Anthropomorphism and the Emperor Penguin

A fascinating article on the hit documentary, March of the Penguins, suggests that the filmmakers engaged in anthropomorphism, “projecting human emotions onto the penguins”.

There is no doubt that this and other documentaries use a variety of techniques to express, bolster, and elicit sympathy for specific ideas or agendas. These techniques include:

  • editing the film to remove some events and emphasize others
  • accompanying scenes with music that expresses or elicits specific emotions
  • writing narration that interprets what is shown, for the viewer
  • choosing for narration actors with well-known associations to specific roles or character types

In principle, though, I believe it is incorrect to think that humans have a monopoly on emotion. All arguments for the human monopoly on emotions seem to boil down to one of two lines of reasoning:

  1. "Emotions are, by definition, a quality of humans only." Under this definition, it is not possible to be cruel to animals because they do not suffer. Biologists continue to understand the bases for human emotions in cells, organs, systems, responses, and behavior. They find that animals share many of these bases. These similarities successfully inform the development of drugs and therapies to ease and eliminate human death, disease, and suffering. Under this advance of scientific knowledge, it seems arbitrary to restrict emotions to human beings. Such a restriction seems likely motivated by religious fundamentalism or the expediency of ignoring animal suffering.
  2. "I know I have emotions because I feel them. I am a human being. Therefore, human beings have emotions, but animals do not." This reasoning is shaky on its own. First, it requires an extension of your experience to all other human beings, an extension that is unsubstantiated in philosophical terms. How can I be certain that other human beings have emotions? The second problem with this reasoning is related to the previous line of reasoning. Why does the fact that human beings have emotions imply that animals do not? Indeed, biology substantiates the extension of my emotions to all other human beings and to animals as well. The dangerous thing about this egocentric line of reasoning is that it can lead to a variety of abuses. It allows people to assert that children, old people, mentally ill people, people of the opposite sex, or people of a different skin color don't have emotion.

I believe animals do have emotions, but they differ from human emotions on a number of dimensions.

  • Nature: I accept the possibility that animals may have certain emotions that are completely unknown to human beings.
  • Number: I accept the possibility that animals experience fewer emotions than human beings, that humans may have certain emotions that are completely unknown to certain species of animals.
  • Complexity of expression: I accept that the same underlying emotion may produce a simple behavior in animals and a complex behavior in human beings.
  • Intensity: I accept that emotions can be more or less powerful in animals than in human beings.

I believe that human beings of different age, sex, or mental health may also differ along these dimensions. I believe that skin color has nothing to do with emotional capacity. In any case, to make a blanket statement that a group of organisms (say, non-humans) do not have the capacity for suffering is a gross and misinformed oversimplification.

Tags: Philosophy

Updated at: 17 June 2007 12:06 AM