ENVS 295: Environmental Engagement
The motivation behind this project stemmed from conversations between fellow peers at Lewis & Clark College and my passion for animals. I was interested in what different aesthetic elements place certain values on animals and why us as humans associate these aesthetic properties with different levels of value on certain animals. My goal was to understand the different reasonings behind the idea of aesthetic value and allow others with differing opinions to converse with one another.
In order to understand public perceptions of animals and animal-related issues, performing surveys and dialogues at both local and global scales are helpful. These surveys shed light on different elements that lead people to understand the non-human world and related movements in different ways. Kellert (1993) draws on a global survey done in the United States, Germany, and Japan, about public opinion surrounding wild and domestic animals. The survey categorizes various types of views of animals such as "ecological," "ethical," "utilitarian," and "aesthetic" views.
The animal rights movement contains a various number of different controversies and issues that are very important to me. However, for the sake of this project, I focused on one topic because it would have been extremely difficult to do a single engagement project on every topic in the animal rights movement. I wanted to learn more about a topic that I felt was rare and overlooked, so I decided to focus on the aesthetic value of animals. Parsons (2007) article called "The Aesthetic Value of Animals" attempts to answer the question: why is philosophical consideration of the aesthetic aspects of animals so rare today? He brings animals into the light of current philosophical aesthetics and enriches our conception of aesthetic value by offering different conceptions of aesthetic value of animals such as their functionality, or fitness, of their form, behavior and traits.
Lastly, I wanted to gain a better background on the human-animal relationship in order to understand why we feel or act a certain way to certain animals. Yi-Fu Tuan's book Dominance & Affection (2004) goes into full depth on the making of pets and how things have evolved throughout history between animals and humans. He argues that dominance and affection go hand in hand rather than go against one another. He touches on the idea of exercises of power in the aesthetic-cultural realm in his book and how overtime, humans have bred animals into playthings and aesthetic objects for human pleasure.
I was actually really surprised and content with my outcomes from both the discussion group and my interviews. I learned that when it comes to "aesthetics", it is not solely based on the physical appearance of something. There are so many more 'forms' of beauty, one being the function or fitness of an animal. The fitness of form is a prominent aspect of animals and looking fit for function is indeed an aspect of beauty. Archibald Alison says, "We fail to call fit looking animals beautiful only because they do not excel in those varieties of beauty that strike us immediately." This was very evident in my discussions because some students just cringed and said "ew" when they heard the word snake. Snakes have certain parts to them that serve as a great functionality for them but we may not consider it beautiful just because it doesn't look pretty.
Another common answer to the situation was that it depends on how close to a human that animal is. If this animal is able to have a relationship with a human, then that animal has more value to it. For example, dogs are closer to a human than snakes are. When I heard this come up in the discussion, I proposed a new situation. I said, "if that's the case, would you save a monkey or a dog?" This new situation led me to my next finding, which was the experience or amount of interaction with that certain animal a person has had. Many said they'd choose to save the dog, even if a monkey is closer to being like a human than a dog is, simply because they have interacted with a dog before or experienced owning one. Others hesitated to answer this new situation, but said that if they grew up with a monkey or interacted with one, then they would save the monkey.
Lastly, another reason that we tend to value certain animals more is the idea of dominance being important in an unconscious way. It was mentioned that dogs are able to be trained, listen and obey while snakes aren't, so it makes dogs more important. I asked if they thought it had to do anything with dominance or being in power, and many students were quick to say no. Their answer, however suggests otherwise. Humans have a desire for possession/power and need to be master. As Yi-Fu Tuan says, "it is the warm and superior feeling one has toward things that one can care for and patronize."
Want to read about some of the lessons that I learned from doing this project? Clink this link!