Sunday, June 30, 2019

Can Animals Be Persons? - Book Review by Carlo Alvaro


Review of Mark Rowlands, Can Animals Be Persons? Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0190846039. Hardcover, $29.95 U.S. 232 pages.

Seven years after the provocative Can Animals Be Moral?, Mark Rowlands comes back with another unorthodox position: many animals are persons. In Can Animals Be Persons? Rowlands does a great job showing that whether animals can be persons is no more puzzling a question than whether humans are persons. What is a person anyway? “What is a person?” is not the sort of question that can be answered by simply appealing to a dictionary definition of the terms in question. Nor can one appeal to common sense. While the book presents highly sophisticated and dense argumentation, Rowlands manages to make the reader comfortable and enjoy the ride. One thing that is evident is that Rowlands had lots of fun writing this book. No doubt, Can Animal Be Persons? advances our understanding of animal minds and gives new life to the field of animal ethics. If this book does not make you see that animals are persons, I do not know what will.

In the first chapter, Rowlands begins by showing the ambiguities regarding the notion of personhood. The first ambiguity has to do with the fact that the term ‘person’ has at least three senses: legal, moral, and metaphysical. As Rowlands notes, legally speaking, corporations, organizations, and various objects are recognized as persons. Yet, the law does not consider animals as persons. In fact, the prevalent view among philosophers and scientists is that animals are not persons. In the past, women, slaves, children, Native Americans, and others were not regarded as persons. Nowadays, they are, and the debate has shifted toward animals. Typically, the argument that excluded animals from being legal persons can be expressed with the slogan, “no rights without responsibilities.” However, many individuals, such as marginal cases (the senile, infants, individuals with severe mental disabilities), are recognized as legal persons despite their not being able to think about legal principles and without their having legal responsibilities. It would seem a double standard, therefore, to exclude animals forthright on the basis of the no-rights-without-responsibilities argument.

Whether animals can be moral persons is a question analogous to the legal question. Namely, the argument against it is that to be a moral person, one must understand morality, must be capable of making moral judgments, and have moral responsibilities. Here Rowlands points out that many humans lack those capabilities and yet we do not want to say that they are not moral persons. If this is not good enough, you may take a copy of Can Animals Be Moral? And see for yourself how Rowlands defends this thesis.

The most challenging question, thus, is whether animals can be metaphysical persons. By metaphysical person, Rowlands simply means an individual who has intentionality, is self-conscious, has a language, has emotion, and many other characteristics that are taken to describe a person. Rowlands’ strategy is to try to identify certain mental characteristics that only persons possess and then determine whether animals possess such characteristics by virtue of which they qualify as persons in the metaphysical sense.

Drawing from different philosophers, Rowlands comes up with four conditions that one must satisfy to be a person:

1. Being conscious.
2. Being able to learn, solve problems, and reason.
3. Being self conscious or self-aware.
4. Being able to recognize other persons as such.

The first condition is the easiest to satisfy. Rowlands points out that besides being commonsensical that animals are conscious, there is an ever-growing body of scientific evidence that such is the case. The second is not difficult to satisfy either. For, many animals learn, reason, and solve problems. Rowlands discusses the ways in which animals can engage in causal and logical reasoning in chapter 5. Self-awareness is a tricky one, which is discussed in chapter 6.

The fourth requirement is discussed in terms of having the capacity to communicate, which many animals possess. Thus the question of whether animals can be persons is broken down into four questions: (1) Can animals be conscious? (2) Can animals engage in reasoning? (3) Can animals be self-aware, and (4) Can animals recognize others as persons?

The question of animal personhood, then, hinges on the (old) question of mind. The assumption is that minds are hidden from us. Thus, if we want to determine whether there are minds, the way that scientists and philosophers go about figuring this out is in terms of an inferentialist approach. One can infer other minds by using an analogical inference, that is, I have a mind, and since others are like me in many respects, it follows that others have minds. This is a non-starter for Rowlands, who suggests that an analogical inference is not a very helpful method for determining other human minds, and by the same token it must also be unhelpful for determining other animal minds. Another inference is to the best explanation. According to this type of inference, I can legitimately infer from the behavior of other humans that they have a mind. However, even if this type of inference works for other human minds, then it would have to work for other animal minds. The best explanation of animals’ behavior, language, and social life, is that they have a mind. Ultimately, Rowlands argues that the inferentialist solution of the problem of human minds does not work. 

We have, according to Rowlands, a direct experience of other human minds and a complete certainty of this fact, and our empirical evidence of other human minds is more certain than our inferences. The position that Rowlands endorses with respect to other minds is a direct perception view, something he borrows from Wittgenstein, who believed that “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (Philosophical Investigations, Part II, p. 178). The direct perception view that Rowlands employs is a very interesting one and has three steps. First he introduces a distinction between seeing and seeing that; second is a distinction between formal and functional descriptions of behavior; third he argues that functional descriptions of behavior are disguised psychological descriptions. These three steps combined lead to the conclusion that “we can often see the mental states of animals” (p. 38).

Rowlands illustrates the distinction between seeing and seeing that by giving an example of a tornado. Typically one might say that he has seen a tornado. To be precise, it is not the tornado itself that is being seen, but rather its effects, i.e., rotating objects, dirt, water, and so on. Regarding behavior, it is not always possible to tell the nature of a behavior simply by looking at it; nevertheless, the behavior is visible, just like a tornado is visible. In other words, a behavior can be functionally described.

Functionalism is a theory of mind that argues that the mind can be explained in terms of its function regardless of the shape, form, or material composition of a being. (This is the best I can do in a sentence. For more information see the article “Functionalism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/functism/.)  Rowlands employs functionalism to explain the behavior of animals, arguing that functional descriptions are none other than “disguised mental or psychological descriptions” (p. 41). It is the way we take the world to be that explains our behavior. In other words, the functional descriptions of the behavior of animals are not psychologically neutral; rather, they reveal cognitive attitudes of a being, in this case animals. Using Rowlands’ example, when a dog performs a play bow to initiate play, we cannot see that the dog is initiating play but we can see the dog doing it – that is, we see psychological states of the dog. As Rowlands puts it, then, “If we want any sort of illuminating science of animal behavior, we should acknowledge that our primary access to the minds of animals is not through inference but through perception” (p. 46). This, Rowlands makes clear, is not a solution to other human or animal minds, but rather dissolution.

Still the skeptic may object that while humans are conscious, animals are not. Rowlands explains that there are three strong arguments to establish the existence of phenomenal consciousness in animals. One is an evolutionary argument that considering the enormous evolutionary continuity between humans and animals, it would be very unlikely that only humans were phenomenally conscious. The second is that animals exhibit an acceptable behavioral index of phenomenal consciousness. In other words, the behavior of animals clearly indicates that they have mental contents. The third is that animals have the same neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substances as humans required for having conscious experience.  

Rowlands proffers some interesting arguments and illustrations to show that observing the behavior makes it plain that “animals have beliefs, desires, and other content-involving states” (p. 82). We know this because explanations of their behaviors typically work. Rowlands here presents an argument to counter the Davidson-Stich objection that mental contents are, as it were, anchored to us. Rowlands shows that even though we may not know the specific contents of an animal’s desires and beliefs, we can explain the behavior of an animal in terms of beliefs and desires. The point is that we can explain the behavior of animals using mental contents that they may not entertain as long as such contents are related to the contents that they do entertain. To give Rowlands’ example, when his son was only two years old, he would light up at the sight of a squirrel, or squirrel activities, by uttering the word “squirrel!” However, at that age, a child does not have an accurate notion of squirrels as warm-blooded mammals that eat nuts, and so on. We have no precise idea of what a two-year-old child believes about squirrels and seeing squirrel activities.

Nevertheless, we can explain such a behavior by saying that the child believes that there is a squirrel, up in the tree for example. Explaining the behavior of a child (or an animal) by attributing a mental content that the child (or animal) cannot have is legitimate, Rowland explains, as long as the explanation satisfies two requirements: (1) the truth of the content used in the explanation guarantees the truth of the content he entertains; and (2) the content used in the explanation shares narrow content with the content that the child (or animal) entertains.

Rowlands continues whittling away the notion that only human beings are persons by discussing the capacity of animals for causal and logical reasoning. He gives many examples of animals that understand causal relations. It is interesting to note that these animals are not only the good ole and oft-cited great apes. Even smaller animals such as birds are capable of causal reasoning. Rowlands mentions crows understanding that if they drop pebbles into a container with water, the water rises as more pebbles are dropped into the container, and understand that it is not the same for containers of sand or sawdust. Also, birds and other animals are capable of creating and using tools. I can think of beavers building a dams – beat that! Furthermore, he considers logical reasoning. I do not think that these are distinct, though Rowlands presents them as such. I don’t think they are because in order to reason causally, one, by definition, reasons logically. Perhaps the distinction here should be between inductive reasoning (A will lead or cause B) and deductive reasoning (B necessarily follows from A). I found this chapter disappointing, not because the chapter is bad or uninformative, but rather because, in my view, it is necessary to give arguments to show that animals can reason logically and causally – they clearly are. Now this does not mean, and Rowlands makes it clear, that animals can be logicians. In other words, it is not necessary that animals understand Aristotle, Venn Diagrams, the law of excluded middle, and other formal rules of logic in order to reason logically. The fact is that they do and they show it.

So far, Rowlands has shown that animals are conscious and engage in causal and logical reasoning. In the remaining chapters he argues that animals are self-aware, and that they recognize others as persons. The issue of self-awareness is central to Rowlands’ overall argument. In fact he devotes five chapters to it. The argument looks something like an extension of Locke’s conception of personhood. Essentially Locke argues that a person is a thinking being that considers itself the same being enduring in time and in different places. Following this rationale, Rowlands makes a distinction between two forms of self-awareness: one is intentional and the other non-intentional or, as Rowlands labels it, pre-intentional (p. 125). What’s the difference? In a nutshell, functional, adult human beings possess intentional self-awareness. This form of self-awareness requires metacognition, i.e., thinking about thinking or, “when I perceive, I am aware of perceiving” (p. 117). Rowlands suggests that the intentional model of self-awareness is phenomenologically implausible because, accordingly, whenever I perceive, I would have to have a higher-order awareness that has as its object my perceiving or thinking. (This, by the way, could lead to an infinite regress.)

However, this is not, in fact, the case. Most of the time, when I perceive I do not perceive myself perceiving. As Rowlands puts it, “Most of the times I simply get on with perceiving things or thinking things” (p. 117). This mode of self-awareness, pre-intentional, Rowlands argues, is essential in the possession of intentional self-awareness.

Chapter 9 is a very technical and dense discussion to the effect that being a person requires mental unity. I cannot possibly do justice to such a sophisticated argument. The conclusion, however, is that “the only version of self-awareness that could confer unity on a mental life is pre-intentional self-awareness” (p. 175). It follows that many animals’ mental lives are unified. And if having a unified mental life is essential to personhood, then many animals can be persons. Pre-intentional awareness does not require metacognition, but involves being aware of an object, episode or process as a certain thing or way. This requires that a subject could have certain expectations or anticipation regarding how the appearance of change occurs with respect to bodily and environmental contingencies. For example, if I see an object as a book (Rowlands’ example), it is because I understand that the appearance presented to me will change depending on certain circumstances and contingencies, i.e., the book rotates or falls off the desk, etc.  

The last two chapters are, respectively, about other-awareness and personhood, and how it matters why animals are persons. Regarding awareness of others, Rowlands relies on the principles developed in the previous chapters, which show that one can be pre-intentionally aware. That is, since it is possible to be pre-intentionally aware of oneself, then it is also possible to be pre-intentionally aware of others. Other awareness is the fourth condition necessary for personhood. It is the ability to recognize others as persons. According to Rowlands, pre-intentional other-awareness is “the mirror image of pre-intentional self-awareness” (p. 192). Many animals, according to Rowlands have the basic capacity to distinguish things that have a mind and things that don’t. Therefore, many animals are persons. In other words, animals are individuals that possess consciousness, cognition, self-awareness, other-awareness, and have a unified mental life – that is, the basic ingredients of what makes up a person.

Rowlands ends the book with a very short moral conclusion: it is time to open our eyes and accept the fact that many animals are persons. Which ones? Well, that’s an empirical question. Most animals, especially those that people normally eat, are living creatures with whom one can communicate cognitively and emotionally and find out about their needs and wishes. It is not hard to understand animals’ body language. Rowlands conclusion reminds me a lot of the feminist-care approach in animal ethics. (See Josephine Donovan and Carol J. Adams, The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics, Columbia University Press, 2007). Josephine Donovan, for example, suggests that humans should pay attention to the needs of animals by connecting with them, by listening to them, and learning about their opinions. This experience can make us realize that we have marginalized animals and treated them as property and as food. Sometimes in philosophy we make things more complicated than they have to be. The message that I get from Rowlands is that the question of our relationship with animals is very simple: pay attention to the way animals behave. They are persons. They deserve to be treated as such.

- Carlo Alvaro, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at New York City Technical College and is the author of Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul (2019).

Copyright©2019 by Carlo Alvaro – All Rights Reserved

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