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).
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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.

LinkMarch 11, 2011 in History of Philosophy · Psychology


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