Jeffrey Masson and Peter Singer on the difference between us and them…
What is it about being human that makes us different from other animals? Scientists and philosophers have been juggling with this question forever. How can we categorise ourselves as different from them? Scientists have, in the past tried to conceptualise this by some of the following categories…
– Tool use – observed in many non-human animals – and just recently studied in crows.
– Language – a category closely followed by the metaphysical question, what constitutes language? Must it be spoken, written, embodied? Non-human animals certainly have communication of their own, sometimes through means that we find hard to access and even study, like vibration patterns between the tunnels of naked mole rats that they produce with their teeth.
– Culture – Something passed down through generations. Primate populations have shown particular behaviours (such as fishing ants with a stick) that are different from other populations showing that knowledge has been passed down through generations.
– Unconscious and conscious thought – This is where research gets a little tricky…
So we asked Jeffrey Masson and Peter Singer what there thoughts were on,
“What is the difference between humans and all other animals?”
“People have tried to draw lines between humans and other animals in a variety of different ways in terms of tool use and language a whole range of things. I don’t think they’re really what matters…. Look I think there are a lot of differences between humans and other animals. If what we talk about when we are talking about humans is normal mature human beings then I think it’s true that the normal mature human being has the capacity for thinking, reasoning and communication, which exceeds anything that we know of at least in non-human animals. But the question is, is that morally relevant or why is it morally relevant? After all it’s also true that the normal mature human being has a capacity for thinking and for communication that is in excess of that of humans with intellectual disabilities, or is in excess of that of humans who are less than one year old. But that doesn’t mean that we feel ourselves justified in using those beings in the way that we use non-human animals. So I think what that shows is that we don’t really think that a lack of these higher intellectual capacities gives us the right to ignore the interests of beings of lower intellectual capacities. And I think that’s correct because what really matters is if beings can suffer and feel pain or enjoy their lives. No whether they can do physics or mathematics, write novels or poems so um I think that we shouldn’t be focussing so much on finding some dividing line between humans and other animals. Their have been various attempts to do that and mostly they turn out not to really separate humans from animals properly but even if someone came up with something that did it would also separate some humans from other humans. So really that’s what we need to focus on. We need to say well if something doesn’t justify us in using or exploiting individuals with intellectual capacities that are no higher than non-human animals then how could it justify us in using non-human animals in those ways”.
“I think there are a number of important differences between human emotions and animal emotions I think mostly however not to our credit. I think for example humans, envy plays a great role in our lives. I don’t think envy plays a role in any animals life. I don’t think greed plays a role in any animals life. And surprisingly I don’t think hatred plays a role in the emotional lives of animals they can get angry, they can be upset but they don’t hate and they certainly don’t retain hate over days and days and days that is if they are annoyed at something you do most animals forgive you within an instant. It’s not that they forget it, its like it doesn’t have an impact on they whereas we can feel I’m so angry at that person and the next day I’m still angry and a year later I still hate them. I don’t think animals experience hatred which really controversial but its true….. they don’t hold grudges no and even when they hunt they hunt for food”.