What your inner ape tells you about apes

One of the things I’ve learned from teaching a course on Animal Rights for many years is that most people (not excluding myself) are confused about animals. They are animal lovers but also on some level they think that animals don’t matter too much.

This combination of feelings sometimes makes it hard to engage people in debates about ethics and animals. There’s this well of feeling in practically any Animal Rights class that surges up from time to time. The gut feeling is “so what?”

I’ve been reading some books and articles over the summer that do a lot to explain the “so what?” reaction. To understand it, oddly enough, you’ve actually got to understand what humans and animals have in common. We share a proto-morality with apes, according to the primatologist Frans DeWaal. (Primates and Philosophers is a good introduction to the whole subject of morality and animals.)

Apes have a sense of reciprocity—if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. They even have a sense of fairness. They don’t react well to getting a lesser reward for some performance if they see a peer getting a greater reward. We’re much the same, and De Waal believes that all of morality in humans starts from basics like this.

The very elementary morality we share with apes goes deep. It’s rooted in our genes and closely allied with our emotions. But it only takes us as far as concern for members of our own group. Strangers, people in other nations, and especially members of other species, are beyond the group.

Because we are not just apes, we are capable of feeling concern beyond our group, but that means going way beyond the deep-seated, emotionally-rooted morality we have in common with apes. We have to use “reason,” which is much more fragile and involves a much greater effort.

We can see, for a moment, that animals matter just like human beings, but it’s very natural to fall back to feeling that they don’t matter much at all. Taking animals seriously means resisting the very strong pull of our genes and emotions.

The resistance in an Animal Rights class is thus due (partly) to the fact that we are animals. We don’t think apes matter (all that much) because of our inner ape!

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