Humanism’s New Frontiers

In a book tellingly entitled Without Offending Humans. A Critique of Animal Rights,[1]philosopher Elisabeth de Fontenay thus summarizes her disdain for an argument aimed at extending equal moral and legal protection to other than human beings:

What seems most serious is a [passage] that condemns article 3 of the Nuremberg code. Ethico-political insensitivity and a dearth of historical culture seem to join forces in this [passage expressing indignation because], at the time, the judges recommended that any therapeutic or experimental approach bearing on man [sic][2]be preceded by animal experimentation. The Nuremberg tribunal only appears… as the moment and place where animal experimentation was officially legalized. And not at all as the trial and historical moment when magistrates… solemnly declared to the whole world that human experimentation should never happen again… [T]he Nuremberg tribunal then becomes nothing more than the exemplary occurrence of the tie that fatally links the proper of man to the torture and murder of animals.[3]

With truly French ésprit, in her attack de Fontenay here captures two fundamental insights of the current anti-speciesist discourse.

On the one hand, she correctly points to the view that there is a “fatal tie” linking human exceptionalism to the oppression of nonhuman beings. On the other, and even more insightfully, she stresses how the Nuremberg Code may be construed as a milestone in the process of the contemporary institutionalization of animal exploitation.

Both these themes are relevant to a critique of that postwar philosophical discourse which was prompted by the reaction to the racist thanatopolitics – or politics of death – of the Axis powers. Such a discourse, focused on the wretchedness of the persecuted and on their reduction to a disposable naked life, as well as on the resistance to victimization and on the means to prevent its recurrence, appears blind to the fact that thanatopolitical practices are clearly implemented with respect  to nonhumans – that animals in countless numbers are deprived of any form of protection, and that their bodies are subjected to techno-scientific dispositifs effecting their mass maiming and their phenotypical and genotypical manipulation[4].

On the face of it, this is surprising. How can one understand mass subjugation processes if one decries the condition of the inmate of the concentration camp or of the castrated “defective” while turning a blind eye to what occurs in research laboratories and factory farms, which raises the specter of an entirely new phenomenon that resists the parallels with intra-human atrocities and that has been defined as  “deading life” –  life that is not life, life that is not living?[5]Some authors have addressed this problem, pointing to the conditioned ethical blindness of mainstream philosophical approaches. There is, however, another vantage from which such approaches may be considered – one that, starting from the centrality of the notion of humanism, sees deliberateness where there seems to be mere indifference or inadvertence.

According to the plausible reconstruction of an outspoken defender of contemporary humanism, Luc Ferry, supported by other authors,[6]Enlightenment and post Enlightenment speculation looked for something  essentially distinguishing “humanity” from “animality” with the aim of accounting for human superior worth, proposing an array of candidate faculties for the “the proper of man” (le propre de l’homme) or the “specificity of the human” which, ranging from rationality to self-consciousness to the to freedom of the will, were always linked to the possession of demanding cognitive capacities. As a consequence, the humanitasthe champions of humanism had in mind did not correspond to hominitasas we see it today,[7]and the superior moral worth they pointed at wasn’t equally distributed among all the members of the hominid species Homo sapiens.

The impact of this discrepancy is well-known, and critically concerns two kinds of exclusion. On the one hand, inferring humanity from the presence of demanding cognitive capacities implied excluding individuals endowed with a mental level that did not match the required standard – the intellectually disabled, who were in fact either institutionalized or derided and teased in the streets and in public places.  On the other, the bias for the intellectual was put at the service of other biases, and, when considering different peoples, especially those liable to be exploited, it was usual to collectively grant them inferior rational powers, with the foreseeable outcome of removing them from the protected circle, insofar as “naturally inferior to the whites.” In other words, as it has been suggested, “the humanist valorization of man is almost always accompanied by a barely discernable corollary which suggests that some human beings are more human than others.”[8]

Within such a discriminatory framework, apart from philosophical approaches, an important role was played by science, and in particular by the budding discipline of physical anthropology, where many authors defended polygenist racial theories distributing human beings along a hierarchical scale of fixed essences. And the post-Enlightenment explosion of romantic-elitist tendencies in philosophy and of nationalistic and then openly imperialistic attitudes in politics only worsened the situation.

Against this background, at the beginning of past century, two new variants of intra-human discrimination made their appearance. First, a growing eugenics movement started to apply to disabled or otherwise stigmatized members of the species policies including genetic screening, birth control, segregation, compulsory sterilization, and forced abortion.[9]Second, after the Peace treaties of World War I, growing number of stateless people – displaced persons, minorities, refugees, denaturalized individuals –  were deprived of  any legal status and were gradually forced to live under a “law of exception”, in which the routine solution soon became an internment camp.[10]

Though not unchallenged, these new instantiations of anti-egalitarianism were generally accepted. And, probably, they could have continued to stand in the way of present-day humanism, were not for the momentous fact that, just when the eugenics movement was reaching its greatest popularity and the existence of masses of rightless individuals was becoming commonplace in many countries, both phenomena where appropriated and heightened by the Nazi regime. For one thing, eugenics was appealed to as a justification for population policies which gradually came to involve the sterilization or killing of thousand of “unfit” humans under the T4 Program. For the other, it was in the camps of the Third Reich that the reduction to total powerlessness of human beings was carried to the extreme consequences, subjecting the bodies of the “racially inferior” to such practices as in vivo scientific experimentation.

The close connection thus established between the Nazi regime and eugenics and ethnic cleansing changed the course of history. After World War II, the universal reaction to the euthanasia programs and extermination camps was the wall against which the previously rising waves of official segregation and discrimination programs broke. The shock was so great that humanism was re-founded. And the new global discourses surrounding human dignity of the second half of the past century were so strongly marked by the recent horrors that they devoted themselves to reinforcing the species barrier.

On the scientific side, stances which had previously been pushed to the margins –we know for example, of an abandoned project by the Institute for Intellectual Co-operation to arrange in 1935 a conference aimed at declaring that race prejudice constituted a global menace[11]–  regained status in the field. They affirmed, firstly in mainly sociological and ethnological terms, and soon later within a more hard-science framework, an egalitarian vision condemning racism, in whose context the concept of race was defined as a merely “classificatory device providing a zoological frame within which the various groups of mankind may be arranged,” thus implicitly admitting that biological aspects in themselves do not carry any moral import, and where it was stated that “available scientific knowledge provides no basis for believing that the groups of mankind differ in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development,”[12]  thus decrying group discrimination but  skipping the question of single individuals actually deprived of such potential. To this, one must add the more popular version of egalitarianism offered by article 1 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights United Nations, which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”[13]

If one thinks that the goal of the postwar political discourse was to reformulate, against the preceding abuses, what  allegedly distinguishes “humanity” from “animality” with the aim of accounting for human superior and equal moral worth, the situation seems rather tangled. On the one hand, the traditional intellectual bias – the appeal to cognition in the form of the “innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” or of the possession of “reason and conscience” – could perpetuate the exclusion of just the most vulnerable members of the species. On the other, the veiled reference to genetic relationship – the “spirit of brotherhood” (just as the reference to “the human family” in the Preamble to the declaration) – was in sharp contrast with the anti-biologistic stance embodied in the construal of the concept of race merely as “classificatory device providing a zoological frame.”

Confronted with all this, the postwar philosophical defenders of human superior and equal worth – philosophers who, whether they define themselves as humanist, anti-humanist or post-humanist, can be globally classified as “humanistic thinkers” in the elemental sense of endorsing an approach centered on human superiority – looked for different solutions.

A few exemplary perspectives can provide a picture of the situation. According to Emmanuel Levinas, who countered the historical atrocities he ascribed to a construal of the human being as an active and consuming entity by defending an ethics focusing on a radical passivity to the demands of the Other, “man is the being who recognizes saintliness and the forgetting of self… man is not only the being who understands what being means… but the being who has already heard and understood the commandment of saintliness in the face of the otherman.”[14]Giorgio Agamben, on the other hand, in his determined effort to diagnose the experience of extermination camps, while commenting that determining the border between human and animal is a fundamental metaphysico-political operation in which alone something like “man” can be produced, claims that the thesis which summarizes the lesson of Auschwitz isthat “man is the one who can survive man”, and that, since the one whose humanity is completely destroyed is the one who is truly human, the identity between human and inhuman is never perfect, so that “it is not truly possible to destroy the human”[15]. In a rather different vein, Alain Badiou, arguing against what he sees as a perspective too much focused on the aspect of being a victim, which forgets the possibility of revolution and reduces man to his “animal substructure,” claims that “Man” is to be identified by the determination to remain something other than a mortal being, and that the fact that in the end we all die, that only dust remains, “in no wayalters Man’s identity as immortal at the instant in which he affirms himself as someone who runs counter to the temptation of wanting-to-be-an-animal.” [16]

Such a radical deviation from traditional humanistic foundationalism is even more evident in philosophers trained in the Anglo-American analytic traditionbut frequently interacting with the continental tradition such as Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell, who defend human ethical exceptionalism by appeals to relational frames of reference. Thus, if Rorty suggests that the best argument for bypassing the foundationalist question “What isman?” is that it would be more productive to do so, because it would favor concentrating energies on a manipulation of sentiments aimed at “expand[ing] the reference of the terms ‘our kind of people’ and ‘people like us’,”[17]Stanley Cavell, after suggesting a possible connection between the refusal of the subjection of animals and a wish to declare distance from “one’s fellow human animals,”  bluntly concludes that, in response to reminders of the company we may keep with nonhumans, what he would like to say is simply, “I am human.”[18]

What does this all mean? When all the dust is settled, it means that these postwar theoretical defenders of humanism opted for an old/new solution: the introduction, albeit in sophisticated ways, of  folk concepts into philosophical reflection. If neither the appeal to biology nor the appeal to cognition are apt to guard the “abyssal rupture” between human and nonhuman beings, because they would legitimate just those forms of intra-human discrimination that the new egalitarian discourse aimed at eliminating, a different identification of humanitascould perhaps fill the gap.

Recently, David Livingstone Smith has subjected the folk-concept of the human to a close analysis. What he argues is that being human “is more like being here than it is like being water.” It can be useful to sum up, and elaborate on, his argument[19].

A folk concept isa part of the apparatus of a society, which plays a role in the operations of that society. A folk-concept is a product of  a community – it is a concept which shapes people’s vision of their living environment, and which is not consciously articulated, but lived in an embodied way with its incorporated values. We make sense of the world by classifying the things around us. We sort them into categories and, though some categories are analytic ones, we mostly use non-analytic or folk categories, corresponding to our ordinary, everyday ways of classifying things. Some folk-categories correspond precisely to, e.g., analytic scientific categories. A famous example is “water”: anything that’s a bucket of water is also a bucket of H2O, and vice versa. But not every folk category is reducible to an analytic one. An example is the category “weed”: weeds do not have any biological properties that distinguish them from non-weeds. In fact, one could know everything there is to know biologically about a plant, but still not know that it is a weed, because weeds exist only in virtue of certain social conventions. The category “human,”  Livingstone Smith argues, has more in common with the folk category “weed” than it does with the category “water.” However, in contrast with  the term “weed,” where, the varied and vague content – a plant that grows rapidly, or that reproduces aggressively, or that takes root in the wrong place – is coupled with a negative connotation – “a plant with undesirable qualities” –  the evaluative character of the folk category “human” is decidedly positive. Not haphazardly, it has been quite common for people to count all and only members of their own ethnic group as human beings – a phenomenon on the basis of which native populations call themselves “men,” while others are something else − perhaps not defined−but not real men.[20]Analogously, in our more egalitarian world, where “member of the human family” has replaced “member of one’s ethnic group,” classifying organisms as human is not a morally innocent exercise in descriptive taxonomy, as clearly “attributing humanity carries immense moral weight, and denying it to a creature diminishes its moral status.”[21].

In this light, “human” in the contemporary situation – just like “men” in the situation of native peoples – in its commendatory sense is most perspicuously understood as an indexical folk-concept. An indexical concept is a concept which gets its content from the contexts in which it is uttered. Just as the word “I” names the person uttering “I,” the word “human” names the speaker’s own class (“those like me”) – a class which is seen as a set of beings with a shared, distinctive nature.[22]On the one hand, unlike what happens in the paleoanthropological literature, where “human” is for the most part equated with Homo sapiens, in folk taxonomies, as noticed, being human is equated with membership of one’s native group. On the other, however, just  like what happens in biological taxonomy, where species saliently stand out as beacons on the landscape of biological reality[23], ethnic groups saliently stand out as beacons in the social landscape. And since salience is, at least to some degree, a function of the speaker’s interests and context, it is fair to interpret the folk-concept of “human” as referring to the maximally salient category –  in this case, not a specific ethnic group, as in the paradigmatic form of racism, but the wider community of “our kind” – to which the speaker regards herself as belonging – something which clearly explains the positive evaluative character of the concept, quite independently from any specific substantive content.

It has been claimed that the formof racial thinking might reflect a deep feature of our cognition, whereas the contentof ethnoracial categories is historically contingent[24]. Thus, if for colonial slaveholders “white” and “black” were salient folk categories, which were slided into an intuitive taxonomy, for human beings – including (most) philosophers – “human” and “nonhuman” are equally salient folk categories, endowed with such a strong evaluative charge that the appeal to membership has become the banner of those among Homo sapienswho risk exclusion or demotion, as expressed by the anti-discrimination declaration of affiliation “I am a human being”.

As mentioned, the postwar philosophical attempt to defend human exceptionalism was concerned with preserving special human dignity in the face of the horrors of eugenics and ethnic cleansing. This means that, to defend humanism’s inclusive side – the view that all human beings have equal worth – bypassing the Scylla of biologism and the Charybdis of intellectual bias that plagued public discourse, it strongly concentrated on humanism’s exclusive side – the view that only human beings have special worth.[25]And manifestly, as a tool for the work of boundary drawing, an indexical folk-concept of the human, given the discriminating role it has traditionally played in the operations of human communities,offers many advantages.

On one hand, the non-analyticity of folk concepts stands in the way of the universalizing enterprise of showing that it is morally arbitrary to exclude nonhumans from basic equality. For, if this enterprise is based on an attack on the elements used to draw the dividing line, how can the attack be developed in the face of a concept of the human where implausible contents draw their force from an indexical element whose invocation is something so connatural to any conscious being that “it goes without saying because it comes without saying” – which means that it tends to be unquestioned.[26]

In Rorty and Cavell, the appeal to the indexical aspect is so prominent as to make it almost unnecessary to give any actual content to the concept, apart of course from the unstated bases for the similarity evoked by such expressions as “like us” or “fellow.” And if in Levinas, Agamben and Badiou, we are indeed presented with some actual content, it is clear that, here too, what really does the trick as far as the severance ofhumans from the other animals is concerned is the covert introduction of the flattering aspect of the indexical weas contrasted to the others. For, just as improbable views defending white supremacy such as the construal of whites as reluctant civilizers[27]were easily accepted by the self-congratulatory weof the North Atlantic colonizers, so what, if not the gratified weof human beings, might grant plausibility to such improbable markers of humanity as those entailed by the idea that man is the being who recognizes the forgetting of self, or that man is the being who can survive man, or that man is to be identified by the determination to remain something other than a mortal being?

Thus, while it might prima facie appear that the heterodox refounders of humanism have obtained the hoped for result – that they have indeed protected the human citadel – this is manifestly a Pyrrhic victory. Paraphrasing Pierre Bourdieu, one might say that their concept of being human is an indexical folk-concept which, while being smuggled into moral analysis, has imported into it a whole cultural unconscious, and that “this is why this ‘concept’ works so well, or too well.”[28]Actually, in dealing with  the most serious question confronting any moral agent – how to treat other beings – what was meant to be a philosophical achievement was purchased only at the price of giving up just what distinguishes theoretical reflection from mere self-serving speculation. Indeed, to return to de Fontenay’s words, this is only one further occurrence “of the tie that fatally links the proper of man to the torture and murder of animals.”



[1] Elisabeth de Fontenay, Without Offending Humans. A Critique of Animal Rights(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).  The original title is somehow less aggressive: Sans offenser le genre humain: Réflexions sur la cause animale (Paris: Albin Michel, 2008).

[2] The use of the term “man” instead of “human” in the literature under consideration is so frequent that the repeated insertion of “[sic]” would disturb the reading of the text. I shall therefore  avoid it in what follows.

[3] Elisabeth de Fontenay, Without Offending Humans, cit., pp. 58-63.

[4] See Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (New York: Lantern Books, 2002).

[5] See James Stanescu, “Beyond Biopolitics: Animal Studies, Factory Farms, and the Advent of Deading Life,” PhaenEx 8 (2), 2013, pp. 135–160.

[6] See  Luc Ferry, “Sur les droits de l’homme,” Lecture delivered on April 21, 2008, at the Institut français de Prague, alsoJohn Rodman, “Animal Justice: The Counter-Revolution in Natural Right and Law”, Inquiry 22 (1-4), 1979, pp. 3-22.

[7] For the distinction between humanitasand hominitassee Raymond Corbey, The Metaphysics of Apes. Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 94.

[8] See Leela Gandhi,  Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 29.

[9] See Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka, cit., chapter 2.

[10] See Hannah Arendt,  The Origins of Totalitarianism(London: A Harvest Book, 1968), p. 279.

[11] See Unesco International Social Science Bulletin, 2 (3), 1950, p. 385, at

[12] Unesco Statement on the Nature of Race and Race Differences (1951), at

[13] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at

[14] Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence(London: The Athlone Press, 1999), p. 180.

[15] Giorgio Agamben, The Open(Stanford, Ca: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 21, and id., Remnants  of Auschwitz (New York: Zone, 2002), pp. 133-134.

[16] Alain Badiou,Ethics(London: Verso 2001), p. 12.

[17] Richard Rorty, “Human rights, rationality, and sentimentality” in S. Shute and S. Hurley, eds., On Human Rights. Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993(New York: Basic Books, 1993), pp.112-134.

[18] Stanley Cavell, “Companionable Thinking” in A. Crary, ed., Wittgenstein and the Moral Life (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007),  pp. 295-296.

[19] David Livingstone Smith, “Indexically yours: Why being human is more like being here than it is like being water,” in R. Corbey and A. Lanjouw, eds., The Politics of Species: Reshaping our Relationships with Other Animals, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 40-52.

[20] A particularly striking example among many is offered by the members of an ethnic group of New Guinea who  call themselves “the Asmat” – which means “the people – the human beings,” while all outsiders are known very simply as Manowe – “the edible ones.” See John Edwards, Language and Identity: An Introduction(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 36.

[21] David Livingstone, “Indexically yours,” cit., p. 42.

[22] It’s no coincidence that, as George R. Stewart observed, “many tribal names are – at least in primitive stages of culture – not formal designations, but merely equivalentsof the pronoun ‘we’.”  See George R. Stewart, Names on the Globe(New York: Oxford University Press, 1975) p. 68.

[23] See Brent Berlin, Ethnobiological Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 53.

[24] Edouard Machery and Luc Faucher, “Social construction and the concept of race,” Philosophy and Science 72, 2005, pp. 1208-19, cited in David Livingstone, “Indexically yours,” cit., p. 50.

[25] On the distinction between the inclusive and the exclusive side of humanism, see Paola Cavalieri, “Consequences of Humanism, or, Advocating What?”, in M. DeKoven and M. Lundblad, eds., Species Matters: Humane Advocacy and Cultural Theory(New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), pp. 49-73.

[26] For the notion that “what is essential goes without saying because it comes without sayingsee Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 169.

[27] See e.g. the favorable stir created by Rudyard Kipling’ poem “The White Man’sBurden.”

[28] See Pierre Bourdieu, (with L Wacquant) “Towards a reflexive sociology: a workshop with Pierre Bourdieu,” Sociological Theory, 7 (1), 1989, p. 38.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1