Few Dare Call it Reason
It is common to believe that human action is based on reason, while animal behavior is based on instinct. Many humans have believed that animals lack consciousness, or at least the full consciousness that human beings have. But since human biology is quite similar to that of mammals, it would be more warranted to hypothesize that some animals are indeed conscious and that they think and feel not that differently from human beings.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
I observe my cat when I open the back door. She looks around the yard before venturing out, because there are aggressive feral cats in the area. Is she reacting due to genetic programming? But if she never encountered these ferals, she would probably just walk out without fear. Instinct instilled a fear of danger in her, just as in human beings, but she learned about this particular danger, and seems to be thinking about the risks and benefits as she goes out when she “thinks” it is safe.
One may as well question whether human babies are conscious and can reason. Whatever genetic programming we have that makes us conscious is the same in just-born babies, or even pre-born humans. As the brain develops from a non-conscious state into consciousness, once the brain functions as a mind, it seems to me that reasoning kicks in.
“Reason” is often circularly defined in dictionaries. They often define “reason” as rational action, and then define “rational” as using reason. It seems to me that rational action has just two requirements: economizing and consistency.
Henry George expressed economizing as the proposition that people seek to gratify their desires with the least exertion. Generally, economizing means that the living being maximizes benefits given some cost, or minimizes costs given some benefits. We can clearly observe economizing in the behavior of animals.
Consistency means that preference ranking are logically consistent. If you prefer an apple to a banana, and prefer a banana to a cherry, then to be consistent, at that time, you should prefer a banana to a cherry. Animal behavior is indeed consistent.
To reason means to choose action based on a ranking of ends or desires, where the chosen path is that which has the highest extra gain relative to the extra cost. Choice implies that the being does not merely engage in a reflex or automatic reaction, like sneezing. Reasoning involves being able to make logical inferences. For example, if an animal is trapped in a cage, but there is an escape route, it is able to logically observe the state of being confined, will infer that one can get out if there is some exit, will then search for that exit, and then take that exit when found. If this is not reason, what is it?
There is no assumption in economics that human beings always behave rationally. But if a person does not economize, of if his preferences are inconsistent at some moment, then he is irrational, and economics has nothing to say about his behavior. Economists send him to the department of abnormal psychology. Likewise, animals with rabies or some other malfunction might also not be rational. The malfunction interferes with the brain’s capacity to reason.
It seems to me that what differentiates human beings from most other animals is not the capacity to reason but rather, greater complexity and greater language ability. Human action appears to be based more on reason because we have been genetically programmed to communicate with words and grammar, and we have fewer programmed predilections. A cat sees a ball rolling down the hall, and will usually chase it, because it is programmed to run after small creatures. But the cat still has reasoning power, because from direct observation I know that a cat will not always chase a ball. Sometimes she will just not want to!
Because human beings eat both plants and animals, we are not programmed to chase things. With less genetic programming, human behavior relies more on making choices. Our lives are complex as we have deeper relationships and greater choices than other animals. But this does not diminish the reasoning capability of mammals, birds, and perhaps octopodes.
If this analysis is correct and some animals can indeed reason, this has profound implications for how we treat them. As I argued previously, if it is morally wrong to inflict excessive harm to animals, this implies that animals have moral rights.
This does not imply that animals have rights equal to that of human beings. With greater complexity and mental capacity, there is more to be harmed in killing a human being than in killing a non-human animal. Human rights therefore can override that of animals.
But since animals have some degree of rights, the implication of animal reasoning is that it is morally wrong to treat animals in a cruel way, to make them suffer more than what is required to obtain utility from them. Because a recognition of the rights of animals would have profound implications on how we treat animals, when animals act, few dare call it reason.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2005 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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