There's no doubt that a lot of animals can safely be called fully conscious and self-aware beings. Sentient. Elaborate tests really aren't required to make this assessment. It takes little more than momentary observation of wild and domesticated animals to recognize their obvious sense of self. This ability to recognize animal sentience holds true for children and adults, animal experts and laypeople. One of the subtler joys in life is affirming this quality in non-humans.
But to what extent are certain animals, mostly mammalian and avian, self-aware? In an important sense, the answer doesn't matter. That is, it in no way shifts the criteria upon which we grant animals moral consideration. That criteria, of course, is an animal's capacity to suffer. The prospect of suffering, no matter what the depth of an animal's consciousness, no matter how similar or dissimilar that consciousness appears to be from our own, requires that we treat animals with the same moral consideration we'd grant to humans -- creatures whom morally literate citizens also aim to avoid causing unnecessary suffering. We don't have to give them human rights, per se, but we cannot abuse them for non-essential purposes.
But in other ways -- more tertiary ways -- the question of animal consciousness does matter. Animal ethologists should keep striving to understand the deeper nature of an animal's self-awareness because that understanding helps us think about the most just ways to integrate animals into human culture.
Should animals be allowed to offer non-verbal testimony in court? Should we hold animals accountable for dastardly deeds done to each other for seemingly "senseless" reasons, such as when one dog rips into another at the dog park? If a human claims to love his companion animal in a romantic way do we take that claim seriously? Do we entertain the notion that an animal, which some studies have shown are capable of romantic love, might love a human back? These questions are more complex than they might at first seem. We need to know more about the full nature of animal self-awareness before we can responsibly develop answers.
Inevitably, it will be the case that we'll make these explorations through human categories, biases, and presuppositions. Chances are slim, I imagine, that we'll ever "get" the consciousness of a dog from a a dog's perspective (or, as Thomas Nagel famously argued, a bat from the bat's perspective). Even thinking we can do so is a logical contradiction, one that requires the erasure of the self. But that limitation should not inhibit our investigations. Imagine what we could discover if we took the resources we waste on vivisection and put them towards research into mammalian and avian consciousness?
There are many specific aspects of animal consciousness we might explore, but one that strikes me as especially important is this: the nature of an animal's grasp of the past. Of course animals recollect. Squirrels know where they have stashed their cache, elephants remember where poachers hid, ants know where to go in that crazy maze, and chickens recall dozens of human faces.
But recollection and memory are different. Recollection directs behavioral survival–where are those nuts? -- but memory enables narration, and the control of narration allows us to weave more nuanced meaning into life. It's perfectly possible that animals, most likely primates and whales, possess a consciousness that allows them to grasp their past as an abstraction that lends present existence, as well as future expectations, with continuity. A very meaningful continuity.
I genuinely wonder to what extent memory, and the life-affirming narration it allows, bears on the quality and meaning of life. Does a creature with a consciousness capable of arranging webs of memories into stories and myths and tall tales have a more meaningful life than a creature who lives life largely in the present but is able to access the past for isolated tidbits of survival data? And if so, does this distinction impact their moral standing in human society?
As we inch toward a society that questions the moral basis upon which we needlessly exploit animals, I hope we can open the forum to these critical questions.