Thought-provoking post by Aaron Moe, whose “Merwin Studies” site has recently caught my attention. The post raises questions about conscious agency and moral conscience among non-human animals.
Originally posted on Aaron Moe:
I am currently working through a review of the rhetoric of animals, and the process has led me to one question. Why do we doubt that animals have agency? To put it another way, why do we question the conscious intentionality of animals in their abilities to vocalize and gesture, with a purpose, to another animal (human or nonhuman)? Even Aristotle saw that animals “possess traces of the characteristics to do with the [human] soul” (57); moreover, he recognized that animals don’t just “hear sounds” but can “distinguish the differences between the signs” (215). He spends a significant portion of time exploring the rhetoric at work in the “great complexity” of a hive of bees (335; 333-369). He sees animals as participating in rhetoric, but he is hesitant to interpret his observations. Though his work tends towards animal agency, I have not found a place where Aristotle clearly ascribes agency to animals.
Let’s go back further. The author of Job penned the well-known lines concerning the leviathan and the horse. The descriptions of these robust creatures emanate agency. The whole point is that the animals have so much agency, humans cannot harness it.
Let’s jump ahead. Darwin argued in The Descent of Man that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties” (798). Concerning the ability of animals to participate in rhetorical situations, he gives a close reading of the vocalizations and gestures of monkeys and of the nuances of a dog’s many barks (808). He sees a thought process at work in the way “animals may constantly be seen to pause, deliberate, and resolve” (804). Darwin, here, does what Aristotle didn’t. He speaks of the remarkable capacities of animals in a way that ascribes agency to those animals.