3 February 1998
Thank you for your letter of 8 February, with your essay for units 12 — 15 of Reason, Values and Conduct '"In the ethics of dialogue, it is the capacity for language rather than the presence of consciousness that marks the crucial moral difference between animals and ourselves." — is that a fair and accurate assessment?'...
In my WEA class I have been getting the students to set the topic for each week. By pure coincidence, the topic for this Wednesday (requested last time we met, before the break) is 'whether we have moral obligations towards animals'!
I've learned a lot from our pet rabbit. First I have to tell you that we had never had a pet. Then a friend of June's gave her a guinea pig and Thumper, with two hutches for summer and winter (they were supposed to share) and a set of instructions. Despite following the instructions to the letter, the guinea pig died. The sense of guilt was palpable. Now there isn't enough we can do for Thumper. When we forget to change her straw, or leave the hutch uncovered in the frost, she seems to look at us accusingly. 'Look what you did to poor Ferry!' — Having pets, caring for pets exhibits an aspect of human nature. They become an extended part of the human circle. So too, perhaps, the farmer with his cows.
The first thing I have to say about your essay is that you have not answered the question! The question is about the capacity for language and the presence of consciousness. What is the difference between an account of a moral being based on language and one based on the presence of consciousness? Why should either of these be the thing that counts? Why language above consciousness? Or are they merely different aspects of the same thing?
Giving examples — even highly pertinent examples — is no substitute for philosophical argument. Examples oil the wheels of an argument. You can crank along on very little oil, but oil on its own gets you nowhere.
You are right to say that the first question we must ask is what is meant by 'language'. One of the fundamental marks of language is that words have 'non-natural' or conventional meanings. If I raise a hand to strike someone, that is not a statement in a language but a natural sign, just as dark clouds are a natural sign of rain. Of course, we can exploit natural signs, we can convey thoughts and meanings by leading others to make inferences from our behaviour. This connection can be further developed. So it comes about that I can hold my hands out as if I were about to strangle someone when they know perfectly well (as I smile through clenched teeth) that all I mean is, 'I could strangle you!'
All animals communicate. Pack animals especially have evolved elaborate signals that establish a hierarchy of command and facilitate co-ordinated action. These are covered by the broad term 'instinct'. Some animals have shown a capacity to innovate, for example apes and chimpanzees. The innovations exploit 'natural' meaning, in the way indicated above.
There are limits to what one can get across in this way. Discussion of an agent's intentions lack a certain subtlety, if they get off the ground at all. Suppose I am a doctor, who sees the urgent need to saw off the native's gangrened leg? Would smiling help? I can point to the leg and scowl, but there is no guarantee that he or the others will cotton on. No-one in the tribe has ever attempted to perform an amputation, nor has anyone ever survived having an arm or leg bitten off when swimming in the local crocodile infested river. (Perhaps I could get the point across if I drew a series of cartoons, the last one showing the patient, whose life has been saved, trying on his new artificial limb. Again, there are limits to what one can communicate in this way.)
'The question of whether the dog has an understanding of what it is doing can only be answered by the dog.' Much has been said about the dog's inheritance from the wolf that explains why dogs have become such a friend to man. The capacities of sheep dogs are truly amazing to anyone who sees one perform for the first time. It is less surprising that a dog will help another dog, or a man, or that it learn ways of attracting our attention in various ways for various purposes.
It is not good enough to say that we can never know what things are like for the dog. That is true, but that does not mean that there is nothing more to say. We do not lay moral blame on dogs. Why don't we? The reason is not obvious, certainly not if you think that dogs do have the capacity to communicate their thoughts to us, and sometimes intend to do this. A dog can be 'bad', or turn bad, with tragic consequences. We blame the summer heat, not the dog.
The central question that needs to be addressed is what it is about 'language' in the true sense, a system of conventional or non-natural signs, that makes possible the evaluation and criticism of actions. There are various non-linguistic means of 'getting information across'. The question is what only language, in this sense, can do.
I would agree that I do have a problem with the distinction between beings that lack language as a matter of 'nature' and those that merely have yet to acquire it. (Your inarticulate tribesmen might or might not have developed a systematic sign language, or they might be in the process of developing one.) A point that could also be made is that here are things you can't do with anything that has a human shape. — I am not sure what to say here.
Why isn't the crucial moral feature the presence of consciousness? Peter Carruthers in his book The Animals Issue, argues that non-human animals are not conscious of their 'feelings', such as pain or discomfort, and that this is the morally relevant feature. For him, it is the capacity for language that accounts for the difference between beings that can be conscious of their feelings and beings that simply feel. It might be worth having a look at his book if you were interested in pursuing the subject further.
Finally, congratulations on completing this section of the course! You now need to think carefully about which essays you want to prepare for the Associate Diploma portfolio. After some discussion, the level required for a pass has been set at essays that would score a 2/i or 60% in a first year undergraduate course. This is a not an easy mark to aim at, or at any rate not for some students. The length to aim at is 2,500 words, or a maximum of 3,000. Remember that before assembling your portfolio you can submit as few, or as many essays to me as you feel necessary. (I enclose some blue slips.) There is nothing to stop you tackling new topics if you want, although with ten Pathways essays you should have enough to choose from!