Animal self-consciousness a.k.a. self-awareness should not be assessed by comparison to humans

Animal consciousness or animal self-consciousness (the same thing using a different description) is very complicated and it is an area of research in which science and philosophy intersect. They both play a role in assessing animal consciousness. Some websites like to list animals that have the ability to be self-aware. One such site lists humans (of course), orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, bottlenose dolphins, elephants, orcas, bonobos, recess macaques and European magpies as having the ability to be self-conscious.

Cat seeing themselves in a mirror and is unsure what is going on
Cat seeing themselves in a mirror and is unsure what is going on. Screenshot.

The Rise for Animal’s website says that we should not be assessing self-awareness in animals in the conventional way. They say it is unwise to assess an animal as to whether they do or don’t pass the tests for self-awareness.

And a couple of German philosophers in a study ( say that we shouldn’t be comparing animals with humans in respect of consciousness. So for example, humans have the ability to be self-conscious. We then tend to ask whether a specific species of animal does or does not have that ability. This is about them and us. They believe that this way to discuss self-consciousness is based on speciesism. It is a concept which starts with the premise that human self-consciousness is better than animal self-consciousness.

It is better, and wiser, they say to look at self-consciousness as a spectrum neither unique or superior in humans.

They say that there is a human conception of species hierarchy with of course the human at the top and the animals below. This “walks us into the all-too-common territory of misleading and bad science – of conjecture packaged as fact, and bias (mis)framed as objectivity.”

And they argue that when discussing animal consciousness in comparison to humans on the “do they/don’t they?” question, it is self-serving. It’s a way of alleviating guilt for the abuse of animals. That’s their argument as I understand it. If animals are not self-conscious and they are lower down the hierarchy, abusing them is less of a problem.

It is not wise to engage in what they regard as “othering”. This is a fabricated word, as I further understand it, to relate to animals as beings other than humans.

Prof McCormick, a renowned writer, feminist author with animal rights advocate Carole J Adams state that “moral judgements predicated on a similarity to humans embodies the arrogant eye of anthropocentrism”. The last word in that sentence means looking at things in a human-centred way. I use the word “human-centric”. When you look at the world that way you build in biases and distortions. It tends to close the mind.

I think – and I speaking personally here without reference to the Rise for Animals website – that it is best to start a discussion about animals and self-consciousness on the basis that they are equal to humans. I always treat animals as equals personally. It doesn’t matter how lowly in the eyes of other people they are. It’s a great starting point. It comes naturally to me but some people can never get their mind around it. That’s because they are very human-centric; totally immersed in anthropocentrism!

Throw that away and have an open mind about animal self-awareness. I have written a lot about cat self-awareness. Incorrectly, apparently, based upon this article! But in previous articles I decided that cats are not self-aware because they fail the mirror test. Put simply, this is when you put a cat or animal in front of a mirror and they fail to recognise themselves. They see another cat or they are confused. They might look behind the mirror believing that the animal they see in the mirror is behind it but not themselves.

I have also seen cats looking in a mirror move their arms around to check whether the cat in the mirror is themselves or not. Is this a sign that they are self-conscious?

The video makers says that this cat recognises themselves in the mirror but do they?

Self-awareness enables an animal including the human to be able to step outside of themselves to assess themselves objectively in relation to societal norms and morals. It’s a very big argument. It is very complicated and as far as I’m aware we don’t yet know where the human ability to be self-conscious comes from i.e. which part of the brain it originates in.

Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Speciesism - 'them and us' | Cruelty - always shameful

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.