Monday, February 10, 2020

Animal Obligations

Human beings obviously understand a lot of their lives in terms of deontic ideas -- rules, laws, rights, obligations, duties. One way this deontic life manifests itself, which I think is not considered enough, is that we impose obligations on nonrational beings. This is interesting because I think we tend (for good reason) to associate deontic concepts with rationality; but the phenomenon of obligation creatures without reason is robust enough that any adequate theory of obligation will have to take it into account.

It's easiest to see this in the case of pets. We take a dog and we train it. What does training a dog involve? We often treat it as if it were purely a matter of training in the behaviorist sense: we organize the stimuli in such a way that the animal develops the stable response we want. But anyone who has had pets knows that this is not really how it works with pets. Yes, you reward and punish, but a dog doesn't just start responding with the appropriate behavior. For one thing, dogs, even when trained, often don't respond with the appropriate behavior; almost everyone who has long experience with dogs has had the experience of walking into a room and knowing immediately that the dog has done something they were trained not to do, even though you don't know exactly what it is. As we would usually put it, "The dog is acting like it's done something wrong."

When we train animals we ourselves conceptualize it as rules. And the relationship between the animal and the rule we formulate is very much like our relationship with rules we formulate when we train ourselves. We could perhaps say that the dog doesn't understand the rule we are imposing as a rule, but (1) we are indeed imposing a rule on the dog, even if the dog doesn't understand it; and (2) even if the dog isn't aware of the rule as a rule, the evidence of the dog's behavior is difficult to characterize in any other way than saying that in some way they are aware of the rule, even if not specifically as a rule.

Theorizing about rules, and about what rules should be, obviously requires the intellectual concept of a rule; formulating rules probably requires the concept or something like it; but following rules does not, and the training of pets, whether dogs or anything else, depends on this, because a significant portion of our ability to interact with pets is structured on our side by formulating rules for pets -- not for our interaction with pets (as we might formulate rules for how to interact with wild animals) but for pets, rules that we make specifically for pets to follow, that we train them to follow, that we expect them to follow, and that we punish them for not following or reward them for following. We don't expect them to grasp the underlying reasons, of course; we have no way to communicate those reasons to them. But we do communicate the rules, whatever our reasons for them may be, and we expect them to be aware of them.

It seems that there are only a couple of possibilities here, given that this is the way things appear to be:

(1) Pets do not in fact follow rules but only act as if they follow rules; that is, we cannot actually obligate animals, but we can train them so that they act as if we had. The primary issue here is the one noted above, namely, that when you interact with animals over these rules, their behavioral relationship to the rules does not seem all that different from our own behavioral relationship to rules that seem arbitrary and whose rationale we don't understand -- we might say that their as-if acting is really as if. If they aren't following the rules we impose, then whatever they are doing has to be at least part of what we do when we follow the rules.

(2) We do in fact extend obligations to, and create obligations for, pets, who do in fact follow the rules we establish, even if they are incapable of theorizing about it. They may not have our deontic rationality and they may not perceive our deontic reasons, but they in some way recognize them in the way one might recognize a rule whose rationale one does not understand.

Whichever way one goes, our deontic interactions with animals says something important about the nature of obligation in general. And also about our reason -- reason is such either as to extend obligations to nonrational beings or else to use our grasp of obligations as a guide for intelligibly reshaping the world beyond us.

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