. Whereas welfarist views take animal suffering and its alleviation into consideration, they do not always succeed in treating animal suffering in morally consistent ways, and they are sometimes overly cautious in ascribing animals morally relevant traits that would dramatically change our relationships with them. This is sometimes due to fears of incorrectly anthropomorphizing the behaviours of animals, and sometimes as a result of a hesitation to call animals conscious or self-aware.
The rights views take more than just animal suffering into consideration, but can have difficulty in resolving conflicts between different rights holders, especially when it comes to those between humans and other animals. Also, ascribing rights to a particular group does not necessarily guarantee that they are treated in morally acceptable ways.
Abolitionist views demand the complete cessation of all relationships that involve the use of animals for human purposes, sometimes including relationships that can, in fact, be beneficial for both species involved, such as the relationships between humans and companion animals. For these reasons, I believe that the right way to treat animals does not entail any one of these particular views, but rather that we avoid using animals merely as a means to our own ends. That we ought to treat animals as intentional agents that are self-aware and autonomous is the view that I present and defend in this book, as an alternative to other views of animal ethics that focus on different morally relevant capacities of individuals as the grounds for moral consideration. To support this view, I provide an overview of current arguments and evidence for animal agency and self-awareness, as well as a conceptual analysis of autonomy as the grounds for direct moral duties towards animals. It is my hope that the ambiguities surrounding the definitions of these capacities and concepts can be clarified here, for the benefit of both the reader, and for those that use these concepts in their work on research into animal minds and ethics.
The book is divided into seven chapters. In Chap. 2, I argue for a conception of agency in animals that admits to degrees among individuals and across species. Included in this chapter is an overview of arguments supporting the claims that some animals can properly be said to possess beliefs, desires, and preferences. Based on these arguments, I claim that animals can also be more or less rational, in terms of being able to make decisions and direct their actions based on reasons. An animal can be considered minimally rational, and this is enough to say that some animals can be considered agents. If we grant that some animals are intentional agents, then further questions arise as to whether or not animals can also be considered as moral agents, or individuals who are able to act for moral reasons. In examining views that claim animals are minimal moral agents, or moral subjects, the idea that animals are acting agents is further supported. Although it is generally accepted that animals have minds and are able to perceive others and objects within their surrounding environments, there are still sceptics who would deny either that animals do not possess concepts or that, even if they do, we are unable to know anything about them. But, to investigate animal minds at all, some basic assumptions are needed, and whether or not these assumptions are warranted is the focus of this chapter.
In Chap. 3, I claim that some animals are self-aware, to varying degrees. To do this requires an examination of the various ways self-awareness has been defined and understood, and so I provide an account of some of the main views that support the idea that self-awareness can be more or less complex, depending on other mental capacities an animal might also possess. From a basic sense of mine-ness, body-ness, or phenomenal awareness, to a fully-fledged, reflective self-identity, self-awareness is a trait that most conscious individuals possess, including many animals. The view of self-awareness as existing on a gradient of complexity is also supported through an overview of empirical research on animal minds, which shows that—while there is no one specific mental capacity that can be used to definitively argue that some animals are self-aware—there is a growing amount of evidence to support the claim that self-awareness can be indicated by some of these capacities, such as tool use and communication. By arguing that some animals are minimally self-aware, I believe this provides the grounds for their moral consideration, as creatures for which experiences can be good or bad, and so I also examine ways that even a minimal sense of self-awareness in others can obligate us towards them, morally.
If many animals can be understood to be self-aware, then it changes our view of them as merely objects for our use, to seeing them as individual selves deserving of moral consideration. In ethics it is assumed that we only have direct moral obligations towards other selves, and not towards inanimate objects. Although this distinction seems straightforward and non-controversial, the widespread treatment of animals as objects to be used as a means to human ends speaks otherwise. And so, in Chap. 4, I examine the concept of autonomy as it applies to individuals who are self-aware agents, and as the grounds for owing others direct moral obligations. If acting agents are self-aware, however minimally, and able to direct their own actions towards achieving certain goals or fulfilling their own interests, then we owe such individuals respect for that freedom. I argue that autonomy, if understood as the ability to act freely and for one’s own reasons, exists at both minimal and rich levels in animals and humans, depending on the complexity of mental capacities that different individuals possess. Respecting the autonomy of animals requires us to invest time and energy to better identify those features of individuals that indicate how we ought to treat them and, as the focus is on individual animals, it also means that we cannot assume that all animals of one species ought to be treated in the same ways. By presenting a view of autonomy that admits to degrees, rather than as a feature that is either possessed by individuals or not, I believe that we have a stronger basis for an animal ethics than those that focus only on the capacity for suffering, or on the consideration of comparative interests.
There are some established theories in animal ethics that have served to extend moral consideration towards animals based on various capacities that both animals and humans have in common. In Chap. 5, I consider some of these views, including those held by Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Bernard Rollin. I also consider a view held by Lori Gruen that challenges this approach to animal ethics and focuses instead on the importance of difference, care, and empathy as the sources of our moral obligations towards animals. The contributions these philosophers have made, and continue to make to the field of animal ethics, are invaluable, as they all aim to expose many human–animal interactions as unethical based on the use of reason and emotion. The purpose of this chapter then, is not to argue that these theories are wholly inaccurate, but rather to show that by omitting a thorough consideration of self-awareness and autonomy they suffer from problems in both theory and application. And so, after explaining the nature of some of these problems, I present reasons why the inclusion of the self-awareness and autonomy of animals is required as a more accurate ground for animal ethics. Indeed, I believe that these theories can work in conjunction with each other, and with my own view, by acknowledging and incorporating these concepts into their own theories.
In Chap. 6, I examine Kantian moral theory and its application to animals. Although Kant himself did not believe that animals are autonomous, or that we have direct moral obligations towards them, he did not entirely discount them from moral consideration. Some recent reinterpretations of his arguments show that it is possible to support the claim that animals are ends-in-themselves, and are worthy of direct moral consideration. As autonomy is a central concept in Kantian moral theory, I consider how these views might support my own by challenging traditional Kantian notions of rationality and what it means to be an autonomous individual. I argue that animals can be considered autonomous ends-in-themselves and that Kantian moral theory can be seen to support this claim, along with being a source of guidance for our ethical treatment of animals. I then conclude the book with further considerations of what problems still remain in the study of animal ethics, and in what direction further research should continue.
It is important to clarify here that throughout the book I refer to non-human animals simply as animals. This is for the sake of brevity only, and it is not meant to obscure the fact that humans are also animals, or that there are differences between individual animals or animal species. As much of what I am arguing for is focused on the mental capacities of animals, it is also important to note that much of the research into animal minds is based on studies that include mammals, birds, and sometimes fish. Drawing any sort of line between minded or non-minded, conscious or non-conscious animals is very difficult, and I leave that purposively ambiguous in this book. If we are unsure, or have some reason to believe that certain individuals or species should also be considered conscious, then it is best to include them in the realm of moral consideration rather than risk an arbitrary exclusion.
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  1. Zahavi, D. (2005). Subjectivity and selfhood: Investigating the first-person perspective. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Crossref
© The Author(s) 2016
N. ThomasAnimal Ethics and the Autonomous Animal SelfThe Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics Series
Begin Abstract

2. Animals as Agents

Natalie Thomas1
Media Studies University of Guelph-Humber, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
End Abstract


People enjoy watching animals. Whether it is watching dogs play in the park, or birds gathering at a feeder, we are fascinated by the actions of animals, both wild and domesticated. Part of this is wonder, especially when we observe animals acting in ways that seem so similar to ours. We may question why certain animals act in the specific ways that they do, and we might compare them to our own to try to determine the reasons. None of this kind of thinking seems particularly scientific or philosophical. But if we take the question of what animals are thinking seriously, it quickly leads us into the realms of science, psychology, biology, ethics, and philosophy.
One way to begin the investigation into animal minds is to consider the concept of agency, and what makes someone an acting agent, rather than, for example, a passive object. If animals are agents, then they are capable of making choices, and this means that we owe them moral obligations since we generally consider that those who can make choices possess a will. Having a will means that the creature in question is not a mere object, but someone who values the freedom to make choices based on beliefs, desires, and preferences. As I argue further in subsequent chapters, being an acting and self-aware agent is the basis of autonomy, and so provides the grounds for moral consideration. In this chapter I provide an account of agency, along with beliefs, desires, preferences, intentions, and rationality to argue that animals are practical agents in more or less complex ways. This includes a consideration of the cognitive features required for agency, and what it takes to be considered an agent that acts on the basis of reasons. I argue that most animals can be considered minimal agents, based on evidence provided by arguments and assumptions that make sense of observable animal behaviours. In fact, it is important to remember that the study of animal cognition relies on the assumption that animals are agents, even if only minimally so. This is because, as Kristin Andrews (2012) suggests, animals would not be the proper subjects of cognitive studies if animals did not have beliefs. As all cognitive systems have beliefs, then animals must hav...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Front Matter
  3. 1. Introduction
  4. 2. Animals as Agents
  5. 3. Self-Awareness and Selfhood in Animals
  6. 4. Autonomy and Animals
  7. 5. Other Views of Animal Ethics
  8. 6. Kantian Ethics and Animals
  9. 7. Conclusions and Further Directions
  10. Back Matter