On Animals and Ego

by J.D. Roth on 22 February 2007 · 1 comment

in Behavior,Motives

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Paul last week. We were discussing socially-responsible investing via chat. The conversation eventually turned more philosophical:

5:27:50 PM radiofreewog: I can’t let my ego control my behavior
5:28:05 PM jdroth: ?
5:28:07 PM jdroth: Ego is all there is.
5:28:13 PM jdroth: :)
5:28:27 PM radiofreewog: hmmm
5:28:42 PM radiofreewog: getting beyond ego is all there is
5:29:40 PM jdroth: “getting beyond ego” is just ego.
5:29:51 PM radiofreewog: no
5:30:01 PM radiofreewog: beyond ego is selflessness
5:30:27 PM jdroth: Selflessness is just another form of selfishness.
5:30:52 PM radiofreewog: i don’t agree
5:31:03 PM jdroth: (I don’t really agree, either. I’m just stirring the pot.)
5:31:25 PM radiofreewog: there is not pot to stir, JDsan
5:31:27 PM jdroth: (But I think it’s impossible to act without ego. Minimize, maybe. But impossible to “go beyond ego”.)
5:31:38 PM radiofreewog: not impossible
5:31:42 PM radiofreewog: difficult
5:31:49 PM radiofreewog: very difficult

This is an interesting concept, and one on which Paul and I are not likely ever to agree. He has spent the last several years looking inward, striving for a sort of spiritual realize through selflessness. He and Susan spent a week (ten days?) at a silent retreat as part of this quest. It’s an admirable thing on many levels, but I’m not ready to agree that it’s possible for any human being to achieve selflessness. I really do believe that selfishness is at the core of our interest. (Though perhaps I’m defining selfishness in a way that most people would classify as “self-interest”.) The conversation continued:

5:33:44 PM radiofreewog: it is your reaction to the entry of ego that defines selflessness
5:33:57 PM radiofreewog: complete slavery to ego is the American way
5:34:32 PM radiofreewog: there are those that do not react to the ego entering the mind and control their actions rationally
5:34:49 PM jdroth: But what is “rationally”?
5:34:50 PM radiofreewog: they experience nirvana
5:34:56 PM jdroth: How is that defined?
5:35:01 PM jdroth: Who is to say what is rational?
5:35:07 PM jdroth: And why is acting egotistically bad?
5:35:26 PM jdroth: If we didn’t act in our own self-interest, we’d still be living in the trees.
5:35:35 PM jdroth: ALL animals act in their own self-interest.
5:35:38 PM radiofreewog: ego keeps you from being successful
5:35:47 PM jdroth: Come to think of it, all living things of any sort do.
5:35:52 PM radiofreewog: we are not “animals”
5:35:57 PM jdroth: I’d argue that ego is the only thing that makes you succesful.
5:36:01 PM jdroth: We most certainly are!
5:36:18 PM radiofreewog: biologically true
5:36:28 PM jdroth: And rationally. :)
5:36:30 PM radiofreewog: psychologically
5:36:38 PM radiofreewog: not true
5:36:53 PM jdroth: What do you mean by psychologically not true?
5:37:16 PM radiofreewog: i am a different psychological animal than the dog

And here, of course, we reach a topic near and dear to my heart: animal intelligence. I find it curious that so many people elevate humans so far beyond other animals. I can understand when this is argued from a religious perspective. There’s a logic behind that. (Whether I agree with the logic is another matter, but at least I recognize that the belief has a source.) But if, as in Paul’s case, you’re essentially an atheist and an evolutionist, then I believe it’s quite clear that from fish to dog to human is simply a matter of degrees. If we don’t perceive the emotional needs of chickens or moose, it’s simply because we’re approaching them from a human-centered universe. (If you want selflessness, move beyond that viewpoint!)

5:38:27 PM radiofreewog: dog = maslows lowest level of needs
5:38:41 PM radiofreewog: no higher
5:38:44 PM jdroth: You don’t think a dog needs to be self-actualized?
5:38:53 PM jdroth: (Maslow.)
5:39:42 PM jdroth: I guarantee that most animals need love/belonging (level 3)
5:39:43 PM radiofreewog: a dog does not self actualize
5:39:53 PM radiofreewog: only for DNA purposes
5:39:55 PM jdroth: I know that some animals need esteem (level 4)
5:40:10 PM radiofreewog: how?
5:40:26 PM jdroth: You’re being remarkably anthro-centric, especially for Paul! (Who I don’t think of in this regard.)
5:40:32 PM radiofreewog: love and belonging are correlated with food and protection
5:40:57 PM jdroth: ?
5:41:17 PM jdroth: If you’re going to say that particular level doesn’t apply to animals, then why does it apply to humans?
5:41:36 PM radiofreewog: because we are different
5:41:40 PM radiofreewog: HA!
5:41:42 PM radiofreewog: I win

I’ll grant that I don’t have any immediate specific examples of a cat expressing creativity or confidence or desiring respect. (All of these would be examples of Maslow’s fourth level.) Or do I? Who is to say what my cat Simon thinks and feels. Yes, I believe it’s a mistake to project our own attitudes onto animals. But as I wrote elsewhere recently, I think that’s a mistake that’s less likely to be made than to ignore the possible mental states of animals completely. Just because we don’t understand them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

sherry 02 February 2007 (17) at 5:52 pm

You have a good site. Anyone with eyes and an open mind can see examples on animal intellegence any day of the week.

I have owned horses for nearly 40 years and they can amaze you. Many years ago I had an old mare who had been severly beaten, starved and overworked. When I bought her she was a 9 months pregnant bag of bones and being worked daily in a riding stable. They were selling her because she was now collapsing under her riders.
Amazingly enough she survived and produced a beautifull filly foal. They were life long companions.
My old mare Tara had a lot of fear issues of course but her daughter Twilight did not.
I had relocated my mares to a new place with pastures and a big old barn. It was pouring rain and already dark that first night I arrived after work to check on them and bring hay. Twilight was fine going in and out of the barn but Tara was afraid to enter and standing in the rain miserable.
I carried a bale of hay down the long alley way to the end stall and placed it in the manger then left to get another.
By the time I had returned Twilight had assessed the situation and realized after coaxing, her mother was afraid to come to the food.
She then pulled the 60 lb.bale of hay out of the manger and dragged it walking backward to the doorway. then backing out with the bale across the doorway on dry floor was standing beside the old mare in the rain so that they could eat together.
That is animal intellegence. That is a demonstration of love and concern for the survival of the group. She was willing to relocate the food and stand in the rain with her mother rather than eat in the comfort of the barn alone. thanks for the site, Sherry

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