Friday June 20, 2008
Bod, the thinkBuddha cat, is looking pretty pleased with himself at the moment. He is sitting in a bean-bag by my side as I write this, his eyes closed, a single paw draped languidly over the edge of his seat. Occasionally I reach down to tickle him under the chin or to scratch him behind the ears, and he lets out a little squeak of pleasure…
The reason that I am telling you all this is that I’ve just finished reading Pleasurable Kingdom by Jonathan Balcombe, a book about pleasure in the animal kingdom. The basic thesis of the book is simple and seems relatively uncontentious: animals experience pleasure.
Ethicists are used to talking about animal pain, but the discusison of animal pleasure in ethics is much more limited. Balcombe’s book looks at a whole range of behaviours from animal relationships to food to friendship to surprisingly creative approaches to sex (research into which puts paid, as this week’s New Scientist editorial points out, to the idea that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’: it’s certainly more ‘natural’ than driving a car or surfing the internet…), and attempts to put discussions of pleasure back at the centre of our thinking about animals. And it does quite a convincing job of it.
It is, in fact, curious how reluctant we are to grant that animals (the lizard basking in the sun, the flying fish leaping from the water) experience pleasure even when we are willing to grant that they experience pain; and the claim that, for example, cats might enjoy lounging in the sun is often seen as anthropomorphism, sometimes considered as amongst the worse of scientific sins. Yet Balcombe points out how weird this is: after all, we are a part of the animal kingdom, and so to extrapolate cautiously from our own experience seems like a sensible thing to do, rather than to rule out of court such possibilities. And the more we find out about the complex ethology of the animal kingdom (I love the example that Barbara Smuts gives of baboons ‘meditating’, which I posted about here a couple of years back), the less tenable the idea of animals as pleasureless beings looks.
The implications of this are rather far reaching, however; because whilst granting pain to animals implies a certain basic level of moral concern, to see animals as capable of more complex pleasures is to permit the possibility of an intrinsic value to animal life that goes beyond the instrumentality that underpins a lot of our practices, and it forces us to start to think about animals as individuals rather than just as species. What if the pig we are tucking into (or the fish, for that matter) is not just one member of the class of objects denoted by the word ‘pig’, but a creature with an inner life, with its interests and pleasures and with its own sense of the value of life?
Balcombe also hints at wider implications, and these, I think, are very interesting. He maintains that our view of life is unremittingly gloomy, that we see nature red in tooth and claw. We watch wildlife documentaries of animals being torn to bits by other animals, we see everything in terms of a perpetual struggle for survival. But what if not everything is struggle? After all, says Balcombe, that antelope we are watching being torn to pieces, like the rest of us, only has to die once, and up until then it may have had a pretty good time: we love drama, so we show the dramatic bits; and then we tell ourselves that this is all there is. This, however, is a mistake, one that gives us a seriously skewed view of the world. It would be like watching a TV documentary about human existence that dwelt only on misery. Or it would be like watching the evening news. In other words: profoundly misleading.
If Balcombe is right, perhaps we should be cautious of the rhetoric of misery that often swamps us, as we should be cautious of philosophies like that of Schopenhauer. To be sure, there are sufferings in the world; but to recognise the pleasures of existence is not to deny the miseries; indeed, my hunch is that in the end it is only through recognising the pleasures alongside the miseries that we can act well in the world.
So that’s enough for one evening. I’m going to sign off here, so I can hang out with the cat…
Image: Byeon Sangbyeo – Cats and Sparrows. 18th Century. Wikimedia Commons
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