Some Questions about Animals
Snowdon (Paul)
Source: Snowdon (Paul) - Persons, Animals, Ourselves - Chapter 5
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The assessment of the animalist1 thesis, expressed here in its plural form, that we are each identical to an animal, namely, the animal where each of us is, requires that we answer some questions about the category of an animal, though by no means all the questions, and certainly not all the most important questions, that can be raised about it. It is not necessary, that is to say, to provide what might be called a complete metaphysics of animals as a kind of thing. In fact, it is far from clear what providing such a complete metaphysic would amount to. What it is necessary to do is to provide a partial theory, or characterization, of animals, filling it out in the respects that impinge on arguments for and against animalism2 and that concern also the philosophically interesting consequences of the thesis3. It needs stressing that the task of providing such a partial theory is not one imposed solely on the animalist4. Those who endorse a person/animal distinction invariably rely on arguments that involve, or presuppose, some (theoretical) assumptions about animals. My aim, therefore, is to outline some such views that will, I hope, seem plausible to both sides5. There is, in talking here of a theory, something that is misleading. The propositions about animals that I shall articulate hardly merit the name 'theory', in that some of them are, it seems to me, more or less obvious, and, moreover, the resulting collection of propositions is fairly unsystematic. There is, surely, something rather odd in the idea that a philosopher could provide an account which merits being described as an interesting theory about animals. That is a task for those who genuinely study animals and who have therefore to confront, and whose explanatory concerns define, the important questions. The questions I shall engage with are (for the most part) simply those that concern the present enquiry.
  2. Animals are a sort of thing that we mark out, or have significance for us, early in our cognitive development, and they represent a sort which has a fundamental role in our thinking thereafter6. Most important, animals are a kind in the world as we encounter it and which we mark out as, that is to say, recognize as, distinctive objects. A theory of them has to be validated by what on investigation we find these distinctive objects around us to be. Now, very importantly, what has been found is that animals are evolved creatures, entities which have a place in an evolving long-term historical development. No entity outside that process can be what we mean by 'animal', however much it resembles animals7. Proposition (A), therefore, identifies us with entities in this as yet dimly perceived historical process.
  3. Animals are studied by biologists and we can, therefore, say that the concept of an animal, or of an organism, belongs to biology. Biology is, moreover, a subject about which there is a well-developed and extremely important tradition of philosophical discussion8. It is also a discipline where its own practitioners take such philosophical questions (or at least some of them) seriously9. In part, these philosophical discussions concern the status of biology as a so-called special science, but there are also central issues to do with organisms that have been raised.
    1. What are the conditions for being an organism?
    2. What distinguishes a single organism from a collection of organisms?
    3. What are the conditions for being a sort of organism (say a dog)?
    4. What is the import of the classification of organisms?
    A major need is to work out the implications for these questions of the theory of evolution10. These (and other issues raised by biology) cannot, of course, be sensibly discussed by anyone ignorant of modern biological theory. Now, such questions are amongst the most important philosophy currently faces, but for the limited purposes of this book it is not necessary to solve them (or even to take a partial view on them). Of course, the working out of answers to these problems in the philosophy of biology is relevant to determining the general consequences of animalism11. But most of these consequences will not provide grounds for worrying about the truth of animalism12, nor will they link with the philosophical arguments being discussed here.
  4. The most basic claim or assumption that is relied on here is that there is no problem about the existence of animals (or organisms). The thesis that each of us is identical to an animal cannot seriously be disputed by denying there are animals for us to be identical with. Moreover, it is also true that there is an animal where each of us is. The way to think of this is to regard the concept of an animal as introduced in the regular natural kind13 way to apply to such objects as cows and cats, etc., where, as introduced it may be that we are not regarded as forming part of its extension. However, and roughly, the discovery of evolution14 and the realization that humans form part of that evolved group and so are animals, means that we have to allow that where we are there are animals. That is, so to speak, a fundamental empirical discovery. Beyond that there is now a shared and well-established general conception of animals, and also, in particular, a shared and well-established conception of human animals15. The pros and cons of animalism16 rely on this shared understanding. None of this means, of course, that there are no mistakes within traditional thinking about animals and their classification. There are certainly significant lacunas. There are, though, certain claims no one would, or should, be inclined to deny.
  5. My aim, then, in this chapter is to defend in as reasonable a way as I can, and to the degree to which it seems necessary, certain claims about the category of an animal. In fact, the relevant claims centrally concern human animals17. We can ignore here the fantastic variety of other life forms. I want to divide the presentation of the claims into two parts. The first part contains what I think of as, even for philosophy, relatively uncontroversial theses, and after that there will be the part which contains the more philosophically controversial theses. It is of course controversial sometimes what is controversial, but I hope that the theses I list as uncontroversial are both uncontroversial and uncontroversially uncontroversial.

  1. Five Uncontroversial Theses
  2. Two More Controversial Theses
  3. Three Further Questions
  4. Conclusion:
    • I have tried to justify the main assumptions about animals, including human animals18, on which the arguments to be developed rely. These assumptions do not amount to a proper metaphysics of animals as type of thing, but the evaluation of the relevant arguments does not require such a metaphysics.
    • The next task is to analyse [A&~P] cases.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 3: Since more or less any thesis we could currently provide will be partial in the sense of being incomplete, it is truistic to say that any theory of animals will be partial. I mean, rather, that only some parts of the best present theory are relevant to this philosophical discussion.

Footnote 5: This remark is simply an application of a general point that is often forgotten. Usually at least the concept X is a concept shared between those who deny that Y's are X's and those who affirm that Y’s are X's, and neither side has a special obligation to explain what X's are. Another case is the notion of the physical, which is employed as centrally by those who deny mental states are physical as it is by those who affirm that the mental is physical. The obligation to clarify the concept is often, quite illegitimately, taken to fall on those who employ it in a positive thesis rather than a negative thesis.

Footnote 6: See Mandler, J.M (2004) The Foundations of Mind, OUP.

Footnote 7: This represents one fundamental contrast with chemical and physical natural kinds.

Footnote 8: Footnote 9: See Mayr, E (2001) What Evolution Is, NY: Basic Books.

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