If ever a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces deserved a medal for bravery, it was surely the hero who dodged booby-traps and helped clear militants from a Kabul tower block, despite sustaining horrendous shrapnel injuries. This was a battle-hardened warrior who had already “shown his mettle and built a reputation among all the guys”, according to a brother in arms in the Special Boat Service.
Army dog wins ‘animal Victoria Cross’ for Taliban counterattack
There are only 68 other recipients of the medal this “guardian angel” was awarded on Friday. When you find out who those other winners were, however, the award becomes more questionable. , joins the 32 pigeons, 31 dogs, four horses and one cat who have received the Dickin medal since 1943. Described as the animals’ Victoria Cross, it is awarded by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a charity founded 100 years ago by Maria Dickin.
Can a dog really – as the dispensary’s director general, Jan McLoughlin, said – exhibit “gallantry and devotion to duty”? Does it makes any more sense to call Mali “brave” than it would to call him “proud” for receiving the medal? Is this zoological correctness gone mad?
I’m quite sure that whatever qualities the 32 pigeons displayed to earn their medals, bravery wasn’t one of them. With dogs, however, it’s more complicated. It seems bizarrely anthropomorphic to award medals to animals who have no idea what the shiny bit of metal actually is. But it’s also heartless to treat animals as though they were no more than fleshy automatons who have nothing in common with sentient human beings at all. Seeing animals as too like or too unlike ourselves are equal and opposite mistakes.
The way to avoid this error is not to imagine that other animals are more human-like than they really are, but to accept that we are more like other animals than we generally believe. This was the remarkable claim of David Hume’s short chapter Of the Reason of , in 1748. Hume was clear that animals did not use any “process of argument or reasoning”. But neither do human beings most of the time, not even philosophers. Most day-to-day “reasoning” is little more than an application of learning from experience, in which we expect things to behave as we have seen them behave before.
The way this works is “unknown to ourselves” – unconscious rather than consciously reasoned. In animals we call this “instinct”, not noticing the instinctive nature of most of our own thoughts and actions, “on which the whole conduct of life depends”. Recent work in psychology by the likes of and suggest Hume was spot on.
Brave actions are one example of how this works. Of course Mali didn’t think about what he was doing, or make some kind of conscious choice to act. But nor do many, perhaps most, human heroes. They rarely sit down, think and conclude that their moral duty requires they risk their lives. Rather, a kind of instinct kicks in, and it is only later that they tremble retrospectively at what they have done.
Take another recipient of a medal for action in Afghanistan, , who received the Military Cross in 2011 for trying to save two comrades under heavy fire. “I just got on with it,” she said. “There was no option.” Or the Gurkha , who received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for single-handedly fighting off more than 30 Taliban, but felt there “wasn’t any choice but to fight”.
Human and animal bravery may not be as different as we think. Both are often kinds of instinctive impulses to help
Such soldiers are no less heroic because their actions are in some sense automatic. In a way, the fact that they put their lives at risk without a second thought is precisely what makes them so admirable.
Hume was not saying that there is no difference at all between human and animal intelligence. His point was that a lot of the time the difference is more a matter of degree than kind. Many of the features of the human mind are simply more sophisticated versions of those found in our genetic relatives. Similarly, human and animal bravery may not be as different as we think. Both are often kinds of instinctive impulses to help, rather than calculated acts of self-sacrifice.
Far from being a comic story of the Disneyfication of war, the award of Mali’s medal is a more complicated example of how humans struggle to understand animal consciousness. The Dickin medal might err on the side of anthropomorphism, but I’d prefer that to the more common mistake of treating other animals as senseless brutes. As Hume recognised, seeing some of our own qualities in our fellow creatures is an important way of reminding ourselves that we are animals too.
• Julian Baggini runs the website Microphilosophy