I have a bad habit of speculating about what animals, usually my dog or someone else’s pet, are thinking. This leads people close to me to accuse me of anthropomorphism. They say I assume animals experience the world in the same way I do without any real evidence to tell me what kinds of “thoughts” animals might have.
And it is true; I have no way to verify what animals are actually thinking, but I don’t have any reliable way to know what anyone is thinking, so I go about my day assuming animals, especially mammals, experience life more or less as I do, even if they can’t express it with language. I happen to think those of us who make this assumption are kinder than those who don’t. And if we must make assumptions, anyway, we might as well make assumptions that increase kindness in the world.
In Political Emotions, Martha Nussbaum turns the tables on the critics of anthropomorphism. Rather than accusing people of projecting human emotions onto animals, she questions why humans are so insistent on denying that human and nonhuman animals share some emotional experiences. Rather than anthropomorphism, she says, we are guilty of anthropodenial.
Humans have a long history of placing themselves closer to angels than to other mammals. In fact, many humans see themselves as a sort of angel in waiting. We separate ourselves from other animals by drawing a supposed bright line between ourselves and animals. What’s more, humans have a tendency to separate themselves from other humans by projecting animal qualities on others. Humans in despised and marginalized groups are said to be vicious, savage, smelly, dirty, shameless, and stupid. Being no better than animals, members of such groups are often treated much worse than “angels in waiting.”
Nussbaum’s description seems radical in some ways, but the distinction between writers and thinkers who deny the shared experience of human and nonhuman animals and those who embrace the similarities is ancient. Writing in the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne
made many of the same points as Nussbaum. He notes, first, that the humans are the “most wretched and frail” of species yet also the proudest.
He says the human animal “attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions.” And he challenges the assumption, asking, “From what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them?” He points out that we eat, reproduce, protect our young, and generally try to survive right along with all the other animals. Of course, one of the most important similarities is the way we deal with pain, both physical and emotional. He says, “Our crying is common with the greatest part of other animals, and there are but few creatures that are not observed to groan, and bemoan themselves a long time after they come into the world.”
We suffer and bemoan our fate right alongside our animal companions on the earth. While we may wish to bring the heavens under our feet, as he says, we are lowly animals seeking comfort and refuge from fear, hunger, and loneliness. And if humans are wont to declare themselves superior to animals based on an alleged superiority and favor from God, humans are just as likely to attempt to declare themselves superior to other humans—largely by comparing those humans to animals in an effort to degrade them.
Thus, members of other cultures, skin colors, or practices are seen as being savage or beastlike. Their animalism is evident by their alleged smells, filth, aggression, or unchecked sexuality. Not one to shirk from the most extreme cases, Montaigne examines cultural views of cannibals. He describes in gruesome detail the methods of war, capture, and torture reputed to some classes of cannibalistic humans. After Montaigne has thoroughly disgusted his reader, he declares, “I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own.”
Without shirking from the most horrifying practices of cannibalistic cultures, Montaigne then turns to examine his own culture. He says, “I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine . . . than to roast and eat him after he is dead.”
He then tells us of a case where cannibals are brought into “civilized” society and shown the pinnacle of human achievement. After they have seen all the finery, the king asked them what they most admired. They said “that they had observed, that there were among us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, while, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.”