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The Arrogance of Intelligence Culture: Animal Rights and Emotions

October 27, 2014

I am wary of making assumptions about what animals know, feel and understand, as each of our past assumptions are refuted, like the steady dripping of a leaky tap, with every day that passes. I am used to the arguments that livestock accept their lot in life because they lack the intelligence to object. I say we know next to nothing about cows, thus far too little to make that assumption; people are greatly more interested in the study of dogs and cats, horses and wild birds – animals, in short, we do not eat. Few think to examine the behaviour of livestock, perhaps thinking these animals boring. They are only observed in relation to improving the efficiency of animal agriculture.

If you cannot observe inside the mind of species, you must consider that its reasons for action or inaction may be more complex than you give credit for. We are not so very advanced that we are close to knowing everything about Earth, far from it; a good zoologist will readily admit that, especially in regards to animal communication, we have barely scratched the surface. Sounds that we can’t hear, chemical transmissions we can’t sense, light displays we can’t see and body language we can’t understand make up the world of animal thinking and communication, which proves itself to be more complex than any of our forbears ever dreamed. And we continue to be surprised.

So, the one response I feel safe to give is to say that our reading of cattle behaviour probably indicates faults in our interpretation and not in its transmission. Cattle do not exist to converse with humans; evolutionarily, they do not need to. Neither in captivity – they are fed without needing to indicate their desire for food. By all accounts, their response to members of their own species is far more complex. That we see no sign of thought in their faces is proof of nothing, other than that a cattle face is not the same as a human face, and our eyes are not finely tuned to read one. This is neither profound nor relevant to establishing intelligence, will or ability to feel.

When cattle raised as livestock do not attempt escape their predicament, we can assume they feel reasonably safe. Because, I’m sure, they don’t know that the hand that feeds them is the hand they most definitely ought to bite, and hard, since it means them more harm than good. This safety is an illusion and a betrayal of trust by the animal owner, who infatuates cattle with food and keeps them restrained as a trade-off for its protein yield.

When the cattle is towed and tethered, it may be able to reason that the ready supply of food is worth this domestication, much the way horses probably reasoned the same. Some may doubt that horses “reason”, at all, but it seems unlikely that horses would consent to ferry us around if they saw no benefit in it for themselves; perhaps it is love and trust that keeps cattle and horses tame, though if this is the case, it makes our betrayal all the worse.

In any case, their acceptance of their lot in life may be more to do with resignation than limited mental capacity. Vocalising this acceptance makes them sound human: Why fight, when they will catch you and restrain you? Why moan, when they will ignore you? You’re punished with more restraints for struggling and rewarded with food for staying. It’s not such a bad life… They, of course, do not know why they are kept or what fate awaits them.

We assume animals are weak of will, that they stay in our custody when plied with food because they are simple. Yet, we still have to constrain them, observing that otherwise they would wander off. When they at last give up struggling in their tethers and instead satisfy themselves with eating, we assume this indicates that they lack direction and purpose, and thus will.

This is clearly a contradiction. If an animal pulls against its restraints, it has a will, even if its will has no discernible direction from a human perspective. Our mistake is to think that if the animal does not have some specific purpose that is human in its logic, like: “Flee to the nearest forest and start a family”, it will bring harm to itself if it is freed, and is being kept restrained for its own good.

It is likely that an animal raised as livestock wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild, but since it is our fault this is the case, it is a weak argument, much as it is when an abusive person tells their spouse they’re free to leave if they want to leave, while simultaneously freezing the bank account.

For an animal, the drive to escape is a survival instinct and as complex as it needs to be for that purpose. This should be considered a legitimate will. Instead, we define everything in human terms and think the mere drive to escape is not one worth respecting, compared to the heady levels of “need” we have developed as a result of our millennia of philosophising.

Yet, escape is freedom, and freedom is a complex experience indeed. The wish for freedom is a drive that we have had for as long as we can remember and apparently, animals have it too, so strongly that all but the most well-trained of dogs will take off without a backward glance when let free from its restraints, and return often only with some reluctance. The fact that they return at all when called is taken as a sign of intelligence. But intelligence and loyalty are not the same thing, especially to humans, who recognise that blind loyalty is a type of naïvety.

Loyalty is an emotion dogs feel towards a species other than itself for some reason. It does not share this with many other creatures, if any; they are the weird ones, and it is not a sign of intelligence. They cannot know for sure that their lives are improved by living with humans; much as we can agree that dogs are quite intelligent, we can also probably agree that they are unlikely to posses a mind capable of producing complex hypothetical scenarios. In which case, they return to their owners mainly because they are trained and inclined to do so, and to some extent because there is safety in familiarity.

Cattle, too, have a sense of safety from familiarity and may form bonds of fondness with humans they know, as they form bonds with other cattle. Nonetheless, they are creatures that range large areas of land in the wild and should at the very least be kept semi-wild. If the animal wants to walk off, you should let it; it is expressing its will in the most direct way that it can. Its language of action could be considered a common language between humans and non-human animals. Humans do not let their animals walk off because it is against the culture of animal agriculture and pet-keeping, but that does not make it an ethical response.

We fool ourselves if we say we have their best interests at heart; perhaps we do to some extent, but it is others’ best interests compromised with our own interests that truly defines our actions. We want pets, meat and milk among other things, so we take animal companionship and co-operation by whatever means we can and satisfy ourselves that they are, at least, unlikely to be unhappy.

I question the effect this has on our collective consciousness, as much as the effect it has on individual animals. When a people becomes accustomed to the idea that animals are primarily for our use, under our dominion, alive and cared for by our grace, we inflate our own personal sense of importance. This, I’m convinced, easily crosses boundaries; from deciding that one species is more important than another, it is all to easy to assume one race is more important than another, or some other group marked out by equally superficial and overrated aspects such as intelligence, sophistication or the perception of each of these. In the grand scheme of things, neither matters.

Cattle are no more or less cosmically insignificant than us, and on planet Earth there is no objective force that decides the superiority or inferiority of creatures. Thus, if we are to escape our culture of arrogance, we must conclude all animals are equal, that land is not owned but in a sense rented from nature, at the meagre price of necessitating sharing it with other species, in order that the ecosystem flourish and the living Earth might live longer. That intelligence creates superiority is a line of thinking that suits us because we are the most intelligent. If there were another species marginally more so, we would be the first to contest this assumption, and we would do well to remember this when we use animals as we please simply because we can.

As it is, our only reason for assuming that we are the most intelligent creatures of Earth is that we have not yet discovered any species more intelligent. Indeed, it may be impossible to do so, if it requires understanding of concepts inherently beyond our comprehension, because of our limitations. An entertaining (though I admit none too convincing) notion is that we have interpreted everything the way that fits best in our limited understanding of the world, that our whole understanding of Earth is fiction; our limitations that stopped us recognising the more intelligent being(s) that stands so obviously over the top of us, just as a hamster seems to lack the ability to recognise a human as anything other than an external force.

As much as this is an exaggerated example, it does serve to highlight that the idea that we can never really know, for sure, if we have the highest intelligence on Earth. But regardless, we value our autonomy, and it is our right. Consequently, we must conclude it is also the right of every being.

Arguments that an animal doesn’t know what’s good for it are irrelevant; when we keep livestock, we are protecting them, not for their sake but for our own, when the animal never asked for protection and needs it like a hole in the head (which it will eventually get and certainly doesn’t want). Because it cannot express a view, we disregard the view that we know, by all reasonable deduction, it would certainly have; it is pretty obvious that if an animal could express a preference, it would say that it would rather not be eaten.

If we had the technology to translate human language into animal and told it that its death waited at our hands, we would not use that technology. We know, just as old slave owners knew, that if you present beings under your power with an honest choice, they would never choose they path that best suited you. The choice is between: life-long protection in exchange for certain death at an appointed time; or a life with ultimate freedom as far as nature permits, leading to an uncertain death at an uncertain time.

This is scarcely a choice. Whatever we might reason, I think it inevitable that we would take the uncertainty, as all but the most canny poker players will gamble where the possible gain of risk is unknown, and the potential loss ofnot taking the risk is known and very great. Where there is peace of mind in knowing, there is little peace in knowing death. Peace may come, in time with knowledge, as resignation always creates peace of a sort, though it is no enviable life; but the initial knowledge of the circumstances of one’s own death provides no comfort, only anguish, fear and regret.

I think most of us would take the relative chaos of the gamble in spite of more logical alternatives, in the hope of scoring an albeit unlikely gain, or merely because recklessness allows us to ignore the inevitable a little longer. Perhaps we all fancy our chances against chance, as if it is a sentient force who can be outwitted by the cunning. In any case, behavioural observations suggest we would not choose to wait for a pre-determined time of death.

Thus, I suspect there is an instinctual element; the will to escape and evade death wherever possible, however fruitless the struggle. And, however domesticated, cows are no more artificial than us – perhaps less – and would most likely respond in the same way. In short, if cattle were given the choice, they would choose freedom and uncertain death at the hands of nature over any decision humans made for their lives in exchange for their health and safety.

That scenario assumes that a cattle will be given a decent run at life in captivity. In truth, of course, it is not kept for a day longer than it needs to be in order to render the largest yet most tender meat yield. So, its chances would definitely be better in the wild. Even cows kept for milk would have better chances – they would get to raise at least some of their young and protect them, rather than have all of them systematically removed before weaning.

If faced with the question of its death or separation from its young, cattle could express only fear and alarm and nothing more complex, but this is as clear a message as anyone could hope for, just as sure as a scream from a scared child. Thus, it should be taken just as seriously, just as clearly as an indication that there is will and comprehension. Speech, or the inability to articulate lengthily rationale, is irrelevant.

Speaking does not create comprehension, it does not create preference. Just as you can speak and not care, you can care and not be able to speak. Not expressing something is not always due entirely to lack of concern. If you gag someone, they cannot express a view, but they may still have one. Nor does lack of awareness of what is in store mean that you do not have a preference; the fact is, you would have a preference if you could know what awaited you, and the one who withholds this information does not justify his actions on the basis that at least you didn’t know what was coming. The one who cannot provide you this information, due to the limitations of technologically or interspecies communication, does not justify his actions by ignoring the obvious hypothetical answer, or presuming a different one, simply because it suits him better.

In their ignorance of their eventual fate, the animals do not have a preference, just as any group anywhere could not have a view on their fate wherever they were not told of it. It is impossible to explain a steer’s fate to it, therefore it must always be wrong to assume, and it is certainly wrong to guide it wherever best suits us without regard for its possible preference. Rather than think of cattle as dumb animals, I prefer to think of them as sleepwalkers than cannot be woken. They can be guided into various positions, but cannot be informed what is to happen to them, because they will not process it.

It is, however, safe to assume that they do not want to be killed. The creature that fights for its survival when faced with death, which all do, has a will to live. Does an inability to speak English, or Danish or Japanese or any other language known to humankind, really negate this right? A language barrier is not the same as a thought barrier, and an intellectual barrier is not the same as an emotional barrier. I observe that animals feel one immediately identifiable emotion, which is hard to ignore or dispute: fear.

Fear of death, so fundamental, should transcend all superficial boundaries of intelligence and conscious will. It is safer to decide fairness via notions that are not uniquely human, like intelligence, which is not ranked by other animals of Earth in the same way. They have no IQ tests, no grammar schools. However, many do obviously recognise suffering, sometimes even in other species, making empathy the stronger and more universally relevant emotion and thus a more comprehensive moral guide, as it transcends the boundaries between many different groups.

Intelligence, and the rationalisations that come with acting on perceived authority as opposed to all-encompassing equality, far from being the ultimate compass in ethics instead gives licence for one to decide the fate of beings of lesser power, in a way that no one has any right to do. Here, the intelligence argument is self-defeating, because it is not remotely logical to say that there is an established, objective reason why the needs of the most intelligent take precedent over the needs of the least.

If the reason is progress, the obvious question is: whose progress? If it is preservation: whose preservation? Human progress is likely to be insignificant to the universe at large and downright damaging to Earth, and so undercuts preservation even of ourselves, since we cannot live in the world if the world is damaged beyond repair. Our progress is, at most, helpful to individuals among us and entertaining to us in general. In which case, the rational response is to be mindful of the effect of our progress and its effect on other species, not to take from the earth without care or measure.

Yet intelligence and the arrogance of an intelligence-based society casts a long shadow over our relationship to others. At its extreme end, this attitude is no different between humans and animals than it is between different humans; both rely on assumptions, often false, on a group about which little is known and everything is assumed, because the arrogance of intelligence ignores the fact that progress is made by observations and not by assumptions; it forgets that when intelligence becomes presumptuous, it ceases to be intelligent; that when all refutations to the current theory are determinedly ignored, rationality has been irretrievably lost.

This hierarchy of needs, which places the least intelligent at the bottom, subjects the less intelligent to dissection into smaller parts; we view the whole as being barely of greater significance than the parts, since we have already decided on its inferiority. In our view, a steer’s life is not a steer’s life, a steer’s body is not a steer’s body. It is a side of flesh for use by humans. This attitude is hardly reserved for non-human animals; an observation that Carol Adams makes in her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, when she notes that women are occasionally treated in a similar fashion. We have a pervading tendency to claim ownership of bodies other than that which we live in. It is a disease of our society that we are shockingly reticent to treat.

To extend respect to someone’s possible will is to understand that will is not determined by what is expressed or expressible. It seems that on some level, certain among us imagine that when a woman enters a public space, it is her responsibility to stipulate that she does not want parts of her anatomy seized, if she is to avert the eventuality. Even then, her words would be met with indifference or horror that she has dared speak aloud the action that is, apparently, worse vocalised than undertaken. The assumption that flesh is there for the taking unless it is already “owned” (“She’s taken, mate”) is, at best, part of our entitled culture and, at worst, part of rape culture; the society that believes that the absence of “no” is akin to “yes”.

The victims of this culture are all those that are rendered speechless, either through physical incapability (such as animals), or by social pressure that tells them to shut up whenever they are on the verge of saying something which the more powerful party does not desire to hear. The silence of the lesser mortal suits their oppressors; it is harder to say that the victim wants or enjoys the fate that awaits them if the being in question directly contradicts this notion. Instead, it must be said that theysecretly want it, or that it is for their own good. Cows are kept inside boundaries and bred to be more tame, apparently for their own good – not at all because it makes them useful, docile and easily accessible.

Belief in one’s superiority is powerful enough that it can override all other morals, and it has done so numerous times in the past. We should be careful how we think about power and superiority, because these aggressive feelings are not the route to greater empathy or compassion towards any person or creature. They do not judge psychopathy in children based on how they respond to animals for no reason; psychologists recognise that true empathy transcends species. We see this when we weep over abandoned dogs, or when we see creatures befriending others of a different species. We ignore this when we slaughter.

Fear is the only means by which an animal can communicate its will, but we ignore it, and use their lack of human speech as justification that we are doing them no harm; they cannot speak, they cannot tell us they feel trapped or wish to leave, so they must not feel it or wish it. We will never make the device that might, in some sense, translate animal thoughts into simple human language, because we would hate what we heard; we would deny our own ears, scorn the inventors, rubbish the scientists, roar in fury against believers of their own ears and eyes, all to protect our love of meat.

And then, we have the audacity to say that cattle are stupid because they are so easily plied and tamed with food. We forget that it is not a sign of simplicity to be driven by taste, to comply with injustice because the injustice renders pleasurable results. If it were, we must be the simplest creatures alive.

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From → Animal Rights

5 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on iliketowritewhatithink and commented:
    My youngest son wrote this and I’m proud to reblog it.

  2. Reblogged this on There's an Elephant in the Room blog and commented:
    This excellent article seeks to unravel humanity’s unfounded belief in the superiority of our species and the self-serving interpretations and assumptions that humans make about the behaviour of nonhumans.

  3. Reblogged this on Vegan Lynx.

  4. Mur permalink

    An excellent, insightful read. Thanks so much.

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