Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Self Image

I've never heard a vivisector admit to the likelihood that they would have experimented on slaves or other non-consenting humans if they had lived in an era when such practices were allowed. Nor have I ever heard a non-researcher ACUC member admit that they would have approved such things. They think better of themselves than is warranted.

At the risk of jousting with a straw man, it appears that they believe that outlawing slavery and the defeat of Nazi Germany somehow led to the elimination of such people and such proclivities instantaneously. They deny the likelihood that the ranks of the animal experimenters are now populated with people who would have and would now experiment on humans if they were allowed to do so.

But where else would such people have gone once unbridled human experimentation was outlawed? Maybe they work in slaughterhouses, or bully elephants into dancing, or manage canned hunting ranches, but surely a goodly number have found a home in the animal labs.

But I'm not really writing about that. No, this rambling essay is about the average person's self image and their perception of who other animals are.

I've always assumed that people generally justify eating, hurting, and killing animals with an appeal to our differences, but some people think otherwise. I've always assumed that the sentiments expressed by racial bigots were largely representative of the general opinion.

I've just finished reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. Marie St. Clare, a rich slave owner, expresses what I take to be Stowe's opinion of the general Southern beliefs about Blacks. St. Clare says that Blacks aren't very much like Whites. They don't feel things like white people. They don't miss their children the same way, or their husbands and wives; they need to be beaten regularly to keep them in line; they are a degraded race filled with lazy, dishonest, stupid beings not very much like her at all. Anything done to them in order to benefit her and her kind is fully justified.

You can find similar claims with regard to animals pretty easily. All you have to do is ask a vivisector, a rancher, a hunter, their opinion about the beings they torture and kill and they repeat much the same arguments. We are so different that anything we do to them that benefits us (or just pleases us) is more than justified.

So it came with some surprise to learn that others have a much different impression of the popular impression of animals. I've just started reading Daniel Dennett's Kinds of Minds. Dennett, in case you don't know, is a well known philosopher with a particular interest in cognition.

Dennett says that humans generally believe, as a matter of tradition, that other animals have minds like ours.

This is disturbing thought. It's one thing to think that the dog one kicks doesn't feel the pain and insult as another human might, but the belief that he does makes the kicker's behavior all the more evil.

This is similar to the subset of vivisectors who believe that the minds of the animals they hurt are so similar to ours that the insults heaped upon them yield such similar results that direct claims can be made about the likely result to a human if something similar was done to them. Like Ned Kalin's hideous revival of the use of maternal deprivation to create chronically fearful highly anxious young monkeys.

The more common position, in spite of Dennett's misperception, is more in line with Marie St. Clare's I think. But her's and the average vivisector's are largely faith-based. They actually have little knowledge of that about which they feel so strongly. In St. Clare's case, the ignorance is willful. She could have learned more about the people she controlled, but she didn't; she simply relied on her prejudices.

In the case of vivisectors, they base their claims on things they can't know. Consider the minds of dogs and humans.

There are things dog and human minds have in common. There are things they don't. Vivisector's imply that they know the characteristics in each region, and that those unique to humans are sufficient to justify our complete control of their lives. Likewise, they imply that they have full knowledge of the characteristics in the region unique to dogs, but this is absurd and matter-of-factly false. We have no way of knowing things about characteristics we can't imagine. They are a black box to us. But the vivisectors imply that they know that none of the unknown and unknowable characteristics could justify a requirement of kindness and respect from us.

And, they imply that the similarities we share are also not sufficient. The ability to suffer, to be sad and lonely, to be frightened, to be thrilled, to be joyful, hopeful, curious, brave, playful, and loyal. None of these things, either alone or taken together, they say, are enough.

In this way, they are just like Marie St. Clare. Their self image is a distorted, bloated, self-serving illusion that supports their prejudices.

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