21 July 2008

R. G. Frey on Anthropomorphism

Yet, in the case of domesticated animals especially, many people, particularly lonely people, regard (and often want to regard) their pet as a kind of lesser human being, with a less rich but still plentiful mental life which explains why their cat or dog behaves as it does. Their pet loves them, they often say, and tries to be faithful to them, and they in turn try not to hurt its feelings (for example, by leaving it alone or ignoring it) and to return this deep affection. For understandable reasons, such people have nevertheless not been so rigorous as Tinbergen in divesting themselves of all traces of anthropomorphism in their attempts to understand and explain animal behaviour. It is as if the only way they can bring themselves to approach an understanding of their pet's behaviour is by first investing the animal with a human endowment and then finding as the explanation for why it behaves as it does precisely some feature of this endowment with which they have invested it. By describing the cat or dog and its behaviour in anthropomorphic terms and thereby 'putting' into the animal what one is going to cite as the explanation of its behaviour, there is no limit to the complexity and extent of the mental goings-on of cats and dogs, or rather the only limit is the range of mental life one is prepared to endow these creatures with in the first place, on some anthropomorphic paradigm. Indeed, the endowment now allegedly extends even to communication with animals by telepathy. The animal psychologist Beatrice Lydecker claims in her book What the Animals Tell Me that one can, even though cats and dogs lack language, nevertheless communicate with and in this sense 'talk' to one's pet by means of something akin to ESP. One simply commands one's dog to sit and simultaneously forms a mental image of him in that position; and as this image is communicated to and received by him by telepathy, he will soon come to adopt the appropriate position. Doubtless to many the dog will be thought to be like us in being able to send and receive such images and to communicate in this way.

(R. G. Frey, Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980], 84-5 [italics in original; footnote omitted])

Note from KBJ: There are two mistakes one can make in thinking about animals. The first—anthropomorphism—consists in attributing distinctively human qualities to animals. The second—mechanism—consists in denying animal qualities to animals. Frey comes perilously close to making the second mistake, if indeed he does not make it.

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