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?