The Ruses of Reason

Strategies of Exclusion

Are animals “bons à penser” (good to think [with])?1 According to French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the answer to this question is positive. As is well-known, Levi-Strauss’s claim referred to the specific role played by animals in symbolic thought. But if one asked the same question in a more general sense, the answer could be very different. In Western culture, the role most often played by animals is that of negative term of comparison within a discourse directed at establishing human superiority. This very role can generate the suspicion that self-serving distortions may permeate claims and arguments, and that human thinking in general, and human ethical reflection in particular, may be at its weakest when nonhuman animals are the subjects. In fact, it was recently suggested that if one looks at our philosophical history, one finds that “admirable theorists, who have been giving scrupulous and impartial attention to other questions tend, when the animal issue heaves up its head, to throw the first argument which occurs to them and run”.2

The results of a survey of the claims advanced during the centuries with an eye to drawing a line between Homo sapiens and the members of other species – a line having to do with the rules as to “what can be used, eaten or killed, and what not”3, that is, with the arrangement of beings in the moral community – seem to confirm such harsh judgment. I have argued elsewhere that no conclusive argument can be advanced in defense of the attribution of an inferior basic moral status to intentional members of species other that our own.4 What is offered here is instead a sort of catalogue and critique of the problematic claims which  accompany the course of our philosophical reflection and which have been advanced by authors from the most disparate schools and ages with the more or less avowed goal of excluding nonhumans from moral protection. Several of such claims were advanced with reference to some human beings: but in these cases too animals were involved as absent referents – that is, as beings whose treatment is appropriated as a metaphor for the treatment of other beings5 –  and in fact the humans in question were “animalized” or “dehumanized”.

In what follows the arguments I am examining are grouped not by date or author, but by their defects.

Rejecting Evidence

The first category is that of plain falsehoods, or false statements. Obviously, false statements can be more or less easily refutable. Just to give an example, it is one thing to refute the statement that it is impossible for a woman to run faster than a man, and quite another to rebut the claim that a particular illness is caused by a particular virus. In view of this complicating factor, the occurrences of falsehood which are given center stage here are confined to the less uncontroversial.

For instance, every sensible person thinks that rationalist philosopher René Descartes’ claim that animals are mere natural automata, acting “mechanically, like a clock which tells the time better than our judgment does”,6 is patently false – indeed, David Hume observed that “[n]ext to the ridicule of denying an evident truth, is that of taking much pains to defend it; and no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant”.7 Even the allegation that, if animals could speak, they could as easily communicate their thoughts to us as to their fellows, since they “have many organs which are allied to our own” is false, as we know that the capacity for producing consonants is, for physical reasons, the prerogative of very few vocal systems.8 But in the former “automata” case there were scholars who for decades saw the claim as worth defending, and in the latter a detailed scientific evidence wasn’t as yet available. There is, however, a further statement by Descartes which can be questioned in the easiest way – that is, by merely by pointing to a single contrary instance. In the context of his attempt to show that, unlike humans, nonhumans are mere machines, Descartes states:

“For it is a very remarkable fact that there are no men so depraved and stupid, without even excepting idiots, that they cannot arrange different words together, forming of them a statement by which they make known their thoughts”.9

Unfortunately, the contrary instances here are – and have always been – many more than a single one. In the words of a German professor of Special Education, among severely intellectually disabled people, there are individuals who “[do] not respond to any stimuli in a perceptible way, [are] unable to take part in communication, and cannot react to other people or [their] surrounding at all”.10 Descartes himself could not but be aware of this, as we know that in the seventeenth century small hospitals for the sick lodged lots of disabled people – among which them individuals with severe impairments – rejected by their families, and turned into targets for public amusement and ridicule.11 Nonetheless, the commitment to his implausible thesis of a radical dichotomy between ourselves and the other animals led him to reject evidence all around him.

Another impressive case of turning one’s face away from reality is offered by Arthur Schopenhauer, the nineteenth century German author who is credited as an outspoken philosophical defender of animals, due to his attack on Kant’s view of animals and to his advocating an extension of compassion beyond the boundary of the human species.12 In the context of his condemnation of cruelty to animals, Schopenhauer gets to the issue of the requirement of vegetarianism, and here is what he writes:

“For the rest, we may observe that compassion for sentient beings is not to carry us to the length of abstaining from flesh, like the Brahmans. This is because, by a natural law, capacity for pain keeps pace with the intelligence; consequently men, by going without animal food, especially in the North, would suffer more than beasts do through a quick death, which is always unforeseen; although the latter ought to be made still easier by means of chloroform. Indeed without meat nourishment mankind would be quite unable to withstand the rigours of the Northern climate”.

Quite apart from the alleged relation between “capacity for pain” and “intelligence”, and from the biased balancing of human and nonhuman interests, the last sentence of this passage is amazing. Peter Singer tersely comments that Schopenhauer “gives no basis for [the] geographical distinction” between the regions where the Hindus live and the “Northern” regions.13 And we can add that already in Schopenhauer’s time his claim could be easily belied, if not by good medical advice, by the fact that Great Britain harbored a significant vegetarian movement, which was starting to spread in other European countries.

The last instance of falsehood we shall mention is a little more peculiar, and this for two reasons. First, because the author in question, Claude Levi-Strauss, is, according to a custom we too have followed in the opening lines, usually classified as an anthropologist rather than as a philosopher, though he now also tends to be spoken of as one of the philosophical founders of structuralism, the approach according to which the elements of a set must be understood in terms of their relationship to the entire system. Second, because the involved claim is less directly falsifiable than the ones previously considered.14 While discussing at the end of the 1940’s the relationship between nature and culture with an eye to the animal/human distinction, Levi-Strauss states:

“The social life of monkeys does not lend itself to the formulation of any norm. Whether faced by male or female, the living or the dead, the young or the old, a relative or a stranger, the monkey’s behavior is surprisingly changeable. Not only is the behavior of a single subset inconsistent, but there is no regular pattern to be discerned in collective behavior”.

Such a claim is particularly surprising. When Levi-Strauss wrote, the discipline of primatology was living through a period of rapid growth. Indeed, Levi-Strauss himself mentions some of the relevant literature. Since among the works cited there is Solly Zuckerman’s famous book The Social life of Monkeys and Apes, we can directly entrust the rejoinder to Zuckerman, who, in a further edition of the volume thus refutes the Levi-Strauss’s dismissive judgment at three different levels. First, he states that, far from being inconsistent, the behavior of monkeys and apes reveals a versatility which is “the expression of a clearly-defined dynamic as opposed to rigid pattern of social behavior”. Then, he argues that the specific characteristics of nonhuman primate behavior are identical with certain features of the behavior of the primitive human group. And finally, and quite sensibly, he objects that if the behavior of “creatures from which we were evolved” had been as rigidly specialized as, e.g., the behavior of ants, it would have been impossible to conceive of a process leading towards humanity.15 (The reference to insects is especially interesting, and we shall come back to it.)

Replacing Arguments with Beliefs

In periods in which religious and philosophical reflection tended to overlap, such as, for example, the Middle Ages one obviously finds a number of both direct and oblique appeals to authority, or, to use a term coined by Jeremy Bentham,  “ipsedixitisms” (from the Latin “Ipse dixit”, “He, himself, said it”). Ipsedixitisms are given as though no supporting argument is necessary, with the result that mere assertions are smuggled into arguments. For obvious reasons, their use is particularly frequent within defenses of discriminations, and this both in the nonhuman and in the intra-human case.

As far as nonhumans are concerned, good examples are offered by Christian authors. For example, in his Summa Theologica – a great theological work with philosophical ambitions written in the second half of the Thirteenth Century and revolving around a collection of disputations – Thomas Aquinas asks whether it might be “a sin to slay dumb animals and plants”.16 And, though his negative reply is also supported by some arguments – which will be examined later – Aquinas makes in this context ample use of appeals to authority. Of course, he mentions the commandments of “God Himself”: “Everything that moveth and liveth shall be meat to you” (Gn. 9:3), commenting that “[a]ccording to the Divine ordinance the life of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves but for man”. But he also refers to Aristotles’s dictum that “it is not unlawful if man use plants for the good of animals, and animals for the good of man” (Polit. i, 3) as well as to Augustine’s statement that “by a most just ordinance of the Creator, both their life and their death [i.e., of animals and plants] are subject to our use” (De Civ. Dei i, 20). Thus, apart from God, the authority of both Greek philosophers and Christian authors are called upon to grant plausibility to a problematic ethical move.

Among the latter, the fourth century theologian Augustine of Hippo was certainly a good choice, as his work as well, as it is apparent from the quotation above, was embedded in appeals to authority in the form of appeals to “faith” – something that, despite any philosophical disguise, relies by definition on beliefs that do not rest on logic or evidence. And, against the background of the theological fights of the Fourth Century CE, such appeals were not only explicit – “And first Christ shows your abstention from killing animals… to be the greatest superstition”17 – but also more circuitous, as it is the case with the general view that God brings good out of evil, on the basis of which we are told that those who question the suffering of animals “have a perverted sense of values”, since they do not understand that such suffering produces the greater good of making us recognize the striving for unity of the “lower living creatures” and, accordingly, the superior unity of God.18

In a sense, however, given the contexts and agendas of both Augustine and Aquinas, all this, though regrettable, is not wholly surprising. What is more surprising is instead that the long shadow of such an approach casts itself well over the Seventeenth Century, that is, the age of the scientific revolution. In fact, if there is a discourse most decidedly conditioned by a complex system of external, extra-philosophical, prohibitions and demands emanating from religious power, it is that of one of the founding father of modern philosophy, that is, once again, Rene Descartes. Indeed, starting from the famous passage in which he declares his commitment to adhere “constantly to the religion in which by God’s grace, [he] had been instructed since [his] childhood”,19 one can detect in Descartes’ work a number of tributes to the dogmas of faith – and this also with reference to the status of nonhuman beings. Consider e.g. the following excerpt:

“I have here enlarged a little on the subject of the soul, because it is one of the greatest importance. For next to the error of those who deny God, which I think I have already sufficiently refuted, there is none which is more effectual in leading feeble spirits from the straight path of virtue, than to imagine that the soul of the brute is of the same nature as our own; and that in consequence, after this life we have nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than the flies and ants”.20

Isn’t all this argument revolving around religious beliefs accepted as authoritative? Cannot one detect, looming in the background of such a passage, a veiled reference to the absolute degree of appeals to authority – that argument “by authority of the scepter that occurs when, either implicitly or explicitly, a threat of force is made? A subject “of the greatest moment”, an error “already sufficiently refuted”, another error exceptionally “powerful in leading feeble minds astray from the straight path of virtue”…. Indeed, the threat of the Inquisition seems to hang over not only the reader, but the timid philosopher himself.21

Trifling with consistency

Falsehoods and ipsedixitisms are serious flaws for any philosophical position. Their very conspicuousness, however, makes them easily questionable. The situation is different with other, subtler defects. Among them are forms of inconsistency. The lower discernibility of inconsistencies, however, does not make them less serious faults. For it is clear that any position which implies mutually inconsistent claims, or is based on internally inconsistent arguments, is untenable.

And the history of discourse on nonhuman animals pullulates teems with inconsistencies. Quite apart from the recourse to appeals to authority, for example, Augustine’s treatment of the animal issue is characterized by a number of conflicting claims. On the one hand, commenting on the view that the killing of animals is wrong, Augustine maintains that “we see and appreciate from their cries that animals die with pain”.22 On the other, as we have seen,23 apropos of the problem represented in theodicy  (the vindication of God’s justice in the face of the existence of evil) by the question of the suffering of the innocents, he grants animal pain a pedagogical value, insofar as, by commending  the vigor of the animal soul, it points to the “ineffable unity of the Creator”. Then, he claims that, since a condemnation of the destruction of animals is the ridiculous outcome of a perception conditioned by our own mortality, we are commanded to make “an act of faith” rather than criticize the Creator’s master­piece.24 Finally, with reference to the problem of the presence in animals of those labor pains he sees as the penalty for original sin, he observes that first, we don’t know what animals feel when they give birth – “do their sounds portend joyous song or grief?” – and second, that it is pointless to dwell on such a matter, for if animals don’t suffer labor pains, the problem doesn’t exist, and if they suffer them, the real punishment lies in the fact that humans must share with animals this condition, and such a punishment would be supremely unjust weren’t it caused by the original sin.25 Thus, if one tries to recapitulate all this, one finds on the one hand that we see and appreciate that animals suffer, but also that we do not know whether their vocalizations portend pleasure or suffering; and on the other, that animal suffering is meant to make us aware of God’s unity, but also that it can lead us astray, so that we must make an act of faith to avoid criticizing God’s work. But this is not all. As it has been noticed,26 in the final discourse one can find something assimilable to the “kettle logic” recorded by Freud apropos of the man who, being charged with having damaged a borrowed kettle, retorted first, that he had given the kettle back undamaged, then, that the kettle was already defective; and finally, that he had never borrowed the kettle at all. To paraphrase Freud, so much the better: if only a single one of the  different lines of defense were to be accepted, Augustine would feel safe.27

Another conspicuous example of inconsistency concerns a specific formulation of a deep-seated view about our treatment of animals which can be thus summarized: though animals, as mere means, are excluded from the moral community, there are limits to what can be done to them – limits that are dictated by the fact that our behavior towards animals can rebound upon our behavior towards the only true objects of moral concern, that is, other human beings. The most famous formulation is the one offered by Immanuel Kant, the primary proponent of deontological ethics, against the background of his ends/means doctrine – a doctrine whose general justification will not be challenged in this context,28 where the focus is only on its local application and internal coherence. In the Lectures on Ethics,29 Kant states:

“[S]o far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man. We can ask, ‘Why do animals exist?’ But to ask, ‘Why does man exist?’ is a meaningless question. Our duties toward animals are merely indirect duties toward humanity.  Animal nature has analogies to human nature, and by doing our duties to animals in respect of manifestations of human nature, we indirectly do our duty towards humanity. Thus, if a dog has served his master long and faithfully, his service, on the analogy of human service, deserves reward, and when the dog has grown too old to serve, his master ought to keep him until he dies. Such action helps to support us in our duties towards human beings, where they are bounden duties”.

If, with some effort, we forget about the irritating dogmatism of the claim that  “to ask, ‘Why does man exist?’ is a meaningless question”, what we are left with is: a) animals are mere means; b) accordingly, we have no direct duties towards them; c) however, animal nature has analogies to human nature; d) accordingly, we have duties towards animals that are in fact indirect duties towards humanity. But the question is: is the sense in which animal nature has analogies to human nature a morally relevant sense or not? If not, there is no ground for the fear that a certain kind of behavior could rebound upon the behavior towards the only beings that matter morally, namely, human beings. If, however, the answer is yes, then the risk of passing from cruelty towards nonhumans to cruelty towards humans arises from the fact that in the former case as well we violate direct duties. Kant, instead, contradictorily maintains that the analogies aren’t morally relevant and that we must anyway fear a negative impact on our duties towards humanity.

Traditional ends/means doctrines of Kantian ascent are (in)famously discriminatory towards nonhuman beings. The contrary holds in the case of a different strand in moral philosophy – that is, utilitarianism. Starting at least from Jeremy Bentham, utilitarian philosophers have shown a strong tendency to grant moral consideration to animals, and  John Stuart Mill is no exception. Indeed, he is even willing to employ the attitude towards animals as a test of the soundness of his doctrine: “Granted that any practice causes more pain to animals than it gives pleasure to man; is that practice moral or immoral? And if, exactly in proportion as human beings raise their heads out of the slough of selfishness, they do not with one voice answer ‘immoral’, let the morality of the principle of utility be forever condemned”.30 And yet, the tendency to neglect the members of other species is so deep-rooted that, apropos of the issue, even Mill incurs inconsistency – in this case, inconsistency in the application of his own stated principles. In On Liberty, while discussing liberty in the religious sphere, Mill considers the possible objections to an extension of the prohibition against eating pork in force among Moslems to non-Moslems living in Islamic countries. After excluding the possibility of criticizing such extension as religious persecution, since “nobody’s religion makes it a duty to eat pork”,  he states that the only tenable ground of condemnation would be “that with the personal tastes and self-regarding concerns of individuals the public has no business to interfere”. This is a curious reply. For Mill seems not to notice that what he is considering is a situation covered by his harm principle – “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his [sic] will, is to prevent harm to others” –  insofar as it inherently revolves around the violation of some interests, namely, the interests of the pig (or “pork”). How, then, can he imply that we are merely dealing with the  “personal tastes and self-regarding concerns of the individuals”? Clearly, he can do so only because, in patent contradiction with his so powerfully avowed stance, he does not really rank nonhuman beings among the “others” with whose protection the public as the right to interfere.31

Muddling Things up

Because the validity of deductive arguments depends on their form, formal fallacies –  deductive arguments that have an invalid form – are fallacies par excellence. There are, however,  modes of reasoning whose flaw is not in the form of the argument –  modes that have been classified as informal fallacies. Since Aristotle, informal fallacies have been ranked in several categories. Prominent among them are the fallacies ensuing from ambiguities. An ambiguity results when the same term is employed with different meanings – for instance when, in a syllogism, the middle term is used in one sense in the major and in another in the minor premise, so that in fact there are not three, but four terms (“All heavy things have a great mass; This is heavy fog; therefore this fog has a great mass”).

A flagrant example of this fallacy can be seen in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles.32 Aquinas is rejecting the view that “dumb animals” have an immortal soul, and, after alleging that in animal souls “we find no activity higher than the activities of the sentient part”, he states:

“Every form separated from matter is actually understood. Thus the active intellect makes impressions actually understood, inasmuch as it abstracts them. But if the soul of a dumb animal remains after the body is gone, it will be a form separated from matter. Therefore it will be form actually understood. But ‘in things separated from matter understanding and understood are the same’ (De Anima, III, iv, 13). Therefore the soul of a dumb animal will have understanding, which is impossible”.

According to a famous list of stratagems, this line of reasoning could be classified as a the trick “to extend a proposition to something which has little or nothing in common with the matter in question but the similarity of the word; then to refute it triumphantly”.33 Actually, what is here used in two senses is not a word, but a phrase, “separated from matter”, but the result is the same, so much so that even the nineteenth century Jesuit Joseph Rickaby, a resolute opponent of the idea of animal rights, cannot fail to notice the fallacy. We can give the floor to him: “The term ‘separated from matter’ is here used in two senses — (a) of a logical separation by abstraction, logô; (b) of a real separation in nature, phusei. Aristotle’s saying means that the universal, as such, exists only in mind. But the departed soul of a bear, if it be at all, is not a universal”.34 In other words, Aquinas reaches the desired conclusion only by taking profit of an homonymy, that is, by making recourse to two notions that are covered by the same word.

And, regrettably enough, one might say the same of a crucial passage in the very David Hume who, from an empiricist standpoint, so emphatically defended the idea that nonhumans are “endow’d with thought and reason as well as men”. In his seminal Inquiry into the Principles of Morals, Hume, after claiming that justice is an “artificial virtue”, envisages the circumstances of justice, that is, those conditions in whose absence justice would be useless. John Rawls, who accepts Hume’s characterization of such circumstances, summarizes them under three headings: moderate scarcity, moderate selfishness, and relative equality. As for the first two, Hume’s argument is plain enough: if there was a superabundance of resources, or unlimited altruism, then there would be no need for rules of justice, since there would be no threat of justice. What interests us here, however, is the third circumstance. Hume illustrates it in this way:

“Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment… [o]ur intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other… And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally useless, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy”.35

Immediately after, Hume adds: “This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals”. But something seems to have gone wrong here. For though Hume states that the absence of any of the three circumstances of justice would make justice “useless”, it is evident that the meaning of the term is not the same in all instances. In fact, if in the case of the first two conditions (moderate scarcity and moderate selfishness) “useless” means something like “pointless”, in the case of the third condition the situation is very different. Here, the absence of relative equality would not remove the threat of injustice – on the contrary, the threat of injustice if anything would be exacerbated in situations of gross inequality of power. Hence the claim that justice would be “useless” in this context turns out to be a claim about the difficulty of ensuring compliance with justice: the real problem is that in the absence of relative equality, respecting the rules of justice provides no advantage to the stronger party, who can act unjustly with impunity, so that pronouncing principles of justice is likely to be in vain. So, thanks to ambiguity in the use of a term – “useless” – the sinister idea that justice ceases to be relevant just in those conditions of extreme inequality in power which make it especially significant can surreptitiously be introduced eluding critical analysis.36 In fact, Hume himself seems embarrassed by the implications of his argument’s contractarian overtones, since, after excluding on the basis of it nonhuman beings from the sphere of justice, he hastens to clarify that the same does not hold in the case of human beings: for on the one hand, the great superiority of Europeans above native peoples merely “tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them”, and on the other, women, though in many nations reduced to semi-slavery, are “commonly able to break the confederacy [of men], and share with the other sex in all the rights and privileges of society”. Indeed, fallacies can be sneaky, but, like the repressed, they often obliquely resurface.

And, apropos of trickiness, there is a peculiar subform of ambiguity that is worth considering before leaving the realm of these fallacies –equivocation. An equivocation arises when things or facts of one kind are presented as if they belonged to another, and often takes the form of a category mistake, or of the confusion between different realms.

We mentioned before that Aquinas’ attempt to exclude nonhuman animals from the prohibition of killing is not based only on appeals to authority, but also recurs to purportedly rational discourse. It is just in this context that the medieval theologian offers a significant instance of equivocation:

“I answer that, There is no sin in using a thing for the purpose for which it is. Now the order of things is such that the imperfect are for the perfect, even as in the process of generation nature proceeds from imperfection to perfection. Hence it is that just as in the generation of a man there is first a living thing, then an animal, and lastly a man, so too things, like the plants, which merely have life, are all alike for animals, and all animals are for man. Wherefore it is not unlawful if man use plants for the good of animals, and animals for the good of man…”.37

What is the argument here? Apparently, what Aquinas says is the following: a) it is not wrong to use a thing for the purpose for which it is; b) in the “order of things” the imperfect are for the perfect; c) this is shown by the process of generation, which proceeds from imperfection to perfection- e.g., in the generation of humans there is first a living thing, then an animal, and lastly a human being; d) analogously, plants, which merely have life, are for animals, and animals are for humans; e) accordingly, it is not wrong for humans to use plants for the good of animals, and animals for the good of humans. Quite apart from any consideration about the teleological and hierarchical metaphysical framework, it is clear that the argument does not stand up to scrutiny. For Aquinas makes a parallel between two strings located at two different levels: one that is made up of different phases undergone by the same substrate – namely, an individual being; and another that is composed of different kinds of beings. This implies that no straightforward transition such as the one required by the argument is possible between the strings. By equivocating between the two levels, however, Aquinas smuggles in the desired conclusion.

Stacking the Deck

If, as is the case here, what one is dealing with is the defense of a preconceived view, it is only to be expected that the more general bias gives rise to specific forms of partiality. And in fact, one-sided cases loom large in the literature. One-sided thinking tends to choose data favoring its pre-established conclusion, and to ignore or downplay the evidence against it. One-sidedness can obviously take various forms. Here, we shall consider the practice of slanting, that is, of ignoring the counterevidence and choosing examples that help ensuring the desired result; and the politics of oversimplification, that is, the tendency to cover up relevant complexities and  making intricate issues appear to be simpler than they actually are.

Edmund Husserl, one of the founders of the phenomenological method, paid some attention to nonhuman beings. Since phenomenology is the study of the structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view, the question of the specific perspective of the members of other species – pace Descartes – naturally arises. And in fact, Husserl grants nonhumans a psyche – that is, a unity of sense, indicating itself through its features . However, he does not cross the Rubicon line that separates “nature” ( i.e. animals) from “culture” (i.e. humans). On his view, as has been observed,38 the individuality of an animal is at best only a natural individuality, for the psychic character of an animal “is not an individual one in the strong sense of the word, because the psyche is constituted only through typical features and properties”. Thus, we find Husserl claiming that each generation of animals reiterates what is typical of the species; that the know-how of animals is merely instinctive; that animals do not learn from experience; and that “their conscience does not achieve the knowledge of a world which includes things that subsist and persist in time”.39 In this case as well, however, we shall avoid confronting such specific (and certainly not new!) claims in themselves, in order to focus on a more general aspect of Husserl’s line of reasoning. For, apart from the theoretical framework, such claims have an empirical facet that needs support. And indeed, Husserl offers some such support. But what are the nonhuman beings to whom he points to? They are the bees: “A bee does not act”, Husserl states. That is to say, the example he chooses comes from the realm of insects – a realm whose inhabitants are, from an evolutionary perspective, among the most removed from human beings. We are vertebrates, mammals and primates; bees are invertebrates, arthropods and hymenoptera. Whatever the cognitive skills of the hymenoptera might be, it is certainly a form of one-sidedness to compare them directly with human beings, in order to emphasize the higher worth of the latter. Insects have totally different brains, nervous systems, anatomies and forms of reproduction; they have different forms of life. Is it by chance that Husserl does not consider apes, or monkeys, or other mammals? Might not this be because it would become much more difficult for him to claim that “animals” are not “individuals in the strong sense of the word”?

That the answer to the latter question might be positive is shown by another, closely connected, example. For, in the same period when Husserl made these observations, that is, around 1930, another German philosopher who had been Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, was delivering a series of lectures on “The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics”. According to Heidegger, who vastly influenced twentieth century philosophy, Western philosophical tradition has been mistaken in defining human beings as “rational animals”, since this would suggest that between humans and nonhumans there are differences in degree, while these two “determinations of essence” are separated by “an abyss… which cannot be bridged by any mediation whatsoever”.40 And this is what Heidegger states to substantiate his claims:

“The bee, for example, has its [sic in translation] hive, its cells, the blossoms it seeks out, and the other bees of the swarm. The bee’s world is limited to a specific domain and is strictly circumscribed”.

And, though tentatively adding that “this is also true of the world of the frog, the world of the chaffinch and so on”, it is just on the bee that he expands:

“The worker bee is familiar with the blossoms it frequents… but it does not know the stamens of these blossoms as stamens, it knows nothing about the roots of the plant and it cannot know anything about the number of stamens or leaves, for example.41

For Heidegger, what is in question here is a structural inability: the animal (the bee) is “world-poor” because he does not even have the possibility of  knowing such phenomena, while the human being is “world forming” insofar as it can not only know but also extend and penetrate “everything that he relates to”. In order to stress the absence in the bees of any recognition of both presence and absence, Heidegger mentions an experiment. He states that, after placing a bee before a bowl filled with honey, “it has been observed that if its abdomen is carefully cut away while it is sucking, [the] bee will simply carry on regardless even while the honey runs … from behind”.42 Such disquieting passage, by showing[how does it show this?  not clear to me] that Heidegger had absolutely no interest in animals in and for themselves, points to the question of his real agenda in investigating them – an agenda he does not conceal, and even openly declares:

“Of all the beings that are, presumably the most difficult to think about are living creatures, because on the one hand they are in a certain way most closely akin to us, and on the other they are at the same time separated from our ek-sistent essence by an abyss”43.

Animals do represent a challenge for the preconceived view of the absolute uniqueness of human beings, and it is therefore advisable to selectively focus on bees and to ignore as far as possible such threatening beings as the apes – those very apes of whom, when forced to reckon with them, Heidegger will dogmatically,44 and once again absurdly, state that they “have organs that can grasp, but… do not have hands”.45

Yet, focusing on examples that favor the desired outcome and understating the contrary ones isn’t the only available strategy in case of biased perspectives. There is also, as we mentioned, the possibility of oversimplifying. And it is just one of Heidegger’s philosophical interlocutors, the French existentialist author Jean-Paul Sartre, who offers the best example of such policy. Sartre thus presents his view of humanism: “[I]f God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man.”46 And how does Sartre illustrate his view? First, he states that, if one considers an article of manufacture as a paper-knife, one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had in mind a definite conception of it. Then he suggests that, according to  traditional Western doctrine, either the conception of man (sic) in God’s mind is comparable to that of the paper-knife in the artisan’s mind, or, if God has been suppressed, each man is a particular example of a universal conception – the “conception of Man”. Finally, he opposes to this perspective in which the essence of man precedes his historic existence the existentialist idea that “man” first of all exists, and only afterwards defines himself – that he is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. This is his conclusion: “But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table?”. A paper-knife, a stone, a table… Even Mary Warnock, who devotes much attention to Sartre’s thinking, cannot but observe that the example of the paper-knife “is in fact unfair”, and that the mentioned contrast would be rather more difficult to draw if Sartre “took an animal instead of a paperknife as an example”.47 Yet, the word “animal” nowhere appears in the text, and that uniqueness of human beings that directly turns to the detriment of nonhumans is built on a comparison with inanimate things.

Philosophy Gone Wild

Richard Sorabji notices that attempts to draw the human-nonhuman dividing line have included among others “debates over whether animals know God, have speech, laughter, foresight with an associated knowledge of causes, preparation, memory, emotion, universals, or concepts; and also over whether they can distinguish good and bad, just and unjust, expedient and inexpedient, can be happy, can achieve technical knowledge, are political, can count, do geometry, are born defenseless and naked, have a sense of rhythm, no shame, have a face, something which shows emotion and character, engage in sex at all seasons, with their own sex or with other species”.48 Then, speaking of the Stoic doctrine, he summarizes in a single, withering sentence the shared and undeclared goal of this deluge of considerations: “They lack syntax, so we can eat them”.49

Is this (enthymematic) syllogism absurd? It seems so. But what exactly do we mean by absurdity? This is a tricky matter.  It is difficult not to be aware of the role that traditional cultural imprinting and prejudice can play in defining something as absurd. Indeed, just to give an example amongst many concerning the question of nonhuman beings, English writer Roger Scruton has stated that “it is absurd to assign rights to animals”.50 In this light, any charge of absurdity would obviously stand in need of strong theory-based support. However, what shall be involved here is not purely theoretical absurdity, let alone existential absurdity, but  rather that ordinary sense of “absurdity” which verges on “incongruity” and has to do with the etymology of “absurd” (from Latin  absurdus, discordant, out of tune), focusing on claims that appear particularly dissonant in their specific discursive context.

A good introduction is offered by the libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick.51 Since Nozick’s aim is to refute the so-called “argument of marginal cases”, according to which equal ethical consideration is owed to nonhuman and human beings at the same mental level due to the moral irrelevancy of mere species membership, his starting point is the question: “How can someone’s merely being a member of the same species be a reason to treat him in certain ways when he [i.e., a severely intellectually disabled human] so patently lacks those very capacities?” Nozick admits that “this does present a puzzle”.  However, he is not prepared to abandon the standard view that all members of our species morally matter more than all members of other species. Therefore, after reflection, he concludes that “[n]othing much… should be inferred from our not presently having a theory of the moral  importance of species membership that no one has spent much time trying to formulate  because the issue hasn’t seemed pressing”. Here, then, is a philosopher who, confronting an intellectual challenge, admits that he has no reply but claims that it doesn’t matter, since the reason is that nobody has tried hard enough to come up with such a reply. If one thinks that an essential feature of philosophy is the endeavor to offer rational answers to hard questions, Nozick’s way of proceeding sounds surprisingly incongruous.

More often, however, incongruity concerns content rather than procedure. Some absurd claims refer to animal “nature” and shape. The Hellenistic philosophical school of Stoicism, for example, is famous for its dismissal of animals. In the first century BCE, Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero52 puts into the mouth of the Stoic participant in a philosophical dialogue the claim that the necks of oxen “were naturally made for the yoke, and their strong broad shoulders to draw the plough”; and less than two centuries [later], Epictetus, a main representative of the last phase of the school, produces this variation on the theme: “For the ass, I suppose… [exists] because we had need of a back which is able to bear something; and in truth we had need also of his being able to walk..”.53 Even such claims, however, are nothing if compared to the opinion of Chrysippus, one of the founders of Stoicism, who, according to Porphyry, had asserted that the animate nature or soul of the pig functions like salt, preserving the tasty meat until it is ready to be eaten by humans.54

Less coarse, but equally striking, are some statements on animal life and animal death. Not surprisingly, in the wake of Descartes, the most incongruent claims about animal life can be found in French literature. Two examples can suffice. Towards the end of the Seventeenth century, Cartesian philosopher Nicolas Malebranche55 offers this description of nonhuman beings: “They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing; and if they act in a manner that demonstrates intelligence it is because God, having made them in order to preserve them, made their bodies in such a way that they mechanically avoid what is capable of destroying them.” And only sixty years ago French essayist Georges Bataille abandons mechanistic fixations only to lyrically state that “every animal is in the world like water in water.”56 adding that, when one animal eats another, there is “never anything between them except that quantitative difference. The lion is not the king of the beasts: in the movement of the waters he is only a higher wave overturning the other, weaker ones”.57

Curiously enough, on the other hand, it is instead to German authors that we owe the most paradoxical approach to nonhumans’ death – that is, the idea that animals do not really die. What can it mean to say that a nonhuman being doesn’t really die? There is, first, a commonsensical reading of the claim that is, obviously, the most improbable. Yet, there was at least one philosopher who propounded it – namely, Malebranche’s contemporary Gottfried Leibniz. In a letter dating to 1678, Leibniz, having considered the possibility that there was “some incorporeal substance in beasts which is called a sentient soul”, stated that in such a case not only should he provide for a place for these souls after death, but also, should condemn the eating of animals and “the tyranny which men exercise against them”.58 Some years later, however, he had found a way out. This is the solution he advanced:

[All] this made me judge that there is only one reasonable view to take – namely, the conservation not only of the soul, but also of the animal itself and its organic machine…  [N]o one can specify the true time of death, which for a long time may pass for a simple suspension of noticeable actions, and is basically never anything else in simple animals – witness the resuscitations of drowned flies buried under pulverized chalk…And since there is no first birth or entirely new generation of an animal, it follows that there will not be any final extinction.. Animals are not born and do not die.59

And two years before his death he confirmed and even expanded his thesis:

“Thus, abandoning their mask or their tattered dress, [animals] merely return to a smaller stage… [A]nimals cannot be generated and cannot perish. they are only unfolded, enfolded, reclothed, unclothed and transformed”.60

Isn’t such a perspective as harsh as the Cartesian doctrine? One element confirms the parallelism: as in Descartes’ case, very sensible worries loom through the absurdity of the claims in question – worries that surface when, before exposing his solution, Leibniz emphatically dissociates himself from the view that animal souls “pass from body to body”.61 For what does this evoke but the dreaded ghost of the heretical doctrine of metempsychosis, with its attending dreadful chastisements?62

On the other hand, there is the possibility of a more theoretical construal of the view that animals do not die. One example is offered by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the nineteenth century philosopher whose grand speculative synthesis is dominated by the ideal figure of a macrosubject – Spirit – which assumes the shape of human individuals. There has been some discussion about whether the notion of death is central to Hegel’s philosophy, but, whatever the solution to this dispute, for Hegel the only death deserving the name is that of self-conscious beings, which he equates with human beings. For on the one hand human death is ascribed to the spiritual order, which has the “element of death in itself as belonging to its essence”,63 by means of the idea that in self-consciousness fear of death is related to universality via the experience of absolute negativity;64 and on the other, nonhuman “death” is ascribed to that natural order which is dominated by “the disparity between finitude and universality”, and is therefore seen as nothing other than a “finishing”, an “immediate passing away”.65 Quite consistently with this, Hegel, while distinguishing the person (“the will which exists for itself”) from mere living organisms also states: “[A]s a person…I have organs and life only so far as I will. The animal cannot mutilate or kill itself, but a human being can”.66 It is apparent that what is at stake here is a stipulative notion of death. But can there be a stipulative notion of death? Admittedly, there are in the field of bioethics discussions about new criteria for death – e.g. criteria based on brain functions rather than on vital functions – but certainly they do not hinge on the incongruous possibility that the death of some individuals is less of a death than the one of other individuals.

Hegel, however, is not alone in defending such a view. Analogously stipulative is in fact the notion of death employed by Martin Heidegger, unsurprisingly the philosopher whose dismissal of animal death is most dramatic. Coherently with his view that an unbridgeable gulf separates humans and nonhumans, Heidegger draws a sharp distinction between biological death as a natural phenomenon that is appropriate to animals – beings that are “merely living” – and the “death proper” which pertains to Dasein, or “There-being”, the term by which he denotes the human being. In fact, though the meaning of such term is meant to underline, contra the Cartesian tradition of the disembodied cogito, the intrinsic “being-in-the-world” of the human subject, what then prevails in Heidegger’s portrayal of humans is the more conventional stress on cognitive abilities, in the form of a characterization of Dasein as an entity capable of an understanding of Being, and accordingly of experiencing beings “as such”. All this while nonhumans, though not trivially seen as governed by mechanical behavior, are, as we already stressed, conventionally characterized as fully instinctual beings, forever lost in a “captivation” to which the access to the “as such” is barred.67 Thus, we read Heidegger stating, e.g., that“[t]o die means to be capable of death as death. Only man dies. The animal perishes. It has death neither ahead of itself nor behind it”;68 and also that “Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so”.69 Apropos of such claims – as well as of Hegel’s ones – nothing seems more appropriate than a remark made by Elisabeth de Fontenay apropos of the refusal of death to animals: “Et voilà! The trick, if one can say so, is played: this huge metaphysical machinery… had the goal to grant human beings the power of life and death on animals… I can put the animal to death according to the whims of my needs and fancies, since he doesn’t die, he can merely finish. It was essential to carry this bloody tautology speculatively to its term”.70  

The morals of the story

Having reached the end of this survey, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the faults of our behavior towards nonhuman animals have deeply affected, and infected, our capacity for moral reflection. There is, however, a conclusive oddity that deserves mention. Central to much Western thinking is the idea that the worth of human beings is connected with, in the words of a contemporary Kantian author,71 “the capacity for normative self-government”, or the capacity to generate and follow moral norms. The view that only beings who are moral agents are worthy of respect is in fact so pervasive as to be almost uncritically accepted. But, as it has been suggested, it suffices to make explicit the reasoning behind it to make evident its perverse character. For, in such context, the characteristic to be valued is a capacity to recognize that there are other points of view than ours, and the conclusion is that our interests should automatically override the demands of all other entities. In other words: “we are absolutely better than the animals because we are able to give their interests some consideration: so we won’t”.72  This paradox well recapitulates an entire, deplorable history of inane and self-serving ruses.


1. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1966, 63, 162]

2. Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA 1983, p. 74.

3. Raymond Corbey, The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005, p. 26.

4. See The Animal Question, Oxford University Press, New York 2001, chapt. VI.

5. Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat. A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Continuum, New York 1991, pp. 40-46.

6. René Descartes, Letter to the Marquess of Newcastle, 23 Nov. 1646, in Descartes: Philosophical Letters, Oxford university Press, Oxford 1970.

7. David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1968, p. 176.

8. René Descartes, “Discourse on Method”,  in R. Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Yale University Press, New Haven & London 1996, part V, p. 36. On vocal systems, see Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin, Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind, John Wiley and Sons, New York 1994, pp. 224-233.

9. René Descartes, “Discourse on Method”,  cit., part V, pp. 35.

10. Christoph Anstötz, “Profoundly Intellectually Disabled Humans and the Great Apes: A Comparison”, in P. Cavalieri e P. Singer, The Great Ape Project, St. Martin’s, New York 1994.

11. Andrew T. Scull, Decarceration, 2nd ed., Polity Press, London 1984, p. 13.

12. Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, George Allen, London 1903, p. 146.

13. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd ed., New York Review, New York 1990, p. 210.

14. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Beacon Press, Boston  1969, pp. 6-7.

15. Solly Zuckerman, The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, Appendix 4, Routledge & K. Paul, London 1981, pp. 445-446.

16. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Treatise on the Cardinal Virtues, Of Murder, Question I, “Whether it is unlawful to kill any living thing?”.

17. Augustine, On the Morals of the Manicheans, 2.17.54.

18. Augustine, On Free Will, Book III, 3.23.

19. René Descartes,  “Discourse on Method”,  cit., part III, p. 16.

20. René Descartes,  “Discourse on Method”,  cit., part V, p. 36.

21. We know, for example, that, when his friend and correspondent Marin Mersenne wrote to him of Galileo’s fate at the hands of the Inquisition, Descartes immediately suppressed his treatise De homine.

22.  Augustine, On the Morals of the Manicheans, 2.17.59.

23. Augustine, On Free Will, Book III, 3.23.

24. Augustine, The City of God, Book XII, chapt. 4.

25. Saint Augustine, Contra Julianum, Opus imperfectum, 6.29.

26. Elisabeth de Fontenay, Le silence des bêtes, Fayard, Paris 1998, p. 268.

27. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Avon, New York 1998, pp. 152-153.

28. The Animal Question, Oxford University Press, New York 2001, pp. 50-53.

29. Emmanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, Harper and Row, New York  1963, pp. 239-241.

30. John Stuart Mill, “Whewell on Moral Philosophy”, in Collected Works, vol. X, pp. 185-187.

31. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989, pp. 85-86. For the “harm principle” see ibid., p. 13.

32. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles II, 82, “That the Souls of Dumb Animals are not Immortal”.

33. Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Controversy, Cosimo, New York 2007, Stratagem II, p. 16.

34. Joseph Rickaby, Of God and His Creatures. An Annotated Translation (with some Abridgement) of the Summa Contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas, Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish, MT. 2006, n. 453, p. 300.

35. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, IN 1983, pp. 25-26.

36. See Paola Cavalieri and Will Kymlicka. “Expanding the Social Contract,” Etica & Animali 8 (1996), pp. 5-32.

37. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Treatise on the Cardinal Virtues, Of Murder, Question I, “Whether it is unlawful to kill any living thing”?

38. Christian Lotz, “Psyche or Person? Husserl’s Phenomenology of Animals”, in D. Lohmar and D. Fonfara, eds.,  Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven der Phänomenologie, Springer, Dordrecht, 2006, pp. 190-204.

39. Hua [Husserliana] XV, pp. 180-181; French translation “Le monde et nous. Le monde environnant des hommes et des bêtes”, Alter 1995 (3), pp.189-203.

40. Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN. 2001, p. 282).

41. Ibid., p. 193.

42. Ibid., p. 242.

43. Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism”, in William McNeill, ed., Pathmarks, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1998, p. 248.

44. On Heidegger’s dogmatism on this point see Jacques Derrida, “Geschlecht II: Heidegger’s Hand”, in John Sallis, ed.,  Deconstruction and Philosophy: The texts of Jacques Derrida, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1987, p. 173.

45. Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?, Harper and Row, New York 1968, p. 16.

46. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism”, in Walter Kaufman, ed., Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, Meridian Publishing Company, New York 1989, p. 290.

47. Mary Warnock, Ethics since 1900, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford 1978, pp. 106-107.

48. Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals. The Origins of the western Debate, Duckworth, London 1993, pp. 90-91.

49. Ibid., p. 216.

50. Roger Scruton, “Beastly burdens”, Times Higher Education 30 August 1996.

51. Robert Nozick, “About Mammals and People,” The New York Times Book Review, November 27, 1983, p. 11.

52. Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, book II.

53. Epictetus “The Discourses”, Book II, chapt. VIII.

54. Porphyry, On abstinence, III, 20.1.

55. Nicolas Malebranche, The Search after Truth, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1997, pp. 494-495.

56. Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion, Zone Books, NY 1992, p. 19.

57. Ibid., p. 27).

58. G. W. Leibniz, “Letter to Hermann Conring de Mars”, in Philosophical Papers and Letters, ed. Leroy E. Loemker, Reidel, Dordrecht 1969, p. 190.

59. G. W. Leibniz, A New System of the Nature and Communication of Substances, in Philosophical Essays, Hackett, Indianapolis 1989, p. 141.

60. G. W. Leibniz, Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason, in Philosophical Essays, Hackett, Indianapolis 1989, p. 209.

61. A New System of the Nature and Communication of Substances cit., 140.

62. At the dawn of the century, for instance, the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno had been sentenced to be burned at the stake by the Inquisition because of his teachings about metempsychosis.

63. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aesthetics. Lectures on Fine Art, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1975, vol. I, p. 349.

64. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1977, # 194; see on this Michael J. Inwood, “Hegel on Death”,  International Journal of Moral and Social Studies, Vol. 1 (2) 1986, pp. 109-122.

65. G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, cit., p. 349.

66. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Philosophy of Right, I Part, I section, Property, # 47.

67. Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN. 2001, pp. 247-248.

68. Martin Heidegger, “The Thing” in Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper and Row, New York 1971, p. 176.

69. Martin Heidegger,  On the Way to Language, Harper and Row, New York 1982, pp. 107-8: see on all this Matthew Calarco, “On the Borders of Language and Death: Derrida and the Question of the Animal”, Angelaki, vol. 7 (2), 2002, pp. 17-25.

70. Elisabeth de Fontenay, Le silence, cit., p. 543.

71. Christine Korsgaard, “Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action”, in Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, ed. by Stephen Macedo & Josiah Ober, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2006, p. 119.

72. Stephen R.L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1984, pp. 107-108.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1