January 2010

Barbara J. King


On Speciesism: Cavalieri's The Death of the Animal

A blog I often read, Mary Martin's Animal Person, included last month this provocative paragraph:

Riddle me this: What's the difference between a cow and someone on death row? For one thing, the cow has not been convicted of some heinous crime. The cow will be executed simply because she is a cow. And isn't it odd that we would have such a difficult time, for decades, trying to figure out if it's okay to kill someone who is a demonstrated threat to the community, yet not only do we not think twice about killing a cow, who is no threat whatsoever, but we actually create cows for the sole purpose of killing them? Where's the moral objection on behalf of cows?

“The cow will be executed simply because she is a cow.” This line lodged powerfully in my head when I first read it, a day I was also reading Paola Cavalieri’s The Death of the Animal: A Dialogue. It -- the cow sentence -- doubles as a pithy sum-up of a thesis of Cavalieri’s book: We neglect, abuse, or kill animals because of their biology, their essential not-us-ness, their cognitive endowment (we judge) inferior to ours. And this treatment of animals is simply indefensible in any ethical framework that rejects biology as grounds for ill treatment: “We cannot reject sexism and racism while defending ‘speciesism,’” says Alexandra, one of the participants in the dialogue mentioned in the book’s title.

The book is thick with terms obscure to me because they are rooted in philosophical discourse, no strength of mine. A disclaimer, then: Because my writing about animals emerges from anthropology, the philosophical realm for me is convoluted territory.

The Death of the Animal is a strange little volume, only 138 pages of text. It begins, after a foreword by Peter Singer, with a dialogue between a pair of Greek-Island-visiting philosophers, Alexandra and Theo, and proceeds to a jumble of response chapters written by Cary Wolfe, Harlan B. Miller, Matthew Calarco, John M. Coetzee, and Cavalieri herself.

Everything, then, flows from the verbal dance between Alexandra and Theo, a duo whose cerebral relationship is pegged perfectly by Coetzee: “They exhibit an amicability of a rather bloodless and certainly sexless nature. They speak fluently, at times eloquently, but never with heat.” The intellectual heavyweight is Alexandra: she pounds away day after day with recitation of ideas, while Theo intersperses comments and questions meant to keep us lesser intellects from despairing of full comprehension. I had to smile when Theo let out with a “Can you be clearer?” or “Can you offer a few other concrete illustrations? The argument is dense…” or with the bald cry, “I need some more intermediary steps.”

Step-by-step is the way to grasp Alexandra’s argument against what’s called perfectionism. “Perfectionists,” she says to Theo, “hold that there is a hierarchy in moral status. They maintain that conscious beings, and their interests, deserve different consideration according to their level of possession of certain characteristics.” The key characteristics are rationality, self-consciousness, and linguistic ability, and the result for animals of this anthropocentrism is a stinging slap-down in the supposed moral hierarchy. Alexandra explains, “’The animal’ is what lies at the bottom of the perfectionist’s hierarchy. It is, par excellence, the negative term of comparison.”

Speciesism is at stake, an injustice as important to eradicate as is sexism and racism. As Alexandra puts it, “the mere appeal to species membership simply cannot work in a context characterized by the rejection of forms of biologism.”

So only with the death of “the animal” -- the animal we reduce to biology yet hold as an abstraction in our minds -- will we be able genuinely to see real flesh and blood animals and act for them. That’s the crux of the dialogue’s point. (I’ve just elided extensive comparative evaluation of two schools of philosophy, called the analytical and continental schools, not to mention the tangled cross-currents of agreement and disagreement among the contributors. You want all that? Seize the book!)

The Death of the Animal asks us to interrogate and maybe turn on our assumptions about animals, to meet (and create) fresh thinking head on. In this regard I particularly liked Harlan Miller’s perspective.

Even if we accept (and Miller does not suggest that we should) the notion emerging from certain religious doctrines that humans are endowed with souls and other animals are not, think, Miller says, where this dichotomy may lead us: “Suppose one of the usual underdescribed imaginary cases. A building containing me and a turtle is on fire. You can only rescue one of us. Clearly, on this assumed distribution of souls, you should save the turtle. I can always be compensated later, but the turtle only goes around once.”

As the once-around turtle shows, Miller has a way with examples. He invokes, too, his cat: “Suppose my cat and I both need dental surgery.” He himself, Miller notes, will be able to draw on his cognitive powers to comfort himself during the procedure in a way the cat won’t: “He does not know what is going on. He does not know that it will end, ever. He cannot distract himself as I can. He knows only that he is restrained and cannot escape and that he is in pain… You will not convince me that my suffering is worse than the cat’s, nor in itself more important than the cat’s.” 

How perfectly right to argue not only from imaginary turtles but also from real cats. Coetzee, too, engages directly with experience, to the extent that he insists it won’t be reason that changes anyone’s mind about ethical actions toward animals. Instead it will be a “conversion experience,” in which “the existential autonomy of the Other [becomes] irrefutable.” Spend some time with a turtle -- or a cat or an ape -- and look at him, and take in the look he gives back to you.

These writers go happily beyond the animal rights versus human responsibilities discussion that bites its looped tail endlessly. Still, won’t many readers pounce on that pesky question, the one that Alexandra might consider philosophically naïve: Are we really talking about moving toward a community of equals where humans, chimpanzees, antelopes, turtles, and honeybees would be on an equal-rights par? If we are, what would that move look like, in our daily lives?    

It would look, Calarco writes, like a refusal to play a dividing-line game that, throughout history, has time and again failed: “Does not a historical survey of the failures that have attended every such attempt to draw the line (or lines) of moral considerability provide enough evidence to persuade common-sense moral discourse that this approach is inherently pernicious, both morally and politically?” 

In its place we could, says Calarco, embrace a “generous agnosticism,” not only a continually renewing openness to who should be included in our moral universe but also a refusal to assume that we can and ought to decide who’s in and who’s out. This isn’t, he claims, the same thing as deciding that everyone counts equally.

Pretty slippery a framework, I think. It does, though, cast Animal Person’s riddle about the cow in a different light, or perhaps, the light Mary Martin intended all along: The cow becomes fully a cow, not a non-human, not a creature about whose capacities we wish to argue in order to figure out the degree of her similarity or difference with humans -- and thus her value.

Will this light help the cow, in the long run? Brutally speaking, it is hard to say, but hope is alive. “The ethical experience,” notes Calarco, is traumatic, radically disruptive, and not easily captured by thought.” And so I say: let us allow ourselves to be disrupted; for the sake of the cow, let it happen quickly.

For shattering my assumptions, in service of this necessary disruption, The Death of the Animal gets five stars.        

Visit Barbara J. King’s Animal Blog at http://www.barbarajking.com/