In previous posts we’ve talked about how our relationship to our fellow animals and the way we treat them is driven by our anxiety over the fact that we’re animals, too, and our denial of our own animal nature.
In his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, Stephen Cave discusses four specific ways in which we persuade ourselves that we’re not really animals, that we can avoid death altogether, or at least that some part of us will live on in some way after we’re dead. In this first of two posts, Cave explains how, once we decide that we are fundamentally different in kind from other animals, we can then view them as having a lower moral status. And that, in turn, opens up “a whole world of possibilities for how we treat them.”
Here, first, is the trailer to the book:
In this interview, we focus on one of those four “immortality projects” and how it impacts our relationship with our fellow animals and the world of nature.
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Michael Mountain: What do you mean when you say that we all develop our own immortality projects and stories?
Stephen Cave: Immortality the book is about how we are all afraid of death, whether we know it or not, and even if we’re successfully sublimating it or coming up with a way of coping with it. It is part of the defining aspect of the human condition, and all cultures in human history have some story about how we can avoid death, about how death is not what it seems.
M.M.: You explain in the book how these stories fall into four basic categories. And the one I particularly wanted to go into with you here is about how we humans like to think that some aspect of ourselves is superior to other animals, and that we have a soul, through which we can deny our own mortal, physical, animal nature.
S.C.: Yes, I call this the soul story. It denies that we are, deep down, physical things at all. Yes, we have bodies here on earth, but actually, really we are an immaterial nonphysical indestructible thing, a soul. The body is just really a way that the soul gets about here on Earth, and it’s something that we are going to escape when we die.
This is a very attractive belief, of course. It makes death seem almost liberating. And it makes immortality a birthright. But at the same time it denies that we are a creature among others. It makes us something from another world, and it denies the most fundamental part of ourselves: our biology.
M.M.: How does that lead us to relate to other kinds of animals?
As soon as we’ve decided that we are fundamentally different in kind from other animals, then it becomes much easier for us to give them another kind of moral status.S.C.: Other kinds of animals are a kind of offense to us. They remind us of our own creatureliness. We see plants wither and die. We see other animals die. Some of them end up on our plates. But that is of course not the fate we want for us, too. We believe that we are different.
When we look at other animals, we are reminded of our own creatureliness and of that part of us which is fated to die, fated to rot away, fated to wither. That is not, of course, the bit we want to identify with. We like to think we are fundamentally different and by positing that we are different in kind from other animals we are permitting the possibility of our own immortality.
M.M.: How does that actually affect how we treat them?
S.C.: As soon as we’ve decided that we are fundamentally different in kind from other animals, then it becomes much easier for us to give them another kind of moral status. Once that difference is established, then a whole world of possibilities for how we treat them is opened up.
If we see ourselves as similar to them, then it is much more difficult for us to enslave them, use them, to eat them. But if we see them as fundamentally different in kind, then it is much easier for us to say, “Ah, that difference in kind is not just about who gets to live forever, it is also a difference in moral status. They are less intelligent than us, they feel less than us, they are worth less than us, their lives do not have meaning in the ways that our lives do.”
And therefore, the typical conclusion is that we can do with them what we want.
Stephen Cave talks about how we give nonhuman animals a different moral status.
M.M.: We’re not just talking about how we relate to individual animals or particular species or maybe what is happening to the elephants or whomever, but how this impacts the whole, the entire planet. Right?
S.C.: Yes, absolutely. It makes a major difference whether we think we are part of this planet, part of life on Earth, or if we think we are an altogether different kind of thing. Human exceptionalism, this idea that we are completely different, has a number of causes. One of the most important is our fear of death and our desire to make clear that we are somehow special and immune to the laws of nature.
But, it has other motivations, too, and with very widespread consequences. If we do not feel we are part of life on Earth, then if we’re destroying the ecosystems we think it doesn’t affect us.
We see this in all sorts of different ways. Some people believe that ultimately the world is going to be destroyed and we are all going to live in heaven or hell. Some people who are not religious believe instead that once we have destroyed the planet we can take off to another planet. All of these are fantasies that have the same assumption that we are special, that it is about us, and therefore we can do with this planet and life on Earth what we want and that ultimately we will escape.
That, of course, is not the reality. The reality is we are very much part of this planet, very much part of these ecosystems and what we do to them will impact very much on the one life that we each have.
Stephen Cave talks about how our immortality fantasies impact the world of nature.
M.M.: This is rooted so deeply in our psychology, in the human condition, that there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to stop the destruction we’re wreaking. There’s lots of talk about technological fixes and how we just need to change our behavior a little bit this way or that. Do you see a way out of this?
S.C.: My conclusion from my work is that we are not going to reconcile ourselves to being part of the natural world and therefore we are not going to be able to take full responsibility for what we are doing and how we are shaping the nature world unless we can develop a narrative that satisfies our existential needs.
M.M.: You mean something that addresses our fear of our mortality?
S.C.: Yes, a narrative that does what, for example, religion traditionally does. We need a story that conveys not just our sense of responsibility, not just what we are doing wrong, but also what we can find through a more enlightened world view, a story about our relationship to nature that is more realistic and yet also helps us cope with the fear of death or the fear of being alone or the fear of being unloved or whatever deep needs we have that drive and shape and influence our beliefs.
M.M.: And when you talk about a story that we tell ourselves, you mean something that’s different from the current story we tell ourselves about how we’re exceptional and different. Yes?
S.C.: Exactly, yes, a world view if you like. The world view in Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions is that we are special, we are created by God, and that other creatures are created, at least in part, for us to do with what we will. And that in the end the world might be destroyed anyway, so if we are destroying it, it doesn’t matter and ultimately we will go and live in some new created paradise.
That is one story, one world view, and it has a lot of positive aspects for us psychologically. It tells us we are immortal, it tells us we are loved by God, it tells us that we can eat other creatures and not feel guilty about it, and so on. So this story does a lot for us psychologically, and one can argue it has done a lot for us in terms of developing our civilization.
We need a new story about our relationship to nature that is more realistic and yet also helps us cope with our fear of death.But now we are seeing the cost of this story in terms of the suffering of other creatures and the thoughtless and short-term way in which we’re dealing with the planet.
Although the standard scientific world view is different in that is usually denies the existence of supernatural powers, it has inherited an awful lot from the Christian world view. Most scientists still believe in human specialness. They believe we are vastly cleverer, perhaps to the extent that we are different in kind even though we have evolved from the other creatures. It largely maintains a kind of hierarchical “great chain of being”, to use the Christian or Aristotelian phrase in which we humans are at the top because we are so terribly clever and inventive, and no other creature has done this. And the scientific world view also has a kind of built in assumption that we can engineer our way out of our problems.
Yes of course, science is helping us to discover the problems we are creating like global warming, and it has to be part of the solution. But the standard scientific world view is not yet sufficiently willing to accept the extent to which we are one living thing, one kind of species among millions of others.
M.M.: A few weeks ago, there was a whole hullabaloo about whether Pope Francis had said that nonhuman animals go to heaven. It turned out he never said that, but it was big news anyway because if the Pope can say yes, they do go to heaven, then that changes the whole human exceptionalism thing quite a lot. But it all gets quite complicated. I mean lots of us want to see our pets in heaven, but imagine having a heart attack right after dinner and being greeted at the Pearly Gates by the chicken you’d just eaten!
S.C.: Exactly. People are very ambivalent about what they want when they go to heaven and meet their granddad, whom they expect to meet up there, shake Martin Luther King’s hand and all of that, and they want their pets up there as well. They want Rover, but whether they want to meet the chicken they have just eaten, whether they want a chance to say sorry to the cows is a different question entirely. I am not so sure they do.
This shared planet is the one life that we all know, and our obligation is to make it the best we can for all creatures.The way people are trying to massage the Christian view in order to reflect their complicated and contradictory relationship to animals is an interesting reflection of our times. In some sense it can be seen as progress if we believe that animals have a soul. But actually that is a very simplistic and unscientific way of looking at it. We already have good scientific evidence that animals can feel, that they have a subjectivity, that they suffer, that they have hope and emotions. And the idea that they have a soul like us really only reiterates this feeling that the real world is separate from this one and that actually it would be OK for us to kill the cows if they’re going to go to cow heaven, and so perhaps we are doing them a favor.
That is not, of course, the reality. The reality is that this shared planet is the one life that we all know, and our obligation, therefore, is to make it the best we can for all creatures rather than to dream up a fantasy world for them in the future.
In Part Two of our interview, Stephen Cave discusses constructive alternatives to denying our own mortality and the fact that we’re animals just like all the other animals.
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Stephen Cave is the author of “Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization.” Here’s his TED talk on the how we pursue the quest.