I recently had a very brief exchange regarding love, friendship, music – and how these are exclusively human qualities. Some disagree. I will explain why it is necessarily so that these concepts, amongst others, apply only to humans:
When comparing animals and humans, it’s essential to make sure we define our terms and be explicit about what we mean and what we are talking about. Of course, we should always be this specific if possible, but especially if the debate is emotionally-loaded, which discussions about animals always tend to be.
Let’s briefly look at the nature of humans and animals, metaphysically. Biologically, humans are animals – but we are not just physical lumps anymore than we are disembodied brains. We are fully integrated entities of body and mind; there is no division or dichotomy between the two; there need not be a conflict either, but that is another topic.
When comparing humans to animals from a mental perspective, it’s important to bear in mind how our minds work. All animals receive sensory data directly from their environment. Humans are no different. We perceive. The difference for humans is that we form these percepts into concepts. In the words of Ayn Rand: “A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition. By organizing his perceptual material into concepts, and his concepts into wider and still wider concepts, man is able to grasp and retain, to identify and integrate an unlimited amount of knowledge, a knowledge extending beyond the immediate concretes of any given, immediate moment.”
This isn’t how animals think. This is why comparisons between humans and animals shouldn’t be made by the “sliding scale” perspective, with humans much further along than animals. It isn’t the degree of intelligence or comprehension involved, it is the entire order of consciousness that is different. This is because sensory data is organised by concepts in a human mind and integrated into knowledge, either new or additional. The process of identification of sensory data, concept formation, and knowledge integration requires a faculty that only humans possess: reason.
It is the human capacity, nay, need, for reason that makes higher level concepts only applicable to us. This isn’t a denial of the intelligence of some animals, or the apparently affectionate behaviour they display, but it is a reality check that the many concepts we take for granted, like love, and friendship, and music – require a profound intellectual and rational appreciation in order for them to have any meaning.
One might use the words love and friendship casually with regard to their pets or animals in general. They might even use the words interchangeably, as the context alone is enough to clarify the meaning. But when comparing these concepts between humans with animals, let us be absolutely clear what we are talking about.
“Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character.” When you love another person, either romantically or platonically – you have a profound appreciation for that person’s life – and the place it plays in yours. It requires a deep understanding of WHO they are; WHAT they are like, what they value or don’t, what they themselves love and what they hate; HOW they view the world, how they view you; their morals and their ideals, and WHY. When speaking of a the feelings of a brain-damaged or retarded person, it would be a misuse of the term “love” here compared to a healthy rational individual who says he loves another person. When you are in love with another human being, to even begin to compare the depth of respect, admiration, even worship – one holds for that person, and transpose that concept onto the mind of an unreasoning creature, like a vegetable or animals – is a gross distortion of the real meaning of the word.
Incidentally, this is why love is not blind, nor irrational. Love is the most logical, rational, selfish thing one can ever experience. To deny this is to cheapen it, to make love a string of candy to be passed out to strangers, or a pint to be bought casually for a co-worker you barely know. To retain its real meaning, and beauty – love can be nothing else but the most personal and fair exchange of values – it is a sharing of lives, between equals, both fully cognisant of the character of the other – neither party taking what is unearned nor withholding what is required. A psychopath cannot love. A vegetable cannot love. An insane or demented person cannot love. And neither can an animal.
The same applies to friendship, albeit on not quite the same level of profundity.
I could talk about how animals pattern-recognise to varying degrees, or perform courtship rituals, or how they care for their young, or follow instinctive or acquired behaviour that when performed by a sapient rational being would be considered affection and love – but I won’t. The issue is really a philosophical question, which is why it requires identification and definition.
To say that an animal experiences love and friendship is actually an example of the fallacy of concept stealing. These are human concepts retroactively transposed onto animals who are thus anthropomorphised. As a related example, consider innocence and guilt. To be morally innocent implies the capacity for guilt, but the choice to be morally good. Humans can be innocent or guilty, good or evil. But an animal is never innocent, nor guilty. No animal was ever convicted of a crime – because they don’t understand the concepts of justice or moral responsibility. They are incapable of moral choices, because they are not capable of reason. In the same way, and for the same reason, they cannot experience love and friendship.
To exaggerate the affection an animal demonstrates is understandable, but be aware that to equate such astounding and beautiful concepts as love to non-rational creatures is not to elevate them to our level, rather, it is the lowering of man to the place of a brute – a beast, and take for granted the fact that we are different. We are human, with a unique capacity: reason. Reason is, not only our primary means of survival, but also the basis for everything grand and majestic about our species; from it we choose to hate or love, cry or laugh, kill or protect, steal or produce, destroy or create. And as free beings, we don’t follow these choices out of instinct, nor do we have to obey, sit, roll over, bark, to ensure the next meal arrives on time – we do what we want because we’ve chosen to do it – which makes the good choices all the better, and makes the volitional sharing of values, such as friendship and love, the most important spiritual things in life.
In an age of hate, true love is, in my opinion, the archetypal personal value – and the emotion it can produce, the most rewarding and fulfilling. Don’t do yourself a disservice by lowering your values and your feelings to that of animals. You are so much more than that.