Animals : Alice Crary

5. Bringing Animals Into Cocus in Ethics and Politics.

Talk of such responsibility should not be dismissed on the ground that our willingness to acknowledge it is without practical consequences. Such a gesture of acknowledgment is practically significant. Its interest comes into relief when we consider the types of circumstances involving animals that Derrida and Diamond have in mind when they talk about the need for demanding efforts of imagination. Consider in this connection the circumstances represented by the factory farming and laboratory use of animals. It follows from claims advanced by Diamond and Derrida that mastery of the plain facts of what happens in these settings is by itself insufficient for the sort of understanding of them that is relevant to ethics. By the same token, it follows that if we want greater insight, we need to take at least imaginative steps – say, steps analogous to those taken by Mike Rust, a chicken farmer in northwestern Washington who, in an effort to make sense of what he was doing to his birds, began reflecting on and writing about what the act of killing is like.25

In this spirit, we might turn, for instance, to the work of the many contemporary filmmakers, novelists, poets and painters who imaginatively explore the lives of animals and the nature of the harms inflicted on them by humans. Yet, despite the fact that Derrida and Diamond agree in emphasizing the need for imaginatively demanding thought, their respective projects lead us in quite different directions. If we see ourselves, with Derrida, as charged to creatively accommodate existing values, then we will allow that we may need to come up with unanticipated, original measures in order to find a good way to cope. But we will have no patience with the enormously important idea, which is internal to Diamond’s outlook, that we are called upon to do justice to a specific and potentially difficult reality. So there can be no question of our allowing, as Diamond encourages us to, that the reality that confronts us might be so overwhelming that we aren’t currently equipped to grasp it and that, absent some change or development on our parts, it will defeat our efforts to bring it into focus.

One of the great living novelists to explore the lives of animals, J.M. Coetzee, presents us with a fictional character – Elizabeth Costello – who is overwhelmed, nearly driven mad, by the thought of what today gets done to animals.26 While it would be crude to read Coetzee as recommending that we become like his character, it is clear that in describing Costello’s response to animal suffering he is entering into a region that interests him. Thus, for instance, in interviews Coetzee discusses what he sees as the immense creative challenge presented by attempts to get one’s mind around the fact of animal suffering. Not that Coetzee believes, as another of his fictional characters at one point mockingly puts it, that “poetry classes are going to shut down the slaughterhouses.”27

But it is fair to represent Coetzee as making a suggestion about what integrity requires of us that aligns him with Diamond. Coetzee’s idea is that we are called on to regard the actual – pulsing, breathing, struggling – lives of animals as a challenging reality that we need to understand and respond to as well as we can, with whatever resources we can muster. We need to attend to the texture of animal life—to try to fathom what is being done to animals around us and by us—and, with our eyes thus as wide open to how things really are as we can get them, to find a way of responding to the treatment of animals that we can live with.

6. Conclusion

The idea that animals are proper objects of moral and political concern has gained in influence over the last fifty years. Yet many of the most prominent animal advocates (e.g., Singer, Regan and Korsgaard) – due to their allegiance to modern naturalism – fail to consider that forms of moral thought that are essentially informed by moral imagination are necessary for bringing animals’ lives into focus in a manner relevant to ethics and politics. Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that some philosophers reject modern naturalism and represent moral imagination as essential to efforts, in ethics and politics, to understand animals’ lives.

Although this emphasis on moral imagination may appear (as, e.g., it does to Derrida) to represent the abandonment of the idea of doing justice to what animal life is like in reality, there is (as, e.g., Diamond shows) good reason to believe that this appearance is misleading. A willingness to regard exercises of moral imagination as necessary for capturing the lives of animals is part of what it is to take seriously our responsibility, as people committed to productive moral and political action, to see the animals with whom we share the world as they really are.


Alice Crary is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.


Published on December 1, 2013

25. See Mike Rust, “Meat Meets Meat” (Unpublished Manuscript).

26. Elizabeth Costello shows up in two of J.M. Coetzee’s novels, Elizabeth Costello (New York: Penguin Books, 2003) and Slow Man (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), the former of which represents her as tormented by the horror of how animals are treated. Diamond discusses relevant aspects of Coetzee’s portrait of Costello in “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.”

27. John Bernard in J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, 103.

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