Recently, I stumbled across a funny little YouTube video titled, “Jazz for Cows.” In this video, a small band of jazz musicians from the United States decided to play a few songs for a group of cows in the French countryside, where the band was touring.
Despite what some people may think, these cows didn’t act indifferently toward the music or become frightened by these new strangers. Instead, they all wandered to the side of their enclosed pasture to listen to the musicians perform.
This got me thinking. According to the 15th-century philosopher Rene Descartes, animals are not conscious beings. They have no sense of well-being, morality or sense of pain or pleasure, and therefore do not warrant our sympathy or concern.
This view of animal consciousness was quickly accepted at the time, and eventually became the foundational concept for animal rights (or lack thereof) for many societies of the modern era.
Heading into the 21st century, however, it seems that traditional philosophy and science has given way to a new set of ideas that are sustained by many people who don’t immediately identify themselves as philosophers or scientists.
In a day and age when we love our pets enough to spoil them rotten with dog carriers, kitty sweaters and implanted microchips to find them if they’re lost, more and more people firmly believe that their pet, indeed, does have a soul.
Last fall, I read a New York Times news story about the moral life of babies, written by psychologist Paul Bloom. In the article, he compares the distress of human babies to the distress of rats. “If you want to cause a rat distress,” he wrote, “you can expose it to the screams of other rats. Human babies, notably, cry more to the cries of other babies than to tape recordings of their own crying, suggesting that they are responding to their awareness of someone else’s pain, not merely to a pitch of sound.”
This finding throws a wrench in the Cartesian theory of animal consciousness. If our own babies can exhibit the same reaction to the suffering of others as a lowly lab rat, then we, as a race, need to reexamine what it means to have a sense of humanity.
As for those cows in the French countryside, I like to think that they liked the jazz music that the touring musicians played. It obviously entered their consciousness that there was pleasant music being played, and they wanted to get as close as they could to it. To me, it reinforced the concept that a being doesn’t necessarily have to be a human to have a sense of the humane.
Maddie Shannon is a former columnist and Arts & Entertainment editor for The Collegian, and will be a biweekly columnist throughout the semester.