Morality

What struck me most about Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was her discussion on human consciousness, or as Dillard puts it “human self-consciousness”. She compares human morals to the morals, or lack thereof, of animals. Another author who writes about human morals is William James in On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings. Both James and Dillard agree there is a disconnect between ourselves and other creatures and this is an idea I would like to explore further.

Firstly, let’s focus on the ‘disconnection’ we have with animals. In Dillard’s essay Living like Weasels she metaphorically switches minds with a weasel and sees the world from their perspective. She realizes that weasels have less worries than humans. We can use her example and apply it to the majority of the animal kingdom. My theory is our ‘disconnection’ sprouts from the fact that we as humans think about the future when other creatures focus on the present moment.

In the chapter “Fecundity”, Dillard voices her concern about the immorality of creatures through their lack of feelings towards death. Fish spawn eggs to grow the population. That is their present goal which is why they do not feel remorse for the future eggs that do not hatch. They live in the present situation and not in the ‘what-ifs’ of the future. It is a different way of living and thinking that most humans do not understand and that is why Dillard labels it as sinful. Animals are not humans therefor why should we hold them to the same moral standards as human beings?

Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves. – William James “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”

I believe James’ quote can be applied to this situation. He agrees with Dillard that we are disconnected from creatures different from ourselves. We are unaware, or blind, to “the feelings of creatures” because we are not the same (James). Our ways of living are completely different and we should remember this before judging animals or “people different from ourselves” (James). The idea that human morality is superior comes from the belief that “each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties”, and I believe this is where Dillard and James disagree (James).

But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. – William James “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”

James realizes the problem with human superiority and that it blinds us from “the significance of alien lives”, whereas Dillard holds onto the opinion that animals should conform to our morality. The argument is whether or not we should condemn how others live their lives, animals or humans. It is an argument based in superiority, and in this situation, I believe it is unfair to hold animals to the same moral standards as humans. Not only are their evolutions different from ours, but they do not have a voice to stand up for themselves in the matter.

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