Animals : Alice Crary

Stephan Sagmiller  / Someday I'll Take You There
Stephan Sagmiller / Someday I’ll Take You There

Animals : Alice Crary

1. Introduction

The last half-century has witnessed a striking upsurge in interest concerning questions about animals, ethics and politics. Yet philosophers and animal advocates have been surprisingly reluctant to treat the bare fact that a creature is an animal as morally significant. Here I discuss some of the most prominent contemporary attempts to think about animals as proper objects of moral and political concern. I bring out how these projects are sometimes hampered by deeply engrained metaphysical assumptions that speak against representing inhabitants of the natural world as in themselves ethically significant, and I consider a set of more promising contributions to thought about animals, ethics and politics that start from critiques of such metaphysical assumptions. I conclude by suggesting that moral imagination is required to bring the lives of animals into focus and, further, that an emphasis on such imagination is rightly understood, not as a call for abandoning concern with reality, but rather as part of a morally and politically serious engagement with the way animals’ lives really are.

2. Animals Outside the Purview of Ethics and Politics.

Modern industrial societies are distinguished by an array of historically novel practices with animals (e.g., the ‘factory’ or industrial farming of land and sea animals and the mass use of animals in research as well as in the testing of medicines, medical procedures, and household and industrial products) as well as by tendencies that threaten the natural environments of wild animals in unprecedented ways. There is nothing especially contentious or interesting about the claim that many of these practices and tendencies raise serious political and ethical questions. Consider, for instance, standard methods for the industrial farming of land animals. It is indisputable that these methods prompt concerns having to do with, among other things, public health, labor practices and the environment.1 But, even if we allow that industrial farming and other existing practices with animals are legitimate sources of moral and political controversy, there is still room to wonder whether these practices raise moral and political questions specifically in virtue of the ways in which animals are treated within them. In order to progress with this further topic, it is necessary to ask whether or not animals matter in the sense of being susceptible to harms that are not mere indirect functions of harms to human beings.

Some thinkers, including a handful of high profile participants in the contemporary animal protectionist movement, defend the intuitive idea that animals do matter in this sense (and that, e.g., using kittens as ‘balls’ in a game of baseball is an abuse and not simply on account of any injuries that doing so may indirectly inflict on human beings). Admittedly, the animal advocates who defend this idea have a fair number of critics. These critics, many of whom are motivated by hostility to the political initiatives of the animal protectionist movement, deny that animals are vulnerable to any wrongs that are not indirect upshots of harms to human beings. They thereby also effectively deny that the treatment of animals is as such of moral and political interest.2

3. Animals, Ethics, and Politics Within the Context of Modern Naturalism.

Focusing here exclusively on the work of thinkers who do take the treatment of animals to be as such of moral and political interest, it is reasonable to speak of two rough schools of thought. Members of both schools are rightly seen as critics of classic humanistic traditions that arrive at the idea of a rift between human and animal life by depicting the achievement of humanity as a matter of the transcendence of the conditions of animal existence. What distinguishes thinkers in the two schools is their respective attitudes toward the philosophical outlook that is sometimes referred to as modern naturalism (i.e., an outlook according to which the natural world is exclusively made up of things belonging to the subject matter of the natural sciences).

Many thinkers who take animals to be proper objects of moral and political concern are aptly characterized, not only as refashioning the basic understanding of the relationship between humans and animals that is characteristic of classic humanisms, but moreover, as doing so in a manner respectful of the constraints of modern naturalism. The thinkers in question effectively invite us to regard the thought of a sharp break between human and animal life as a sort of factual error that the natural sciences equip us to correct. They suggest that, once we have in view the type of evidence of continuities between the lives of human beings and animals that the natural sciences furnish, we are well positioned to make a case for regarding animals as direct sources of claims to respect and attention.

Among the most prominent thinkers to attempt such a case in a manner consistent with modern naturalism are several who are rightly described as favoring forms of moral individualism. An important shared presupposition of the doctrines that qualify as moral individualisms, as these doctrines are typically understood, is that any treatment we human beings merit is a function of our individual capacities. To be sure, moral individualists disagree about which individual capacities are rightly regarded as morally relevant. Whereas some who are partial to utilitarianism point to sentience (e.g., Peter Singer), others who are partial to rights-based approaches in ethics point to subjecthood (e.g., Tom Regan). Yet, without regard to which individual capacities they take to be morally relevant, moral individualists who take an interest in the case of animals agree on this much: modern biology shows that the capacities they take to be morally relevant in human beings are possessed by at least some non-human animals. Further, they agree in concluding, on this basis, that we are obliged to extend moral consideration to animals. This is the line of argumentation that leads many moral individualists to regard animals as morally and politically interesting, and it is not difficult to see that it is consistent with a commitment to modern naturalism.3 While it is indeed a strategy for showing that some animals matter, it has famously disturbing consequences. It implies, jarringly, that severely retarded and extremely senile human beings have diminished claims to consideration and that mocking or abusing them isn’t all that bad.

There is another widely discussed set of thinkers who are rightly described as falling within the group of those who respect the restrictions of modern naturalism in attempting to show that animals are proper objects of moral and political concern. Some neo-Kantian moral philosophers such as Christine Korsgaard and Allen Wood also meet this description. These moral philosophers propose to use resources from Kant’s thought to combat his own notoriously indifferent attitude toward animals. They differ from moral individualists in claiming that the plain recognition that a creature is an animal, independently of any thought about its individual capacities, is inseparable from seeing it as meriting certain forms of respect and attention.4

Because they make this claim, their work doesn’t have the disturbing consequences of that moral individualisms do. But at first glance it might appear that the claim commits neo-Kantians to departing from the thought, integral to modern naturalism, that inhabitants of the real or natural world are as such value-neutral. Any appearance of this sort is, however, misleading. When the neo-Kantians in question represent the recognition that a creature is an animal as by itself morally important, they also insist that the relevant act of recognition, instead of being even partly a matter of theoretical cognition, is a matter of the adoption of an exclusively practical attitude.5

So it is correct to portray them as favoring the view that animals, when regarded theoretically—i.e., as worldly beings—are morally indifferent things. Yet, to the extent that they thus depict animals as morally interesting without abandoning modern naturalism, they – like moral individualists – exclude the possibility that we might require moral insight and imagination in order to bring the worldly lives of animals into focus. And this constrains their ability to advocate on behalf of animals.

1. For some influential recent discussion of these issues, see Wendel Berry, Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009); Marion Nestle, Fool Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 65-84; Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (New York: Penguin, 2002); and Stull and Broadway, Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America (Beverly, MA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2012).

2. Any adequate list of the writings of the most influential of these critics of animal protectionism would need to include: Peter Carruthers, The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David S. Oderberg, “The Illusion of Animals Rights,” Human Life Review 26 (2003): 37-45; Michael Leahy, Against Liberation: Putting Animals in Perspective (London: Routledge, 1994), esp. chap. 7; and perhaps also Roger Scruton, Animal Rights and Wrongs (London: Metro Books, 2000). Although Scruton sanctions the idea of direct duties to individual animals arising from relationships with them, it makes sense to mention his work here given that he denies that we have any other duties to animals that aren’t indirect functions of duties to ourselves or other human beings (see esp. chaps. 7 and 8).

3. A brief bibliography of central works of moral individualism might include: Jeff McMahan, “Our Fellow Creatures,” The Journal of Ethics 9 (2005): 353-380; Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 2009), chap. 1; James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); and Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) and Defending Animal Rights (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000). For critiques of moral individualism, see Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” in The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 319-334; Raimond Gaita, The Philosopher’s Dog (Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 2002); and Alice Crary, “Minding What Already Matters: A Critique of Moral Individualism,” Philosophical Topics 38:1 (2011): 17-49.

4. See Christine Korsgaard, “Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties Toward Animals” (Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 2004), 79-110 and Allen Wood, “Kant on Duties Regarding Nonrational Nature,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplement LXXII (1998): 1-30. For Kant’s view of animals, see esp. Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, trans. J.B. Schneewind and Peter Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 212-213 and Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary McGregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 192.

5. This is the guiding theme of Christine Korsgaard’s “Fellow Creatures.”

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