The past week has produced a number of interesting articles which have become instant talking points. There was one about the continuing lack of opportunities & hurdles facing women in the sciences. There was another about how rich people subconsciously empathize less towards people who aren’t as powerful as them. As can be expected, both articles immediately became major talking points in the online world.
However, there was another article which I found just as, if not more, interesting. It was relating to the emotional capabilities of animals, especially dogs. Written by neuroscientists who had done extensive research on this, it contained a number of explosive findings.
Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.
In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money.
Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.
many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions. The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.
By using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.
One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions. There are no laws that cover animals as wards, so the patchwork of rescue groups that operate under a guardianship model have little legal foundation to protect the animals’ interest.
If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.
The article makes a very powerful case for the deep injustice, exploitation and oppression being perpetuated by our society … and it was greeted by a deafening silence. Some offered the same tired old arguments.
“Animals belong to a different species, so that makes it ok.”
“I don’t believe in neuroscience.”
“The study isn’t 100% conclusive.”
But for the most part, the vast majority of people simply shrugged and moved on to the next articles.
One can easily understand why. People innately know that the evidence of animal intellect and emotion is overwhelming. That inflicting pain and suffering on animals for their own hedonistic pleasure is wrong. Even children innately understand this, without requiring any formal education.
And yet, what alternative do people have? We have been eating meat all our lives, and can’t imagine giving it up. Our entire society has revolved around animals as property, and changing this would require a major upheaval. Pet owners would suddenly face legal responsibilities for their pets. The entire meat-industry would find themselves out of a job. 99% of the population will find their diet suddenly changed overnight. People know that inflicting pain and suffering on animals is wrong… but there simply isn’t any practical answer to this. So what else is there to do, but to shrug and walk away?
If there’s anyone who can sympathize with this dilemma, it has to be our forefathers from two centuries ago, back when America was a slave-owning country. Slaves formed the bedrock for the agriculture industry, and the southern way-of-life. The idea of declaring slavery illegal and treating them not as property but as persons deserving of rights and freedoms, seemed utterly impractical and inconceivable to a society built around the institution of slavery.
And yet, the answer to those objections seems obvious today to every single person in America. Our forefathers who defended slavery aren’t sympathized with for their practical objections & problems. No one even considers the idea that they were right to allow slavery in light of their practical objections. The fact of the matter is, with the benefit of distance, we’re able to expose these practical arguments for what they really are: Fraudulent justifications. There is no practical reason on earth that can be used to justify the suffering, pain and oppression inflicted on others who are capable of grief, sorrow and pain, just like us.
Slavery might be gone today, but the arguments used to justify it in centuries past can still find close cousins in the arguments used to justify animal-ownership today. The evidence is now overwhelming. Animals too are capable of emotions, joy, grief, pain and suffering… just like humans. There is no practical objection on earth that can be used to justify inflicting those things on animals. There will come a day when our descendants will look back at us, shake their heads, and wonder how we could have willfully closed our minds & participated in this abhorrent lifestyle. One can only wonder what our response to them would be.