On the difference of humans from animals and the difference it makes
This is a response to a post on Justin Erik Halldór Smith by the philosopher of that name, and containing comments by Abraham Stone and Frans de Waal. You might well want to read that first before reading this.
The problematic here can be found already in Spinoza and Bayle. It can be resolved into two challenges to the person who holds that there is a profound difference, in the moral sphere, between humans and animals. The first challenge is to exhibit a difference between humans and every other species of living thing that is not a mere matter of degree; the second is to show that that difference has moral significance, e.g. that on its basis we have duties toward humans that we don’t have toward animals. I’m not sure even the first challenge can be met, let alone the second.
Every time I read Spinoza I’m troubled by the lack of motivation for his claim that humans can treat animals as we please (subject to their “natural right” against us, which is nothing more than their power to resist or overcome us).
His account of the difference is that it is a matter of complexity; but complexity is a matter of degree; it is, moreover, not easily seen to be of moral significance, and certainly not to the degree required for the contrast Spinoza draws. I think Abe is on the right track when he says that the main motivation for making the possession of reason an all-or-nothing affair is to build as high a wall as possible between us and the rest of the living world; and if even so vernunftgetrunkenen a philosopher as Spinoza gets swept away by prejudice, then clearly something powerful lies behind it.
The best one can do on Spinoza’s behalf, I think, is to take it that in the Part 4 conception of morality the only basis other than power for rights (or rather for justice) is the Hobbesian state, which requires the capacity to understand and enter into contracts. Only humans, it would seem, have this capacity, and so only humans fall within the scope of justice. It’s still not easy to see how this squares with the physiological notions of Part 2, but at least the criterion is not arbitrary, and not a matter simply of our having more power. (As for the good of Part 5, the eternal love of God, that would seem to be accessible to every individual to the limit of its capacities for adequate knowledge.)
Taking this into the present, the evidence now favors the claim that intelligence is a matter of degree—except for the matter of language use. But here two additional issues would need to be addressed: whether the capacity to use language is an indissoluble, all-or-nothing capacity and whether the appearance of a discontinuity between us and the rest of the animal kingdom isn’t perhaps an artifact of the extinction of other hominids intermediate in capacity between us and surviving primates. If there are stages or degrees in language-acquisition, some of which are already present in extant species, and a full spectrum of which would have been instantiated in our hominid relatives, then in order to make “the” capacity to use language decisive you would have to explain why the precise version of it possessed by humans, or rather why the difference between that version and the others, should have moral significance. I myself don’t see much hope of that.
I think the point about our comprehension of one another as human is well taken (JS: “The only reason why we don't have any problem attributing intelligence to other human minds is that we need to suppose their existence on practical grounds”). I would add that humans who are not prepossessed by the thought that there is some deep metaphysical divide between us and the rest of the living world, though they of course distinguish themselves from other species, often regard animals as having minds. The “theory of mind” is not restricted to humans. We model them as childlike, as dependent, in part because in human society they are dependent, in part because like children they don’t have all the capacities or knowledge of adult humans. Nevertheless domestic animals, the ones we live with for years, and whom we get to know as individuals, have a sort of moral standing; and if that is thought to be some sort of invention, then I need to have shown to me the grounds upon which our attribution of moral standing to each other is not.
A Janus-faced discipline
If the history of philosophy needs defending, the posts listed above ought to persuade anyone persuasible. Rather than add another log to the palisade, I thought it would be useful to try to understand why the question keeps coming up.
There’s ample evidence that it does come up every so often. You’ll find earlier stages of the discussion in Margaret Wilson’s Descartes, in Bernard Williams’ introduction to his Descartes (and the afterthoughts in A Sense of the past), in Alan Gabbey’s “Arguing with the ungrateful dead”—I can’t find a reference to it, but it circulated in samizdat in the late 1980s—, and the introduction to Dan Garber’s Descartes embodied.
It keeps coming up, I think, because the history of philosophy has two faces. One looks toward intellectual history, itself a branch of cultural history, and the other toward contemporary philosophy. Call these the East Face and the West Face (that gives me room for two more if I need them…). The East Face thinks of philosophical texts in the manner of a historian: they are remains of the past which happen to be available to us in the Archive (see Foucault’s Archeology), and which we take as indices of past events, notably the acts of thought we take to be evidenced by the texts we study. The task of the intellectual historian (once the basic work of putting together the Archive is done) is to describe accurately and to explain those events.
Putting together the Archive is itself a very difficult and challenging task—see Thomas Tanselle’s work on editing and textual criticism; or take a look at André Robinet’s edition of Leibniz’s Principes de la nature et de la grâce.That’s a rather atmospheric way of saying that we look at texts, try to determine the intentions behind the speech acts of their authors, and—having thus understood the phenomena—try to understand why the authors did what they did. The process goes on at the level of phrases (e.g. Descartes’ semel in vita), arguments, whole texts, œuvres, schools. In my view every responsible reader does history, at least occasionally. Only in those situations in which everyone understands everyone else so well that “hitches” in understanding—do you mean by ‘essence’ what I mean?—never get in the way will we not be engaged in tasks resembling those of the historian properly speaking.
Consider the giants of the 50s—Quine, Carnap… For today’s graduate student, I suspect, a great deal more needs to be motivated and explicated than when I first encountered them; in the 70s there were plenty of native Quineans and Carnapians from whom one could absorb the requisite understandings without having to crack a book.
Nothing in that task involves knowledge of or reference to contemporary discussions of the “same” questions or concepts. Indeed it is often better to bracket what you know about the state of the art now so as to avoid anachronism. The historian of Renaissance perspective may find it pedagogically useful to refer to projective geometry (whose roots lie in the thinking of Desargues and others on the foundations of perspective drawing), but neither that nor, say, acquaintance with 20th-century “post-perspective” painting will assist the task of description and explanation—except obliquely, by contrast for example (perhaps a historian now understands the significance of perspective better now that it is no longer taken for granted; in this way the present serves the same purpose as any other contrasting period would serve).