On October 5, 2013, The New York Times published an op-ed by Dr. Gregory Berns, a professor at Emory University who concluded from a neurological experiment on man’s best friend that “dogs are people, too.” To examine dogs’ brains and their responses to emotion and perception, Dr. Berns trained them to sit silently still in an MRI scanner. The subjects were not the only unorthodox part of Berns’ scientific subject: the method was novel, too. “We treated the dogs as persons,” he wrote. “We had a consent form, which we modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary… If the dogs didn’t want to be in the MRI scanner, they could leave.”
Dr. Berns’ protocol presupposed the kind of canine cognitive capacity that his experiment proved: “Dogs have a level of sentience comparable of that to a human child.” For animal rights activists, Berns’ findings confirmed what they had claimed for decades: “Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us.”
These findings, though, were not the most controversial part of Berns’ op-ed. The Emory University professor suggested that given scientific evidence of canine consciousness comparable to that of humans, they should no longer be treated as property. One of the alternatives he proposed was “a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of emotions…if we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation.”
The legal implications of human-like consciousness in animals was the topic of a panel at the Ivy League Vegan Conference, which took place at Princeton last weekend. Dr. Berns, along with Cornell Law School professors Sherry Colb and Michael C. Dorf, discussed the results of his research and its potential consequences.
In rhetoric inflected with critical sociology and the occasional unwieldy academic jargon, the scholars suggested that humans have denied dogs and other similarly conscious animals the personhood they deserve. The legal status quo constructed by humans perpetuates “animal exploitation.” Like slaves before emancipation, animals exist as non-persons, deprived of their essential rights. Human abuse and mistreatment of animals, Berns intimated, continue because academics have an interest in continuing to use animals as test subjects for experiments. These interests, coupled with the public’s ignorance of animals’ suffering, maintain the systematic exploitation of animals. The professors, particularly the duo from Cornell, made sure to emphasize the parallels between the law’s disregard for animals’ rights and the law’s past disregard for the rights of minorities and marginalized groups.
Prof. Colb, who spoke first, anchored the discussion in the broader animal rights movement’s discourse. The recent scientific findings could, and must, be used to combat animal exploitation and show that “animals are people, too” or “at least not things we eat and kill.” She argued that Dr. Berns’ findings, along with the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, a statement signed by a group of well-known scientists in support of the idea that animals “possess these [same] neurological substrates” as human beings, point the way towards formal recognition of dogs as rights-bearing individuals instead of property.
Prof. Dorf, the subsequent speaker, began like all good left-liberal academics do: with a power-point presentation titled “The Path to Legal Change.” Dorf showed the historical succession of the different categories of American justice movements: racial justice, gender equality, and lgbtq equality. But he added at the end the category of species equality. The legal fight for the recognition of certain animals as persons, argued Dorf, fits into the larger progression of legal recognition and protection of minorities and marginalized groups. Reversing Dred Scott, ensuring universal suffrage, and legalizing sodomy exist on the same political-legal continuum as recognizing animals as persons. History proves, Dorf maintained, that movements for justice can turn to the courts as a vehicle for effecting change.
For the scholars, animal liberation, a term that in the popular imagination used to conjure up images of sabotaged factory farms and burnt out SUVs, meant the legal recognition of dogs and similar animals as rights-bearing persons. Prof. Colb, pointing to Supreme Court rulings on the sentencing of juveniles, suggested the law could treat animals like human children. Still, Berns, Colb, and Dorf were all careful to avoid claiming that dogs and humans possessed anything near equal to human cognitive capacities.
The animal rights movement, which garnered mainstream attention in the early 2000s after a series of arrests of green and animal rights activists, has joined other radical political movements in the spurious move to the Ivory Tower. During the Green Scare ten years ago, when the FBI infiltrated animal rights groups because of suspected “terroristic” activities, an Ivy League Vegan conference would have been unthinkable. As critical and radical social theory have become firmly ensconced in the academic establishment, so have veganism and the animal rights movement become acceptable to Ivy League professors who drape Whole Foods bags over their tweed.
Like many of the causes championed by bourgeois bohemians, the legalist approach to animal liberation does not quite grasp the nuances of the conditions it aims to change. Recognizing animals as beings rather than property is undoubtedly a step towards ending the mistreatment and abuse of animals. But to compare the animal rights movements to other social justice movements, as the speakers on the panel did, is to ignore not only history but also biology.
In all three instances Prof. Dorf mentioned—the struggles for racial equality, gender equality, and lgbtq equality—the subjects of the oppressive legal system participated in the movements towards their liberation. They were cognizant not only of the oppression they faced but also of its systemic nature. Animals, even if they are conscious of their subjugation, cannot understand its systemic nature. Their emotional capacities may be on par with those of humans, but their cognitive capacities are not. A dog knows when he is mistreated, but he does not know that there exists a system that allows this mistreatment to occur.
At the end of the panel, I asked Prof. Dorf if he thought his comparison between justice movements elided the important differences between social justice and animal justice. “No justice movement succeeds when the oppressed speak out,” he told me, again equating human and animal rights. “They need allies.” But Prof. Dorf misunderstands the term “ally.” And this kind of misunderstanding is emblematic of the academic left’s myopia. The role of an ally is not to speak for the oppressed but to create a space that allows the oppressed to speak and be heard. To speak from a place of privilege on behalf of the exploited and marginalized is to sustain the hierarchies of power that are sources of oppression.
If we conceive of animals as beings, and therefore as political subjects, the term “ally” loses its meaning—and not simply because an “ally” to an animal, to entertain Dorf’s claim, would need to speak on its behalf. Even if it were possible to create a reality in which voices of this oppressed group can be heard, the animals could not communicate with humans. Barking cannot challenge an oppressive power structure, just as Powerpoint presentations will not catalyze any kind of liberation. To argue otherwise is to fantasize about a future that will never come.
The politics entertained by the speakers at the Ivy League Vegan conference were the symptoms of an exhausted Left. Lacking the energy for radical change, left-liberal academics resign themselves to bickering over legal definitions and narrating monochromatic slideshows to half-empty lecture halls. The struggle for equality, human and animal, must take place in sweatshops and factory farms, not universities. Conferences and publications are valuable in that they help crystallize the goals of emancipatory movements: intellectual activity builds the theory necessary for action. But without recognizing the limits of politics within the university, we risk falling into the somnolence of academic conventions and book signings that support nothing other than the status quo.
Dr. Berns’ research is an opportunity that those who care about animal rights should be careful not to squander. While waiting for the Supreme Court to recognize dogs or orcas or dolphins as people, try telling the person next to you to put down the hamburger and drop the glass of milk. And don’t worry what that person might say in response: he or she already suspects from the quinoa on your plate that you’re a self-righteous vegan. I’ve found that it can’t hurt to confirm their suspicion.