How do we see other beings?
Do we see them as subjects – as living beings like ourselves with their own experiences, wishes, and so on? Do we see them as having the same basic wishes as ourselves? Do we see that they are a world, just as we are?
Do we see them as objects – as a thing that influences our life in a certain way? That helps or hinders us or is neutral? Do we choose to not pay attention to their inner life? Do we assume they have little or no inherent value?
In our daily life, it’s often a combination. We see other beings both as a subject with their own inner life and an object influencing (or not) our own life. And where we put them on the subject-object scale depends on several factors, including how familiar we are with their inner life and how similar we imagine they are to us.
WE PLACE BEINGS ON AN IMAGINED SUBJECT-OBJECT SPECTRUM
Where one the imagined subject-object scale do we put different beings?
We naturally tend to put ourselves at the extreme of the subject end of the scale since we are familiar with and always reminded of our own experiences. We are familiar with our own wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings.
The same goes for our loved ones, our partner, family, friends, and friends from other species. We put these reasonably far out on the subject end since we are somewhat familiar with, and daily reminded of, their interior life.
We tend to put the ones in “our” group over on the subjective side. We relate to their interior life since they are similar to us.
And we place many other beings over on the object side of the scale. These tend to be the ones we are less familiar with and where we are not so frequently reminded of their interior life. Among humans, it may include people we see as other, or people who live in another culture or far away. We also tend to put ecosystems and non-human species on this side of the scale. And, among non-human species, it seems that smaller ones tend to go further over on the object side.
It includes the beings living in ecosystems we eradicate, the spiders we squash, and animals we cage to eat. We are less familiar with and less frequently reminded of their interior life, so we see them more as objects.
WHY THIS SUBJECT-OBJECT SPECTRUM?
Why do we, at least in our western culture, tend to operate from this imagined subject-object scale?
There is an obvious evolutionary and practical reason. It allows us to care for those close to us, and use other beings for our own survival. It has had a survival advantage for our ancestors, and it’s convenient for us today.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF PLACING BEINGS ON THE OBJECT SIDE
What are some of the consequences of placing beings on the object end of the scale?
It obviously has dramatic consequences for the welfare of the beings we place there. It allows us to cage them, keep them in inhumane conditions, eat them, eradicate their habitats, eradicate whole species and ecosystems, and so on.
It also has dramatic consequences for ourselves, in several different ways.
It’s an important factor in our current massive ecological crisis which impacts us all. It’s what allows the systems and actions which has led to this ecological crisis. And it has already led to a loss of human lives, it will impact the quality of life for all of us, and it even threatens our survival.
We treat others as we treat ourselves. If we see and treat other beings as objects, it means we do the same – to some extent – with ourselves and parts of ourselves.
HOW WOULD IT BE IF WE REMINDED OURSELVES OF THE INNER LIFE OF ALL BEINGS?
How would it be to remind ourselves of the subjectivity of all beings? That all beings have an inner world? That they are a world to themselves, just as we are? That they too want a good life free of suffering? That they too want to survive?
How would my life have to change? How would I live my life, reminding myself of the interiority of other beings?
Does even contemplating this feel overwhelming? Scary? Does it feel like too much?
How would it be if we do this, and find peace with it?
How would this be for my own life?
How would it be for us collectively? It wouldn’t mean that we would completely stop modifying parts of nature to suit ourselves (all beings do that). It wouldn’t mean we would stop having non-human species as our companions. And it wouldn’t necessarily mean we would completely stop eating other animals.
But it would mean that we would take their needs and wants, and their interior life, more into consideration. It would mean treating them with more respect. It would mean realizing that we are in debt to nature and do more to pay back that debt.
This is primarily for each of us to explore for ourselves. And it is also interesting to imagine how a culture where this is common practice would look. We don’t have to look too far, since many traditional cultures around the world did and still do this, at least to some extent.
THE IMPULSE TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE
I listened to a podcast I typically enjoy (Judge John Hodgman), and was surprised when it turned out that most of the creators of the podcast were happy to kill spiders in their homes. How can you, when you know that they serve an important function and are no harm at all to humans? How can you, when you know they want to have a good life and survive, just as we do? How can you, when you know they are a world to themselves? How can you, when it’s so easy to allow them to have their life parallel to ours? Personally, I am honored to share a house with spiders.
Of course, the answer is likely just the topic of this article. If you see them as subjects, it’s natural to allow them to have their life. And seeing them as objects, even if that’s not aligned with reality, allows us to squash them without a second thought. Read More