More Notes on Humans and Animals


Two Monkeys Smoking Pipe, Coryn Boel, c.1650

by Justin E. H. Smith

I am growing increasingly convinced that people who believe we have an absolute moral duty to see to the well-being of all other human beings, to install water-purifying equipment in villages on the other side of the world, etc., and who, at the same time, happily contribute to the ongoing mass slaughter of animals, are really just picking and choosing their causes. There simply is no compelling reason why I, or anyone, should suppose that all and only human beings are the worthy targets of moral concern. This is not to say that you should care about animals. It is only to say that there is nothing natural or obvious or conclusive about your belief that you should care about all and only human beings. Your belief is a prejudice, characteristic of a time and place, and not the final say about where the reach of moral community ends.

We have an extremely peculiar ontology, from which we suppose our moral commitments flow. It is unlike anything in human experience prior to the rise of the modern West. In all other places and times, since the appearance of the human species, there has been a presumption of some sort of shared socio-natural community that extends well beyond the boundaries of the species. This sounds like an exaggeration, and it attributes to many groups of people views they have left no explicit record of having supported. But from the explicit record, anyway, there is not a shred of evidence of any culture ever supposing, prior to our own, that moral community is defined by the boundaries of our species.

There is a well known rift in the feminist and anti-racist movements, between those who are willing to consider their plight in relation to the way we treat animals, and those who think that the very suggestion that the two questions could have anything in common is offensive. See this comment thread at the website Feministe, for example, for a cascade of mockery of the very suggestion that there might be a connection between masculine domination of women and human domination of animals.

To refuse to pay attention to the obvious parallels is to remain willfully ignorant. Inequality in human society emerge in direct conjunction with the domestication of animals. You can not understand the one without understanding the other. The very fact that consideration of one’s own plight in relation to the plight of an animal can seem degrading to, say, a feminist, only shows how thoroughly successful the human domination of animals has been. But if you are looking to understand things, rather than simply looking after your own, then you have to take the wide-focused view, and consider humanity within the community of beings, to which we have uniformly and without exception believed ourselves to belong for the vastly greater part of the history of our species.

When we try to imagine what belonging to such a socio-natural community is like, what we usually do is to think about how much we care about our pets, or how much we enjoy bird-watching, or zoos, and we suppose that primitive Amazonians, say, must have done a lot of this sort of stuff. Thus we stay all the while in our moral-intellectual comfort zone of modern anthropocentric individualism, projecting back onto people in the distant past a caricatured version of our own token and fleeting attention to beings beyond the bounds of our species. In fact, though, this entirely misses the sort of difference we are attempting to understand; it is as off-target as if we were to suppose that hunter-gatherers, out collecting berries or fish, conceptualized their activity as ‘a good line of work’.

It is, principally, the work of anthropologists that enables us to think our way into the world of people who inhabited a socio-natural community with non-human beings, and to do this without simply projecting onto these people our own ontology. Philippe Descola, in his monumental Par-delà nature et culture, has done much to reconstruct the non-anthropocentrist ontologies of societies outside the modern West.

The Makuna, for example, say that tapirs groom themselves with roucou before dancing, and that peccaries play the horn during their rituals, while the Wari’ suppose that peccaries make maize beer and that the jaguar takes its prey back home for his wife to cook. For a long time, this sort of belief was taken as testimony of a sort of thought that is resistant to logic, incapable of distinguish the real from dreams and myths, or as simple figures of speech, metaphors, or word play. But the Makuna, the Wari’, and many other Amerindian peoples  who believe this sort of thing are not more myopic or credulous than we are. They know very well that the jaguar devours its prey raw, and that the peccary ruins maize crops rather than cultivating them. It is the jaguar and the peccary themselves, they say, that see themselves as carrying out acts that are identical to those of humans, who imagine themselves in good faith to be sharing with humans the same technologies, the same social existence, the same beliefs and aspirations. In short, Amerindians do not see what we call ‘culture’ as an appurtenance of human beings, since there are many animals and plants that are held to believe themselves to be in possession of it, and to live according to its norms (187-88).

Similarly, when a hunter sings a song to his prey in order to woo it into ‘giving’ itself, it is not that he has been unable to make the empirical observation that animals do not ordinarily respond to human natural language in the same way human speakers of that natural language do. Rather, every stage of the hunt, including the tracking and the slinging of darts, and other acts that can be recognized by an outside observer as expressions of practical reason, is embedded within a cosmology of perpetual exchange between all domains of the natural world. Descola asks rhetorically:

When an Achuar hunter finds himself within shooting reach, and he sings an anent to the game, a supplication intended to seduce the animal and to assuage his mistrust with captious promises, does he suddenly lurch from the rational to the irrational, from instrumentalized knowledge to chimera? Does he completely change his register following the long period of approach in which he knew full well how to mobilize his ethological expertise, his deep knowledge of the environment, his experience as a tracker, all those qualities that enabled him to bring together almost by instinct a multitude of indices into a single thread that led him to his prey?

It is not that the hunter suddenly shifts from practical-rational action to the merely ‘ceremonial’ at the moment he begins singing, but rather the singing flows seamlessly from the same rationality that gives rise to the practices, and that is based on a belief in the constant cycling of immaterial life principles between the human and non-human domains. We can recognize and measure this cycling from the outside within the very limited terms of calories, but from within the cosmology that supposes that this exchange is itself constitutive of both individual human beings as well as of humanity itself, there is no reason why it should not also be manifested in verbal exchange, or communication in the usual sense, across domains.

The constant cyclical exchange rests, generally, on a metaphysics of the individual according to which every natural being, including every human being, is constituted out of the life principles of other natural beings. The predicament of the eater, and also what puts him most in danger of deep transgression through cannibalism, stems, as an Inuit informant put it to Knud Rasmussen, “from the fact that the nourishment of men consists entirely in souls.” If this suggests to the student of Western philosophy a metaphysics of nested corporeal substances, she or he may not be entirely off track. Interestingly, Descola, following the precedent of Viveiros de Castro and, before him, Durkheim, sees Leibniz’s metaphysics as providing a point of access to this sort of animist ontology. Leibniz, like the Makuna and the Wari’, supposes that “est sujet qui se trouve activé ou ‘agenté’ par un point de vue” (197), and thus that the discontinuity of forms in nature is underlain by a deeper unity, and is explained by a difference of perspectives. Perspectivism, Descola explains, “is thus the expression of the idea that every being occupies a point of view of reference, and thus finds itself situated as a subject” (197). Descola, following Viveiros de Castro, concludes that a Leibnizian perspectivism is “an ethno-epistemological corollary of animism” (202). Every being, on this view, is an expression of exactly the same rational order. But heterogeneity or discontinuity of forms arises at the corporeal level. Different beings have different bodies, and so also different phenomenologies, since their perception of the world takes place through their bodily sense organs. This means also that they must conduct themselves in the world differently, that they will be non-identical with respect to their agentive means, even if at a fundamental level all in the end have the same rational ends. Animals are pursuing fundamentally the same ends as humans, even if the different conformation of their bodies requires them to do this differently. There is no ontological gap between them and us, only circumstantial differences, or, to speak with Leibniz, different points of view.

This independent existence as rational agents pursuing rational ends in their own way, becomes difficult to conceptualize with the rise of domestication, when we know what animals are doing in their ‘private’ lives, because we are in control of their lives. They are standing in the barn, or they are tied to a post; they are not at home with their families, cooking and making beer. Culture continues to be attributed to animals in limited spheres of human imagination, such as children’s tales. But it does not define our primary, ‘grown-up’ understanding of what it is animals are like, of what their natures are.

When, in our society, people attempt to win back for animals a degree of sensitivity, of social attachment, and so on, it is now always conceptualized as a sort of lesser approximation of the richness of human social life. Animal-rights advocates will point to the social bonding of a given species, and anthropocentrists will predictably respond: so what, that is only a distant shadow of what human beings are capable of. Animal-rights advocates, just like the most committed speciesists, remain anthropocentrist to the extent that they are measuring animals’ capacities, and implicitly or explicitly their moral relevance, by a human yardstick.

We need anthropology, zooarcheology, and related disciplines in order to adequately understand the problem of human-animal relations, and in order to even begin to make normative claims that can have any kind of purchase on us about how we should be interacting with animals. We need these disciplines much more, in fact, than we need neurophysiological research on animals, scientific research on the very narrowest understanding of science, that tells us the objective truth about what animals are capable of feeling and thinking. In spite of what animal-rights advocates never stop hoping, telling the public about the findings of this research changes nothing: it makes no difference to people with an a priori commitment to the non-membership of animals within our moral community to tell them that animals are capable of feeling pain. They’re capable of feeling pain, yes, but they’re animals that are capable of feeling pain, is the implicit response. So so what? The boundaries of our moral community were not established in the first place based on a misinterpretation of the empirical data about what the inner lives of animals are like. There is therefore no reason why an improvement in the adequacy of the empirical data should be expected to result in a modification of the boundaries of our moral community.

The way we think about animals, rather, flows from a fundamental ontology, characteristic of a society that is structured in a certain way. This society, with its associated ontology, has been 10,000 years in the making; it begins with pastoralism, and culminates in our current system of factory farming, in which animals, now conceptualized as pure commodities, exist entirely outside the bounds of moral community. Efforts to bring them back into that community are based on weak and unconvincing appeals to sentiment, dressed up in the language of objective science, on the part of a small minority of people: Look how much this turkey cares for its offspring! Look how this pig can operate a joystick! They’re just like us! Except that they’re not just like us, since on the reigning ontology a pig operating a joystick is an entirely different matter from a human operating a joystick, and again, nothing that pig does with the joystick is capable of budging this fundamental ontology.

Of course this ontology is not entirely a priori. It has a history. And if there is to be any hope of displacing it, this will be through uncovering and examining this history, and not through treating the question –as all Anglo-American philosophers have until now– as if it were a simple matter of learning from science what sort of entities animals are.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website