Friday, August 14, 2009

Why Care About Animals: A response to some questions by Paul Ennis

In my last post on becoming-vegan/vegetarian, Paul raised some pertinent questions that I have not really bothered to answer. I'll attempt to address them, if not exactly answer them, here.

I also think it would be cool, although maybe boring to you, to express why one should engage in animal criticism. I say this geniunely from an outside perspective, but it is not immediately clear why one should have an ethical obligation to animals beyond the casual one we tend to have with pets and not being cruel.

One of the focuses of my own work, and indeed a focus of much of the current work in critical animal studies, is to show how the violence done against other animals connects to violence done against the human animal. This is done in a wide variety of ways, and the literature base of people arguing from this perspective in the last five years has grown in vast amounts. Though a common feature in almost all of these diverse arguments is the impossibility to draw a single (philosophically relevant) line with all humans on one side and all nonhuman animals on the other side. My analytic brethren often refer to this as the species overlap problem. This means the ethicist is left with one of three choices: (1) Include animals (even if not all) based upon whatever criteria they care about. (2) Exclude some human animals from ethical concern. (3) Simply have an irrational ethics.
What has emerged in my work and in so many others is a strong argument for caring about other animals that means someone can support that without, you know, actually caring about other animals. And in some ways this is really useful. If I am talking to someone who cares about rights, or the violence of biopolitics and coloniality, or fighting for the common; I have an entire language and sharp theoretical tools at my disposal to try and make them care about other animals, too. The problem, of course, is that I think we should care about other animals regardless of the fact that our well-being is bound up together. To put it another way, if by some miracle someone was finally able to draw the line between The Human and The Animal, and where able to convince me that we could do violence towards animals without having that violence crossing over to The Human, I would still think we shouldn't do violence towards other animals.
At that moment I lose a lot of my fancy philosophical tools. I really don't know how to make you believe that a factory farm or the vivisection laboratory is evil. I become almost levinasian in those moments, feeling that the other calls out for an ethical response. I have zero reason why the suffering of other animals should not matter to me.

Paul continues his question:
I suppose a big issue from my perspective revolves around the following fact: humans are horrible to other humans. We have never been able to resolve this, but we must keep trying. It is a constant battle etc.

...and how then one can ethically take the stance that we need to extend this to animals (thereby over-extending the already limited sympathy humans seem to possess). Yes pessimistic I know, but I ask only because I'm actually impressed that you guys are willing to take such a radical (and it is radical when you step outside the academy) stance.

This is certainly a question I/we get a lot. And I can understand it. If you don't already believe that other animals are ethically equivalent the human animal, and if you believe that justice is a finite category (which we all know we shouldn't believe, but after years of working with various activist groups I can tell you most people do believe there is not enough justice to go around), than why are we wasting ourselves "on such boutique issues as animal rights." (I think Paul is being far more respectful than this, I just wanted an excuse to make that link. Forgive me).
This is where the earlier analysis of the connection of violence between other animals and human animals is very useful. I am not sure it is possible to create a successful theory to help humans that does not include other animals. Moreover, I think I have a fairly strong historical ground to make this claim. If you look at the historical Vegetarian Society, you can see they were at the forefront of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles in England. All over the Western world I can find that pioneers in fighting for the rights of women and children were also fighters for the rights of animals. This continues to today when so many of the vegans I meet are radicals invested in all sorts of social justice movements.
Though this question of limited sympathies is certainly an interesting question. I think I am on the side of Hume (at least at the level of the framing of the question). We are already social beings, born by definition into a sociality. So the question is not, like Hobbes and Locke would propose, what is the best way to limit the atomistic individual so that we may have a civil society. The question is instead how do extend limited sympathies. So, the artifices we need are not ways of limiting people, but ways of extending people. When I talk about becoming-vegan/vegetarian as a resistant subjectivity, I do mean it as a praxis that is intended to produce such an extension. We need bodies, thinking, and relations that are capable of responding to the demands of the wholly other. We don't need a revolution in the distribution of the goodies of the world, we need a revolution in being.