4/15/10

Animalkind Review

From Times Higher Education--

Philosopher Jean Kazez takes as this book's starting point the difficult, highly relevant, and often avoided question: "How should we treat animals?" She approaches the question from different angles, which one by one coalesce into a coherent argument. This work reads as a journey into animal ethics, within which the author, together with her audience, is seeking to find the right answer.
First, Kazez looks at how we have valued and treated our non-human kin in the past and present. Viewpoints from different cultures, biblical interpretations and grand old philosophers are briefly analysed. After this, attention is placed on the nature of the beast, as Kazez takes a deeper look at what types of minds animals have. The third part concentrates on ethics, and finally, in the fourth part, she reminds us of the context of the question: how what we do to domestic animals affects wild animals and ecology in general.
Kazez has many highly plausible things to say. She attacks the intellectually lazy anthropocentric tradition, according to which animals have very few and very primitive cognitive capacities. The fascinating spectrum of animal capacities is brought to the fore, and the reader is quickly convinced that even if they are instinctual, animals are also highly cognitive creatures, capable of thinking, feeling and awareness. She also argues that animals should be given significantly more respect (all due respect, as she says in the playful tone that runs throughout the book) than contemporary society is willing to admit. We simply cannot treat beings with minds as mere matter, and the horrors to which animals are subject are inexcusable.
What is interesting is that Kazez combines two notions that are usually alien to each other. On the one hand, she argues for ethical vegetarianism and veganism. On the other, she maintains that, while much animal research may lack justification, research that is necessary for the basic welfare of human beings can be justified. We should give up animal products because in the contemporary world they are unnecessary for survival, cause a great deal of suffering and are harmful to the planet - however, vivisection is justified when absolutely necessary.
Overall, the arguments she presents are intelligent and convincing. But she does get into trouble when she seeks to justify vivisection. Most specifically, Kazez fails to explain away "the case from marginal arguments". If we believe it is morally unjustifiable to use human beings of very low cognitive ability in experiments, why is it permissible to use animals of a higher cognitive ability? Why is biology (species) so important here, when in other contexts it is highly unimportant (biological sex, "race", age, etc)?
Kazez is rather brief in her argument, but the gist is that we favour "unfortunate" humans because of sympathy, and we have sympathy because we could, ourselves, end up like them. Ultimately, we save the mentally impaired because of self-interest. This is rather cynical. One could say that "unfortunate" humans (perhaps an ill-chosen term) have value in themselves and deserve respect regardless of our self-interest. There is reason to hold on to the argument common in animal ethics: inherent value is based on the capacity to experience one's existence. This renders experimentation on both humans and animals dubious. Kazez would have done well to explore the philosophy of animal rights more thoroughly.
Setting aside this criticism, Kazez has written a persuasive book. It may not satisfy more radical thinkers and activists, but it will offer brain food for those who follow the taken-for-granted ways of treating animals. Kazez writes in an enjoyable and accessible fashion, and wit and humour are used generously. Combined with many fruitful arguments, this makes the book a good read for anybody curious about whether it is, indeed, morally justifiable to eat one animal and love another.
Reviewer: Elisa Aaltola is lecturer in philosophy, East Finland University, and fellow, Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She is the author of Elainten Moraalinen Arvo (2004), Animal Individuality: Cultural and Moral Categorisations (2006) and is currently writing a book on the ethics of suffering.

I'm going to discuss why I don't accept the argument from marginal cases in another post, but I want to quickly set the record straight on disabilities.  I don't deny that people with severe impairments "have value in themselves and deserve respect regardless of our self-interest."   There is a level of respect owed to each human and animal, and a value we have to recognize, regardless of self-interest.  However, this value is not constant. Its basis is not the minimal fact of "experiencing one's existence."  There are differences that make a moral difference.  For example, if we must eat some animal for dinner, better it should be a rabbit than a chimpanzee.  Is it the same with people--better to rescue the "normal" before the impaired after a natural disaster?  I argue that a second factor kicks in here.  We ought to think about what we would want for ourselves, if we're ever in that position, what we would want for family members, descendants, and those we identify with. There's a "social contract" component to between-humans morality.

Respect is rock bottom and non-negotiable.  But according the same respect to all, regardless of differences--that's a choice. I think it's a reasonable choice when it comes to our treatment of other people.  But not when it comes to animals.  We really should eat the rabbit before the chimpanzee.  Before you say "speciesist!" think about the word. Speciesism is a bias or prejudice.  If there's a reasonable case for "equalizing" people but not animals, to think so is not speciesist.  "Cynical"? I see myself more as struggling to explain things that are hard to explain.  I'd rather say that "all creatures are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights," but I'm afraid that just doesn't strike me as true.

Stay tuned for a post about the argument from marginal cases.  It amuses me that some THE editor (surely) mangled the phrase and called it "the case from marginal arguments."  Marginal argument indeed!  I think it's relied upon much too much int the animal ethics literature.

6 comments:

Faust said...

We do not eat our dead.

We do not experiment on our cognitively disabled (or undeveloped).

I agree that it's for social contract reasons. But I also think that social contracts are always "merely" convention.

CAN a social contract be intrinsic? What if we changed our minds about what kind of social contract to have (social contract theorists of course try to maintain there is a "fundamental" antecedant contract based in a "state of nature," I vehemently reject this line of thinking)? Aren't "people are persons" advocates simply trying to extend our contract to include animals?

Having read your book, I know that you provide at least two rebuttals to such a a question. (1) There are pragmatic limits to such an extention (e.g. too hard to feed lions vegan diets, or to try and save all the rats from a flood), and (2) Animals cannot consent to our social contract. But of course severely retarded people cannot consent to social contracts either. They are protected by their guardians or sponsors within the social body. There is no "intrinsic" reason I can identify that says we have this obligation. I think we have it as a contingent feature of our culture. I see no "intrinsic" reason we couldn't choose to extend such sponsorship extremely aggressively to some animals or even to all animals if we so chose. Indeed with certain animals (e.g. dogs) this notions sems quite intuitive to many people.

amos said...

Your argument doesn't seem cynical to me. I myself think that we value people because we're people and that's that. Your social contract argument is excellent. I'm not even sure what she means by "cynical". However, any ethical argument which doesn't take the reality of human nature into account isn't worth much, even if said argument is lofty, noble and not at all cynical.

Faust said...

Amos: Yeah I'm not sure what the cynical comment means either. I think the whole point of the "marginal cases" argument is that it deals with cases where we have a non-standard human "nature." Severely coginitively humans do not have the same human nature as the rest of us. Cognitively they are closer to animals. I believe that's the point such arguments try to leverage.

amos said...

The word "cynical" doesn't fit.
Here's Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "having or showing
the attitude or temper of a cynic, especially contempuously distrustful of human nature and motives".

Jean Kazez said...

I think she used the word "cynical" because she sees me as granting moral status to people with cognitive impairments entirely based on self-interest. If that were so, maybe it would be cynical. But I think it's not so! I'm granting that we owe all respect, and should recognize inherent value where it exists, but there's a more complex bundle of reasons for treating people with severe disabilities as not just valued, but as equals of everyone else. We who choose our social policies (the humans with sufficient cognitive ability) find life better if we choose equality.

Could we make a different choice? Well--not impossible. I don't think it's obviously evil for traditional Eskimos to have rejected equality for the severely disabled. A society in that environment can't afford to be blind to the difference between a normal contributing member of society and a non-contributing member, and a very needy member. For us, though, equality seems like the only reasonable choice.

Now the question is whether, if it's reasonable for us to choose normal-disabled equality, we also must choose human-animal equality. I think there are reasons not to go that far, and they don't strike me as just a matter of bias or prejudice, any more than it stemmed from anti-disability prejudice for the Eskimos to have exposed the very impaired elderly. There's a fine line though, I will admit.

amos said...

I honestly fail to see why basing ethics on enlightened self-interest (there by for the grace of God, go I or my children or my friends or my pets) is cynical.
I don't think that in the real world we can expect much more from ourselves and from others than enlightened self-interest. Anyone can posit a loftier ethical ideal (and get paid for it, if they're clever enough, which is another form of enlightened self-interest), but few are likely to follow it.