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Animal Passions

Ralph Blumenau reviews Animals and Why They Matter by Mary Midgley.

Mary Midgley’s book provides us with the philosophical tools which we might use to make specific decisions about the treatment of animals. She does not herself lead us all the way to specific decisions. She does not, for example, come out clearly for vegetarianism on the grounds that killing animals for food is ethically wrong (although she does say that feeding grain to animals in order then to eat the animals is economically much more wasteful than for humans to eat the grain in the first place). She does not make a blanket condemnation of medical experiments being carried out on animals for the benefit of humans. She does not deal with the ethics of culling.

Instead, she examines the general principles that ought to guide our attitude to animals. A large number of philosophers in the past have philosophised about animals; and in the course of her book, Midgley quotes, among others, Montaigne, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Voltaire, Kant, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, R.M.Hare, Stuart Hampshire, and John Rawls. Some of these have considered the question of what obligations, if any, we have towards animals. Their answers have depended both on what they take an animal to be and on what they consider to be the cause, the nature and the range of obligations. Descartes, for example, considered that, because animals lacked souls and, more importantly, reasoning faculties, they are mere machines. Even in Descartes’ day, such a conclusion must have seemed very odd to anyone who had much to do with animals: for even if one agreed that they did lack souls and reasoning faculties, any farmer or hunter could have told Descartes that relationships with animals are radically different from relationships with machines. But even writers of our own time, while not thinking of animals as machines, still deny them the capacity of thought: R.G.Frey because thought requires language and animals cannot speak; Stuart Hampshire because in the absence of language they cannot have concepts. Yet the simplest observations of how animals communicate with each other and even with humans would seem to suggest that thought, concepts and reasoning do not depend totally on a human language. That some philosophers develop theories to the contrary would appear to this reviewer to be a good example of how much at variance some philosophy can be from common sense.

Behaviourists go even further: according to them we cannot even be sure that animals have feelings. We can only observe their behaviour, and it is illegitimate to deduce, from that observation, that animals have feelings, since we cannot observe these feelings directly. Midgley quotes the attacks of many ethologists on such a reductionist theory.

The denial of thought and feelings to animals serve to erect such a strong barrier between the human and the animal species that we can exclude the animal species from the obligations we feel towards our fellow human beings. One of the most striking parts of Midgley’s book is her demonstration of how easily past generations were able to overlook even other humans as belonging to a group towards which they had obligations. Thus the Athenians, who prided themselves on civic equality, and the Americans who proclaimed that all men were created equal, simply assumed that slaves did not count as humans: indeed Aristotle described slaves as being merely “living instruments”. The Chartists demanded universal suffrage for men, but either did not even think of extending that demand to women or, if they did, found some rationalisation for excluding them. The excluded groups were, in Midgley’s words, consigned to the outer darkness, beyond the outer periphery of a group towards the members of which certain obligations were recognised. In the 20th century, denials of full membership of the group and the discrimination which this entails have been condemned under the name of various kinds of ‘-isms’: racism for denying membership to other races, sexism for denying it to women, ageism for denying it to the old – and now speciesism for denying it to animals. Midgley’s book is a sign that the time has come to widen the periphery of our obligations to include animals.

But what is the nature of obligation? In what way are obligations tied up with rights? Midgley says that much of what she calls the “absolute dismissal” of the claims of animals rests on contract theories of obligation such as that put forward in the 17th century by Thomas Hobbes. Such theories assume that obligations are mutual and that they are implicitly or explicitly entered into by the parties to the contract. Justice, Rights and Duties are then defined in terms of whether these contracts are observed or not. Animals cannot enter into contracts with humans, and therefore no mutual bond of obligation exists: we can have no duties towards them and they can enjoy no rights. Hobbes actually says this in so many words; and Kant thought that the only thing necessarily wrong about illtreating animals was not the injury done to the animal but the coarsening of the perpetrator with the consequent danger that he might go on to treat human beings callously also! From the end of the 18th century onwards, philosophers of a more sensitive age made the rather obvious point that morality must include obligations to humans who are not party to such a contract: to the weak and helpless, to babies or to people who are mentally unable to enter into contracts. If our reason does not inform us of such obligations, then our feelings most certainly should; and Hume is cited as one of the philosophers who considers that the laws and obligations of humanity go far beyond the civic law, are just as binding, and can be more compelling.

It is of course true that even today, where vested interests are concerned, not only do people often appear blind to such moral obligations, but they ridicule as sentimental or merely emotional anyone who raises ethical considerations. Midgley incisively dissects the morally and intellectually shoddy arguments with which some battery farmers, experimenters on animals, and opponents of wildlife conservation defend their ‘absolute dismissal’ of obligations towards animals. Such people may also accuse their critics of ‘anthropomorphism’ – that is, of sentimentally and improperly ascribing to animals qualities and feelings that are like human qualities and feelings; but Midgley shows that we have good reasons for interpreting some animal behaviour as expressing feelings of fear, anger, hunger, protectiveness towards the young, and so on, which are indeed very similar to our own feelings.

Perhaps something like half the book is devoted to dealing with such ‘absolute dismissals’ and they make, I think, relatively easy targets. The other half deals with ‘relative dismissals’, which are engaged in by those who do indeed accept that animals are sentient and therefore entitled to some consideration, but who give these considerations a very low priority. Midgley admits that it is natural to be more concerned with those who are closest to us, and she has a diagram of concentric circles to illustrate that we are concerned most immediately with our family, then with our tribe, then with our nation, then with our species, and only then with non-human species. We often treat appallingly badly and cast into the ‘outer darkness’ human groups that are outside the smaller circles; but any ethically sensitive person has to condemn such behaviour: charity, as the proverb has it, begins at home, but it ought not to stop there. This is the principle that should also apply when we consider the outer circle of the non-human species.

Midgley’s tone is always moderate and she never takes up the position of radical or extreme zoophiles who would want us to give to all animals exactly the same rights as we give to humans. She accepts that there must be some priority of considerations and that there can be situations where it is reasonable for us to put the interests of humans before those of animals, though she says that such cases are much fewer than is often supposed. They would include, for example, dealing with locusts and other pests. She does not go into specific details about killing animals for food; but one can deduce from her text that she would accept that Eskimos cannot be vegetarians and are therefore justified to kill for food, and that she does not condemn pastoral societies who treat their animals well prior to slaughtering them. On the other hand she clearly abhors stuffing geese to produce paté de foie gras. She states the general principle that great suffering inflicted on animals on the outer periphery ought to weigh against the minor advantage that this might bring to those within the inner circles. So the great misery that battery farming causes to poultry ought to be allowed to counteract the advantage of cheaper food; the killing of animals purely for sport or entertainment must always be immoral; and, although she does not say so, one would imagine she might justify animal experiments in the search for a cure for cancer or for AIDS, but would disapprove if it were for developing a new cosmetic.

One would like to think that at the end of her examination, Midgley had arrived at positions which most sensitive people would have reached without all that philosophising, guided merely by their humanity and common sense. Most of them would understand instinctively why animals matter; but unfortunately many people give this understanding such a low priority that as citizens they do not do enough to take on the vested interests and those who are too apathetic to care very much. Perhaps this well-written and wise little book would stir them into action.

Animals and Why They Matter by Mary Midgley is published by the University of Georgia Press, 1985, 158 pp, pbk £8.95, hbk £15.95, and distributed by the Eurospan Group.

© Ralph Blumenau 1995

Ralph Blumenau teaches philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London.

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