The idea of human uniqueness has taken something of a beating in recent years. The aptitudes and traits that we once thought were ours alone, setting us apart from other animals, have been discovered in other species. We’ve learned that tool-use is common among primates and crows, that dolphins and elephants display a capacity for altruism, that chimpanzees are capable of culture, that bees employ a complex communication system, that bonobos have sex for fun, and that pigs and elephants might mourn their dead. What are we left with?
Perhaps we are left with our impulse to manipulate. A trenchant strain of anthropocentrism, growing at the heart of the green movement, locates human uniqueness in our ability to make the natural world useful. This anthropocentrism views nature in utilitarian terms, re-defining animals as “natural capital,” “ecosystem services,” “assets in a biodiversity marketplace,” or a tonnage of protein. This fixation on utility reassures us that that our species is special, while animals are assigned value in virtue of their facility to further human flourishing.
There is, perhaps, an alternative, inverse anthropocentrism that could replace this fixation on utility. This inverse anthropocentrism is exemplified by J.A. Baker, who spent 10 years obsessively in pursuit of the peregrine falcon:
I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in the long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk. The branch became a branch to my feet, the sun on my eyelids was heavy and warm. Like the hawk … I felt the pull of the north, the mystery and fascination of the migrating gulls. I shared the same strange yearning to be gone.
We humans are empathetic by nature, and we are capable of extending our empathy beyond our species. This may be an instinctive empathy: we see an abused dog cowering before his bullying owner and we know something of the dog’s emotion in that moment. Such instincts may be instructive, but they may also be prone to error. A more disciplined empathy, such as was practiced by Baker, would supplement the instinctive response against repeated observations of animal behavior and the research of animal scientists, allowing for a surer grasp of the other’s experience and a more authentic transposal into their perspective.
We cannot know whether Baker’s portrayal of hawk-ness is accurate. We can be fairly confident, however, that such an elaborate attempt at perspective-taking could not be undertaken by a nonhuman animal. No other animal, to the best of our knowledge, imagines that it is anything other than itself. The lion does not imagine that it could be a gazelle. The horse does not seek to empathetically inhabit the perspective of a pigeon. This is not to diminish the sensitivity or intelligence of other species; forms of empathy are evident throughout the animal world, but these are typically instinctive responses that only falteringly cross the species boundary. Ironically, the bedrock of human uniqueness may in fact be our ability to shed our human point of view to inhabit that of another animal.
This paradoxical anthropocentrism — which sets us apart from other animals, while simultaneously dethroning the human point of view from the center of the world — replaces the impulse to make animals useful with the impulse to make ourselves malleable. And there may be great benefit to doing so. For if we spent more time adopting the perspective of a pig, we would perhaps be less inclined to consume factory-farmed pork. If we spent more time empathizing with the endangered pollinators in our midst, we would perhaps be more careful about the chemicals we dump on our crops. If we took nonhuman points of view into consideration when deciding how to feed ourselves, organize our society, and interact with our natural environment, we might live in a world less fraught by ecological and social unrest; we might even live in a more compassionate world.
This is the proposal of the Charter for Animal Compassion, which launches on October 4, World Animal Day. The charter is a short declaration of the significance of empathy — understood as the art of perspective-taking — in an age of wildlife destruction, species extinctions and animal suffering. The charter champions the science of animal sentience, and calls on artists, writers and researchers to collaborate in bringing animal perspectives to life.
The charter is launching with an all-star cast of signatories. Among them are leading sentience researchers and animal welfare scientists, philosophers and poets, street artists and rappers, faith leaders and veterinarians, psychologists and conservation biologists. Signatories include Mark Rowlands, author of The Philosopher and the Wolf; wildlife photographer Nick Brandt; philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation; and Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.
The charter is open to all people: anyone may become a signatory. To sign the charter is not to commit to any political program or ideological stance, it is simply to signal one’s support for a more compassionate world.
The charter will be working throughout the next 12 months to advocate for compassion, promoting the artists and writers whose work engenders interspecies empathy, circulating interviews, artworks, research and writing to its network of signatories. You are invited to join this movement for interspecies empathy by adding your name and becoming a signatory of the Charter for Animal Compassion.