Category Archives: the moral sensibilities

Dungeons and Animals

(Bear with me for a bit–this is about to get real nerdy.) This is a Thri-Kreen. They’re an insectoid race of sentient nonhumans from Dungeons & Dragons’ Dark Sun world. When I wasn’t playing a Mul psionicist, I liked to play Thri-Kreen warriors. Forget for a moment that I mostly like Thri-Kreens because they had double the usual number of hits per turn (notice the number of limbs), so I could game the system by souping up my character’s strength and fighting unarmed. Forget also that most of my friends who played D&D, Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf with me when we were growing up in high school have not subsequently engaged in any major way with animal studies. And bracket the question of how furries tie in to the question I’m about to ask–I don’t want to go there.

I suspect there’s a whole world of serious policy wonks out there who grew up playing D&D and other RPGs (here’s one, and here’s someone who’s probably transitioning between the two domains), but my question is this: does engaging with nonhuman sentient life broaden the horizons of our moral community in a way that works to deconstruct human exceptionalism and its corresponding anthropocentrism?

I can see various ways to answer this, depending on the person, so I’ll start with the person I know best: myself. I tell myself I’ve arrived at animal studies after a long and rigorous philosophical journey through an undergraduate monster of a thesis on Kant and the concept of progress, a subsequent affinity for anti-speciesist utilitarian consequentialism, and a realization that nonhuman animal interests were too often dismissed by otherwise caring, rational, and reasonable academics. But the fact is that I might care so much about animals because I was raised with dogs and rats, and I loved them. A third possibility is that my lifelong love of imaginative and speculative fiction has primed my empathy receptors in ever-broader ways. And the fourth possibility, which I hadn’t previously put into specific terms, is that RPGS in various forms–whether around the table with character sheets or on the computer)–can perform many of the same functions.

A possible counterfactual here is that I don’t actually have much of a gut sympathy for insect sentience, although I’m open to see more research. (And Mage was actually my favorite of the games we played, mostly for its open-endedness; there was a sense in which the boundaries of the potential was bounded only by imagination, creativity, and wit.) But like Ta-Nehisi Coates, I remember browsing various Monstrous Manuals, with an endless fascination for the diversity of sentient life. I just wonder how many gamers exclude all (actually existing) terrestrial nonhumans from the domain of the sentient…because they shouldn’t.


The strength of symbols

Richard Adams’ Watership Down was one of the first books I remember reading–it’s also one of the few books where the film rivals the original for artistic merit. The film also probably traumatized its fair share of kids…it’s got lots of violence and adult themes, and I think I saw it when I was around 10.

But some of the core messages–about agency, coping with death, political identity, and the scope of the moral community–have stuck with me. This book doesn’t engage with animal ethics nearly as directly as The Plague Dogs, but its oblique approach is all the more powerful for its subtlety, especially when compared to the banality of Disney’s anthropomorphic sidekicks.

Oppression-speak and myopic “clarity”

This interview with UChicago’s Robert Pippin got me to thinking about the effects of seeing the world through oppression-tinted lenses, especially after rereading (for class) Jeff McMahan’s recent piece (from which the image above is lifted) on the desirability of mass predator eradication. Setting aside the fascinating discussions on Hegel, art, and modernity, I want to narrow in on how Marx famously ‘turned Hegel on his head’, and the effects of viewing the world through zero-sum oppressionscopes. Viewed in such a light, various complex symbioses can immediately be reduced to hierarchical power differentials of oppressors and oppressed. But is this accurate, and would ‘liberation’ lead to a better world? I’m going to have to equivocate: sometimes symbiosis is indeed mere parasitism, but sometimes it’s commensalism and sometimes it’s mutualism. We want to shoot for mutualism. (Duh.)

(Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University, and although my major–the ‘dead white men’ College of Letters–set me on its own course, the PCU-ness of many of my classes left an undeniable mark. Personally, I loved being able to study a core of ‘great books’ while being challenged by a range of broadly ‘left’ disciplines in my coursework. While my gripe at the time was more with what I perceived as the nihilist tendencies of postmodernism (we’ve since come to terms, albeit cautiously), the idea that hierarchy and inequality were categorically unjust seemed an unquestioned axiom of many of my peers.)

I’ll start by saying that some forms of human-animal relations are, indeed, pretty overtly zero-sum in this respect. Battery cage egg production comes to mind, as this blog post rejecting incrementalism points out, but this is as much because of the economics of “commodity” production in an age of economic globalization as because of anything inherently wrong with animal husbandry. (There’s a whole literature rejecting ‘humane livestock’ and what Francione terms ‘new welfarism’, and others neocarnism, that would reject animal agriculture as inherent parasitical. I don’t want to get in to that argument right now, other than to say that I think it’s logically coherent–indeed, with the exception of some nutritionally vulnerable groups, we’re not obligate omnivores–but ignorant of “the way the world actually is”. In other words, yes, I’m an incrementalist.)

Maybe it’s because I’m a Rortyan pragmatist who cringes when I hear single-premise constructs about ethics and policy (hence the contradictory ‘myopic clarity’ schtick). Especially in the case of food politics, I don’t see the other 98% of the world agreeing with the vegan ethic’s principle of harm avoidance overriding all of our other distinct moral premises anytime soon.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m cynical in the sense that nobody, not even the most dedicated vegan, is truly “cruelty-free”, especially those of us urbanites who live under what Marx accurately termed alienation from the means of production. This even follows from the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids: in order for us to live, other living matter must die. This is true for any organism that is not an autotroph…so until we start figuring out how to photosynthesize or chemosynthesize, we have to remove energy from the world to live. So yes, we should all endeavor to eat and live lower down on the resource/food web. But these kinds of ethical concerns are distinct from harm/care/suffering, and they need to be balanced against each other.

And I don’t say this as a cheap rhetorical tactic (to merely prop up counterarguments as if they somehow changed the reality in question: see the Dawkins elevatorgate (just Google it) for a primer on how not to say “your issue is unimportant because other important issues exist.” Which often descends into the caricature: “Why care about animals? Kids are starving in Africa!”)

I guess all I’m saying is that I think we live in a tragically configured moral universe (as Sandel said of Isaiah Berlin’s views), and while I’m not a conservative, I have a lot of respect for the Burkean idea that social engineering projects don’t take you where you think you want to go (cue the ecological nightmare that would be mass predator eradication). Then again, if I see compelling evidence that we can restructure the global food system–or global predator-prey interactions–to bring about a broadly sustainable vegan future, I’m down. I mean, if the Vulcans do it…But large-scale veganic agriculture without massive synthetic fertilizer use (and resultant dead zones) and backbreaking stoop labor is not on the near-term horizon. (This also gets us into a whole other debate: the Vandana Shiva small-scale future versus the Economist techno-sustainable large-scale future. Again, I don’t want to go there right now.)

That said, I think the rich world needs to start eating about 90% less meat and dairy, and I think serious policy efforts need to be made to keep the rapidly developing world–especially China–from following in our dietary footsteps. But things aren’t looking good. But just looking at all animal husbandry as equally illegitimate is to paint with a comically wide brush. But I guess that’s why I’m a welfarist. (It’s also because I don’t believe that rights–whether human or animal–are anything other than a(n enormously useful) social construct)…but that’s a topic for another post.)

It’s a stretch to say that the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, but, sadly, Yeats was on to something.

The fraught necessity of speaking for the animal other

This review of Jason Hribal’s Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance by ‘renegade historian’ Thaddeus Russell caught my attention–as any Reason piece about animals inevitably does. I haven’t read Hribal’s book, so am only going off Russell’s critique here. My first impression is that this article isn’t really about nonhuman animals at all; Russell is using Hribal’s politicized animal as an intentionally farcical springboard for his subaltern critique of the New Left’s tendency to speak for–and thus define and appropriate–marginalized groups.

Indeed, Hribal’s attribution of political consciousness to nonhuman animals is problematic, to put it mildly. But, unsurprisingly for a libertarian column, Russell’s critique overlooks the fundamental challenge of expanding the moral circle beyond the species line. By using the case of nonhumans to support his subaltern ‘history from below’, he draws an arbitrary speciesist line below which nonhuman animals can neither speak for themselves nor have another speak for them. Setting aside the equivocations from various camps about ‘what animals want’, this analysis may well work for humans–indeed, it’s drawing on many of the same arguments as William Easterly’s “white man’s burden” conceptions of humanitarian aid. But it doesn’t work at all for nonhuman animals. On the other hand, Hribal’s politicization of nonhuman animal agency is also problematic.

To me, the world is made up of beings with interests. Part of the work of humanities is to prime our empathy. Part of the work of the social sciences is to foster cooperative nonzero relationships both within and across species lines. And part of the work of science is to reveal the type and degree of human and nonhuman animal preferences. But as this recent SciAm blog post on why animals play points out, we don’t have all the answers.

So Russell is right to be skeptical of speaking for the other–but in the case of nonhuman animals, we have little choice but to try.

Naming, partiality and the moral sensibilities

I should preface this post by noting that I’m not a lingust, and by acknowledging that I’m a welfarist rather than an abolitionist when it comes to human-animal relations. What I am is interested in moving towards an anti-speciesist empathic civilization by cultivating the moral sensibilities, so the editors’ Terms of Discourse in the new Journal of Animal Ethics caught my attention. I’d also like to leave aside my defense of being both anti-speciesist and welfarist, which is mostly a different debate.

I only now realized the first issue is already out. This afternoon an article in the Telegraph got picked up by Newser and various other (often rabidly speciesist) sources. And I haven’t yet read the journal in its entirety…I have only read the first page of the Terms of Discourse–I’ll read the whole issue after I download it from the UML database next Monday–but I do have a number of immediate thoughts on this issue. (And it so happens I’m teaching on Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in a few weeks.)

As usual, I’m drawn to the commentary like a moth to flame, and a number of thoughts come to mind, which, as usual, range from the knee-jerk reactionaries who use defensive and tautological arguments to justify their (often unexamined) prejudice to the thoughtful-but-immersed-in-the-dominant-anthropocentric-paradigm animal guardians / human carers. The latter tended to sidestep the issue by saying something like “its my dog and I’m its human”, and I think this response, while equivocal and ultimately unsatisfying, is pragmatically sensible. I agree with Bernie Rollin that a contract was formed when my wife and I adopted our retired research beagle, Rodney, and in most senses but the legal one my dog owns me just as much as I do it. I also have a problem with speaking six syllables when I know of a reasonable alternative that has only one–this is a purely lazy preference, I know, but I can’t help but admit it. The question, of course, is whether the alternative is ‘reasonable’. Whenever possible, I go with the commenters and sidestep the question, precisely because of the can of worms that I’m about to open by looking more closely.

Although specific words like “pet” are clearly bound up in the history of human-on-nonhuman domination and exploitation, the range of words, phrases, expressions, and idioms containing analogical and metaphorical uses of nonhuman animal symbols is historically vast and central to much of our cultural development as a species (as Berger forcefully argues. The idea that we can pick out partial from impartial language, as the editors assert, is problematic on at least three counts: 1) attaining impartiality in language is itself questionable, 2) even words that come with heavy baggage change in meaning over time, and 3) the use of animal symbolism is aesthetically, if not ethically, embedded in the way we learn to empathize: by tapping into our moral sympathies through, among other things, the power of imaginative fiction in all its forms.

There’s also a fourth issue, which I’ll mention but not address here: that pushing for impartial (or as-impartial-as-possible) language is not the right strategic move at this historic moment. This is less a critique on the merits, though, and the JAE is setting forth guidelines for submissions, not necessarily speaking to the general public. I’ll set this aside for now, as it’s also part of a different debate.

On the first issue: the idea that we can discriminate (irony intended) between partiality and impartiality underestimates how deeply we are embedded in the vocabularies we construct. I agree that the goal of striving towards impartiality is essential–it is the bedrock of two things I respect greatly: the Enlightenment project of rationality and progress (with serious caveats, but that’s also a different debate), and Habermasian deliberation. The claim that much of our existing language is deeply anthropocentric is strong as well–as is the claim that many (most?) languages are deeply androcentric.

But there is a problem. Accepting, with Rorty’s liberal ironist, the contingency of language throws a wrench in the quest for impartiality; there’s no view from nowhere, and often the best we can do is to lay our biases bare. In concluding lines of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell writes:

“I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.”

Orwell’s role in the Spanish Civil War was uniquely partisan. Still, his criticism should be taken seriously, as should S.J. Gould’s broader point, when discussing Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid”, that “we all tend to spin universal theories from a limited domain of surrounding circumstances”. (Highlighting again that I’m not a linguist,) the idea that we can find an impartial metavocabulary is as problematic as denying that some words carry psychologically pathogenic significations (to put it as Garrett Hardin viewed the issue population control by moral suasion alone). Yes, our language can carry with it a legacy of structural violence, but what are the censors’ boundaries? Is there a statute of limitations? Do we throw out the word “wife” because it shares an Indo-European root with a word meaning “shame”? And, if we’re shooting for impartial language, why not?

I’m going to skip over the second point–that signifiers and signifieds changes over time–both because it’s been a decade since I last read Saussure and because I’m most interested in the third point: that animal symbols can’t be extricated from our cultural fabric without doing potentially serious damage to the aesthetic and ethical priming of our moral sensibilities.

From a high school fascination with mythical cosmogony to an undergraduate ‘great books’ education at Wesleyan’s College of Letters, I am the way I am at least in part because of the books I have read and the films I have seen. (Having companion animals–dogs and rats–since childhood and many other factors are also crucial.) And while I am sympathetic, in the moral sense under discussion, to the editors’ goals, the use of descriptive language and animal symbols is more than just misguided anthropomorphism, and even when it is anthropomorphic it’s not necessarily misguided, in its disciplinary context.

None of this is to say that we should not be careful about the language we use. We should. In the clearer cases–describing a pig as a production unit, say–the bias and its effect are painfully obvious. It seems equally clear that moths are indeed drawn to flame, as I stated above, and that this is descriptive rather than normative language. But where do we draw the line separating the normative wolf in the descriptive sheep’s clothing from the merely descriptive? Does describing conservative bioethicist’s blog, “Secondhand Smoke”, as “rabidly speciesiest” in its defense of human exceptionalism count? (I would think not, which is why I used it above. But a case could be made that ‘beastliness’ is only a descriptive step beyond being rabid.)

Anthropomorphism, for all its scientific shortcomings, is also one of the ways that humans can empathize with nonhumans. Taking a scalpel to our available vocabulary would limit the foundational vocabulary upon which our sympathetic education is built. Whether the insidious effects of language that fosters systemic violence outweigh the ethical priming of our moral sensibilities through imaginative fiction is an important question, but I’m not sure if it’s the kind of question that has a single answer.