Thursday, April 15, 2010

Humans and Animals

Many animal rights and animal welfare activists (such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan) take aim at speciesism, which is the thought that human interests have greater weight than the interests of animals, just because they are the interests of humans. They suggest, in different ways, that many other animals possess the morally relevant characteristics deserving of equal moral consideration. (For example, other animals can experience pleasure and pain.) Thus, to give less basic consideration to the interests (or the sufferings) of animals is unjustifiable.

This dominant dialectic in the animal ethics literature poses a dichotomy of sorts: either you accept anti-speciesism, or you're a speciesist. (And speciesism is just as bad as sexism and racism, so you don't want to be a speciesist.)

Cora Diamond has questioned this dichotomy, most notably in her article, "Eating Meat and Eating People." Recently--while preparing for my class "The Philosophers & the Animals" in the fall--I've been reading some work by Rush Rhees (a student of Wittgenstein's) on humans and animals. It's struck me that Rhees' thoughts help to show why the "either speciesism or anti-speciesism" dichotomy is indeed a false dichotomy.

Rhees points out that there are differences between humans and animals which make a difference in the kind of meaning or significance we can attach to their actions. Rhees' quips: "'He was faced with a very difficult choice.' That is something you never would say of an animal" (167). And in a similar vein: "An otter cannot lead one kind of life rather than another" (169). This is just to point out that animals are not moral agents. Anti-speciesists would agree, but argue that other beings can be harmed, or can suffer, besides moral agents (including infants and the severely cognitively impaired, even among members of the human species). But I suspect that what Rhees is suggesting is that because human life can be understood as having a "course" and as being answerable to moral standards, the ways in which humans can be harmed (as well as the ways in which they can fail themselves) are significantly different from they ways in which animals can be harmed. A person could do something so bad to another person that it might de-rail that person's whole life, but pace Rhees, I wonder whether it makes sense to say that a factory farmed pig's life has been de-railed by its handlers. A pig doesn't "have a life" in the this sense.

But that humans "have a life" in a way that other animals do not, on Rhees' view, doesn't imply anything about the relative value of animal lives, in comparison to human lives. It doesn't make sense to say either that we should give humans and animals equal or unequal consideration, because those claims require making a comparison which Rhees thinks doesn't make any sense.

This is because, on the one hand, we can't reduce our understanding of human life to the way we understand animals. Rhees would say such a reduction would forget the significance of language and culture to the shape of human life. But on the other hand, it doesn't make sense to say things like, "Animals don't have language, or culture, or a soul, and so they are inferior to humans." That animals lack language and culture and a soul just shows that they aren't humans! But for Rhees the judgment that this establishes their "inferiority" makes no sense. (And to this extent, the anti-speciesist is right to draw attention to the fact that animals can experience pleasure and pain, that animals can be abused, etc.)

That is, it doesn't make sense to say we should give equal or unequal consideration to animals lives, because the kind of consideration we give to human life, as opposed in animal life, is different in form. But then if we try to compare humans and animals, to determine whether they have the same or different levels of (moral) importance, Rhees' basic idea is that we're trying to compare apples and oranges. This is a problem for both the speciesist and the anti-speciesist, and suggests, if Rhees is right, that the dominant way of drawing lines in the animal ethics literature rests upon a confusion. But, as with Diamond's work, it is still possible to reject the anti-speciesist program but to push forward with the thought that many of our current practices involving animals are deeply morally problematic.

[References are from Rush Rhees, Moral Questions, edited by DZ Phillips (St. Martin's Press, 1999).]


  1. I think I agree, at least with the general thrust of what you're saying. But I'm unsure about a couple of claims that you and/or Rhees seem to want to make.

    Rhees says that we can't say that an animal was faced with a very difficult choice, but is this really true? There was a cat that made the news a few years ago because she made several trips into a burning building to rescue her kittens, getting badly burned in the process. Might not someone say that she faced a difficult choice when the building caught fire? And would that be so wrong? Perhaps this case is an exception rather than the rule, but should we deny a priori that such exceptions can occur? I don't see a good reason to do so.

    As for animals having a life, again I'm not so sure that they don't. I have a cat who was the only one of his litter to survive. He was carefully nursed by a woman at the SPCA shelter and then adopted by my family. He would have been put to sleep eventually if no one had adopted him. It seems to me that his life could have gone in various ways and that he got pretty lucky. Would Rhees really deny that?

    The general problem seems to be that the old speciesists want to claim an exaggerated gulf between humans and animals, while Singer and company exaggerate the similarities. You are surely right to want to reject this over-simplified dichotomy.

  2. DR: thanks for the ideas and examples. About the cat rushing into the building, I don't think that's a "difficult choice" in this sense? (Suppose your children were in the building. It would not have been a difficult choice for you to run in to save them if you thought there was any chance of success.) Think of Sartre's student: should I go off to war or stay here to look after my mother? He was faced with a difficult choice. Does it make sense to think of animals as faced by that kind of choice? (I mean, you could just say, well, we don't know about those dolphins, but, to use your phrase, I think the thrust of Rhees is right here...)

    I don't think Rhees would deny that things can go better or worse for an animal, but in the sections I'd looked at, he says something like, things just happen to the animal. (That's not quite it. I think the thought for Rhees is that we can't say things like: that cat could have made something of itself, but alas, she just sat around the couch a licked herself all the day. There's a connection here between how one's life goes and what one makes of oneself that I think Rhees is saying isn't the sort of thing we (can?) ascribe to animals...)

  3. Thanks. I still think an animal might face a difficult choice, but I see that my example wasn't great. In the case I described, the cat was very badly burned and almost died, but perhaps it wasn't a very difficult choice all the same. If its kittens were in danger in different places and it could only save one, that might be a difficult choice. Although no more difficult than the choice Buridan's ass faced, perhaps.

    I prefer the example of the animal's making something of itself or not. Perhaps an animal could do that, but only in a limited sense. (I'm thinking of a male that tries hard and becomes the dominant male versus one that is more cowardly or lazy and so doesn't succeed.) This seems more (partially) descriptive of the difference between animals and humans, though, rather than an explanation of anything. If that's what it's meant to be then I think I agree. If it's meant to explain or justify something then I'm not so sure.

  4. DR: I'm still thinking about the (let's call it) silverback example (which is interesting). But yes, I think what Rhees is doing is descriptive, but it does explain--or perhaps better, remind--that there are ways of talking about the lives of people that don't make sense as ways of talking about animals lives. Does it justify regarding humans as superior? That's where Rhees says no. But I do suspect it helps explain why something goes wrong with arguments for animal welfare based on anti-speciesism, because the sense in which people can be wronged seems different than the way in which an animal would be wronged. (E.g. it's not just that a person is caused to experience pain--that's not all there is to say, at least in some cases, though that might be all there is to say in the animal case involving a similar situation (externally described) and similar pain. That's a bit rough. Thanks for the discussion!)

  5. Thank you. You've clarified Rhees's position (and your own) very helpfully.