Sunday, March 20, 2011

What two dogs in the aftermath of the tsunami can teach us about ethics

The video I mentioned last week, showing the touching loyalty of one dog for her companion injured by the Japanese tsunami, apparently went viral. It's not surprising that people all over the world were moved to watch: the tender interaction between the two dogs is so utterly uncomplicated by any form of ego. They are emotionally in tune; there is no need for verbal language. They depict an ideal we humans have to work hard to achieve in our relationships.

I was reminded of other videos I've seen recently about animal relationships, especially inter-species friendships. Tara the elephant and Bella the dog; the joyful, affectionate reunion between Christian the lion and the men who rescued him years after they'd released him back to the wild; the zoo-caged gorilla who tenderly rescued the human child who'd fallen into the cage and brought him to the zookeepers. There are actually a plethora of such stories, which nevertheless are always reported as if they are singular, even miraculous, events. Perhaps we are only projecting the unlikelihood of our own involvement if we find a fellow creature in need, particularly if they are of another class, race, or species.

Considering these inter-species encounters, I'm struck by how uncomplicated they are by human-style egoism. Rather, they are emotionally "real": powerful, direct, profound, immanent. These animals do not waste time calculating which species is more intelligent.  They do not waffle over whether other species are sentient, lord their species-specific abilities over others, or shrug their shoulders when disaster strikes someone not of their tribe. They do not wonder, in self-justification, whether others feels pain. They do not set out to utterly destroy other species.

Only human animals are so disconnected from their place in the world that they regularly make the mistake of thinking they are above it. It is a holdover from the Judeo-Christian notion that man has dominion over nature, which has provided twisted justification for marking all non-human species as Other, as Object, paving the way to excluding them from the Kantian imperative to treat others as ends in themselves. 

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that ethical behavior is rooted in our animal natures, not our capacity to reason. Aristotle wrote of the similarities between humans and dolphins over two and half thousand years ago: both take pleasure in exercising their skills, both display curiosity, bravery, and purposefulness. Nietzsche picked up this idea a century ago:
The beginnings of justice, as of prudence, moderation, bravery—in short, of all that we designate as the Socratic virtues—are animal...
To empathize, to share joy or sorrow, to connect... these do not require verbal language—they require sensitivity, presence, memory of one's own experiences, the inclination to pay attention and to risk trusting.  Considering the range of inhumane responses and behaviors on display every day, it would seem we should look to nonhumans to learn how to live.

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