Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, a cute video went around social media featuring an orangutan at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida, washing her hands. It turns out the orangutan in question, Sandra, was an inveterate handwasher long before the pandemic hit, and the video was filmed in November 2019. But what is really striking about the video is the dexterity – the humanness – with which she moves. She works with such thoroughness, nailbrush in hand, checking each finger, that you could almost picture her at a salon.
And given what we know of orangutans, the notion that Sandra could pick up handwashing from context clues is not far-fetched. Orangutans have been known to undo bolts, use tools to escape confinement, solve all kinds of novel problems and puzzles, and to communicate in sign language.
There is something in the orangutan’s appearance that clues us in to the creature’s unique intelligence. The improbable fat cheek pads that frame a grown male’s face give him an appearance at once silly and sage. If the lanky arms, shaggy red hair, and potbelly are comical, the thoughtful eyes, languid expression, and deliberate movements give the ape a certain gravity. Staring into an orangutan face, you cannot help but feel respect at something that seems so ancient. The eyes, so serious and sad-looking, raise all sorts of questions.
There is no doubt that behind those eyes is someone, but what kind of someone is a hard question to resolve. The human quality of the orangutan has troubled Westerners ever since the first animals were shipped from Borneo, and it was something people in Indonesia had noticed too. The animal’s very name means “forest man” in Malay. For my own part, when I looked last into the eyes of Kiko at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, I found the indigenous name mawas, “observer,” appropriate, for there I was, observing and being observed.
It is in meeting the eyes of another that we feel most strongly our reciprocal relation with, and responsibility toward, our fellow human beings. Staring into eyes as nearly human as the orangutan’s, we are prone to feel confusion and wonder. Philosophers in the classical mode would tell us we owe nothing to a beast of this sort, because for the philosopher justice is a matter of equality, and the orangutan and I do not stand on an equal footing. On the other hand, contemporary philosophers (Peter Singer, most famously) have established moral criteria that threaten to collapse the distinction between human beings (especially disabled human beings) and other animals entirely. If a healthy conscience forbids ill treatment of orangutans, if we owe them a certain respect, then we need a fuller account of justice. The answer lies, somehow, in those observing eyes.
Let Man See the Intelligence of the Ourang-outang
When an orangutan wants to seem scary, he makes a kissing sound with his mouth. Orangutans in different parts of Indonesia do this kiss a little differently. In some corners of the forest, the hands are used to amplify the call; in others, tradition holds that leaves are to be brought to the lips and then thrown to the forest floor below. There is a strange word: tradition. That is what the ethologists who study primate behavior think it is, anyway: a culturally transmitted action. With whatever word we label these local patterns, they number among the many orangutan behaviors apt to puzzle us. Surely culture is a uniquely human prerogative?
We might also think that self-awareness is distinctively human, but the orangutan seems to have that too. Scientists use the “mirror test” to judge whether an animal is aware of herself. In this test, the sleeping subject is marked with unobtrusive spots of color. Later the subject is shown a mirror; if she recognizes that the marks are on her own body – by touching them or trying to remove them – she passes the test.
The inspiration for this test came from a story about an encounter that Charles Darwin himself had with an orangutan at the London Zoological Gardens in the 1830s. Jenny, the first Bornean orangutan in Great Britain, had sparked a sensation. Darwin, still a young man with a burgeoning fascination with animals, paid a special visit to see her:
The keeper showed her an apple, but would not give it her, whereupon she threw herself on her back, kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child. – She then looked very sulky & after two or three fits of pashion, the keeper said, “Jenny if you will stop bawling & be a good girl, I will give you the apple.” – She certainly understood every word of this, &, though like a child, she had great work to stop whining, she at last succeeded.
Darwin wrote a challenge in his notebook. “Let man visit [the] Ourang-outang in domestication … see its intelligence when spoken [to]; as if it understands every word said, see its affection, see its passion and let him dare to boast of his proud preeminence.” Darwin’s observation of Jenny preening in a mirror inspired the contemporary mirror test.
A famous orangutan of our own day, Chantek, “the ape who went to college,” has allowed anthropologists to expand on Darwin’s observations. Chantek was raised by a scientist named Lyn Miles in a study designed to observe how an orangutan would fare if enculturated and raised like a human child. Chantek was bathroom-trained, could sign 150 words in American Sign Language, and understood how to pay for treats with his allowance. He was a massive fan of Dairy Queen Dilly Bars, and, on car rides, he could direct a driver to the Dairy Queen from his home. Researchers suggested that Chantek showed some evidence of having entered what Jean Piaget called the pre-operational stage typical of a human toddler.
If, as Miles and some of her colleagues believe, they have shown the personhood of Chantek, then surely keeping great apes in confinement for our entertainment is wrong. Still, the interpretation of Chantek’s behaviors is contested by researchers, and what they reveal about his inner experience is hard to tell. What seems incontestable is that both Miles and Darwin observed a creature with a rich emotional life, who engaged in certain kinds of relationships, who had likes and dislikes, great curiosity, and the ability to learn to new skills.
But if there is something in us that wants to see a kinship in the eyes of the ape, there is something disturbing about that fellowship as well. When Darwin saw Jenny as being human, he was likely comparing her not to himself, watching her watch her mirror, but to a “savage” of Tierra del Fuego, whom he had described as “roasting his parent, naked, artless, not improving.”
Here the blurring of the line between human and animal can become dangerous, first of all, by opening the door to scientific racism and social Darwinism. When the line between the person and the animal is blurred, we may hope the result is the lifting up of animals to better treatment. Historically, the result has more often been the reduction of certain persons to something less than human dignity. Darwin’s own racism, and that of many of his students, seems to have had this character about it.
There is no doubt that behind those eyes is someone, but what kind of someone is a hard question to resolve.
We also ought to be cautious about thinking of the orangutan as bearing the rights of a person if we are not also ready to attribute to her the responsibility of a person. In the wild, if male orangutans violently force themselves on unreceptive females (a common behavior), are we willing to call them rapists? Are we willing to hold a male to account for murder if he kills a competitor in a contest over a female? Were an ape to steal or damage property, to hurt a child, to trespass, could we hold her liable like we would a person?
Whatever capacities the orangutan has, they are not enough to attribute the sort of responsibility and blame we attribute to humans. Likewise, I think we would balk, and rightly, at the notion that any human person ought to be considered to have the same moral status as an ape; the very notion is universally considered a serious insult.
And yet we know that the orangutan is self-aware, that she has an emotional and experiential life, and that she shows and receives affection. We know that she can suffer pain. We recognize in her eyes something that should not be hurt, that should be protected, that should be allowed to live as fully as it can.
The orangutan seems to have the capacity for basic language, but what this means is a matter of dispute. In fact, a great deal about the orangutan psyche is in dispute, and I would not pretend to be able to adjudicate. But given the undisputed facts about orangutans’ awareness and intelligence, what sort of claim might they have to our moral consideration; what, if anything, does justice demand from humans when we look at this, our mysterious relative?
A Question of Justice
The question of orangutan intelligence is important to us, just as the question of the intelligence of dolphins, dogs, and elephants is. What sort of thinking is open to animals, what sort of inner lives they lead, is a matter of heated debate, and those who wish to maximize are as passionate as those who wish to minimize the capacities of animals. The matter engages us, in part, because it is simply mysterious. It also engages us because we want to know if animal experience can tell us something about the mystery of who we are. In the ethical space, however, it compels our attention because questions of justice rest on prior questions of nature. To know how we ought to treat a thing, we need first to know what it is.
This is not simply a question of pleasure or the ability to feel pain. The notorious framework set up by Peter Singer is inadequate to some of our strongest moral intuitions. Most famously, Singer appears to authorize appalling treatment of infants, persons incapacitated by coma or brain disease, the severely disabled, and people with dementia. For this reason, critics have suggested that an account of justice based on our nature, not on subjective experience at a given time, is a better ground for our moral intuition.
Why would it be wrong to sexually violate a person in a coma if she will never know? Why is it wrong to lie and deceive if the one deceived will never suffer from it? Philosophers such as Michael Sandel have suggested that the answer has to do with the kind of thing we are, even when, at one time or another, our capacities may not be at their fullest. Whether or not we manifest at a given time the capacities typical of our nature does not change the nature we possess. Think of it this way: a woman does not lose her personhood nor her inviolability just because she becomes blackout drunk.
If Sandel is right, then justice involves understanding nature, and that requires a grasp of something’s typical way of being. Another way of putting this is that the question of justice involves understanding what something is for and then treating it appropriately. An orangutan, of course, is not for something in the way that a hammer is for driving in nails. No, the purpose of an animal is just its flourishing; the various activities of the animal are directed toward the end of its proper functioning as the kind of thing it is. As Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it: “What I do is me / for that I came.” The purpose of the orangutan is to flourish according to its orangutangy nature.
In general, I propose, justice demands of us that we treat things according to their nature. (“The just man justices,” Hopkins reminds us in the same poem.) Where possible, we ought to enable even wildflowers and trees to flourish according to what they are. We recognize, however, a hierarchy in the force of the claims upon us. Generally, we find a tree more worthy of our protection than a stone; we would be much more cautious about killing a dog than a botfly or a bacterium; we would sooner kill a cat than a man. There seems to be an objective order that demands from us different levels of moral consideration.
For example, humans seem to make a distinction between animals without eyes and animals with them. Looking into any set of eyes confronts us with the fact of awareness and with the ability to feel pain and pleasure. And apparently we’re better able to read expressions in eyes more like our own, which might explain our greater respect for an elephant or a dog than for a frog or a fish.
To human persons, of course, we ascribe further distinctions not dependent on our physical attributes. (A blind person has no less worth than someone who can look us in the eye.) If it is true that humans have a unique sort of responsibility, and if Immanuel Kant and the personalists are right that this implies inviolability, then we have an ironbound standard of justice that applies especially to the human person.
The orangutan strains against the highest levels of expressiveness, awareness, and emotional experience, without reaching into the human realm. It could follow that the well-being of a creature like this comes second only to humankind among the things that walk and move about the earth. That the orangutan feels, that it has relationships, that it thinks, means that justice demands that it be respected as a feeling, thinking, relational thing. Among the things in the world that are not human, it seems fair to say that orangutans and animals like them deserve our highest respect and ought always to be protected except in those edge cases that present still more pressing values.
With this idea of pressing values, we enter an area of contested judgment. For a certain type of capitalist, a logging operation might be a more pressing value than an orangutan’s good life. The fact that most countries seek to protect the habitats of higher animals suggests that this capitalist rationale is not entirely convincing. One obvious reason for this is that no particular logging operation is likely to be strictly necessary for the fundamental well-being of the human person. Inconvenience, a missed opportunity for wealth, even fewer jobs, might result, but the effect on orangutan survival would on balance be greater than more minor and remediable effects on human livelihood.
When it comes to a more proportional conflict, say, between the life of a man and the life of an ape, the choice still seems easy and obvious. Perhaps it would be acceptable to say that we have a duty to protect the flourishing of the orangutan insofar as it is possible, when doing so does not conflict with the fundamental rights of the human person.
But protecting the ape’s flourishing insofar as it does not jeopardize fundamental human well-being is not a weak principle. It sets a very high and stringent standard. Profit, entertainment, any kind of superfluous enjoyment – none of these can justify interrupting the orangutan’s flourishing. Today, illegal poaching and illegal logging are among the greatest threats to the orangutan, with habitats protected in Borneo, Sumatra, and Tapanuli. More can be done to make logging and palm oil farms sustainable and to enforce bans on illegal hunting, but the goals there, at least, are clear.
The question of what I owe the orangutan depends upon my own particular context. A caretaker owes her one thing; the people of Indonesia owe their native great ape something other than what the people of, say, Canada do. If, however, I have looked upon the orangutan, and seen the intelligence and feeling in her eyes, then I have some small share in the responsibility for her well-being and that of her species. I might, then, contribute to those organizations that help to protect threatened habitat; I might support the research institutions that care for and learn from her; I might share my love for animals like her with those I know. If I am a writer, I might even write an essay about her so that my fellow human primates might take a moment to think about the value of our distant relations. If we treat the orangutan right, she need not be “painfully, disagreeably” human, as Queen Victoria said when she saw one gowned, bonneted, and drinking tea. The orangutan’s intelligence and feelings are only an affront to us if we treat her cruelly, as if she were not a feeling, thinking thing. If we approach with the respect she is due, she will no longer seem painfully human, but wonderfully what she is.