The animal is not an object, but a moral agent

The use of animals in our societies is today being turned upside down. Many personalities or associations criticize the way humans treat their non-human fellows, whether in the food industry, entertainment or scientific research. To reduce the number of animals in research as well as their stress, much progress has been and is still being made. Despite this, many disapprovals are still raised by associations and scientists.

Admittedly, the regulations govern the scientific use of animals, but the legitimacy of certain research can still be called into question. Also, the question of the responsibility of researchers arises with respect to the famous rule of the “3Rs”: “replace” when possible the animal with tissues or digital models, “reduce” their number as much as possible and “refine” , or to do what is best for their well-being. This observation is not restricted to research, but extends to all animal use.

The 3R principle can be applied to the fur, entertainment or food industries. It is a question of reviewing the legitimacy of the human to use the animal in particular when alternatives exist, replacing its use (by synthetic fur or cellular meat) and reducing its suffering (with animals raised in the open air for example).

Animals have different degrees of consciousness

Indeed, several studies have shown today that many animal species that we use every day in our lives are able to feel pain, but also to be aware of this pain and to act accordingly to reduce it and place themselves in more optimal conditions of well-being. Pierre Le Nignant, scientific manager of INRAE’s collective scientific expertise on animal consciousness, and his collaborators published a scientific book in 2018 entitled Animal consciousness, which explains very well the different levels of consciousness and which species present them. .

To simplify, there are three levels of consciousness. Access awareness is awareness of one’s environment and acting in accordance with that environment. In fact, most species with a central nervous system and capable of learning possess this access consciousness. The sponges, cnidaria or ctenaria, for example, do not show it. A robot vacuum that cleans your home while paying attention to furniture or borders has access awareness.

Phenomenal consciousness characterized by feelings or experiences that make it possible to adapt to situations and involve emotions and other cognitive abilities such as episodic memory or metacognition, i.e. “I know what I know”. or “I know what I don’t know”. For example, we can teach an animal to recognize the color blue and the color red by tapping on a touch screen. When he knows how to recognize these colors, comes the test phase: on the right is for example the blue color, on the left the red color and in the middle the test color. If the test color is red, then the subject presses on the left of the touch screen. A third phase can be presented with a joker button which means “I don’t know”. If the color presented is known to the animal (either red or blue), then it will not press the joker button but on the right or on the left of the screen. He indicates that he knows what he knows. On the other hand, if the color presented is purple or green, then the subject will rely on the joker button indicating that he knows what he does not know.

Such so-called cognitive judgment tests have thus been able to show that chickens, pigeons, rats or even monkeys were able to say whether or not they were sure of their answer and therefore of their knowledge. These tests were carried out on colors, as presented above, but also on shapes (squares, circles, octagons, etc.), on different sound frequencies or on spatial hiding places.

Finally, self-awareness is the ability to place oneself in one’s social environment, to know that one exists and that we can act on our fellow human beings. This awareness involves the concept of theory of mind to assign levels of intentionality to other animals, ranging from gaze tracking to beliefs. The attribution of beliefs has for example been proven in great apes or elephants, such as the notions of empathy or morality so dear to the primatologist Frans de Waal.

Animals are actors in their environment and in their society

The various researches in ethology therefore demonstrate that it is urgent to no longer consider the non-human animal as an object. Today, the Rural Code and the Civil Code define the animal as a sentient being, giving it the status of moral patient. But it is necessary to go further and give it the status of moral agent.

Agency is the ability of an individual, called an actor, to act in and on a given environment. This definition can however become narrower if the subjectivity of the subject, animal or human, is considered, that is to say at least his phenomenal consciousness. Blattner and his collaborators argue that we must spend time with animals, learn from and with them, and be prepared to respond and adapt our study through our relationships with them. Thus, animals no longer became producers as simple objects of knowledge or raw materials, but as true knowledge and as such, true collaborators.

A fortiori, this requires that we make ourselves understandable to animals. Such cooperation does not appear possible today except for certain animal species, such as primates, cetaceans, certain birds, including parrots or corvids, social carnivores or even cephalopods. However, we must not hesitate to extend this circle, because other animal species are surely capable of understanding our intentions as researchers. Indeed, when we leave too little room for the free and proper actions of animals, the true abilities of which they are capable are obscured. For example, still seeming unreal a few years ago, the use of touch pads by macaques, or joysticks in rats and pigs is increasingly used to understand animal cognition.

Animals are actors in human societies

Several researchers such as Vinciane Despret or Baptiste Morizot have written essays to show that animals could be useful to our societies. Taking up this concept of animal agency, many authors have imagined fictions in which the animal, from the ant (Les fourmis by Bernard Werber), to the dog (L’éveil by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu) to the chimpanzee (Mémoires de the jungle of Tristian Garcia), becomes a main character instigator of the stakes of the story.

The author’s goal is to take man out of his anthropocentrism and give him the elements of a new way of thinking, more open and with fewer barriers, as Frans de Waal proposes in Are we too stupid to understand the intelligence of animals?. In the polar Kamikaze Saru. The guinea pig monkeyI try to make understand the ethology and the agency of the Japanese macaques: three animalists (members of association of animal protection) and tens of monkeys die in the explosion of a laboratory.

During their investigation, the inspectors discover the complexity of animal research. Who to believe in this ethical war, researchers or animalists? How far can the use of intelligent animals be justified when it comes to saving lives? In this fiction as in reality, the animal is an actor in our societies. And it’s time to treat it as such.

In the 1960s, economists coined the term human capital to measure all the knowledge, skills, experience, talents and qualities acquired by a person. According to the concept of animal agency, the notion of animal capital is thus extended from simple material (food and clothing) to that of social, cultural and ecological. Indeed, many animals help humans from a social point of view, directly in their company and through connections. From a cultural point of view, a lot of knowledge is learned and useful to humans by observing animals, which is commonly called biomimicry or bioinspiration. Finally, animal species each have an ecological role necessary for the functioning of ecosystems. Adopting a more animist ontology could help humans to be part of sustainable development.

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