Tag Archives: ethics

Blogging the dissertation, 2: Seeing like an animal, looking like a human

In response to feedback on the previous dissertation draft (the first section of which was recently posted here), I just wrote this analytic overview of my argument with only the minimal reference to authors and texts that are not central to the contribution.

This was supposed to be like five pages, but is instead closer to twenty. It’s an addendum to an existing document, a dissertation prospectus draft available on my academia.edu page. Don’t cite without permission, but comments again welcome!


Seeing Like an Animal, Looking Like a Human:

Dissertation Prospectus Supplement and Overview

Introduction. This dissertation presents a way to see human-animal relations in a world in crisis. The crisis is tangled in a web of concepts that are at both complementary and contradictory, a tangled puzzle best captured by what it means to live both in a posthuman world and in the so-called anthropocene. Posthumanism decenters, while the anthropocene recenters; the one blurs and refracts anthropocentric conceptions of nature and conditions for living well, the other brings human actions and impacts back to into central focus on a global scale. The dissertation research under consideration makes sense of this tension as it relates to human-animal relations and political science. Building on Aristotle and a subfield of semiotics called biosemiotics, it does so by arguing that we see as animals but can also look as humans, and so looking see more, “flourish” better.

What follows here provides an analytic overview of the motivation, contribution, and structure of the proposed dissertation project, stripped of reference to non-essential authors. It proceeds by: first, telescoping the argument and its contributions; second, turning back to the posthumanism versus anthropocene tension to understand the project’s motivations, particularly the relation of breaking down conceptual binaries to “humility properly understood” and what it means to see-as a human; third, with the stage set, to return to Aristotle, biosemiotics, and the political theory of animals, providing an introduction to the relevant literature and a map of the interventions; and fourth, chapter outlines.

I. Looking back to Aristotle and looking forward with biosemiotics. Looking back to origins, to the arche of so much of the Western way of thinking, Aristotle reveals a monumentally impressive theoretical and practical apparatus, one that has few parallels in scope, breadth, and systematicity, either before or since. Rather than simply adopting or rejecting Aristotle’s view wholesale, however, this project proposes a sympathetic and constructive critique. The heart of this critique is that Aristotle’s practical sciences need updating to properly reflect his theoretical sciences. So doing, we stay true to the spirit of Aristotle’s method of inquiry, to look and see the the things in the world and their systems of relation, their way of relating the particular to the universal.

I.A. Looking back: a sympathetic critique. While not fully “neo-Aristotelian,” the critique is sympathetic in many ways. There is a sympathy of spirit, as above but also in the spirit of wonder (thauma) with which philosophy (982b) begins, a wonder echoed in Darwin’s “tangled bank” with its “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” This wonderment traces the tension between, on the one hand, man’s desire, by nature, to know (opening line of the Metaphysics, 980a) and, on the other, the knotted puzzlement (aporia) that faces this inquiry, this search for the of nature and co-relation of different substances (ousia) and their essence (to ti en einai).

Most centrally for the puzzle of finding axiological footholds in a decentered posthuman age, the project agrees with Aristotle about a number of conclusions to claims about the nature of things in the world: aspects of his ontological and perspectival pluralism and contextualism; the tripartite soul (psuche) and its intermediary types; the related accounts of telos and physis for what it means to speak of the nature and completed state of excellence of a particular being; the cultivation of virtuous dispositions for living well and living well together; and the eudaimonistic spirit which informs his teleology as well as his understanding of ethics and politics.

The central critique, again, is that aspects of his ethics and politics fail to properly apply his own theoretical framework as updated by subsequent scientific findings about the nature of different animal worlds. This critique is developed below, in III, and in the discussion of biosemiotics.

For the purposes of introduction and explaining motivations, another motivation and influence needs introduction. This is an age-old motivation; the relation between virtue ethics and utilitarianism in general, and Aristotle to animal utilitarianism such as that of Peter Singer in particular. My contention is that there is more room for meaningful overlap here than is commonly thought. This back-and-forth is “fruitful” insofar as Aristotle shows, on the one hand, that a life well lived is more than the simple sum of its pleasures and pains, tabulated as if in a record book. On the other hand, Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interest can also inform some of the perverse interspecies implications of Aristotle’s practical philosophy, as can the negative utilitarian attention to the moral problem of pain and suffering, a problem especially acute in the anthropocene. While the focus on pain-avoidance and the calculus of pleasure and pain that make a life worth living or not may be foreign to Aristotle’s way of thinking, the equal consideration of interests is at work in Aristotle’s dictum that like should be treated alike, unlike unalike (in the context of justice, see the Politics at 1280a10).

The critique developed here, of course, problematizes the relevant boundaries of likeness. This topic is an appropriate place to also respond to a possible critique of this framework: why animals? Why not an account of living well with plants, with fungi, or even with rocks? Three responses come at this from different directions. First, there’s no reason in principle why this framework couldn’t extend to plants, for instance, depending on what coming to know and respect plant life would entail, but for many practical and pragmatic reasons this is beyond the scope of this inquiry. And second, also on pragmatic grounds, animals are closer to the “adjacent possible”1 than are plants, even if there is some interesting and provocative new work on plant “cognition” and “sentience.” Third, returning to the Singerian influences but also linking them back to Aristotle and forward to semiosis and narrativity, sentient beings are the only kinds of beings that one can properly speak of living well together with, barring some conception building on the first point of sustainable agricultural and botanical practices. And this is not just because of Bentham’s “can they suffer?” Beings with brains not only can suffer and experience pleasurable states, but having a brain is a reasonable prerequisite for a centralized consciousness—thus many bivalves “have” but do not “feel” pain, as they have a nervous system but no brain. In any case, more extended trips down this rabbit hope are well beyond the scope of this overview.

Because the critique of Aristotle is sympathetic to so much of his approach and framework, it is not a rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics of the type called for in Zoopolis. While liberal humanism can at least conceptually delink ontological and political concerns, interspecies ethicopolitical relations require such connections between what a given being is and how it can and should relate to other beings, both like and unlike, familiar and unfamiliar.

I.B. Looking forward with evolutionary biosemiotics. Another central claim of this project is that looking forward with biosemiotics and the evolutionary sciences can untie some of the aporias Aristotle leaves us with, both internally to his own work and over the intervening years. The field of biosemiotics is discussed in more detail in the full prospectus draft won’t be belabored here except as it relates to particularly relevant concepts and innovations and what it does and does not share with Aristotle.

Aristotle’s tripartite soul in particular meshes well with Peircean semiotics in general, biosemiotics in particular (Kull 2009), and Deacon’s morphodynamic framework most closely. This example also shows a way, having looked back at Aristotle, to look forward and see just how deeply relational and interactive living systems are, and how intentionality and some form of agency are essential not just for human action but for the processes of life itself. This process of locating meaning in and between living things themselves itself finds echoes in Aristote’s epagoge from the Physics (at 184a), in which “the universal resides within the material confines of the individual sense data.”2 This position is more fully developed with Deacon’s emphasis on the role of absence in his account of “ententional” processes, a neologism built from Aristotle’s entelelecheia, a being at completion that requires both something present and something absent to fulfill the conditions of its completion, its telos.

This kind of looking forward blends with looking back to resolve the standard critique in the philosophy of biology: that Aristotle’s teleology is guilty of vitalism and that his metaphysics has in it too much “cosmic teleology.” Neither of these critiques entail accurate readings of Aristotle. A more interesting difficulty for post-Darwin moderns reading and making sense of his work is instead the distinction between evolutionary and Darwinian conceptions of how species come into and leave being, a problematically static conception in Aristotle’s otherwise dynamic schema. A fuller accounting of this relation between Aristotle’s eidos and genos and the evolutionary conception of species will be developed in the dissertation, and is just being flagged here.

Perhaps most crucially, as Jesper Hoffmeyer’s prominent 2008 book Biosemiotics puts it, the semiotic view of life presents “a corrective to determinism in nonhuman nature,” to the view, that is, that only humans are really agents in any non-analogical sense. This is as scientifically unfounded a claim as it is normatively catastrophic. As is discussed more below, at II, and in the prospectus, at least the other socially complex mammals of necessity act intentionally and purposively with respect to others. More important than this, however, is what follows from the biosemiotician’s central claim, that live is co-constituted by sign relations between goal directed, if not intentional, units all the way down to the level of intercellular communication.

For the purposes of applying biosemiotics to Aristotle, political theory, and human-animal relations, three important themes are central. First, the foundationally goal-directed properties of all living systems. Second, and as foundational as the first, the relationality of living systems and the ubiquity of emergent co-creation through sign relations. And third, the patterning of these processes of goal-directed being and co-relational emergence by a range of constraints and deconstraints structured both by physical laws such as the second law of thermodynamics and by evolutionary patterns that are at least law-like and which channel, influence, or constrain outcomes in broadly predictable ways.

Take, for instance, some broad-brush exploratory examples from evolutionary linguistics. The kinds of words human infants are likely to speak first (such as “mama” and “dada” or “papa”) are influenced by the shape and structure of the human infant’s mouth and vocal chords. For another example, biologist E.S. Morton in 1975 proposed an Acoustic Adaptation Hypothesis, hypothesizing that birds living in densely forested areas will sing songs with lower frequency and less variation than birds living in more open areas. The same work has more recently been applied to different human languages and the physical surroundings in which each came to be. This illustration renaturalizes human language, reminding us that we are in and of rather than above or beyond nature, and that even our technological and linguistic innovations have their own nature.

It might be reasonable to stop and ask a cautionary question hinted at above: is all this talk of intentionality and agency just being used analogically? Yes and no. Yes because clearly the simple goal-directedness of the paramecium or the phenomenon of cell-to-cell “communication” are not the same as the complex intentionality required to write a dissertation about biosemiotics or the many layers of communicative meaning required to understand something like Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First?” The same goes for talk of “preferences;” even a single neuron could be said to have preferences3 in the sense that all living systems are goal-directed, autopoietic. And yet this seems quite distinct both from the rank-ordered and transitive preferences characterizing instrumental rationality and from the complex “preference” to rail against determinism that manifests in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.

But also no, because both of the latter cases are nested in and emerged from the former; the deeper lesson is that we got here from there, one step at a time, continuing through long periods of relatively little change interspersed by the short flurries of emergent “burstiness” that characterizes Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium and the modern evolutionary synthesis. To say that these are only analogical resemblances ignores this wondrous continuity of the living.

And just as these endless goal-directed forms most wondrous place us squarely in rather than over the rest of the living world, the semiotic relationality through which all live has come to be indicates that we have always lived together with others. Other microcosmic beings, such as the microbes essential to our health and the organs cooperating to maintain our dynamic equilibria, the dissipative and contragrade flows that characterize what Deacon calls our teleodynamic kind of living systems. Other beings like us, the humans with whom we co-constitute familial, social, and political entities. But also other beings with which we have coevolved, such as the dog, the ear of corn or, borrowing from Pollan, even the marijuana plant. Human nature, as Anna Tsing rightly says, is an interspecies relationship. To live well rather than just live together with animals, we need to behave accordingly.

Finally, biosemiotic reveals the patterning of the world. Biosemiotics is of course not alone in looking for such patterns. Aristotle searched for them, in his wondrous puzzlement, both in his theoretical inquiry and in the world as a marine biologist poking and prodding odd sponges and sea creatures brought to him by fisherman on the island of Lesbos. The practice of science itself looks for these patterns (and so do other forms of inquiry, such as Foucault’s genealogical method). Cognitive science and comparative psychology both look to animals to make sense of our, human, forms of cognition and sociality. More about this at III, below, and also in the empirical and conceptual chapter of the proposed dissertation.

I.C. Telescoping key concepts. Three conceptual threads running throughout this project deserve clarification from the outset. The first concerns animal attributes, the second eudaimonia and philia and their relation to practical and theoretical knowledge and virtues, the third interspecies power relations. They are deeply interrelated.

The first asks whether (and how and which) nonhuman animals have moral or political agency, and whether this agency is something like an in-degree quasi- or proto- form of human morality and politics or whether it is something different, something in kind. Interwoven with this, and digging deeper into agency, are the same questions as applied to nonhuman animal intentionality, purposiveness, preferences, and rationality. (Admittedly, this is a daunting set of issues, any one of which could consume a scholar’s attention, but that’s also the reason for looking back, to appeal to Aristotle’s conceptual omnivory.)

The second connects back to the first set of concerns, on human and animal attributes. Take, for now, “loving friendship” and “conditions for living well” as shorthands (albeit problematic and in need of further discussion) for philia and eudaimonia. Given these translations, and depending on one’s analysis of the first set of concepts, two different weaves could be made of this thread. First, that our kind of human species being requires one or another kind of respect for animal alterity and human-animal co-constitution. Or second, that particular other animals, in co-relation either with conspecifics or with companion species, themselves act as either ethical or political agents, in whole or in part, or in some other whole than ours. This project will argue that the first “weave” is unambiguously accurate, and that the second (in line with what I will call humility properly understood, below) can be illuminated by looking to the intervening science of the last twenty five hundred years, with particular emphasis on enactivist cognitive science, comparative psychology, and the insights of biosemiotics.

The third and last set of concepts is also bound up with one’s interpretation of the first two. To understand what it means to live well and live well together, we need some normative account of how power relations are, and ought to be, structured, both within and between different species- and individual-types.4 Building on Plumwood’s critique of dichotmous human-animal and human-nature oppositions, the normative project at work here is one of expanding the mixed community between humans and particular other animals in particular settings, but with an overarching spirit of eudaimonistic living well together. This mixed community needn’t be emancipatory or solely protective of other animals, necessarily; by living together we live better, and living together between unequals with a spirit of friendship and cultivated dispositions of generosity and humility may require some forms of legitimate paternalism.

Taking this interspecies eudaimonistic spirit to heart, which again is necessary for us to live well as humans does require, however, that we avoid domination (conceptualized here in the Foucauldian sense of ossified power relations rather than the neo-Republicanism of Pettit or some other conception). Drawing on concurrent work in anthropology and geography in the tradition of Haraway’s companion species project, this mixed community is: coevolved and codomesticated; it requires that animals have power over us as well as power-with us, just as we have power over them; and it acknowledges animal agency.

An example illustrates this last point. While the sentiment behind a common phrase in animal advocacy, that “there are no bad dogs, only bad owners” is an admirable one, this kind of attitude actually perversely robs a given dog of his her agency as much as the sentiment that all dogs of one or another breed are troublesome or dangerous. One’s agency to act is nurtured away in the first case, and natured away in the second. Meaningful interspecies relations, whether grounded in philia, eudaimonism, or politics, require both an attentiveness to a given animal’s needs and desires—an obligation that increases the closer the relation becomes to one-way power relations—but also an acknowledgment of the other’s voice, their power to act on us and in the world.

I.D. Contributions, in brief. To finish telescoping: the three proposed central contributions of this project are all squarely within political theory. One extends the humanist focus of well-established approaches in the discipline to show how thinking between species can “fertilize” political theory, particularly republican understandings of co-creation and shared political agency and feminist approaches to embodiment, vulnerability, and entangled empathy. Another contribution defends aspects of Aristotle’s approach against the call to reject his legacy made by Donaldson and Kymlicka’s recent and prominent work, Zoopolis. The final central contribution concerns the relation of the approach developed here to its two closest cognates, Nussbaum’s capabilities approach to animals and political justice and Haraway’s understanding of companion specieshood.

II. Living well together in the posthuman anthropocene. Only by keeping the tension with which we started in focus can we understand the proper role of anthropocentrism in conceptualizing ethics and politics. To introduce the titular visual metaphor, we see as humans but can imagine, and must acknowledge, other ways of seeing. On the one hand, we exist as humans, just as we also exist as primates, as mammals, as animals, and as living organisms. This structures the way we perceive our lived environments and interact with other beings, both in ways that reinforce our affinity with other living beings and in ways that set us apart. Like the extinct hominidae and the other great apes, we are vision-dominant primates. Like the other mammals, we have social organization and the kinds of moral emotions required to care for our comparatively few and vulnerable young. Like other multicellular animals our organismic unity is comprised levels upon levels of intercellular communication, cooperation, and competition. And so on and so forth, at each different stage, each different punctuation, of our shared living lineage.

On the other hand, we have symbolic language, gestural flexibility, and complex social organization. A number of other animals, of course, have their own complex systems of communication, their own kinds of gestural flexibility, and their own forms of complex social organization. But nowhere else does it appear result in our kind of explosion of cumulative learning, abstraction, and robustly narrative sense of self. Orcas do possess some kind of culture, some intergenerational transfer of knowledge, but they don’t organize and attend productions of Shakespeare. Songbirds, like cetaceans, do sing songs, do make music, and do in many cases change those songs in apparently spontaneous and creative ways, but they don’t write Mahler symphonies or have their favorite songs digitally at hand with the technological prostheses that have become parts of our extended selves.

Stop. Apply the brakes. This focusing optic is too much anthropocene, not enough posthuman. Enter humility, but a humility properly understood. It would be an arrogant hubris, on the one hand, to take our human way of being in the world as the measure of all things. We can as little inhabit the dolphin’s three-dimensional aquatic space as we can the time-dilated space of bird song as heard by other birds or the lived reality of the hummingbird. But while we cannot inhabit these other perspectival worlds, we can imagine them, both with scientific and other forms of inquiry and with the particularly plastic cognition for which our particular kind of being allows. It would be falsely humble for a star basketball player to deny his or her particular excellence, and similarly false for to argue that ontological humility about the perspectival worlds of other beings is incompatible with a given being’s proper self-worth and understanding.

This appears to remain more anthropocene than posthuman. Introducing another central motivation and guiding principle should refocus our inquiry: the rejection of dichotomous or binary thinking along a single continuum in favor of distinct continua each with their own manner of punctuation and context-specific domains. Prominent and relevant examples of such deeply rooted dichotomies include: mind and body, human and animal, human and nature, domestic and wild. Instead of taking humanity out of nature or animality, however, it is both more epistemologically and ontologically accurate and more ethically and politically desirable to see like an evolutionary ecologist. That is, to see how the traits characterizing humans are like those characterizing any living organism that adapts to its environment and co-adapts its environment to it and to others.

The stage is almost set for the re-entrance of the main players and their relation to the canonical and contemporary political theory of animals. First, to finish the mise en scène by extending the visual metaphor.

This is of course not the only attempt to making animals visible in political theory, but it most accurately approximates seeing them both as they are and as we see them. So seeing, we better grasp the nature of our co-created meaning-making and the different domains in which ontological gaps between species are either bridgeable or not. And just as the dynamic posthuman/anthropocene tension stands in for a larger debate between humanism and different forms of anti-humanism, “seeing” here is intended representatively rather than just literally. Indeed, because of our vision-dominant primate natures, to “see” animals as they are in many cases requires tamping down on sight and the visual in favor of other sensoriums, some quite unfamiliar indeed. This acknowledges the limits of our “adverbialism,” our seeing-as humans, but by identifying these limits we see better.

III. Aristotle and the Contemporary Political Theory of animals. The stage is set. Enter the political theory of animals. Animals other than humans have been ignored in much of the history of political theory, often through a process of hypostatization and concretization of a canonical thinker’s work that robs it of its potential dynamism. Thus Aristotelian theorists viewed the human as more exclusively political than did Aristotle himself, Cartesian dualists make animals more machine than they were for Descartes, Kantian deontological humanists more humanist than Kant himself. This set of claims is of course debatable and requires justification, but at least in the case of Aristotle I argue both that we have misread him and that we can use his theoretical and eudaimonistic spirit to critique his practical philosophy.

This section is tentative and pending further research. It introduces: the relation between Aristotle’s practical and conceptual sciences; the role of dichotomous versus continuous or punctuated schema in his thought and, through the critique, beyond; a sketch of what a less anthropocentric and more interspecies reading of Aristotelian politics and ethics might look like; and a similar exploration of what cultivated dispositions of interspecies virtue could and should look like.

Monte Johnson’s recent paper, “Aristotle’s Architectonic Sciences,”5 will supplement primary analysis of Aristotle’s corpus and essential interpretive sources to provide the theoretical account of how his politics and ethics are too anthropocentric even for his own theory, and what it would mean to speak of interspecies politics or ethics between unequals.

A brief look at the Nicomachean Ethics illustrates both the promise and the limits of Aristotle’s approach for intermediary or partial forms of justice and friendship. He writes that

Political justice obtains between those who share a life for the satisfaction of their needs as persons free and equal, either arithmetically or proportionately. Hence in associations where these conditions are not present there is no political justice between the members, but only a sort of approximation to justice. (1134a26-30)

Even before applying any critique, it deserves emphasis that he acknowledges such intermediate types as “approximations to justice,” intermediary categories into which animals could be subjects and agents of justice, that is, if they were capable of action, intellection, and the theoretical knowledge required for both happiness and virtue. As discussed below, for Aristotle animals were not capable of these things, and so were not entitled to political justice, even if some other animals are political, for him.

And later, in a chapter titled “friendship between unequals,” he distinguishes the role played by merit and the proper kind of treatment in relations of philia rather than justice

…equality does not seem to be the same in friendship as it is in just actions; for in the case of just actions equality is primarily that which is in accordance with merit, quantitative equality being secondary; but in friendship quantitative equality is of primary and equality of merit only of secondary importance. This becomes evident if a wide gap develops between the parties in respect of virtue or vice, or of affluence or anything else… (1158b29-35)

Again, this both opens and closes some doors, even without moving outside of his practical framework. As Santas argues in his recent defense of trans-species philia, this opens the door for such a friendship between interspecies “unequals,” but then closes it again if one can’t meaningfully speak of animal “merit,” insofar as merit is due according to the faculties denied animals above.

By his own account, and to reiterate the grounds for what I interpret as a kind of ontological pluralism and perspectivalism in prospectus draft, Aristotle says in many places that each kind of thing has their own kind of good, and indeed this follows of necessity from the nature of his response to Plato in both the Physics and the Metaphysics. See, for example, also the Nicomachean Ethics, where the good is different for the human and the fish (1141a23), or any other particular type of animal, and that “things are called good in as many senses as they are said to exist.” (1096a23) Also, as mentioned in book VI and as follows from his teleology, on intellectual virtues, “the virtue of a thing is related to its proper function” (1139a15). There are a couple of ways to interpret all of this, but I mention it all to flag the issue of hierarchical ordering between species that become concretized in the “great chain of being.” A strict account of this ordering is at odds with the call to humility developed in this project, but a more context-sensitive interplay of overlapping accounts in which we humans—with our language and technology and so on—do still hold some kind of ontological pride of place, and humility properly understood would acknowledge this.

Most importantly for animal phronesis, agency, even possibly sophia, Aristotle follows up the passage from NE book VI above by right away asserting that “the brutes have sensation, but no share in action” (1139a20). One of the functions of the proposed chapter on recent empirical work on animal agency is to examine the truth of this claim; if it is found wanting, so too the exclusively humanist conception of politics.

Before moving on to the politics and the cultivation of virtuous interspecies dispositions, it helps clarify how another defect—indeed, for many it is a fatal flaw—of Aristotle’s practical thought results from a misapplication of the theoretical work. It also helps to shed light on the value of thinking beyond binaries, and on the contested value of linking marginalized human groups to other animals. This refers, of course, to the status of women and slaves in Aristotle’s political and ethical work.

Just as cataloging and canonizing lists of things that makes humans special has a long history, a similar logic has also been used in many settings to justify sexism, racism, and xenophobia. In this view, Men, like humans and unlike women, are rational. Civilized people, unlike savage barbarians, are cultured, refine, learned, restrained, and so on. And while Aristotle’s account of ruling and being ruled as the virtuous mean (meson) between slavish and tyrannical impulses is conceptually rich even in regard to interspecies politics, he was simply wrong about the kind of being that women and slaves are by their nature. There are exceptions here for cases where that “nature” has been internalized through false consciousness-type processes of hegemonic control, but this is no answer. It shouldn’t be an answer even for Aristotle, as the account of primary substance (ousia) and essence (to ti en einai) in Metaphysics Zeta should arguably categorize these kinds of socialized traits as secondary qualities modifying the primary substance, the human, in question. But this is to get too deep into the theoretical apparatus for now.

Turning, finally, to a brief foray into what Aristotelian interspecies politics and cultivated virtue might look like. Even without the exclusion of animals from intellection and morality—and with the caveats mentioned elsewhere in Aristotle’s corpus about intermediary types and that don’t fit easily with strict classification—his conception of politics is explicitly concerned with ruling and being ruled as equals. Too much deviation from equality and the polity turns to its corrupt types, to “a state not of free men but of slaves and masters, the former full of envy, the latter of contempt. Nothing could be farther removed from friendship or from partnership in a state.” (1295b12-27, excerpt) Only by maintaining this abstract equality can politics “continue in being to secure the good life” (1252b28).

This appears to be a serious impediment, and leaves a puzzle unsolved in this contradiction. On the one hand, we seem to be finding, against Aristotle’s practical philosophy but with his empirical method, that animals do act, do have something at least of morality and possibly sophia and not just of practical judgment. But on the other hand, how could these possible political or ethical agents—albeit maybe semi-, quasi-, or proto-political—take part in politics given that human and animal worlds are not equal, possibly in terms of value but definitely in terms of simple alterity, of different lived experience. Charting a course through this and other puzzles is the purpose of this dissertation.

This long prospectus addendum closes with a look at a central pillar of Aristotle’s moral philosophy: the cultivation of eudaimonia through virtuous and wise dispositions. Both above and elsewhere in his work, Aristotle denies other animals sophia, which for him is the most finished form of knowledge (1141a17). But then, in NE VI, he says this:

[I]t is extraordinary that anyone should regard political science or prudence as most important, unless man is the highest being in the world. But if what is wholesome or good is different for human beings and for fish, whereas what is white or straight is always the same, so too everyone would mean the same by wise, but something different by prudent; for every kind of creature accepts as prudent, and will commit itself to, that which studies its good. This is why some even of the brutes are said to be prudent, that is, those that can be seen to have the ability to provide for their own survival . . . there is no one wisdom that is concerned with the good of all animals, but a different kind for each species . . . To object that man is the highest animal makes no difference; because there are other beings far more divine in nature than man, the most evident examples being those bodies of which the heaven is composed.” (1141a20-7, and 32-3)

This view explicitly endorses a conception of animal phronesis, but then closes the door before human wisdom while acknowledging “a different kind [of wisdom] for each species,” a practical rather than theoretical wisdom entailed in phronesis. And this is no small door, if only human-type “wisdom,” and not its phronetic animal variants, “produces happiness” (1144a3). But not only happiness, as virtue requires intelligence (1144b7-16) and the episteme which allows for knowledge pursued for its own sake (theoria) as versus the phronetic knowledge applied to content or the knowledge applied to production in techne (100b, in the Posterior Analytics, II).

But then at the end of this passage Aristotle reminds us that humans were not at the axiological top of the mountain in the Hellenic cosmology; the gods and heavens were, just as God and the angels would be in the Thomistic Great Chain. Again we see here hints of a proper anthropocentrism and disposition of humility properly understood, a disposition that today requires a new kind of humility and a new kind of generosity, political dispositions of restrained reciprocity between species and ethical dispositions of eudaimonistic philia that seek the good in all its diverse and complementary forms.

IV. Chapter outlines. This last section proposes a modification of the chapters presented in the prospectus draft. Comments are welcome as to which version looks better, or what else would. The outlines are very brief and more colloquial in tone, both to leave room for commentary and because they build on what’s present in the prospectus.

Chapter 1. Introducing and providing a review of literature of the canonical and contemporary political theory of animals and telescoping the central arguments. Emphasis also on the argument at pp. 11-12 of the prospectus that political theorists, and particularly republican and feminist theorists, are centrally interested in the kinds of issues under discussion here, and that the turn to animals both problematizes exclusively human conceptions of such core ideas as co-creation and embodied vulnerability and presents constructive ways to reimagine these relations beyond species.

Chapter 2. Looking back to Aristotle. Building on what’s present in the prospectus and above in this document.

Chapter 3. Looking forward with biosemiotics. Ditto.

Chapter 4. Looking to the sides with anthropology and geography. I’m torn on whether and how I want to engage with work from multispecies ethnography in anthropology (and with Donna Haraway’s work, from which must of the multispecies ethnographic work draws its inspiration, and which in some ways is as much a cognate for my approach as Nussbaum’s) and animal geography. On the one hand, there is a whole lot of really interesting new work being done in both fields that engages explicitly and directly with most of the questions and concepts at work here. On the other, it would stretch the heterogeneity of the research program possibly to its snapping point. Rather than having a whole chapter on this, I could just include a nod and review of relevant literature in one of the other chapters, maybe the first. (And for what it’s worth, I’ll be presenting my conceptual overview at next year’s American Association of Geographer’s animal geography sections next March in Berkeley, right after Western.)

Chapter 4. Key concepts in empirical application: moral and political agency in human and nonhuman animals. Basically the same as what’s in the prospectus: using work from my animal social cognition class and other sources to examine which animals tend to have which kinds of agency, and in what degree or kind.

Chapter 5. Responding to Kymlicka: a partial defense of Aristotle’s animal politics. Similar to what’s in the prospectus, but inflected to account for the shift towards a sympathetic critique of Aristotle’s practical philosophy, basically according to the program set out in this document above. I’ll be presenting a draft of this at WPSA.

Chapter 6. Supplementing Nussbaum: biosemiotics and the capabilities approach. Potentially the same as what’s in the prospectus, with the possible addition of influences from Haraway and/or anthropology and geography as in discussion both with biosemiotics and the capabilities approach.

Chapter 7. Three cases in respectful and disrespectful human-animal relations: companion, use, and “wild.” Same as chapters 5-7 of the prospectus draft. The exact contours of this chapter will depend on the actual dissertation work, but will focus on applying my conceptual frame to specific examples in each case and comparing the outcome to other frames.

1To use Stuart Kauffman’s phrase.

2Quoted from F.E. Peters’ Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon.

4This use of the is-ought distinction is an appropriate place to mention that this project has both normative and descriptive elements that need clearer disambiguation.

5In a relevant passage, Johnson writes that “the relation between Aristotle’s practical and conceptual sciences; the role of dichotomous versus continuous or punctuated schema in his thought and, through the critique, beyond; a sketch of what a less anthropocentric and more interspecies reading of Aristotelian politics and ethics might look like; and a similar exploration of what cultivated dispositions of interspecies virtue could and should look like.”


I have mixed feelings about this Onion clip. On the one hand, yes, many foodie pursuits are hedonic at best and elitist/wasteful/violent to animals and nature at worst. On the other, I know a lot of foodies for whom these issues are not effete bullshit, but are, to varying degrees, central to their pursuit of satisfaction in the world. To dismiss all gustatory preferences as ‘merely hedonic and therefore morally insignificant’, as I’ve known a lot of people–especially animal advocate friends of mine–to do, is to misconstrue the complex relationship people have with food. (As an aside, I also wonder whether many of the people who make these claims have less developed palates, for any of a number of reasons?)

None of the above is meant to imply that we can’t judge or evaluate the ethics of food choices–of course we can, should, and must. It’s just problematic when we dismiss certain pursuits as morally irrelevant relative to others…this can take is in some unsavory directions.


A rose by any other name

There have been lots of interesting pieces recently on humanism, morality, and the more-than-human world. My first response to Joel Marks’ supposed rejection of morality is to side with Andrew Sullivan, who has been covering a lot of relevant issues recently. My second was to realize that these issues are bound up with our discussions of secular humanism and its discontents. I agree that something like ‘secular humanism 2.0’ would be an improvement over the current anthropocentric and self-defeating myopia, and I don’t think we need to agree on the primacy of one moral vocabulary to get there.

To briefly recap Joel Mark’s “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” from last week’s NYT Stone piece: Marks transitions from being a deontologist  who fought for the inherent rights on (especially) food animals to a pragmatic/utilitarian person who, less sure of the external moral validity of their core deontological beliefs, “now focus[es] on conveying information” about the conditions on industrial animal ag facilities. I don’t always agree with Coyne, but in this case I do: this looks to me like a distinction without a difference. But that’s also because I’ve come to terms with the fact that most of us exist along a multidimensional plane balancing the poles of the above chart. The best we can do, in my view, is to maintain equilibrium — if it has shown us anything, history teaches us that single-moral-foundation graspings at utopia always tend towards dystopia instead.

As for humanism and its discount tent, well, that’s a big one. As I noted a few posts ago, the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes film is acting like a confirmation bias-y Rorshach test. To take two examples: this post from Salon argues that the human-nonhuman divide remains very large, while Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s responses to the film (as recorded in this episode of On Point) mistakes CGI ape intelligence for the considerably less dazzling real thing. My position is somewhere  between these poles, but I’m making the connection here just to point out that our position on the role of homo sapiens in a “post-Darwin” world is very likely to dictate, or at least inform, our morals–or our ethics, if you’d rather call them that.

Science, ethics, and Rorty’s ‘liberal ironist’

To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civlized man from a barbarian.
-Joseph Schumpeter

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming


This post will eventually segue into animal studies and food politics, but bear with me for a bit. I’m about a third of the way through Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and I’m surprised I hadn’t come across it earlier. His focus on the contingency of different ‘vocabularies’ of meaning, to use his jargon, is especially relevant now, when scientism is trying to claim a monopoly on the status of moral truthholder. Broadly, the book is a critique of ‘final vocabularies’ and a defense of what he calls the ‘liberal ironist’, a curious hybrid of Foucault  (an ironist but not a liberal) and Habermas (a liberal but not an ironist). Since my undergraduate years writing a neo-Kantian thesis, I’ve always been much more in the Habermasian liberal camp. But Rorty manages to convert me, at least in part.

Denis Dutton’s review of Rorty’s book closes with this well-phrased passage:

…to describe, say, the introduction of the germ theory of disease as just invoking a new vocabulary, a bit of novel jargon — as though it were all a fuss over “bacteria,” and had nothing to do with bacteria — seems to this reader ludicrous, Rorty’s subtle arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. From a Rortian perspective I am just another sod in thrall of Enlightenment mythology, but his interpretation of the history of science strikes me as one more lamentable exercise in philosophic hubris.

Hubris, however, could not be farther from a just characterization of the tenor of this book. Rorty’s tone is thoughtful and modest, even when his ideas are extravagant. While there is a feeling of settled positions, there is no hint of dogmatism, but rather a sense of opinions hard-won through years of argument and meditation. This book is consistently provocative, and every page excites philosophic thought.

Dutton highlights the danger of viewing scientific revolution as nothing more than one among many ‘final vocabularies’, but Rorty isn’t trying to tear down science so much as to establish that our truth claims are contingent and should be evaluated as such, and that some questions are more useful than others; this is where Rorty as neo-Deweyian pragmatist comes in: “The nature of truth” is an unprofitable topic, resembling in this respect “the nature of man” and “the nature of God,” and differing from “the nature of the positron,” and “the nature of Oedipal fixation.” (Rorty 8 )

The core of Rorty’s pragmatism is enormously useful, once we realize that we don’t have to choose between public morals and private aesthetics: “If we could bring ourselves to accept the fact that no theory about the nature of Man or Society or Rationality, or anything else, is going to synthesize Neitzsche with marx or Heidegger with Habermas, we could begin to think of the relation between writers on autonomy and writers on justice as being like the relation between two kinds of tools — as little in need of synthesis as are paintbrushes and crowbars.” (Rorty xiv) He goes on to explain, in lucid and compelling terms, the impact of Freud on ‘the contingency of selfhood’ (If I were writing this book, I would add a section on Darwin and the contingency of species here…), and, in chapter 3, on the contingency of community in a battle between Foucauldian and Habermasian ideals.

I used to have a problem with this kind of “nonteleological view of intellectual history” (Rorty 16), based for me on the foundationalist critique of relativism championed most cogently by Habermas, and here by Michael Sandel: “If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly? In a tragically configured moral universe, such as (Isaiah) Berlin assumes, is the ideal of freedom any less subject than competing ideals to the ultimate incommensurability of values? If so, in what can its privilged status consist? And if freedom has no morally privilged status, if it is just one value among many, than what can be said for liberalism?” Rorty structures his defense around a critique of the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism, but I would suggest that J.S. Mill’s On Liberty provides a non-teleological defense of freedom (of speech, at least) as a ‘keystone value’. From Rorty’s pragmatic perspective, though, the moral foundations of the idea of freedom don’t really matter, and defending “the privileged status of freedom” ends up being somehow counterproductive.

I’ve only made it through the beginning of section two (on irony), and have yet to evaluate his arguments on defending liberalism as an aversion cruelty (he uses Nabokov and Orwell, both authors dear to me, as archetypal examples). His definition of the ‘ironist’, however, is key here: “(1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.” (Rorty 73) I agree with 1 and 2, and only disagree with 3 to the extent that I have arrived at my particular vocabulary–a tenuous blend of anti-speciesist utilitarianism and regulated market democracy–with a critical examination of competing vocabularies. I don’t harbor the believe that any of these vocabularies approach the ‘real’ in some more foundational way than Bentham’s original principle of utility, though (and I think this is where I reluctantly give up Habermas’ appealing but ultimately unconvincing story of “asymptotic approaches) to foci imaginarii” [Rorty 67]).

I want to return to two key themes to show how this discussion ties in to animal studies and food politics: the role of science as arbiter in the fact/value dichotomy and what Sandel called Berlin’s “tragically configured moral universe.”

On the role of science: in a passage from Daniel Dennett’s 2007 TED talk on teaching all religions to primary school students, he makes the claim that teachers should teach students about all of the world’s religions using “no values, just facts”, and that teachers and parents should be allowed to preference one religion over another only after having presented ‘the facts’.  As I laid out in a lecture I gave at a scientific conference in Havana, however, the problem here is that it’s very difficult to present only facts. This is true for many reasons, but a big one is what Rorty dissects in his chapter on Davidson’s contingent theory of language–before we even get beyond the structure of our words, so much of what we’re are saying is value-laden at the level of our syntax and metaphor.

This idea that science–and, by slippery extension, social science–presents privileged facts (as against questionable values) that deserve more moral consideration than ‘mere emotions’ is popping up a lot these days, and my response often depends on what is intended by ‘science’ in any particular context. In some sense, David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal, appears to be tying together a range of work in neuroscience and other disciplines, to make a scientific argument that the economic assumptions about homo economicus are at best only partially valid.

This question of ownership of science is critically important both in discussions of food and animals. When researching on farm animal welfare, I found that all relevant parties I was interviewing–from animal advocacy organizations or livestock trade groups–tried to ‘own’ the relevant science, and to dismiss competing findings as unscientific. This did the USDA refer to stress hormone levels to justify confinement housing, while CIWF (Compassion in World Farming) cited ‘vote with your feet’ studies done by Marion Stamp Dawkins and others on the behavioral preferences of farm animals. Both of these are science. Science can give you all the data you want, but I’m still of the mind that you’re really looking for ‘strictly science-based standards’, you’re never going to make up your mind–that’s where politics and policy have to come in.

This gets us to Berlin’s “tragically configured moral universe.” (‘Tragic’ in the Aristotelean sense that a good person cannot behave ethically in the given situation because of conflicting moral circumstances. For example: Creon can either choose his allegiance to his family, Antigone, or his city-state, Athens, but not both.) My conception of the world as it exists today is similarly tragic, and I think the best we can do is to use something like Rorty’s liberal ironism to navigate between competing visions, and to use this pragmatic dialectic to get to an improved synthesis. The reason Rorty’s vision appeals to me above and beyond Habermas’ similar use of communicative reason is that he allows a more prominent role for the sympathetic education (what he calls the poetic, a distinct but overlapping idea) in priming our moral sensibilities to see the world as a home to myriad sentient beings with recognizable interests. The tragedy, though, is built into Darwinian natural selection–in a world of competition for scarce resources, not all beings can fulfill all of their interests. Something like liberal ironism lets us do the best we can with the tools we have.