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Monday, December 02, 2013

Humanitas and Our Animal Selves/Others

From the Moot to a post written a few years back, "The Future" on the Planet of the Apes, on the topic of "animal uplift," a reader, "Collin" (hey, that's my brother's name! Is Collin a regular reader? I can't think he would be happy with his brother's socialist screeds very much!) raised a few salient points. I haven't written on vegetarianism and animal rights topics for a while, so here's the exchange as a change of pace. Follow the link for "Collin"'s whole criticism, I am quoting only those bits that occasioned a response. "Collin" is italicized, my responses interpresed.
I notice you put scare quotes around "species", as if humanity was something else. No. Humanity has been a distinct and completely isolated species for many thousands of years.

Homo sapiens is a species, "humanity," originating in the Roman humanitas, has always been a civilizational ideal, famously Cicero's ideal orator, and eventually the ground for a presumably universalizing humanism that, historically speaking, one cannot help noticing was never extended to all human beings and tended to amount to entitlements and accomplishments enjoyed by minorities but enabled by the efforts of majorities excluded from that enjoyment.

No value, good or bad, positive or negative, can be placed on any other species, because value itself is a peculiarity of human thought.

It is not only human animals who communicate desires and testify to pleasures and pains on terms that are intelligible to humans, and the peculiarities of human values (plural, not singular, mind you) are so regularly invested in non-humans -- artifacts, ideals, natural phenomena -- that I cannot make sense of your claim, and assume you are stipulating definitions here in ways that are strange to me.

And the framing of anti-bigotry as inclusiveness, rather than dignity, is, and has always been, a mockery.

I do not agree that the attribution of dignity to a being and the inclusion of a being in the set of those who have moral standing are antithetical frames. We share the world with nonhuman animals as well as human ones, and the nonhuman ones are among those who contribute to our sense of the furniture of the world and our sense of flourishing in the world. In another rather early essay, Animal Rites I say more about the political implications of our animal selves/others.

Whatever our differences, you can be sure that my position is not intended as a mockery.


Dale Carrico said...

"Collin" continued the discussion, and I'm re-posting the exchange here for those who didn't want to follow the link to the original:


"The limitations that used to be imposed on the word "humanity", can be written off as casualties of the Culture Wars. It seems to me that the word has reached a stopping-point as a synonym of "homo sapiens". Where I referred to value, a better word would have been valuation. It is a victory of many centuries of anti-bigotry efforts worldwide that it is now considered immoral to valuate any group of humans above or below any other. The discourse space thus emptied of the now undesirable class designations can be filled instead with judgments of each individual person separately. Or, as MLK put it, "the content of their character". I read Animal Rites, and it seems you were struggling to form an opinion on the tendency to try to revive group valuation by weighing humanity (in its current form as a synonym for homo sapiens) against other species. You touched upon the obvious fact that non-humans cannot participate in political contracts, but you seemed to shy away from it. My point is that the entire universe of discourse you're sorting through is indeed peculiar to humans, but this doesn't make us better or worse than other species. It is simply our way of organizing. Other species have other concepts of organization, which are not intelligible to humans. We share with other species some concepts, such as pleasure and pain. But they do not suffice to judge relations between humans. But while talk of physically altering other species to make them similar to us is utter fantasy, the talk of claiming it as a legal fiat is not so easily dismissed. If there were a project to prevent humans from being cruel to great apes, I would be in favor of it. But from what I've seen, the Great Ape Project is about granting personhood rights to great apes -- whatever that's supposed to mean. Great apes are okay as they are; they don't need to be invested with anything. It's humans who need to be divested of the practices of cruelty.

Dale Carrico said...

I replied:

I don't agree that the etymology of humanity or the richness of the history of humanism can be written off as a casualty of the culture wars. I'm not sure I even know what you mean by that. When I teach about recent culture wars I point out that these began in the quarrel des anciens et des modernes in the immediate aftermath of the 30 years war. The many skirmishes over the status of modernity (also late modernity, post modernity, a-modernity, and on and on) reiterate the terms of that quarrel. The history of humanisms is actually linked to this story. It's an interesting topic.

I disagree that bigotry is as unacceptable as it should be, and I am keenly aware of the extent to which emphasis on bigotry as a form of conscious animus can distract from structural operations of bigotry. You probably agree with that, I couldn't really tell from your comment one way or the other.

You write: You touched upon the obvious fact that non-humans cannot participate in political contracts, but you seemed to shy away from it. I assume you refer to the fact that I point out that nobody expects cows to vote and nobody thinks it would be fair to try lions for murder in the veldt. Of course, I don't reduce the field of the political to the making of "political contracts."

I agree that futurological "proposals" of animal uplift are fantasy. They interest me, as I'm sure you know, in the attitudes they symptomize.

My discussion of bestializing discourse and the rest never implied that humans are better or worse than other animals in some aggregate sense. I don't believe in the attribution of collective judgments. I'm not sure what that part was about. When you say "claiming it as a legal fiat is not so easily dismissed" I am not clear what "it" is supposed to be. Animal uplift? Of course that can be dismissed: there are differences that make too much of a difference among nonhuman animal species as there also are between human and nonhuman animals for animal uplift doctrine on my understanding to make any kind of sense as a presumably libertory doctrine.

That said, I agree with you that anti-cruelty politics are good. I am happy to be agnostic on the question whether "personhood" as a category with legal standing might apply to more than human persons. I think animals that attend to the world and testify to suffering in ways that are legible to humans whatever their differences from us register as beings with moral standing in my view -- even if not in the same way that humans do.