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So Magpies are Self-Aware—So What? August 13, 2009

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

There is something fundamentally ironic in the fact that we are now beginning to understand ourselves as homo sentiens (the feeling human being) rather than homo sapiens ( a paradigm shift which has its own philosophical perils), but at the same time we are expanding our knowledge of the rational capacities of nonhuman animals. Birds and dogs seem to be the favorite research subjects reported on by the media right now, rather than apes—birds, because it is just so weird that birds can think (so it has shock value) and dogs, because we just love them so damn much.  I can find less-than-academic reasons why we are glued to these topics, but that shouldn’t detract from the astonishing fact that the scientific community has experienced a sea change over the last decade: Even in the late 20th century you couldn’t enter into an academic discussion about animal intelligence without risking the loss of your professional reputation; now it seems that we’re all getting into the fray, legitimately.

So let’s talk some more about birds. We’ll save the dogs for some other time. Did you hear about the rook that can figure out how to raise the water level in a tube so it can reach the worm?  Not the Aesop fable, but for real? A thought process that used to be attributed to humans only—chimps can’t do it as fast or as consistently.  Other experiments conducted on crows have shown that crows are able to envision a solution to a problem (using a string to get a piece of meat) without having first tried to solve the problem through trial-and-error. The crow brain is proportionally larger than other bird brains, the body mass taken into account. A bit of online surfing brought me to some research published last year, which I had somehow missed: Magpies are now the first bird to pass the mirror self-recognition test—they will try to remove a visible sticker placed on their feathers, if all they know about it is that they see it in the mirror. So move over,  humans, apes, elephants, and dolphins—magpies also turn out to have a basic sense of self! For those of us who were astounded and delighted in the 1990s when we read about chimps who would clearly recognize themselves in the mirror (red dot placed on their forehead), this is only one more step in the expansion of the personhood concept: If you know that you are, as an entity, language or not, then you exist on a higher level than beings who may be aware of their surroundings, but not that they are aware of them. Sartre’s old pour-soi vs. en-soi is being recast in another context.

So what are the ethical implications of this? Should we then respect crows, elephants, dolphins, apes, and other humans as persons? To some extent, most certainly. If you cause them pain, you are contributing to a suffering of which they are aware as happening to them. It is not trivial. But on another level it doesn’t mean that we are no longer allowed to interfere with their lives. We should just feel obligated to take into consideration that we’re dealing with conscious, self-aware life in some form, but we still retain the negative right to maintain our own life, liberty and property. When the crows are nesting in my big tree, I reserve the right to scare them away, because they ruin my night’s sleep. Do I have a right to kill them? That depends on the level of pain they are causing me. If one repeatedly goes for my eyes, or attacks my baby, or my pet, then yes, I will feel morally entitled to kill it. (Not taking into account local legislation about endangered species, noise levels, discharging of weapons, etc., of course. I’m talking about abstract moral rights, as I see them.) That’s just an extension of Locke’s doctrine of negative rights, anyway. The trouble is of course that crows may have self-awareness, but they don’t have human social awareness. They don’t know they’re trespassing, in human terms. So the taking of a self-aware animal life should be cnsidered a “last resort” approach.

But what lies in the future of animal research? I predict that, before long, we will hear that pigs can recognize themselves in the mirror. Pigs are smart, we know that—it is not too far-fetched to assume that they also have a sense of self, and maybe even a theory of mind (understanding that other members of their species are aware). They are in some ways smarter than ordinary chimps, and chimps have a theory of mind. So is that the end of bacon as we know it? You know what? I would actually say yes. If we can justify killing and eating a self-aware animal, there is no theoretical boundary preventing us from killing and eating humans, other than speciecism. An Asian prince of long, long ago who used to eat slave girls was told that eating humans was wrong. He answered, “But they taste good!” So we can’t use the same argument for eating pork—that it tastes good. So far few people eat crows (except metaphorically), but the day will come when some of our food animals will be proven to be self-aware, at some basic level. And in any event, all of them have a general awareness of pain and pleasure (like Bentham pointed out—“not Can they speak, nor Can they reason, but Can they suffer?). Bentham didn’t have a problem eating meat, because he viewed the pros and the cons of incurring suffering—but can we afford to be as bombastic and calculating?  Some (like PETA people) would say that the difference between self-awareness and general awareness is invented by humans with an agenda toward eating meat, because life is life (a pig is a boy etc.). In my own view, self-awareness does mark a different kind of existence than general awareness. I will eat animals who are aware of their surroundings, but not animals who are aware that they are aware. The day when our meat animals turn out to be self-aware, even in the slightest degree, that’s probably it for my meat-eating days. Unless I am locked in mortal combat with a pig, and manage to kill it with my equivalent of its tusks (my Swiss Army knife). Then I’ll proudly eat it, and wear its skin…



1. Dwight Furrow - August 16, 2009

Hi Nina,

Welcome back. It is good to hear from you.

I have never found these kinds of arguments for animal rights compelling. You are right that we are likely to find many animals that have a bare capacity for self-awareness, including some that we eat. But why is that bare capacity sufficient to confer a general right to life any more than ability to feel pain?

There is no evidence that the specific content of animal self-awareness is much like that of human beings. For one thing, our grasp of temporality is much different than that of animals and that sense of temporality is crucial to our understanding of the meaning of life.The loss of life for a human being is a loss in part because it involves the loss of a future which plays an important role in how we understand our present and past.

I doubt that animals have that kind of awareness of time and its meaning. Thus, we have to evaluate much differently the kinds of interests animals have vs. human beings.

Furthermore, there are general prohibitions against killing human beings (without sufficient reason) because social life would be impossible without those general prohibitions. If all human beings were a persistent existential threat all human relationships would be impossible. We are dependent in all sorts of ways on a miminal level of trust in other human beings. We are not so dependent on the trustworthiness of animals. Thus, I don’t understand why there is some general obligation to avoid killing them.

2. Nina Rosenstand - August 18, 2009

This is where we select different criteria for where we draw the line. At this point I draw the line at the sign of self-awareness (which is problematic in itself, because then I have to argue specifically why we can’t eat as-yet unaware human babies, but that should be taken care of with their potential, and their membership in a self-aware species—however, that will propel us into a discussion about the rights of prenatal life…etc. etc.), and you draw the line at the more evolutionarily advanced retention-protention capability, to borrow an expression from Husserl. It’s just that apes have now been found to have retention-protention—a non-instinctual planning ahead for a future event that does as yet not affect the current situation, based on events in the past of which there is no residual evidence other than memory (they gather rocks for later use when the “enemy” shows up, and they carry nutcrackers with them in case they encounter some nuts). It is highly possible that the more intelligent of the birds will turn out to have similar capacities. Having a concept of time need not be exclusively human, albeit in a different sense. So we’re just moving the goal posts here, I think, and have already committed ourselves to finding some excuse why it is okay to eat animals. I actually have no problem with that—without the meat protein we’d never have evolved those brains of ours, and like you state, we can’t justifiably apply the same measuring stick to human and human-animal relationships. I just want us all to know what we’re doing, and not be in bad faith. We make moral choices with consequences every single day, and who to eat is just one of those…

3. Richard Gilbert - September 10, 2009

Professor Rosenstand,

I believe all animals are aware of themselves. If you have ever watched an animal die you will know, without a doubt, that that animal know it is dyeing. However, I am a Christian and I believe that animals were put on this earth as a gift from God and their sole purpose is for us to eat them and to use them not only as work animals but possibly as companions. Taking a life is a very sacred thing however. Whether it is a human life or an animal life. American indians would pray to the carcass of the animals they had harvested because, i believe, they truly understood the meaning of life. In our society, especially here in San Diego, very few people have harvested their own meat. They have no problem eating a burger from In-N-Out but if you cut a cows throat in front of them they would want to throw you in jail for in-humane activity when, in all reality, I find it at to be the most humane thing humans can do. Before there were grocery stores, before cars, before computers, before guns even, there was always the hunter.

Anthony - February 10, 2011

I am completely appauled by this comment. ” I am a Christian and I believe that animals were put on this earth as a gift from God and their sole purpose is for us to eat them and to use them not only as work animals but possibly as companions.”

Please, become less dense, open up your mind and think for yourself. I barely wanted to continue reading after that part. Just the fact that you are gullable enough to believe in Christianity was a turn off for me. Either way, your points afterwards we’re very good. Besides you thinking slitting a cow’s throat is the most humane thing humans can do.

Jacob - March 5, 2015

Maybe you should be less dense.

“I barely wanted to continue reading after that part.”

You’re discrediting someone based off if their faith. Don’t be so quick to judge what the individual has to say and be a little more open minded to other beliefs. I’m am atheist but that doesn’t mean I discredit others based on their beliefs. You should do the same.

4. Matt - September 25, 2009

“because then I have to argue specifically why we can’t eat as-yet unaware human babies, but that should be taken care of with their potential and their membership in a self-aware species”

How would you argue against eating human babies with terminal illnesses ?

5. Nina Rosenstand - September 28, 2009

Because they’re members of a self-aware species.

6. Hab - March 16, 2010

I’ve always thought of self-awareness as an excuse we use for special privileges like we deserve to kill animals or we deserve not to feel pain.

It’s probably just another necessary survival knife courtesy of the evolutionary toolbelt (copyright 1,600,000 bc).

Quite simply, those pansy homo ergaster who didn’t want to hunt, got eaten. Of course this is based on wild speculations of mine and should never be misconstrued as actual science.

7. phil jones - November 10, 2010

It may interest you. I gave up eating pork (and bacon etc.) when I read that pigs pass mirror-test research last year. I still eat beef, lamb, chicken, but to my knowledge I’ve eaten only one mouthful of pork in 2010 (and that was the result of being misinformed.)

Most people (my veggie friends and my carnivore friends) find this an absurd and arbitrary consideration but to me “sense of self” / “personhood” is the line that makes sense.

8. Nina Rosenstand - November 19, 2010

Phil, thanks for the story and the heads-up! I did an Internet search, and as far as I can tell, from the research posted last year, and the subsequent comments, pigs have been shown to understand information presented in a mirror (they see food in the mirror, and turn around to find it in their 3-D reality), but it is so far doubtful if they actually recognize themselves. Still, if you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, I find your decision absolutely consistent with a general attitude of respect toward sapient creatures. As much as I like bacon and pork roast (Scandinavian style with a crispy rind), we may be in for a debate about the ethics of eating pigs. But in that case, watch the goal posts being moved: some animals are more equal that others! 🙂

9. Luke - March 4, 2015

So by your logic, it’s ok to kill and eat small children and babies because they’re not aware that they’re aware. Mentally disabled people too.

The problem with your argument is that it’s flawed from the start. “Awareness” is completely irrelevant. What matters is whether an animal experiences fear, pain, suffering, loneliness etc etc because when you combine that with the fact that almost no meat is consumed out of need, it’s consumed because people enjoy the taste, you reach the irrefutable truth that meat eaters are ok with inflicting suffering on animals for their own selfish enjoyment.

Which is why meat eaters are absolute scum and are some of the most disgusting people in the world.

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