The Humanity in Non-Human Animals

I used to think animals were dumb, instinctive little things. Much of my exposure to non-pet animals, like that of many other people, was indirect: I experienced them through online videos or short comments on social media. I could read accounts of idiot cows that basically just mooed from day to night, or of lemmings who ran off cliffs. When I did see animals in person, I experienced them only through existing narratives which had been carefully (or not so carefully) crafted over centuries. A zookeeper could generalize an entire species to me as if its members’ thoughts and behavior were determined only by their make and model; I’d interpret him that way, too, for the fact that each species was kept in a carefully segmented area, in a theme park for things that ate and slept, in which the presence of hundreds of tourists would confirm the idea that that was what the animals were: things.

My first invitation to view animals as anything else was introduced in a class on moral psychology whose curriculum included a reading from Darwin, and whose instructor was an adamant professor of ethics. I was surprised to learn Darwin’s notes of animals’ capacities to think, learn, and feel; I had always associated his name with the idea of stupid, unfeeling creatures which were surpassed by superior beings, humans, for our genes for thinking and feeling. To read the opposite idea from Darwin himself, I opened up to animals in that class. I can remember my professor stating a challenge to the students, something to the effect of: “For anyone who thinks animals don’t think, I present a challenge to you: Go out and observe them.”

Over months, I let these ideas influence me. Through videos and articles whose narratives were built around the confirmation of animal cognition, a fresh lens with which to view animals in person, and some sympathetic friends, I built an appreciation for animal cognition and sentience.


Looking back, two thoughts stand out to me: One, it is startling to think that someone can look at a creature—with curiosity, hopes, and fears—and come away with only the thought that it is driven on “instincts.” It says something about the powerful narrative we often choose to affect our viewing, which leads us from an equally compelling view. In the alternate view, ‘instinct’ is an empty word we use to describe what we don’t understand about animal cognition. Some of the ways we use this word may as well be described as ’emotion.’ By these uses, an animal’s ‘instinctive’ drive to chase its tail, dive in the water, or otherwise move in a strange pattern is just its wanting to fulfill its curiosity or simply play without any serious goal. In fact, describing animal goals with desires is something we already happily do with some animals. For example, we often do this with pets, which we are unafraid to humanize. From another take of the alternate view, rather than label animal ‘instincts’ as emotions, we might describe our own emotions as ‘instincts.’ Perhaps we might look at our irrational behaviors—our temptations to eat despite wanting to lose weight, or continue a dangerous substance despite knowing it to be bad for our lifestyles, or any other situation where we tell ourselves we shouldn’t but can’t help ourselves—and call these instinctual. In this view, whatever we choose to call these sorts of wantings, we acknowledge they seem similar for humans and animals.

The thought that animal ‘instincts’ are similar to our own leads me to my second thought. If I were born into an animal’s environment and social structures, I think I would act like that animal. During a period when I was more concerned with social growth, I watched for social cues and awareness everywhere, of both humans and animals. I thought sometimes, while watching videos of wild animals, that they looked oblivious to social cues. Some looked devoid of curiosity, like their brains were turned to half capacity except when eating or performing survival-related tasks. Actually, I likened them to impoverished people in videos of foreign countries, who I thought also must be unsophisticated. But I had the thought: What would I have been like if I had been raised in the environment of these people and animals? To answer, I don’t think I would have acted much differently. This lesson in empathy is easier learned with humans: As a fellow human, I have enough positive and negative experiences from a human body to guess how others experience their lives. I can’t really imagine what life would be like with paws and a tail, and I’m not sure the thought experiment makes much sense, because with a dog-physiology would also come with a necessary change in brain-structure. Although, I have to say: The idea of climbing on trees and in small crevices with a dexterous feline body sounds appealing to me, as does barking at squirrels as a dog or rolling in mud as a pig.

My thinking that I would act like animals in their environments was heavily influenced by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. The influence is indirect, so bear with me for a paragraph. In a paper, Nagel described the phenomenon of ‘moral luck,’ by which a person may receive moral judgment despite having a significant amount of his actions depend on factors beyond his control. He categorized four types of moral luck. The first is ‘constitutive luck,’ which has to do with someone’s personality (temperament, inclinations) and capacities. The second is the standard kind of luck we imagine, in how something will turn out. For example, there is always a chance we may be hit by a drunk driver when we transit, and to be hit would be ‘unlucky.’ The third luck has to do with one’s circumstances, with which challenges he will or will not have to encounter. In Nagel’s example, citizens of the Nazi regime could seem heroic by opposing the regime, or conform to Nazism; however, citizens of other countries were not subjected to the same challenge, and we can not say how they would respond if they were. The last type of luck regards freedom of will. To skip the overly philosophical parts, I would describe this as some kind of historical luck: The factors that shape one’s environment and development were built off preceding factors out of her control. Morally lucky people are treated well despite how the factors by which they are judged are based off that—luck—while unlucky people are treated poorly for their unluckiness.

The transition to my thought was this: How would I act if given the uncontrollable luckiness or unluckiness imposed on other animals? Constitutively, given similar proportions and desires as a monkey, what would I do? Would I find amusement in slinging feces, climbing trees, or doing other monkey things? How might I react given the situational challenges to which a deer is exposed (lack of hands and ability to speak included)? Or if I were raised into a lion’s social structure, predisposed to be feared or poached by humans and lacking a steady food supply, how would I act?

If we can appreciate the similarities in behavior we might act out given similar situations, I think the idea of animal intelligence becomes much more palatable. Because if we can do that, it would then seem that many animals’ actions are more reflective of their environments than of their abilities to add or subtract. And rather than guess what evolutionary adaptations led some animals to their actions, we can see their human qualities of happiness, sadness, curiosity, and so on.

Pythagoras had an idea that each living thing contained a soul, and upon the death of a body, a soul simply migrated to another body, human or non-human. While I do not believe in souls, I think the general idea can be an elegant way to summarize how similar minds can exist in different contexts and bodies. Their perceived dissimilarities from each other is enough to warrant moral judgment between friends, war between tribes, and forced breeding and genocide among species. Yet in their essences, they are the same: Thinking, fearing, wanting.