Should we respect the privacy of frogs?

It’s a nice question, and Brett Mills, a lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia, is raising it.  From the BBC:

Mills said filming such encounters with miniature cameras was a level of surveillance humans would most likely object to. “The key thing in most wildlife documentaries is filming those very private moments of mating or giving birth. Many of these activities, in the human realm, are considered deeply private, but with other species we don’t recognise that,” he said. Mills’ report appears in the Journal of Media and Cultural Studies.

Mills said that while it might seem odd to claim animals have a right to privacy, the idea should not be dismissed. “We can never really know if animals are giving consent, but they do often engage in forms of behaviour which suggest they’d rather not encounter humans,” he said

One example of an animal seeming to seek privacy was that of a whale going under a shelf of ice.

The counter-argument is that knowledge of the animals and nature films in general imparts important knowledge and increasess important awareness  of ecological issues.  What do you think?

Before we decide, we might remind ourselves that there are some questions about whether many animals can have much conception of privacy and/or a desire for it.  So if we address the question generally, we’ll want to think about whether it makes sense to respect the privacy of creatures that can’t think about or even want privacy.

Many of our readers will know about these debates – very likely more than I do in fact.  But here’s a started kit for those for whom its new: There seem to be a number of components to the idea of privacy, but two are certainly problematic for many animals – though perhaps not whales, chimps and a few others.  One of these is a sense of oneself and the other is the idea of being 0bserved by others. 

There are interesting tests  for whether  an animal can think of its self.  A common one uses mirrors to ask whether the animal can distinguish between something happening to one of its kind and that same thing happening to its very own self.  I think children pass this test at about 18 months; chimps and whales do ok.  Most animals don’t seem to do very well at all.  (Get a cat or dog before a mirror while you put  on its head some light thing it won’t feel.  Do it seem to have any awareness that  the thing is on it?)

I’m less famililar with the experimental evidence for whether animals have an understanding of being watched.  There are lots of  indications that they recognize that eyes are significant organs, though interestingly most animals do not have eyes whose direction of look can be detected.  We do, because of the whites of our eyes, but I think we may be unique.  Nonetheless, many animals  may attach some significant to head direction, but that’s a long way from getting that one is being watched.

There are reasons for thinking some of this discussion is wrong-headed.   For example, some of it is quite involved with the idea that most human beings have a theory of mind that involves ascribing to others mental states.  And there are serious challenges to that idea.

So rather than trying to resolve those debates, we could ask:  Do the lower animals (felines and canines on down) have rights to privacy we should respect even if they cannot understand or desire privacy?

One thing that does occur to me is to wonder whether we think 1 year olds have a right to privacy.  Do we treat a one year old’s body and emotions as private as we might think of adults.   If we don’t, does that decide it for the rest of the animal kingdom?  Or even, do we know all human societies have spheres of privacy?

24 thoughts on “Should we respect the privacy of frogs?

  1. I think the one year old is a good example to ask about.

    I’m inclined to think we don’t treat a one year old’s body and emotions as private. I know a number of people who post pictures of their children on facebook, even though the children obviously aren’t in a position to consent to having their photographs viewed by their parents’ facebook friends. Perhaps they don’t post pictures of the children being born, but they certainly do post pictures of them very soon after birth. Some of these people (the posters, not the infants) are philosophers, but I doubt they’ve ever considered that what they’re doing might be a morally objectionable invasion of their children’s privacy.

    Maybe we’re wrong to be so blase about this, but that would be surprising (to me, at least). And as JJ suggests (unless I’m misinterpreting–if so I’m sorry), it would be a bit surprising if there were more reason to respect frog privacy than to respect infant privacy.

  2. I have to agree with Daniel’s last statement, more or less. Where animals are concerned, it’s more important to not harm them, and do what we can to prevent harm to the delicate ecosystems they inhabit. If this requires minimally invasive information gathering techniques like cameras taking shots of their mating habits, then more good than harm is done–at least with amphibians and reptiles, ungulates and wild feline and canine species. There is still some debate about domesticated bird species that are capable of reproducing speech, but they move quickly. If they don’t want to be bothered, they’ll deal with it.

    As far as our closes primate cousins, I have some reservations about even some of the best and most well-intentioned studies. Remember Harlow&Harlow’s rhesus monkeys? That one made me shudder. Another study (excuse me for remembering the primatologist by her first name only–I guess I was really empathising with the orangutan who called her Ann) involved several years of work, teaching the orangutan to sign, draw and communicate at the level of a 4-year old child. SHE LIKED CATS! When the experiment was over, the orangutan demonstrated anxious behaviour, pacing, looking out the window. She kept signing “want Ann, want Ann”. It’s cruel to abandon a friend like that. I also wonder what kind of long term effects there will be after teaching apes sign language, and the (possibly) improved reasoning abilities that go with. Some apes have been observed teaching their young to sign after they’re re-released into the wild. I have the same type of reservations about teaching my cat to bond with my sister’s dog. Sure, Pongo’s ok, but what if Oscar goes and tries to lick the neighbour’s ratweiler?

    Marine mammals are an intriguing, but as yet mysterious group. Maybe it’s just my sci-fi geek showing, but it wouldn’t take much to convince me that they’re capable of some or all of the higher reasoning functions that humans possess, and maybe some that we don’t have. Echolocation is such an amazing tool. Yes, bats use it too, but bats don’t have the brain configurations that dolphins&orcas have. Last I checked, the studies were inconclusive. But why do orcas never eat people? They eat everything else that swims, except sharks–but those gristly garbage eaters don’t look very tasty. I would not be the least bit surprised if some brilliant marine biologist someday discovered that orcas&dolphins have language, culture and mythology. If a marine mammal looks like he/she wants to hide, leave him/her alone!

    With infants, there is no privacy. Again it’s a question of harm or help. Try caring for a six month old through a nasty stomach virus, if you want to know what I mean. Every part of the child’s body needs to be uncovered, wiped down, prodded by doctors, etc., just to make sure that the expelled fluids don’t rot and cause infections.

    Social boundaries are part of the parent-child bond that constantly changes and develops through infancy, toddlerhood, preschool, elementary school and adolescence. It’s a continual learning process. When does the child need mom to dive between him/her and concrete? When does a sharp”look out” become enough intervention? When is it invasive to wipe the child’s nose? Should we bombard the aspiring astronaut/ballerina/journalist/pro-wrestler/circus clown with constant info on how to excel in a given profession? When does it become rude to comment on the child’s choice of friends, etc. etc.

    I don’t think facebook photos will be a big deal to the adult that the child will become. Nude infant facebook photos, maybe. Now a 3year old with a somewhat developed sense of self in a dorky outfit–that may be cause for decades of resentment. Past the age of 5 ALWAYS ask permission before taking photos.

    Then again, my mom the all organic hippie took some of the most graphic nude baby pics of me. Not just nude, but spread eagle and covered in spaghetti–I guess I was a messy eater. They embarassed me until I was about 12, but now, who cares? I don’t look like that anymore. That could be anybody’s kid, right?

  3. I missed that last question. Spheres of privacy are very different cross culturally. The very recent post on face veils in Quebec is a good example. Until very recently (within the last 50 years)some African cultures had taboos on being photographed at all.

  4. Xena, if I could just point out that the question was about whether all human societies have spheres of privacy. We might well expect them to be different, but what would be relevant for this discussion is whether some have no private spheres.

    I’m inclined to think there is really a complex of questions here, partly because what is private in much of our culture is thought to be shameful, or (perhaps until recently) at least in need of a lot of regulation.

  5. Daniel, thanks for getting my suggestion exactly right!

    I’ve been wondering what the connection, if there is any, is between personhood and privacy.

  6. That’s what I was saying about my nude baby pics. That could be a different person for all I care.

    I can’t think of a human culture without any sphere of privacy at all. Most of them do closely regulate marriage and procreation. But not all of them have the same ideas about nudity, age of consent, number of partners, etc. (all issues of personhood)

    And no, I don’t think animals care if we film them doing the deed. Other types of human-human and human-animal interactions are more important. Getting worked up about frog porn is absurd.

  7. daniel says “And as JJ suggests (unless I’m misinterpreting–if so I’m sorry), it would be a bit surprising if there were more reason to respect frog privacy than to respect infant privacy.”

    would this really be surprising? my intuition is that it wouldn’t be surprising. (whether it’s the case or not, i don’t know.) lots of animals are competent autonomous individuals in ways that babies simply aren’t.

  8. elp, really nice point.

    I have to stop blogging in a few minutes for several hours, but I must say I’m now feeling perplexed and ill-informed.

    One thing I don’t know how to factor in is the relation between privacy and shame. Interestingly, Genesis does link them, with the idea that in the Garden of Eden we wouldn’t need to cover ourselves. That’s not all of privacy, of course, but it is a significant part.

    When we think about something like a legal right to privacy, this may cover infants. I just don’t know.

    What kind of relationship might there be between autonomy (in the way animals can have it) and privacy?

    Are we consistent on privacy? I suspect we “respect” the privacy of adults who are in effect like infants (brain damage, alzheimer’s).

  9. Dogs prefer to poo in private, and look embarrassed/ashamed if you watch them. I don’t *think* I’m anthropomorphizing to suggest that dogs can feel embarrassment or shame or some emotion in this vicinity. Since they – when possible – seek out a private place to poo, and appear to feel uncomfortable if someone watches them, there might be grounds for supposing we should respect their privacy.

  10. @Stones Cry Out #9, by “frog porn”, I meant videos of frogs mating with frogs. I was being facetious. If any porn manufacturer did decide to film a man impaling a poor little froggie on his you know what, I might have a problem with that.

    Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure how to take the You Tube spoof on Nine Inch Nails 1995 release, Hurt, made popular by Johnny Cash just before he died. The video, Hurt Kermit features Jim Hensons’ muppets doing things that “moral” people consider to be shameful in the extreme. I laughed my ass off, but I felt a little guilty for it.

    I’m still having a bit of trouble with wordpress. JJ, (or Monkey or elp) if you can find Hurt Kermit, and feel that it’s not inappropriate, maybe you could set up a link?

  11. Xena and others, could I point out that – as far as my observations at least go – philosophers may be far more interested in the question than in the answer. Often an answer is easy to give; what is much harder is to understand why one is inclined to that answer. Of course, we might not agree on answers, but if we can uncover principles supporting one or another, they might see what is creating the disagreement.

    The reason why “should we respect the privacy of frogs?” may be interesting is that we aren’t inclined to do so. Maybe one reason is that they cannot understand or want privacy. But if that’s so, then we need to explain why we might respect the privacy of other creatures who cannot want privacy. For example, badly brain damaged people. They might suggest that either history or society is another factor.

    Another connection might be one elp brought up, as I see now that I think about it. Part of a right to privacy might be a right to spheres of autonomy. E.g., we shouldn’t legislate about what happens between consenting adults in their bedroom (or indeed other rooms of the house), many people think.

  12. Monkey, nice example. I’m inclined to respond that that may be true for British dogs, but the US dogs I’ve seen don’t seem to feel the least ashamed. Nor do those not on leases seem to seek privacy.

    There are three things that worry me about dogs in this case: one is that dogs may be great fakers, apparently. We bred them to mirror us, some research suggests. Second, a dog might well feel anxious if observed in the middle of a poop. It’s a bit stuck if someone wants to be aggressive. So what we think is shame and privacy seeking could be anxiety and safety seeking. Though again, not the dogs in my neighborhood, which embarrassingly somewhat prides itself on being a very respectable place.

    But most puzzling of all is that shame at poop may be cultural. There are present day societies where adults poop in public.

    To go around in a circle: might British dogs be taught that they shouldn’t ‘go’ in public? That would be fascinating. Of course, there might be some general argument about British animals being more evolved. Those blue tits, for example, drove generations of people wild with their wilely attacks on milk bottles.

    I think when I’m getting this silly I should quit.

  13. Weird! A lot of British dogs seem to want to poo in private. I had assumed it was evolved behaviour arising because one is vulnerable when poo-ing (as you pointed out), but I had thought the ‘mechanism’ was feelings of embarrassment (or perhaps some less complex emotion in the same ballpark) that motivated dogs to seek a quiet spot.

    I guess I’m not convinced that mirroring counts as faking. This isn’t particularly well thought out, but one might suppose that learning to use a meaningful gesture allows one to acquire the meaning it embodies, and that meaning may have an affective dimension.

    But even if this isn’t right, and dogs are anxious and seeking safety when poo-ing, since the safety sought is alone-ness, that might be sufficient to count as seeking privacy?

  14. I used to think that some dogs looked embarrassed after a bath. However, I suspect it’s simply a bit of fear and distrust due to the unpleasant experience forced upon them.

    I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a dog look embarrassed to be seen eliminating body waste, unless it were in the house where they were afraid of being punished.

    As for frogs, I expect they would only be aware of us in two ways, threat, or non-threat. If there has ever been any behavior by frogs that seemed to indicate embarrassment, I have to assume that it’s something similar to my hypothesis on dog embarrassment. Although I doubt, without serious anthropomorphism, that any frog embarrassment has ever been witnessed.

    To conclude my point, if a frog can’t be bothered by lack of privacy, then it would be silly to worry about their privacy. However, if we consider that our actions might force the animal to be living under constant threat, that could be justification for some form of right to privacy.

  15. @Xena,

    Concerning orcas: interestingly enough, I watched a documentary that said the main reason orcas don’t eat humans is that it isn’t part of their culture. Some tribes of orcas, for example, primarily hunt fish, whilst others have learnt how to hunt other marine mammals (even – very, very occasionally -baby grey whales, but those mostly for recreation). As it stands, I suspect we just wouldn’t taste that nice anyway, but speculation aside, the facts seem to be that when it comes to hunting humans, orcas just aren’t brought up that way (!).

  16. Biscuitnapper

    That’s fascinating. It might also explain to some degree why they might eventually kill humans while in captivity. At least, if you consider that they are predators, and are forced to spend a life in captivity, restricted from hunting. I’d hunt and kill whatever I had access to, if I thought of myself as a fierce predator, and wasn’t ever able to hunt, even if it wasn’t traditional prey.

  17. Suddenly remembering discussions of Tudor architecture and the beginnings of the idea of separate room (though not with doors), I thought I’d look a bit into the history and elsewhere. I’m not citing scholarly sources that show something is true; this is just mean to be suggestive and, indeed, to suggest how much humans have simply constructed the notion of privacy over milliennia. Here’s one sample:

    [Alberto} Angela describes living in ancient Rome to be in some ways like living in a campground. For most people homes were small and used primarily for sleeping. Therefore most of life was lived outside and in public. School was taught in the streets. Bathing, relieving yourself and eating were all done outside the home in public institutions.

    This, and Rome’s severe crowding, makes the concept of privacy very different from how we think of it today. Consider the public latrines:

    “There are no screens, curtains, or dividers that isolate people from each other. They are all seated on one long marble bench, one next to the other, as though they are waiting for the bus.”

    The same is true of another public setting that we would today consider intimate, the baths.

    “There are men and women, old people and children, craftsmen and soldiers, wealthy people and slaves. The baths of Rome bring everyone without distinction.”

    And the streets, baths and most everywhere else in Rome was crowded. Most Romans lived, both figuratively and literally, on top of one another in apartment buildings or insula that were packed with people and with the population emptying onto the streets during the day you can imagine what the traffic was like. The close quarters of the street, not to mention the latrine and baths would disturb our Western sensibility for personal space.

    Because of the crowding social activity thrived in these locations. Despite the smell, Angela says that the latrine “is one of the social hubs of Rome, like the Forum.”

    from From:

    Could race be implicated? Here’s a suggestive abstract:

    The Whiteness of Privacy: Race, Media, Law.
    By: Osucha, Eden. Camera Obscura, Jan2009, Vol. 24 Issue 70, p66-107, 44p, 4 Black and White Photographs; Abstract: In this essay, the author explores how the early history of the U.S. right to privacy reflects the racialization of concepts of privacy and publicity in 19th-century visual culture. Where standard scholarly treatments focus on the gendering of the concepts, the author argues that they can also be explained by 19th-century anxieties about stabilizing the boundaries of racial whiteness. She links the doctrine’s fundamental concern with privacy-as-property to new understandings of subjectivity, commodification and image.;

  18. Monkey: I totally agree both with mirroring and the nice more general point you’re making about how things might become available to dogs.

    i should say that the research I was reading – and I can’t remember the good source – said that dogs are actually fakes and they don’t give a damn about us. However, selective breeding has produced these great fakes, from which we and they benefit.

    I think this idea became quite the thing for some time recently, but I have to confess that I haven’t kept up with it.

  19. Another interesting point about socially constructed privacy: all the media hype about creepy subway guys taking cell phone pictures of women’s legs, etc.

    I thought it was interesting that, even though most of the textbook coverage of mental illness&paranoia I’ve read suggested that common delusions include hearing voices and believing that one is being followed, several (4) schizophrenics that I’ve met recently expressed fears of being photographed and having their personal info uploaded. They claimed that they didn’t vote because of these fears.

  20. Some of my family are from a country where people live in very close proximity to each other, sharing very small living spaces in which many people sleep, eat, and so on. Often there’s only one room. People live mostly outside – it’s where they eat and bathe. But it’s polite to ignore each other when people are doing personal things like dressing and so forth. So there’s a sort of privacy despite the fact that people aren’t alone. It would be interesting to know what evidence there is for the idea that Roman latrines were a social place. The fact that there are no dividers certainly suggests to us that people weren’t concerned with privacy whilst using them. But that might just be because we’re used to equating privacy with physical alone-ness. It’s possible that there was a different sort of privacy involved – people might have ignored each other whilst they used them. Or if people chatted whilst sitting down, it might have been polite to ignore people engaged in other parts of the toilet routine. Do you know if there’s any evidence of latrine etiquette, other than just their physical design?

  21. Monkey, yikes! penetrating questions, but fun ones also.

    I don’t know, but it might be in the book quoted, which one might be able to look at on google books. I should have a look.

    I do remember a fortnight when we rented a place in a small French village. I was stunned to find a long board in the outhouse with two seats/holes in it. I remember saying to my husband that it was so extraordinary to see, and he assured me that he had experienced them before. People just go out together to do it, he said. And then there are today still places where people just squat on the sidewalk to defecate.

    I have heard people say that while we might find the latter disgusting, they find us disgusting since we do things with stuff from our noses that they would never do. E.g., we wrap them up in paper and put them in a handbag with everything else.

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