Tag Archives: animal sentience

‘Man is by nature a political animal’

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(Image from Tim Flach’s amazing More Than Human collection.) I haven’t written a new post here in almost nine months, mostly because my recent pursuits have been decidedly non-animal studies related. Time to remedy that. Lots of animal politics-related news has come and gone, particularly trade (seals and foie gras) and cognition (octopus personhood) issues.

For my part, I’ve been deep in quantitative political science land as a first-year PhD student at UCSD, where I’ve been exposed to a view of the world as filtered through rationalist lenses of human behavior. Man is by nature a political animalAll the while, I’ve been asking myself about the role nonhuman animals play in political science, as distinct from political theory. I don’t have answers to this question right now, although I have been working on international research about norm diffusion and animal welfare norms. And I still tend to look at the world through consequentialist but anti-speciesist goggles–where ‘what matters’ is the interests of sentient beings–but my present foray into continental philosophy and animal studies is tempering and may eventually change this outlook. For now, though, I’d like to think out loud for a moment about the effects of looking at the world through rationalist lenses.

Briefly, some context: the rationalist project in political science presents a view of actors rooted in assumptions about agency that preference interest maximization at the expense of systems-level cultural or social influences. A ‘thin’ conception of rationality assumes that preferences are rank-ordered and transitive, while a ‘thick’ conception assumes increasingly egoist preference content, whether power, material gain, or, mostly simply, money. I could go on about this at great length, but for the purposes of this post I’m more interested in the effects of looking at the world through these speciesist and methodological individualist lenses.

The stated purpose of the rationalist project in political science is to be an accurate predictor of empirical reality, and, when discussed on those grounds, it should be evaluated on those grounds. But there’s always a risk that prescription will creep into description, ‘ontologizing’ or ‘reifying’ what are meant to be mere analytical tools. What immediately strikes me in the context of animal studies is how strongly this project reinforces human-nonhuman dualisms; indeed, political science has been doing this since Aristotle’s Politics, to mixed effect.

This is also particularly interesting to me in light of Cary Wolfe’s research on posthumanism and animal studies (for which see Zoontologiesmy current Goodreads…), as distinct from the traditional literature on animal rights. (And as if to reinforce the rights-studies split, the two literatures are shelved on different sides of the UCSD library.) Just as Cora Diamond argues (in the recent Philosophy and Animal Life) that “the language of rights is…meant to be useful in contexts in which we cannot count on the kind of understanding of evil that depends on loving attention to the victim,” the language of interests that predominates in the rationalist literature is antithetical to the kind of reckoning with animality that animal studies in the vein of Derrida and Levinas call for. (In part, this is just a restatement of the analytical-continental divide, but the animal lens brings it to the fore.)

These are some of the thoughts I’ve been having while grappling with regression models and the canon of modern political science and international relations this quarter. Mostly I’ve been keeping it to myself, because pulling the speciesist-humanist rug from under the discussant’s feet would be destabilizing, to put it mildly. But it’s something I’ll keep at, and, in the meantime, I’ve got a few weeks to read, read, read. (The image below is from Ed Wray’s Monkey Town, which is meant to be more of a meditation on the poverty trap than on animal welfare, but which also serves as a potent illustration of Diamond’s attempt to reframe the discourse from rights and interests to one in which we attend to our ‘fellow creaturehood’, our “fellows in mortality, in life on this earth.”)

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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.