Thursday, October 20, 2011

do animals grieve?

"Do animals grieve?" is the title of THIS NPR article.  In critical animal studies, the concept of "deanthropocentrism" seems only to be guilty of elevating nonhuman animals' importance to an equal level with that of the human.  Here the "nonhuman" includes nonhuman animals who communicate their own perspectives in ways semiotically and prehensively grasped by the human, thus establishing communication of their own inner experiences of value (presumably this is communicated by other agents as well).  The experience communicated by nonhumans includes grief, according to the NPR article.

The standard charge against deanthropocentrism is to simply call it a nihilism in that it seeks to depreciate humans and will humanity's eradication in favor of what is nonhuman
.  In other words, those who question the idea of deanthropocentrism (as that concept is found in critical animal studies for example) say that deanthropocentrists really think that humans, and what they value, are nothing special.  Following a slippery slope, then, humans are just "objects" and thus human goals, purposes, and the meanings that human beings have in the end are disposable, like most objects or "random" things of the universe are.

The best response to this is to state that deanthropocentrism means to embrace the full reality (that is, both the what and the way) of *all* things in and of the world, the human included.  That is, there is an ontological parity in the value of items if the universe as such (a univocal realism of value, as I understand it).  No one thing can be discounted and disposed of prima facie, and everything in the world, ecologically speaking, has at least some value.

By stating that humans are "things" among other "things" in the universe one commits a reality check - one is identifying humans as inhabiting the same plane as other nonhuman agents and the human being ontologically is decentered from the center of the cosmos - from its former reigning place of anthropocentric dominance.  This has the potential to produce a more enriched relational network of agents each getting their value due.  Each agent, each actor as it were, has its own center and its own place of unique importance within a relational network of agents and values.

I don't see deanthropocentrizing the human as a "leveling" out or as a "bringing down" of the human being to the level of  let's say mere things, but rather as the opposite: bringing all things up to the level of ontological agents with at least some level of minimal value and importance.  Again, this is what I take to be a realism about univocal value concerning all of the world.  Rocks or pens may *matter less* in context, but fundamentally, the fact that anything is, rather than is not, means that "is" has a value in and of itself when it comes to what has been posited in the world. 

Following Whitehead, Buchler, and Hartshorne on this point, all agents of the world equally inhabit the ecology of reality. And inhabiting an ecology of reality means to possess an inner experience and possible communication of that experience. But agent and relation - being and communicating - will always be on equal footing: for as much as agency withdraws and flees inward agency is nevertheless related to the process of its own undetermined or as of yet to be determined possible-future nature. That is, agents are able to express "outward" natures that are not yet determined. With this possible communicative expression comes the autonomy of creativity, and, balancing the withdrawal of an agent, one gets outward. abundant expression.

Ethically, the comprehensibility, the knowing or totalizing of each agent's own distinct value forever eludes us - it can never be fully represented to anything other (although, as I argue elsewhere, I think aesthetic feeling and empathy are crucial here).  Stating that agents can be fully known, that their inner essence can be grasped indubitably, or that the interior life of a thing can be totalized - that on the other hand is nihilism, for it is the value reduction of what something supposedly is-as-finished rather than the letting-it-remain-open given what it can be.

If this is true, the care and ontological concern that we would formerly have taken to apply only to the human must now in some sense apply to all of nature, to all things with respect to their value.  Hence a truly ecological ethic which honors all perspectives or centers of things, each center dropping infinitely into an abyss of value-experience, importance, and perspective. 

How, then, does this view relate to ethics, to nonhuman animals? 

Enter the article linked above ("Do Animals Grieve?")   I think that being decentered means that realizing that animals, too, are objects of importance, similar agents, beings who have an important interior life. It seems to me that an animal's own nonhuman form of aesthetic communication (and for me this is both semiotic and phenomenological, to be prehended fundamentally as *feeling*) should count just as much as any other persistent semiotic communicative agent in the universe.  In other words, in matters of context, animals, then, should count equally to humans for ontological reasons above all else.  Their manners of communication should be taken into consideration when caring for the environment understood as ecological reality, for objects-felt-as-subjects, each being a unique and distinctive center point of feeling possessing worth and value of its own.  

Here empathy is crucial in regarding the manners of communication in question, a "Jamesian speculative exploration of a nonhuman consciousness" in regarding what manners of interior being are possible (James' 'On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings' speaks copiously to this)When it comes to thinking about whether animals are capable of grieving, given all of the above, I could only conclude that yes, it is possible - and ontologically so.  It certainly seems to be the case, not because human beings anthropomorphilcally project that emotion, but rather after an ontological anthrodecentering one finds that all agents of the universe have some value and are capable of - each in their own unique way - communicating that value as well any challenges to it, including empathy and loss, and grief over loss.