Jonathan Balcombe is an academic and also a successful author of a number of popular books about animals emotions: specifically animals' pleasure.
To coincide with the release of his latest book, The Exultant Ark: A pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, Jonathan has kindly agreed to a short interview with OneKind.
Why do you believe that animals other than humans are sentient and can experience emotions?
Two main reasons. First, animals share with us a common evolutionary history. We know that we (humans) are sentient. It is therefore a very strong inference that other animals are also sentient. Second, animals behave as sentient beings. When I accidentally step on my cat's paw in the kitchen, she screeches and runs away. An hour later, when take her brush and thump it on the carpet, she comes running and flops onto her side. She shows every indication that she loves the brushing I give her (you can watch her coming to be brushed on a video titled “cat pleasure” I posted on YouTube). It doesn't take a scientist to recognize these expressions of pain and pleasure in an animal. Emotions evolved because they are useful, they are adaptive.
Why do you feel there is often reluctance to attribute emotions to animals? Is this changing?
Again, two main reasons. First, emotions are private, and scientists especially are very reluctant to ascribe something to an animal that cannot be absolutely proven. For that reason scientists actively avoided questions of animal minds and feelings for most of the 20th Century. Second, if we acknowledge animal sentience and emotions, we have to face some uncomfortable moral questions about our relationship to animals. Currently, the way animals are treated in the production of meat and dairy products, fur, in research laboratories, and in a variety of other human activities would be totally unacceptable if we treated other humans that way. And when we finally realize that animals feel pain just as acutely as we do, it will dawn on us that we must stop subjecting them to these cruelties.
Why do you think scientists have previously focussed on investigating negative emotions such as pain in animals instead of positive ones such as pleasure? Is this changing?
Pain is a more urgent issue; avoiding pain is more important than promoting pleasure. Also, pain is more easily recognized in an animal than is pleasure. Pleasure is still grossly neglected as a subject of scholarly study, in humans as well as animals. Today there are at least 23 scholarly journals dedicated to the study of pain, but there are none about pleasure. There are only a handful of scientists who have devoted any attention positive experiences in animals, but it is gradually gaining ground. I'm hopeful that through my writings—especially my books The Exultant Ark and Pleasurable Kingdom—science and society will eventually catch on and start paying more attention to this important field.
If animals can experience positive emotions why is this important?
Pleasure had important moral implications. An individual who can experience pleasure has a life worth living. He has interests. Her life has intrinsic value. It also follows that death is harmful because it deprives the victim of future pleasures. The reason, I think, that murder is such a heinous crime is that it deprives someone the opportunity to enjoy the good things in life.
What inspired you to produce your new book The Exultant Ark?
Animals are graceful and beautiful to behold, and pleasure is a buoyant and joyous subject. So I think animal pleasure makes a winning combination! When they see this book, I believe others will agree.
What do you hope The Exultant Ark will achieve?
One of the greatest rewards for me as a writer is hearing from readers who are moved to improve their relationship to animals. I hope The Exultant Ark inspires more to do this.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of our relationships with other animals?
Optimistic. It takes a lot of persistent effort to change societal norms. But the tide is turning for animals. Society has shown the capacity for enormous social change to the good, witness the passing of colonialism, the end of the African slave trade, and suffrage for women. The next great social movement is the animal movement. Informed by science and driven by ethics, society cannot sustain its denial that animals matter.
If people want to help animals, what advice would you give them?
There are of course many ways to help animals, but the most immediate positive impact an individual can make for animals is to stop eating them. Going vegetarian does a world of good for animals, the planet, and your health. Going vegan is the Holy Grail of personal activism for animals.
Any other comments?
As a vegan myself, I don't expect to live much beyond 150 or so, which means I won't be accountable for this prediction: humankind will someday look back on the 21st Century as the Century of the Animals.
OneKind is grateful to Jonathan for taking the time to answer our questions. I hope you found his opinions and insights interesting and informative. You can hear a short poscast of Jonathan talking about his new book here.
I have been excited to read Jonathan's new book ever since I first heard about it, and I was not disappointed. I would highly recommend buying The Exultant Ark, either for yourself, or as a present for someone special. It is bound to captivate, inspire and make you smile. Just click on the link at the top right of this page to buy the book and raise funds for OneKind at the same time.