Face-off

Faces are interesting, don’t you think? We look for them everywhere, even if we’d rather not see them -inside a dark closet in an unfamiliar room springs to mind. Still, a face is a rather important thing for a head to get right -for one thing, it’s how we define it as a head, rather than, say, a doorknob or something. We are also more kindly disposed towards a head with a friendly face, twinkling eyes and not too many teeth -probably a Darwinian thing.

But what is a face, anyway -what does it have to be like to qualify? Well, it has to resemble ours as much as possible -I mean, we’re the ones who are judging it, eh? So, it has to have a nose, a mouth, and eyes for starters. Oh, and probably some recognizable ears -or aren’t they considered a part of the face? Anyway, cheeks would help, and eyebrows would be a nice touch too -sort of like the upper edge of a picture frame so we could tell the face from the wall. Personally, if push came to shove, I’d rather see a neck -or at least a chin, however.

Still, seeing a face personalizes whoever has it and makes those of us who have one, recognize something of ourselves in the Other, makes us feel guilty for squashing it or brushing it out the door. Anthropomorphism can be a force for good. But, do we only assign faces to those things we’re able to tolerate? And what if the face exaggerates some of the components -the eyes, for example, or maybe the mouth- do we still regard it as a confrontable face? Only in horror films do the directors try to make us believe that spiders actually have faces. Same with flies and ants, but if I’m being brutally honest, I’m not partial to snake movies. Some faces just aren’t -that’s all I can say.

I realize that sometimes I am unduly susceptible to the seductive sway of current speciesism, but I guess that’s what a protected childhood in 1950ies Winnipeg confers on otherwise plasticine youth. The only mildly existential unease to which we were exposed there -apart from the winters, I mean- was that classic horror film The Blob, and as far as I can remember, it had no face. They knew better than to put a face on it, I think: too scary for the times.

Faces remind us overly much of ourselves, so in real life, we have been reluctant to dole them out willy-nilly because the recipient would acquire undue status from the reward -undue privileges. At least that’s what an essay by Michael Woodruff, professor emeritus of biomedical sciences at Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University, would suggest: https://aeon.co/essays/fish-are-nothing-like-us-except-that-they-are-sentient-beings

Who would have thought that even the hint of a face would accord the possessor certain rights and maybe even citizenship? The more the recipient resembles us, the more we tend to grant it a degree of personhood. ‘As the philosophers Mark Coeckelbergh and David Gunkel have noted, we often give dogs this kind of face, as evidenced by the individual names we bestow on them and their closeness to our lives. We grant them an existential status that leads to their inclusion in our moral community and an assignment of rights and protections occasionally approaching those we afford to other people.’ But fish…?

Yes, fish! I can always remember thinking that a freshly caught fish flopping desperately in the bottom of the boat must be suffering. I would knock it over its head until it stopped moving. It did little to assuage the guilt, however -only eating it did that.

But why? The fish was neither cuddly nor as cute as my dog. I suspect it was not the face that prompted my reaction, just the apparent suffering. As Woodruff suggests, ‘generally scales and slime count strongly against cuteness and cuddliness. However, there are also explicit cognitive factors that influence the moral status we assign animals. Sentience is the most important. By this I mean the minimal capacity to have a direct subjective experience of the qualities associated with sensations and accompanying affectual states. More simply put, sentience is the ability to have the feel of a sensory experience. Because of this, sentient beings have the capacity to suffer, and it is this ability that intuitively affects their moral status… the capacity of an animal to suffer demands that it be given standing in our moral community.’

I’m reminded of that seminal essay (and, indeed, it is mentioned in Woodruff’s article) What it is like to be a bat by Thomas Nagel -that it must be like something to experience the world as a bat. In other words, sentience implies a ‘subjective experiential state, a sentient being must be capable of a first-person perspective from which phenomena are experienced.’ But could a fish recognize its face in a mirror like, say, a chimpanzee?

Given that most fish don’t shave, it would be difficult to decide if it could indeed recognize itself in a mirror -and even if it did, how would that manifest? But, ‘in 2019 the Japanese biologist Masanori Kohda and his colleagues showed that the cleaner wrasse fish could pass the mirror test.’ Still, ‘it seems implausible that they recognise themselves in the mirror in the same way that human beings do. That is, they probably don’t have a ‘self-consciousness’… they can’t refer to themselves as ‘this particular wrasse’. However, the results of Kohda’s experiment do demonstrate that cleaner wrasse are able to synthesise the representation of patterns of visual sensory input from the object moving in the mirror with the felt sense of their own bodies moving through space… This is evidence that cleaner wrasse fish have a rudimentary first-person perspective and are capable of a nonconceptual sentient mental state.’

Well, at the very least, I feel vindicated, for my fishual assaults. It was then, and would be still, an act of mercy on my part. I realize that by confessing this, I will be subject to the scorn of those who make their living catching fish, and yet, I must confess their contempt is of little moment to me. It is very difficult to knock the face of a gasping, thrashing fish without noticing, in that moment of violence, that there is someone terrified inside its face, staring out at me -but whether accusingly, or in gratitude at having its agony terminated, I suppose I’ll never know. As Shakespeare had Portia declare in The Merchant of Venice: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…’

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