It’s a profoundly important question. I tend do go with the simple explanation that we can, we have retrograde beliefs about the moral consideration we should give animals, and doing so often yields profit or profits human in some way (allowing them, for example, to go around saying “MMMM. Bacon.”).
But Dr. Lori Marino and Michael Mountain go deeper. In an attempt to better understand our very troubled relationship with the other species on the planet, they argue that awareness of our own mortality plays a role. The result is a paper for Anthrozoos called “Denial of Death and the Relationship Between Humans and Other Animals.”
Here is the abstract:
The focus of this paper is to explore how cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s claim that human behavior is largely motivated by fear of death may explain important aspects of our relationship with nonhuman animals. Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggests that when we humans are reminded of our personal mortality, we tend to deny our biological identity or creatureliness and distance ourselves from the other animals, since they remind us of our own mortal nature. In support of this, an abundance of peer-reviewed experimental literature shows that reminders of our own mortality create a strong psychological need to proclaim that “I am not an animal.” We contend that the denial of death is an important factor in driving how and why our relationships with other animals are fundamentally exploitive and harmful. Even though today there are more animal advocacy and protection organizations than ever, the situation for nonhuman animals continues to deteriorate (e.g. more factory farming, mass extinction of wildlife species, and ocean life under severe stress). We also suggest that developing a new and more appropriate relationship with the natural world would be a key factor in resolving the question that Becker was never able to answer: How can we deal with the existential anxiety that is engendered by the awareness of our own mortality?
Got it? Michael Mountain, in a blog post, explains further, in an effort to better understand whether this dynamic can help explain the disastrous and destructive trajectory of the human race:
Why are we doing this? Why have we created a way of living that’s destroying the only home we have and bringing on a mass extinction that will most likely consume us, too? And all in the name of “progress.” Why can’t we stop?
Those are the questions Dr. Lori Marino and I set out to answer in a paper that will be published in March in the journal Anthrozoos, but is already fast-tracked online here. (You need a subscription to Anthrozoos to access the full text.)
The paper, entitled “Denial of Death and the Relationship between Humans and Other Animals”, explores the psychology of how and why we humans feel compelled to treat our fellow animals as commodities and resources – and the whole natural world as our property.
The reason lies at the core of the human condition. It’s probably best summed up by the French author Albert Camus, who wrote:
“Humans are the only creatures who don’t want to be what they are.”
And what we absolutely don’t want to be is an animal.
Our central problem, as humans, is that as much as we reach for the stars and create profoundly beautiful works of art, we cannot escape the knowledge that, just like all the other animals, we are destined to die, go into the ground, and become food for worms.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote that the awareness we humans have of our personal mortality creates a level of anxiety that drives much of our behavior. Certainly other animals experience bursts of terror in the face of death, but for us humans it’s a lifelong awareness, and one that brings about a chronic level of anxiety.
And so, to alleviate the anxiety we feel over our animal nature, we try to separate ourselves from our fellow animals and to exert control over the natural world. We tell ourselves that we’re superior to them and that they exist for our benefit. We treat them as commodities and resources, use them as biomedical “models” or “systems” in research, and force them to perform for our entertainment.
I personally am comfortable with my animal nature (though that doesn’t mean I don’t try to better understand it and resist its more aggressive tendencies). And I experience joy at the connectedness I feel with regard to other creatures.
That connection is where true empathy comes from, and is the foundation of the idea that while we may be more powerful than other species our power should not be mistaken for moral superiority or the right of dominion. In fact, our power to dominate (and destroy) should be the moral basis for greater consideration and care for other species. We should be stewards, not exploiters. But since that is clearly not a view that our global culture accepts or promotes, I am glad that Lori Marino and Michael Mountain are making a bold intellectual bid to explain why.