Discussions about "Why animals matter" are extremely important even when we're faced with global climate change and economic and environmental disasters that strongly impact human well-being. For more dicsussion please see an interview I just did with Forbes. Here I ask, "Do nonhuman animals matter because they're conscious or because they're good for us or because they're both. I don't think either being conscious or good for us or both should weigh in on why other animals really matter.
In a recent essay for Psychology Today psychologist Hal Herzog claims we really don't know if a close relationship with other animals is good for us. He notes that the results for studies that have focused on the relationship between living with a companion animal and human health are confusing and conflicting despite media hype about how good it is for us. Whether other animals, including wild individuals, really do anything positive for us remains to be studied and we need conservation psychologists to weigh in on this although many argue they animals (and other nature) are good for us (see here and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology).
"The fact is that many studies of the positive effects of pets on people do not pass the replication test. Further, pop science writers (of which I am one) are often guilty of only covering the good stuff when it comes to the animals in our lives. For example, newspapers accounts of the Minnesota study only reported that cat owners had lower death rates. They neglected to mention that dog owners and even present cat owners were no better off than people without pets. So you might want to dig a little deeper the next time you read that playing with a poodle will unclog your arteries and heal a broken heart."
Other researchers clearly disagree with Herzog. For example, in her recent book Why Animals Matter, Marian Dawkins concludes that we still don't really know if other animals are conscious so the reason they matter is because of what they can do for us. She writes (p. 184), "We need to rethink our view of those millions of non-human animals, not just in regard to what (sic) they are in themselves, but also in how our own futures are inseparably bound up with theirs." (Throughout Dawkins refers to animals as "that", "what", and "which" rather than "who".)
Skepticism and denialism about science
I call Dawkins' militant skepticism and agnosticism about animal consciousness Dawkins' Dangerous Idea because her denial about the significance of the plethora of data that clearly show that nonhuman animals are conscious can easily be used by those who choose to harm animals. Indeed, this sort of denialism about what we already know also shows its face in discussions about climate change. Why some people continue to deny or ignore data produced by solid science baffles me, although it's clear there are political and other agendas. Some who work to increase animal welfare are paid by companies that have strong economic interests in raising animals for food or using them in other venues and we shouldn't let animals suffer as a result.
So, why do animals really matter?
Clearly we have a problem brewing in that Hal Herzog isn't so sure that animals do much good for us and Marian Dawkins doesn't think we really know they're conscious. I'm glad I'm not her dog. Currently, existing information about animal consciousness is (some may say seems to be) more convincing than data that show that animals are good for us (although I'm not as skeptical as Herzog). Skeptics should err on the side of the animals because the data on consciousness are so convincing and consistent with Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity namely, if we have something so do "they" (other animals).
If we accept Dawkins' claim that we really don't know if animals are conscious her belief that they matter because of what they can do for us and that we should appeal "to people's self-interests" (p. 115), a brand of (too) strong anthropocentrism, is, according to Herzog's analysis, weak, and leaves animals out in the open for being used and abused. Skeptics and denialists can then say something like, "Well, animals may not be conscious and they aren't really good for us so we can do with them whatever we choose." We can rest assured that solid science, at least on animal consciousness, firmly supports our efforts to offer more protection to the billions of animals who are abused in myriad ways.
I think it's pretty simple. While some people can forever ponder if animals are conscious or if they do anything good for us one fact is undeniable — they exist. And because they exist they matter regardless of global climate change and economic and environmental disasters that strongly impact human well-being. End of story.