The Question is Not “Can They Reason?…” The Question is Why Are Will Still Exploiting Animals?

cowA new study shows that fish are smarter than scientists thought.  Wired did a story a few weeks ago on “clever critters” who use tools of various sorts.  Psychologist Irene Pepperberg has just released a new book, Alex & Me, detailing her 30 year relationship with and research on Alex, an African Grey Parrot, who showed (among other revelations) that birds can understand abstract concepts.  Several months ago Joshua Klein gave a talk at the TED.com conference about the amazing intelligence of crows.   And, in my job for the Institute for Humane Education, I just finished editing and formatting a student’s lesson plan for elementary students about the commonalities that humans, cows, pigs and chickens share, such as having friends, good memories and senses of direction, and the ability to play computers games or learn from watching TV (check out this video as an example of the latter two).

For centuries we have tried to differentiate ourselves from animals, labeling ourselves as smarter – and thus better – because of our use of tools, our ability to feel, our ability to recognize ourselves and to understand abstract concepts, our use of language, our awareness of death, and so on. Throughout the years, we’ve seen these theories upon which we’ve based our superiority shattered. Animals, too, share these same (or similar) qualities. Yet, we humans continue to wear blinders when it comes to our place in the world, because it’s a lot easier to look at yourself in the mirror each morning if your conscience isn’t struggling with the consequences of your actions. As Arthur Schopenhauer once said “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

Skeptics say that the behavior in animals which some scientists say reflects consciousness, intelligence, the ability to feel and think, actually results from “natural selection and learning.” How is that any different from our own way of existing? We learn by imitation, trial and error, and cultural passage, just as non-human animals do. We often revere people who exhibit unique or rare behaviors; yet, when animals show unique behavior, it is dismissed, because science demands repeatable examples. One could argue that most people behave and react very similarly. Is it then only those who possess genius who are truly conscious and intelligent? Are the rest of us existing through the shadows on Plato’s cave?

It really doesn’t matter, though, how smart animals are, or how conscious or how feeling. Because we know that the real relevant distinction is DNA. Objectively, there is no good reason to consider animals inferior. We do so because we choose to. As scholar Brian Luke once said, “Regarding other animals as subhuman is more a choice than a recognition of some objective fact.” We can talk about intelligence and emotions and suffering, but the bottom line is: Who can we get away with exploiting? We aren’t  supposed to exploit other humans anymore — although that hasn’t stopped us from continuing to do so — but we can get away with exploiting non-human animals. So we do. Novelist Brigid Brophy said,

“Whenever people say ‘We mustn’t be sentimental,’ you can take it that they are about to do something cruel. And if they add ‘We must be realistic,’ they mean they are going to make money out of it.”

We exploit animals—we cause them suffering and distress and agony and loneliness—because we choose to. Not because it benefits our soul, but because it benefits our pockets. Or simply, because we want to.

To me, the question of whether or not animals are conscious or intelligent or inferior is irrelevant. The relevant question is: What kind of person do I want to be? Do I want to cause suffering and destruction? Do I want to rain down hell on another being that I would do anything not to experience myself? Or, do I want to choose to be the highly evolved, highly conscious being that I claim to be? Do I want to strive to be the most human (and humane) that I can, which means showing compassion and respect and reverence and responsibility? Not just to my fellow humans—but to all beings, regardless of consciousness or intelligence. Regardless of DNA.

We claim to want a world of peace and love. And we can have the world we want—it’s all in the choices that we make every day. Every choice we make carries such power. Every choice we make helps shape the world. But we won’t have that world as long as we oppress and exploit other beings – including animals. Many of us don’t directly hurt animals, but the choices that we make and the systems that we support do. So we are still complicit. We are still responsible.

I invite you to make a choice today and every day. Make a choice to see beyond outward differences. Make a choice to see that all of us—humans and not—feel love and fear and a desire to live out our lives in peace. And make a choice to live your life in a way that will truly create a world of peace and love for all beings.

~ Marsha