Philosophers in the Mist

Along with other graying baby boomers, I now sit and observe bemusedly the death-agony of ’60s liberalism, an imminent demise brought about by ideological pathologies that were heralded as America’s sure hope for a utopian future. Some of us learned sooner than others what St. Augustine knew when he observed that evil is always coincidental with good in this world and that earthly utopia is an illusion.

Those who came to this realization quickly were able to reassimilate the cultural values of American life and appreciate that America is a darn sight better place to live than most. However, there were the ideological elites, the spokespersons for sixties’ values who never woke up. They sought to continue the work of engineering a utopian dream and assimilated into the culture just enough to join the professions to continue their work. The clergy, journalism, government, and universities welcomed them and gave them tools to continue their labors. Convinced that they had won the brain lottery, the sixties elites took over these professions as if by divine appointment.

Within these professions liberals would find a congenial environment for the incredible homogeneity of their values and the unspoken conformity of their beliefs, where willing allies could always be found to suppress contrary evidence threatening their views. They would find an environment where “openness” could be practiced undisturbed by the irritant of disagreement and where the “herd of independent minds” could roam freely. As has been demonstrated in a recent spate of books on the state of higher education in America (e.g., D’Souza, Kimball, Smith, et al.), the university milieu has been very much like that for decades now. The same state of affairs describes the discipline of philosophy, which is naturally at home on today’s liberal campus. I’ve known this for some time, since I myself am a professor of philosophy.

Philosophers are a curious bunch. For centuries they’ve been telling us that we cannot know what we do know and that we cannot believe what we know we must. This is why today’s college environment suits them so well: there the counterintuitive can be championed with impunity and common sense can be dismissed as mere superstition. Needless to say, such a milieu is very cozy with intellectual skepticism and moral relativism. Still, one cannot help but notice that these intellectuals exercise their skepticism and relativism more in the breach than in observance. Like Congress, philosophers encourage regulations that constrain the rest of us but don’t apply to them. Neither skepticism nor relativism prevents them from arguing objectively for their own pet moral passions. To attend a philosophy conference today is to descend into a maelstrom of this doublethink. These ventures afford me the chance to play the role of a philosophical gunslinger by challenging mainstream philosophers with questions that are not mainstream.

So it was that I recently accepted a good friend’s invitation to present a paper at a conference on environmental ethics. The conference was entitled “Environmental Rights in Conflict.” The title alone should have forewarned me. The whole notion of applying rights to the environment is so suspiciously vague that such a conference is bound to invite more poetry than philosophy, more ideology than rational argument. Most of the papers were rallying sessions, more reminiscent of revival tent fervor than dispassionate philosophical inquiry. Presentations often consisted of sermonettes, complete with slide shows and overhead projectors, usually espousing the virtues of New Age religions while condemning Christianity along with any traditional philosophy aligned with it.

While my initial purpose in attending this conference was partly to have some fun and partly to infuse a little intellectual honesty into the discussions, I realized that my task would be a daunting one. Right away, I could discern that this was a humorless crowd, and I knew that after I presented my paper I would be branded the pariah of the conference. This seemed inevitable since I dared to challenge the central credo of environmentalist orthodoxy: that human beings have no grounds for claiming superiority over the other inhabitants of the earth. Environmentalists don’t like us to call them “creatures,” since that word suggests a Judeo-Christian Creator. To think otherwise, to commit environmentalist heresy, is to believe in what is derisively called “anthropocentrism” (or “speciesism”). This is the view that human beings, by virtue of possessing superior natural faculties, such as love and rational knowledge, have a nature different in kind, not just in degree, from the other animals and enjoy a moral status that animals on the face of it do not have.

That human morality and human nature are tied together is a central issue, since if we can no longer grasp what it is to be uniquely human, it is unlikely that we will conduct our lives in the way humans should. My talk expressed this concern: that the debunking of the moral primacy of the human species is symptomatic of significant moral and philosophical confusions and could foster policies and practices that do not elevate animals but, in fact, debase the human person. When man is reduced to just another beast, the brute may be elevated but man may feel entitled also to treat his fellowman as merely a brute. Has not the twentieth century borne witness to this moral confusion in the practice of inhuman totalitarian regimes?

To our environmentalist friends, these worries will disappear once we cease to be so arrogant as to think that man is primarily what matters. A spirit of fairness will infuse our lives once we cease thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the rest of nature as our equals. Both anthropocentrism and speciesism are neat little tags, with a lot of rhetorical wallop. Among the champions of sixties liberalism, every point of view they oppose has to be turned into an “-ism” that suggests an evil comparable to racism. To their credit, sixties liberals were on the right side of that moral issue, proudly owning the high moral ground that brought about the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, liberals continue tiresomely to interpret and reinterpret everything through the glass of civil rights, which are so often misunderstood and misapplied that civil rights have become the category-mistake of choice. Now the category is applied to animals. They enjoy a kind of civil rights status too. Thus, environmentalists have spawned the animal rights movement, which has also been endorsed by numerous philosophers, some of them even well known, such as Peter Singer (Animal Liberation, 1975) and Tom Regan (The Case for Animal Rights, 1983), many of whose followers attended the conference.

That so many philosophers are willing to take this view seriously may come as no surprise since, as Cicero said, there is no absurdity that has not been advocated by some philosopher at one time or other. Nonetheless, one might wonder on the face of it what rationale they can give for this conflation of human and animal natures. The answer is not hard to find: when philosophers seek to justify the counterintuitive they usually enlist science as their ally. I was told in abrupt terms by the attendees at the conference that my view is a throwback to medieval superstition and flies in the face of Darwinian evolution, which, being another sacred credo of environmentalism, is regarded as fact. I agreed to meet them half way, granting that evolution might be a significant part of the story of natural history but, given Darwin attempts to explain all life and even higher consciousness (intellect and will) in terms of physics—i.e., matter in motion, I was hesitant to grant that evolution might be the whole story. I insisted that Darwin’s materialist reductionism is at least problematic. But ideologues are seldom in the spirit for compromise. “Darwinism is in fact the whole story,” they insisted. “If so,” they inferred, “human beings differ only in degree—as differently adapted arrangements of organic matter—from other animals.” When I demanded that they show me in what animal species there is evidence of behaviors comparable to the higher human powers, they were ready: the appeal was to the research on the supposed linguistic proficiency of apes, like the gorilla, Koko.

True symbolic language—speech built on abstract concepts, like the human ability to discourse about God, freedom, immortality, and mathematics—has traditionally been regarded as unique to humans. But this conference took place just after Carl Sagan and his wife, Anne Druyan, had published their book, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, in which they give billions and billions of reasons that Koko and other simians demonstrate language capacities the same in kind as humans. They admit there is a difference, but only one of degree. Humans do a better job at communicating conceptually, but animals still demonstrate the ability; their language skills just need development and refinement. Maybe with a boost from human trainers—and there is a whole industry of them out there now—these apes can master language as do humans. Convinced that claims to human superiority are arbitrary and arrogant, these environmentalists, allied with the Darwinians and the ape researchers, have cataloged “evidence” to establish their central credo.

Yet for every catalog compiled by these researchers, there is a corresponding refutation by linguists, scientists, and even some philosophers, who have shunned initiation into the Gnostic rites of environmentalism. Their protests clearly call the whole business into question and reveal that anthropocentrism, far from being dead, yet lives to bury its undertakers. Writers like Thomas Sebeok, Mortimer Adler, and Martin Gardner, who echo arguments having their roots in ancient philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, have all shown that the animalists have taken a grain of truth and have turned it into a heap of fallacies. Of course, nobody at the conference, as best I could tell, had ever read these authors, least of all Plato and Aristotle.

Oh, sure, animals have language, if we take the term so broadly as to signify any communication whatsoever. But does their communication convey what human language transmits: the symbolization of abstract concepts? Only a combination of philosophical fantasy and bad science leads to the conclusion that it does. A bird might sound an alarm when a predator enters the vicinity; a dog might signal territoriality by marking a fire hydrant; a cat might communicate territoriality (maybe even affection!) by rubbing your leg, but it seems to strain the meaning of language to the breaking point to argue that these communications are comparable to human speech. Do any of these animals understand predation, territoriality, or affection per se? A gorilla might recognize a triangle and even distinguish it from squares and circles when asked. But is there evidence that the ape, like a human, can grasp what “triangle” means, that is, the abstract or conceptual meaning of triangularity?

Many of my confreres had seen the story about Diane Fossey in the film Gorillas in the Mist. They also had seen the Nova production on Koko. Hence, they were already convinced that apes are not by nature different from and inferior to humans. “What about the acquired language of Koko and other apes?” they protested. These animals have been taught Ameslan, an acronym for American Sign Language for the Deaf, and have developed in some cases a genuine facility for communicating with their trainers. This facility has convinced many of these trainers, such as Duane and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Francine Patterson (Koko’s trainer), and Roger Fouts (with whom Hugh Downs conversed recently on 20-20), that apes have the native capacity to speak in symbolic, conceptual, and abstract terms like humans.

“What about the fact,” they continued, “that Koko has mastered hundreds of signs? And what about Washoe, the chimp trained by Roger Fouts, who has formed abstractions, such as ‘water-bird,’ a concept signed when she once saw a duck fly over a lake? And there is the case of Kanzi, a Bonobo chimp (a rare species found in Zaire) taught by the Rumbaughs. Kanzi has correctly responded in a controlled study to specific requests on 79 percent of 660 test sentences, results that outdistanced a competing two-year-old child, whose responses were only 66 percent correct; these sentences, by the way, neither ape nor child had ever heard before.” And the litany of such evidence was expanded and seconded by others there present, evidence purported to be sufficient proof that gorillas and other primates have, if still undeveloped, the linguistic capacity of humans. If that is so, then humans have no right to claim that their grasp of symbolic language makes them superior. That humans continue to profess such superiority is now due to scientific ignorance and anthropocentric arrogance.

To make a long story short, my reply was that a survey of critics yields ample reason to be still skeptical about the status of this research. Bad scientific technique and ideological zeal seem to spoil these primate studies. As Martin Gardner revealed some years ago (Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, 1981), these studies, in spite of their claims to the contrary, are lacking proper experimental controls. Such omissions breed significant interference in the way the evidence is collected and interpreted, interference that compromises the desired conclusions that these animals are communicating in a human way. If you observe video footage in which these animal trainers, such as Patterson and Fouts, are communicating with their simians, there is unmistakable cuing being telegraphed from trainer to ape. Thomas A. Sebeok calls this “the Clever Hans Phenomenon,” a reference to a horse who early in this century supposedly demonstrated remarkable arithmetical powers until Oskar Pfüngst, the famous Viennese psychiatrist, realized that the horse’s trainer, apparently an honorable man, was unintentionally or subliminally cuing the animal by the almost imperceptible tilt of his broad brimmed hat and by unconscious changes in his breathing rhythms.

Gardner observed that in most of the primate studies the Clever Hans Phenomenon is rampant because of the close relationship between the trainer and the animal. Often controls to prevent the phenomenon are shamelessly ignored. But even when controls are applied, they seldom are properly observed and enforced. Facial expressions, breathing rates, body posture, and the like still may signal to the animal that a particular sign or gesture is desired, just as Hans was cued by his trainer. As the animal is rewarded or praised for making the correct sign, there is clearly a strong motive to respond in the way the trainer might want, but that response, rather than proving what the trainer thinks it proves, shows that the animal’s behavior is very much in line with typical explanations of animal responses. Since these animals are social creatures and they are rewarded by bonding with their trainers when they make the appropriate signs, their behavior is easily explained in terms of old-fashioned classical conditioning. In other words, it is not because Koko is like us that she responds in the way she does; no, it is because she is very much a gorilla. Adler (The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes, 1967) explains it this way: Animal communication invites behavioral response; human language invites symbolic or conceptual understanding. When I say “food” to my dog, he runs for his dish; when I say “food” to his veterinarian, she looks at me quizzically, trying to discern from the context what I mean by the word. It is not clear from the research thus far that a grasp of meanings is achieved in ape language and that anything more than conditioned responses is required to explain the behavior of these animals.

As for Washoe expressing an abstraction, that could be explained by signing successively “water” and “bird,” the first gesture when seeing the lake; the second when seeing the duck. Roger Fouts’s enthusiastic response reinforced the behavior and could explain why Washoe might repeat the successive signs. The apes, curiously, repeat these signs to their trainers, but seldom to other apes, and they’ve shown no willingness to transmit the language of gestures to their offspring.

The cuing is one thing. The brazen reinterpretation of the evidence to support the animalists’ conclusions is quite another. Again, bad science corrupts the study. Gardner, appealing to a study by Sebeok, sums up the problem this way:

Even when an ape has memorized a sign it often makes errors in reproducing it. When this happens … ape teachers have a battery of excuses. Instead of a mistake it becomes a joke or a lie or an insult. Patterson is especially prone toward this kind of subjective evaluation. She asks Koko to sign drink. Koko touches her ear. Koko is joking. She asks Koko to put a toy under a bag. Koko raises it to the ceiling. Koko is teasing. She asks Koko what rhymes with sweet. Koko makes the sign for red, a gesture similar to the one for sweet. Koko is making a gestural pun. She asks Koko to smile. Koko frowns. Koko is displaying a “grasp of opposites.” Penny [Patterson] points to a photograph of Koko and asks, “Who gorilla?” Koko signs “bird.” Koko is being “bratty.”

It is not science to take data and read into it what you want to see. After all, two pigeons can bat a ball back and forth, but is it ping-pong? The subjective leaps taken by the animalists spring again from their grossly generalized use of the word “language.” As Aristotle said, you can take the word “red” and use it to refer to all the other colors, but the price you pay is the ability to communicate key differences. But it is precisely because the animalists want to blur those differences that they use “language” to cover behavior on the spectrum that is not properly linguistic. Noam Chomsky, who was one of the first to express frank skepticism about the primate research, likens the animalists’ use of language to an inflated use of “flying.” If we disregard precise usage, then humans and chickens “fly,” just not very far.

None of these replies did anything but reinforce my role as conference outcast. Yet, while I was an outcast, I was not ignored. My infamy brought me a kind of perverse celebrity. By the time the conference neared its conclusion, I had become a valued oddity, a kind of tourist attraction. One fellow brought his wife down from the neighboring university just so she could see someone who still believed humans differed in kind from the other animals. Quite a treat, since she had been told by environmentalist ideologues everywhere that “anthropocentrists” had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Having now been tempered by experience, I accepted a second invitation to talk about animals at the American Philosophical Association. This time I was asked to moderate a panel debating the question of animal rights.

The panel consisted of three professors and a moderator. One of the professors was a prominent ethicist from a well-known Midwestern university. Since I was moderator I sat back for some time as the others spoke. Their remarks were full of the same earnest and throaty condemnations of speciesism that I had heard at the earlier conference. Rights had to be expanded to include all creatures of the earth, they protested. When “Q and A” time came around, I volunteered my protest that the whole notion of animal rights seemed utterly incoherent when applied to the animal kingdom. Rights among prey and predators? Animals may be valued, but I doubted that they had rights. I flashed them quickly pictures of my pet cats, Bosworth and Clovis, to let them know I was not without love for animals. But I pointed out that I loved them for what they were, namely cats. I harbored no illusions that they were like humans. Cat nature and human nature differ in kind, I insisted, and gave them my argument that since animals are not like people, they are not moral agents, and therefore the notion of animal rights is nonsense.

When the audience responded I was struck, as I was at the earlier conference, by the philosophical and moral confusion behind this animal rights business. It was scary, because if people are so confused about what it is to be human, they must be confused about what it is to behave as a human. And I wondered to what extent the popularity of environmentalism and the animal rights movement might be a symptom of a crisis of moral understanding in society at large.

The audience, who generally disagreed with me, had a champion in the distinguished professor from the Midwestern university. He and an audience member took turns pointing their artillery at me. The professor, who was exceedingly articulate, engaging, and likable, pointed out that my view presupposed the mythology that there is such a thing as human nature. “Darwin,” he explained, “has shown convincingly that human beings, like all living things, are explained by physical quantities. It is physics, not metaphysics, that explains life. And physics allows only quantities, not ‘qualities’ or ‘natures.’ Life, like everything else, is just matter in motion. Philosophers who have a high regard of science do not believe in something like human nature anymore.”

The audience contributed by citing Ortega y Gasset’s famous article where he “proves” that there is no such thing as human nature. And several referred to Merleau-Ponty’s pithy paradox that “it is the nature of man not to have a nature.”

In reply I pointed out that it is not by accident that it is only human beings who seem the least bit familiar with these philosophical disproofs of human nature. There is no other animal that is the least bit invested in the question. (My cats, Bosworth and Clovis, seemed utterly indifferent when I posed the question to them.) Ortega y Gasset and Merleau Ponty wrote essays that only humans read. As to human life, or any life for that matter, being reducible to physical quanta, I decided to quote Pascal: “By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like a dot; by thought I encompass the universe.”

Since there is no human nature, those assembled there surmised, then my anthropocentrism—which would deny animals moral status equivalent to humans—is so much arbitrariness. To which I replied with an illustration I once heard used by Russell Hittinger. “Suppose you’re walking down the street and you discover a house on fire. You rush inside to rescue the inhabitants. You discover that there are only two: a human infant and a caged squirrel. Surely, you believe,” I intoned, “that, if you could only save one, the human infant would be the moral choice.”

What followed was an attempt at moral argument that I found chilling. The professor agreed that he would save the human infant, but he refused to admit that it was because the human infant had a superior nature and therefore warranted moral priority. After all, how could a human infant be superior to an adult animal, which has all kinds of cognitive and motor skills the infant has not yet developed. Why, Koko could talk a blue-streak compared with a human baby. Oh, yes, the professor would save the baby, but that’s because custom and the law required it. Were it not for these constraints, a coin toss might be the appropriate way to answer the crisis.

“But isn’t a human life intrinsically more valuable than a squirrel’s,” I responded,” at least by virtue of what a human being can become? And won’t the human being become that because it has a nature in the first place that governs what it can become?”

Our philosopher would have none of this. For him morality was not about being human; it was about factoring pleasures and pains in the utilitarian countinghouse.

“True, the life of a squirrel seems readily expendable when balanced against a human life (although the infant makes it more controversial). But I could see a situation in which maybe twenty or thirty animals could outweigh in value the life of a human being. Perhaps if a species were in the balance, a human being could also be sacrificed—say, to preserve the last strain of a bacterium or a virus? Also, the quality of lives should be factored in. On balance the life of a retarded person, say, might have less value than, say, the lives of several healthy apes.”

“This opens up all kinds of nightmarish possibilities. In the name of utilitarian attainment of overall good, the accumulation of pleasures over pains, one could justify the experiments of the Nazi doctors.”

“Well, my grandmother told me that just because I drink it doesn’t follow that I’ll be an alcoholic.”

I tried again. “But what is there in your ‘ethics’ that provides a check against this? If right and wrong are just about quantitative accumulation of pleasures and pains, then how can you judge that there even is such a thing as quality of life. It seems to me that if you return to qualities, then you should allow the obvious qualitative differences between human beings, who think, and animals, who do not.”

There was a sudden change of the subject. What followed was a lecture reminding me that we now live in a “scientific age,” which suits only a utilitarian morality and which rejects backward religious and philosophical beliefs about this “metaphysical” thing called “human nature.”

So on and so forth.

As the fog thickened I resigned myself to playing the role of pariah again. So goes the state of moral wisdom among the philosophers today: If you hold that humans are superior to squirrels in nature and moral consideration, you are likely to be dismissed as a kook; if you declare, however, that animal lives might be more valuable than disabled humans, you’re applauded as a sage. I suppose that these enlightened convictions are standard fair in the ethics curricula at our distinguished universities, as many of you may find out when you send your son or daughter to one next year. A chilling prospect.


  • Curtis Hancock

    Curtis L. Hancock is professor of philosophy at Rockhurst College.

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