Gary Varner, chairman of the philosophy department at Texas A&M University, will deliver a lecture on campus Saturday. The talk, titled, “Personhood, Ethics and Animal Cognition” will discuss Varner’s work centering on animal liberation and the qualifications for personhood. He obtained his Ph. D in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1988. The lecture, part of the annual Steinkraus lecture series, will be held Oct. 8 in 222 Sheldon Hall at 2:15 p.m.
Q: Why write about the personhood and non-human animals when there are so many topics to address?
A: I got into philosophy because ever since I was a child I was curious about, even though I wouldn’t have put it this way when I was a child, the moral standing of non-human animals and nature. I came to understand by high school age that the area of the academy that most directly addresses those kinds of questions is philosophy; that’s why I ended up majoring in philosophy. I think it’s just intrinsically interesting. Different societies in different areas have all had a different ethic regarding the treatment of non-human animals. It’s interesting how those have evolved over time.
Q: Which animals are candidates for non-human personhood?
A: Actually, given the way I characterize personhood, there are no good non-human candidates for personhood. But I do identify another category called near-personhood. I think there are several good candidates for that. What I mean by near-personhood are individuals who have a fairly robust conscious sense of their own future and past. The third category that I identify are what’s called merely sentient individuals, meaning individuals that lack any robust conscious sense of their future and past. There’s a lot of research, which I’ll discuss in the talk, that suggests many animals do have a robust conscious sense of their future and past.
Q: Why call it near-personhood; doesn’t that define them by what they lack?
A: …rather than by what they have. You could take an alternative approach to naming it. The term biographical consciousness comes to mind. That’s the cognitive ability that I think is most distinctive about normal human beings. That ability to think of your life as a story with a beginning, middle and an end is the best way to characterize persons. I chose the term near-persons because animals that lack that biographical sense sort of approximate the abilities of some humans, in so far as they have some sense of their future and past.
Q: Why is that biographical consciousness important?
A: The ability to anticipate good events and fear bad events adds value to your life in addition to the ability to experience good and bad events in the present. Similarly, the ability to remember good and bad experiences that you’ve had in the past adds a layer of value to your life that you would lack if you were stuck in the present. Having that ability makes your life more morally charged than another individual that is merely sentient and stuck in the present. Through our actions, we can harm and benefit individuals that have that consciousness in ways we cannot other individuals that are stuck in the present.
Q: What is valuable about having philosophers in society?
A: I would hope that professional philosophers would bring a kind and quality of analysis to contemporary moral and legal issues. It’s worthwhile, for instance, to have philosophers write about the ethical state of animals. They approach the question in ways that the popular press typically don’t with a level of analytical clarity and rigor that can ultimately improve our society’s discussion of these issues.
Q: If you met yourself at age 21, what advice would you want to give yourself?
A: I would tell myself to get more broadly educated. At Texas A&M we have a unique Ph.D program in philosophy because we require them to get a masters or higher level degree in another discipline, because almost every area in philosophy is touched by research from other fields. I should have also gotten a degree in psychology or animal science.
Varner’s upcoming book “Personhood, Ethics and Animal Cognition: Situating Animals in the Two-Level Utilitarianism of R.M. Hare” will be printed by Oxford University Press.