Rats are people too

I saw the movie Ratatouille over the weekend and loved it. I think it's my favorite cartoon of the last 10 years...though Ice Age was really good too. The movie could be seen as making a serious point about animal rights. No, I don't think it means to, but it reminds me of something the late philosopher James Rachels says.

It's really downright irrational to respond to an animal by saying "it's just a rat" or "it's just an animal," Rachels points out. Surely, the important thing is what the animal is actually like. For example, he says, what if a very unusual chimpanzee was smart enough to go to Harvard. Wouldn't it be ridiculous for the entrance committee to reject him just because he's a chimpanzee, not a human being?

Ditto, in the movie. A highly unusual rat happens to be a great chef and finds himself excelling in the kitchen of a Paris restaurant. (Just how I won't explain...it's very funny.) Nobody knows he's the head chef. When the kitchen staff finds out about him they all quit in disgust. Eww! A rat! Soon everyone comes around and realizes that the important thing is that the "little chef" is a great cook, not what his species happens to be.

The message of the movie, taken very literally, is "rats are people too"...and of course that's nonsense. In children's movies, all animals are people too, and in fact they're all the same animal. The ants in Ant Bully are just like the rats in Ratatouille, which are just like the fish in Finding Nemo. This, in my humble and oh-so-serious opinion is Not Good. Would it hurt if children learned a little more about what animals are really like?

In any case, rats are not people too, but why dismiss them as "just rats"? My assignment for the month of July (and I gave it to myself, so I can't complain) is to explore the perennial question about whether animals are different from humans in kind or in degree. Do they just have less of some of the things humans pride themselves in? I'm working on a book about animals and this is something I need to have a view about (but don't, yet).

I've read about how animals build things (Animal Architects by Gould and Gould) and how they have something approaching morality (Primates and Philosophers by de Waal). Now I'm reading another book about morality (The Origins of Virtue by Ridley). There's a book about how animals have something a little like religion that tempts me (can't remember the name, but it's by Barbara King). So little time, so much to read!

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