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on animals, persons, and things
Symposium on Animals: Part V
Note to our readers: this essay in our ongoing Symposium on Animals comes from guest-author and subscriber David Egan (stay tuned for one more essay on the theme by Tara). David has a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford and has taught at a number of institutions in the UK and North America. He lives in Vancouver and teaches online philosophy classes to the public.
Is an animal a person or a thing? The obvious answer, you might think, is neither. But the desire for conceptual clarity sometimes nudges philosophers into odd dilemmas.
Consider Kant. What makes a person a person for Kant is the capacity for rational reflection. We don’t simply do things; we have reasons for doing them. We can scrutinize those reasons and hold ourselves and others accountable for them. It’s as sources of reasons and as rational deliberators that we become citizens of a ‘Kingdom of Ends’—more like a republic, really—in which all persons recognize one another as having equal moral worth.
We must treat our fellow citizens of the Kingdom of Ends as ends in themselves, says Kant. They are persons too. But only persons have moral worth and it’s only to them that we have moral duties. Whatever lies outside this Kingdom of Ends has no intrinsic worth. The rest of nature is made up of things that have value only insofar as they serve as means to a person’s ends.
Animals have minds but they aren’t rational, so they aren’t citizens of this Kingdom of Ends. That means they aren’t persons on Kant’s reckoning. Kant thinks we can, and ought to, care about the animal-things around us but we only have what he calls indirect duties to them. In particular, routine cruelty to animals hardens the heart and might blunt the natural sympathy we owe to other people. Be kind to the animal-things, says Kant, in order to practice being kind to your fellow human-persons.
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If you don’t share Kant’s philosophical commitments, these contortions can seem needlessly abstruse. But Kant didn’t invent the conceptual snap-to-grid function that sorts the world into persons and things. It remains with us.
Consider the contrast between meat and pets. Shrink-wrapped cuts of meat in a supermarket are reassuringly thing-like. Despite slow improvements in animal welfare laws, the business of bringing meat to market still mostly treats animals as inputs into an industrial process. It’s often said that if people themselves had to kill the animals they eat, far more of us would be vegetarian. Gardeners and smallholders tend to relate differently to the plants they eat as well. Nevertheless, most of us, most of the time, operate in a food economy where the food items on our plates are things.
Pets enjoy most of the markers of personhood. They have names, they’re members of our families and protected by our laws—unlike the pigs in the industrial food system, you can’t abuse a pet pig without incurring serious legal sanction. Pets don’t have moral duties in the way that a full-fledged citizen of Kant’s Kingdom of Ends has, nor the right to vote, but neither do children. And this is the role pets seem to have in our communities: pet parents care for their fur babies who, partly owing to selective breeding, remain in our families in a state of perpetual childlike dependence.
Our treatment of pets is comparatively benign. The pet industry has its raft of ethical blemishes—abuses in puppy mills, the killing of millions of unwanted animals, congenital ailments caused by selective breeding—but a domesticated animal behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance would doubtlessly choose the life of a pet over the life (such as it is) of livestock.
Although we treat pets as persons in many ways, our paradigm for personhood retains a human form. We do a subtler harm to pets in treating them like persons but then expecting them to accommodate themselves to human forms of life. Most pets live in cities, where their mobility is significantly hindered. Dogs have to be on leashes in most urban spaces and many cats don’t get to go outdoors at all. Dogs’ outdoor time has to accommodate the pace of human walkers, whose visual orientation often leaves them impatient with dogs’ tendency to explore the world with their noses. Like the human children they’re bred to resemble, pets are expected to be asexual, and most are spayed or neutered.
Pets as persons and meat products as things. Between person and thing, we seem to have lost our grip on the distinct category of animal, which is neither.
“In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared,” says John Berger in his essay, “Why Look at Animals?” “Today we live without them.” Berger goes on to document the many ways in which animals are more visible than ever, commenting on pets and cartoon characters, as well as zoos and nature documentaries that bring people closer to wild animals. It should surprise us that he describes modern human life as carrying on without animals.
But all of these animals have been rendered marginal, Berger argues, and marginal precisely in their animality. What’s distinctively animal about our pets is suppressed as a way of accommodating them into personhood. Cartoon animals are essentially human beings with animal-like heads. Nature photography and zoos render animals up for our gaze, turning them from subjects into objects (Berger also coined the expression “the male gaze” to describe how Western art renders up sexualized women for men to look at.)
These animals are marginalized not because we don’t look at them, but because we don’t really allow for them to look back at us. Berger writes about an agricultural Europe in which most people lived cheek by jowl with animals they reared for work, clothing, and food. These animals were a partly alien presence in the lives of pre-industrial Europeans. Their lives were intertwined with their human handlers in a way that required deep mutual understanding. But there was also a gulf of incomprehension. When a cow or a horse or a pig looks at you, you experience being seen by a creature that has a perspective on the world—and on you—but that perspective remains somewhat inscrutable.
Berger’s focus is pre-industrial Europe but other similar-but-different stories could be told about other places and times. From Alaska to Australia, people have made sense of their existence in relation to the animals that share their world. What’s common to these diverse understandings is an acknowledgment of animals’ distinctive point of view on the world—they aren’t just things—and a sense of animals’ otherness—they aren’t just furry, feathery, or scaly persons.
For most people, through most of human history, animals have been neighbors: beings who live alongside us, near us yet separate from us. As our neighbors, they’ve opened a window onto a living world that’s larger and more mysterious than the one that’s structured and mediated by human institutions. When ancient people looked up at the heavens, they saw the shapes of animals. The stories and myths by which they made sense of the cosmos were populated by animals. Animals figured prominently in ritual and sacrifice, mediating between the human and the divine.
In these ways and more, animals have been emblems for a world that humans inhabit but can never fully control. Persons you can negotiate with, plead with, threaten. Things you can turn into tools and subject to your will. Unlike things, animals have wills of their own. Unlike persons, they’re hard to communicate with, their minds and motives often unreadable. When we resolve their animal strangeness to the categories of person or thing, we lose some of the mystery of finding ourselves in a world that exceeds our grasp. There’s a point of view there that we can’t imagine our way into. In their strangeness, animals inspire wonder and humility.
When an animal looks at you, what he or she sees is another animal. The experience can be disconcerting. The gaze of an animal strips you of so much of what you took to be your identity. The animal doesn’t care about your professional status or your sense of style. But that stripping down can be instructive. We get a little too wrapped up in those things anyway, and an animal’s indifference to them reminds us that we’re also, before and beneath all that, also animals ourselves.
Being seen by an animal—and allowing myself to feel seen by an animal—jolts me out of my anthropocentric self-absorption. Animals remind me that my own way of being in the world is one form of animal existence among others. The quirks of that bodily existence become more apparent. I have forward-facing eyes that disclose the world in high resolution and rich color—and humans are among the few animals for whom eye contact can signal intimacy as well as aggression. I have arms that rotate along the transverse plane making them ideal for hugging, which helps explain why humans love to hug their pets and why their quadrupedal pets tend to be less keen on the experience. I have prehensile hands, originally adapted for gripping tree branches, which maybe partly explains why I feel such a fondness for trees.
If, in an encounter with a pet, I experience myself as one animal looking at another, I realize something else: I, too, am a domesticated animal and the community I live in is a multi-species community of domesticates. The casual, friendly exchange of looks with a cat or dog contrasts with the frisson of being seen by an animal that’s genuinely wild.
Aristotle defines human beings as rational animals. Both terms in that definition carry weight. That we’re rational distinguishes us from other animals. That we’re animals distinguishes us from the gods. We’re betwixt and between, neither animal nor god—if we follow Aristotle, it’s not the other animals that fall between categories but we ourselves. Aristotle thinks this mixed nature explains why we uniquely grapple with problems of self-control.
Because animals are much closer to hand, especially in a secular age, the rational part of ‘rational animal’ has come to dominate our self-understanding. Our personhood obscures our animality. But recognizing some of that animal strangeness within us can help us relinquish the illusion of control, not just over the world around us, but also over ourselves.
A world enriched with animal beings is one in which we might discover new dimensions to our own existence. Rather than acting on a world furnished with things, we might learn to act in a world in which our form of life is just one among a breathtaking variety.