This could be upsetting news to Americans who grew up watching Disney’s Bambi or reading newspaper obituaries that sometimes include pets as surviving family members.
With this cultural context, it is no wonder that those attending a Center for the Humanities lecture in February responded nearly unanimously in the affirmative when Brown University Classics Professor David Konstan (a former Wesleyan professor) asked who believes that animals have emotions.
“Most of us agree that some animals have some emotions,” Konstan conceded, offering the easy-to-imagine example of deer experiencing fear. But, he prodded, do bats and rabbits feel pity?
In today’s world, when the nature of emotions, and whether or not they are uniform across cultures, are the subject of intense debate, the insights of the Greeks hold valuable lessons.
The Greeks devoted considerable attention to emotions, especially in the context of what was likely to be roused by public speaking. They understood emotion as a response in a societal construct. Anger, for instance, was pain for a perceived slight accompanied by a desire for revenge upon those who are not fit to insult you. Furthermore, anger could only be experienced between equals capable of exacting revenge.
While in our culture we encourage people to let go of the negative emotions, the ancient Greeks encouraged their angry citizens to explore the catalyzing incident: had it truly been meant as a slight?
The cognitive process necessary to traverse before anger could be named was what kept it, in the minds of the Greeks, in the purview of humankind.
And for those who questioned the cognitive aspect of emotions, Konstan provided this example: You are in a crowd on a busy curbside. You feel a push and experience an immediate flash of anger. You turn around and discover the push was accidental, and your anger dissipates. Or, you turn around and discover that the push was intentional, and it actually took you out of harm’s way. Here, our understanding of another’s intent clearly influences the experience of the emotion.
For those who wondered if perhaps love might be universal—across cultures and species—again Aristotle’s definition keeps it human: love is based on an altruistic assessment of another’s noble character. What a mother feels for a child is primitive, instinctive, and therefore not a true emotion.
As for pity, Artistotle’s definition required ethical awareness that placed this, too, in a realm that might seem beyond the typical hanging bat: an emotion that occurs when one determines that someone suffered undeservedly—a qualitative pain that must be cognitively determined.
So, does your dog love you? Not in the cognitive sense that Aristotle and his contemporaries understood, although Konstan would probably admit that is unlikely to stop anyone from watching another Disney movie.