jump to navigation

Dogs Know Fairness and Envy December 11, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

This is a busy season—I’d like to do a longer piece on this news item, but this is all you get for now: Researchers (such as Frans de Waal) already knew that humans aren’t the only animals with a sense of fair play, apes know when they’re being shortchanged, too. But now we have to add dogs to the group of animals with some kind of rudimentary understanding of peer equality: All depending on which headlines you’ve read the last couple of days, “Dogs Have a Sense of Fairness,” or “Dogs Can Feel Envy.” That idea alone is interesting, because it illustrates that the Cartesian concept that nonhuman animals are automata with no feelings or reason is rapidly receding into the darkness of philosophical errors of the past. In the National Geographic article

Scott Creel, a behavior ecologist at Montana State University, said the research suggests many social species may have mental processes scientists once believed were unique to humans, or at least primates.

 But what is also interesting is the difference between the two reported headlines. “Fairness” obviously evokes a higher understanding of equality, perhaps even of the Golden Rule. “Envy,” now that triggers a less illustrious association to selfishness and self-preservation. Same story, different spin. But either way, it adds to our understanding that social mammals have a much keener sense of group dynamics than philosophers and animal behaviorists used to think. Emotion and intelligence! So it should be clear by now to even the die-hard speciecists that we humans share an emotional-intelligence continuum with our fellow mammalian travelers on this planet.


An afterthought: So when you buy Christmas presents for your dogs, remember that they’ll be watching what the other dog gets…


Thoughts on Friendship December 3, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Gender.

What is a true friend to you? The person you hang out with the most? The one you can call late at night when distressing thoughts keep you awake? The one who’ll speak up for you when nobody else will? The one who never forgets your birthday? The one who will tell you the truth, for your own good? How about the one you e-mail or text when you have good or bad news, even if you never actually get together in person?

We all have our different ideas about what a good friend is, and some of those ideas are rather self-serving. Some of us like for our friends to agree with us, but is a good friend someone who agrees with you because otherwise you’ll pout? Or who always does what you want to do because otherwise you’ll pout? Aristotle would say “That’s an imperfect friendship.” Kant would say that the friendship has to involve respect for the other’s humanity (but friendship based on reason alone barely reaches room temperature). Jane English would say, “But it has to be mutual”. The linguist Deborah Tannen, one of the great contemporary communicators and masters of the written word, says that what you expect from a friend greatly depends on your gender: A man will expect a friend to stand up to him and challenge him, to bring out the best in him, because that’s how boys play—they challenge each other for top spot. And when you just hang out, you do things together, without really having to say a whole lot. A woman, on the other hand, will expect a friend to tell you her troubles, as she will tell you hers, without judgment or advice, unless asked for; this is what Tannen calls “troubles talk,” mainly intended to share problematic experiences in good company. One might ask if Tannen is being a sexist here? Not according to Tannen herself; to her, men and women aren’t all stereotypical, and besides, men and women can, with a bit of good will, learn the other’s style and be the buddy their different-sex partner expects them to be.

Philosophy occasionally shines the spotlight on the metaphysics and ethics of friendship; we may think, with Tannen (who works the descriptive side of the scientific street, rather than suggesting normative rules), that women and men have different ideas of what friendship entails—but philosophically, I believe we have pretty much the same bottom-line expectations. Who among us, female or male, would call a lopsided relationship a true friendship? If a friend is your friend so he or she can obtain something from you, it isn’t a real friendship. If they’re perpetually agreeing with you just because they’re afraid of you, or afraid to lose you, it may qualify as a semblance of friendship, but something is out of balance (in either case we can use the Aristotelian label of imperfection). So mutuality and equality are features of a good friendship, regardless of gender. (And of course we have to add, among competent adults.)  So is loyalty—we need to be able to trust our friends not to gossip about us behind our backs, and not to be merely fair-weather friends; and we must be willing to be a trustworthy friend ourselves, in good times and bad. Another essential element is respect for the other as a person, and his or her life and views, even if they differ from yours—unless those views happen to be so fundamentally different that they, to you, preclude being friends (could you stay friends with someone who turns out to believe in the righteousness of something you are strongly morally opposed to?). This evolves into the virtue of honesty, avoiding the Aristotelian extreme of crudeness/rudeness. In other words, a sensitive honesty. And then of course, like Aristotle says, you have to like each other. But just because we like each other doesn’t mean we’re automatically willing to be there for each other, and listen to each other, at 3 am during the Bleak Hour when the ghosts of past and future problems come to visit, and at other times when we’re needed/we need a friend. So being willing to give of yourself and your time to the other is part of the deal—reciprocated by your friend with respect for your life and work hours. When you need your friend to be there for you, remember that she has to get up at 6 am. And, getting back to Aristotle, the bottom line is that “Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, and not coincidentally” (1156b9-11).

But does it have to entail physically being there? Aristotle says it does—doing things together is essential. But is he right? Times are different; most of us no longer live in small communities. Some of us are lucky to have our best friend close by—and the ultimate good fortune is to be married to one. But some of us live far away from childhood friends, or people we have bonded with under special conditions, and yet they may be the closest human beings we have in this world. (Some of us will be reluctant to call the people we hang out with every day after work, down at the sports bar, “friends,” even if everybody there knows your name.) And some of us have long-distance friendships that never have involved, and perhaps never will involve an actual meeting in the flesh. I lost such a close friend recently. We met over research on the Internet and were able to pool our resources, and work together on a project. Once the project was completed, we found that we had become friends. Our relationship was one of written words, evolving through the friendship criteria of mutuality and equality, loyalty, respect, and honesty. Being there for each other, in cyberspace, and listening to each other’s words, the written ones as well as the background thoughts and feelings, and wishing each other well. And now, with my friend’s passing, I detect no discernable qualitative difference between the sense of loss of a cyber friend and that of a friend whose physical presence has been an integral part of the relationship.

So let me turn this into a question about the metaphysics as well as ethics of friendship: What do you consider the most important qualities of friendship? Do you agree with Aristotle that a physical presence (at least occasionally) is essential to maintaining the relationship? Do you agree with Tannen that men and women have different expectations of a friendship?