BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (44) – How do animals react?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

We have seen how man and animals perceive the outside world through the senses (sense knowledge). But men and animals do not only perceive — they also react to what they perceive. Let’s now take a look at how this happens.

The internal senses, in particular the estimative power or instinct, identifies every object that is known as either useful or harmful to itself. There are two built-in inclinations or tendencies (Aristotle calls this inclination “orexis” and Aquinas call it “appetitus”) that correspond to these two perceptions.

St Thomas calls the first inclination “concupiscible appetite” (the Latin verb “concupiscere” means to covet, long for, to desire eagerly or ardently). The concupiscible appetite is the tendency that men and animals have towards what is useful or suitable and away from what can hurt or harm them. The object of the concupiscible appetite are pleasurable goods, things that we like (cf Summa Theologiae I q81, a2).

He calls the second inclination “irascible appetite” (the Latin verb “irasci” means to become angry). It is the tendency to resist anything that prevents one from attaining what is useful or suitable. The object of the irascible appetite is anything “arduous,” things we don’t like or find difficult. The inclination or tendency of this appetite “is to overcome and rise above obstacles” (Summa Theologiae I q81, a2).

Inclinations are abilities or potencies to respond. When a person actually responds, we call these acts “passions” or “feelings” or “emotions” or “sentiments.”

Aristotle identifies six passions that arise from the concupiscible appetite. They are joy or delight, sadness, desire, aversion or abhorrence, love, and hatred. The love that Aristotle talks about is the lowest kind of love (yes, there are higher forms of love). This “animal” kind of love is what we could call “liking.”

He also identifies five passions that arise from the irascible appetite. These are hope, despair, courage, fear, and anger. The hope that Aristotle speaks of here is the animal kind of hope, which is different from the supernatural virtue of hope.

These acts are not only acts of the soul. They produce a physical reaction as well. For example, it is easy to see from a person’s face whether he is happy or sad, afraid or angry. Just as the senses require the body for carrying out their function, the emotions also involve the body in their acts.

In animals, the process that begins with the stimulus and ends with a reaction or response is almost automatic. We usually say that their reactions are instinctive. For example, we have seen how Pavlov’s dog reacted to the stimulus related with food in an automatic way, and the reaction can be detected in a bodily change (salivating).

But even we human beings oftentimes react like animals. When we face something that threatens us, we instantly distance ourselves from the danger. When we someone offends us, we immediately feel a surge of anger. When someone attacks us, we either flee or fight back. Sometimes our actions are dictated by our likes and dislikes.

Nonetheless, human beings also have a capacity to act in unpredictable, sometimes mysterious, ways. We are capable of going beyond animal-like behavior. Unlike the animals, whose actions (and reactions) are dictated by the environment, man is capable of exceeding the limits imposed on him by the situations he finds himself in. How? That’s what we need to explore next time.





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