In the interest of other animals

How should we as humans value and relate to other animals? When we use animals in research, in zoos and aquaria, as food items or body parts, as specimens or experimental models, as pets, as machismo-inflating trophies to be bagged, or just as objects for entertainment, do we fully understand their needs, their welfare, their interests? Do we also comprehend our own underlying values, overt or covert, that are revealed in the way we deal with other animals? Is it right to speak of animal interests, pain, and suffering? The implications of the knowledge we have gained in recent times from scientific research on animal societies, behaviour, and cognition on the way we view animals is profound. This year, I was fortunate to read two very different and remarkable books, both compelling and thought-provoking, which bring these issues to the fore. Taken together with the leading primatologist Frans de Waal’s book The Age of Empathy, that I have referred to in an earlier post, these books are a valuable read for wildlife scientists and all those who have the interests of animals at heart.

My first reaction to these two astounding books, as a practicing wildlife scientist with a claim to be involved in animal research and conservation over the last two decades was: “Why were these profoundly important issues never a formal and thorough part of my academic training or practice?”. Is it because issues of human values, morals and ethics are considered outside the pale of training to be a wildlife scientist or ecologist? Is it because they are considered wishy-washy or vague, or, devil-take-you, too subjective? Or is it simply because most present-day wildlife scientists actually do not have a deep understanding or appreciation of the central issues, or if they do, they prefer to keep it to themselves? But why not? We use animals in research. We make claim to efforts to understand them. We make conservation appeals, ostensibly, on their behalf. We probe, we peer, we collect, we tag, we trap, we handle, we follow, we even sometimes kill animals for scientific study. Do we really do all this on the basis of a comprehensive ethical and moral foundation? Or do we shy away from these issues because of being tagged an animal-rights activist even if we are not really speaking of rights? In the context of conservation, can we achieve our goals if we lack a foundational conservation ethic? These books give plenty of food for thought.

The Lives of Animals The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliant work by a Nobel laureate in literature and a wonderful book to start the year with. A superb form of academic novel (a novel genre, I could say, if the pun may be forgiven), this is top-notch writing on a theme of profound and enduring significance for anyone concerned with human values and connections with other animals.

J. M. Coetzee, invited to Princeton to deliver the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values, presents the lectures as a fictional story with debate and dialogue crafted into the form of this book. Within it is the story of Elizabeth Costello, herself an academic, invited to deliver lectures at a University, and the lectures she delivers and the ensuing responses. Reading it as a sort of literary dialectic, one is swept by Coetzee’s tight and engaging prose into central moral, philosophical and ethical issues related to the lives of animals. The four commentaries that accompany the central work by Coetzee are excellent, too. The book’s introduction by political philosopher Amy Gutmann, and accompanying essay commentaries by Wendy Doniger (religion scholar), Barbara Smuts (primatologist), Marjorie Garber (literary theorist ), and Peter Singer (moral philosopher and author of Animal Liberation reviewed below) are worth reading and add great value to this book.

Coetzee touches on vital issues that relate to whether we perceive other animals as beings with interests or as objects for our manipulation. Cruelty, sentience, sympathy, empathy, and the morality of our actions towards other sentient beings is the undercurrent of Coetzee’s words, of Costello’s debate. Vegetarianism, animal intelligence and how we perceive it even as trained scientists, pain and suffering, animal slaughter or ‘sacrifice’, these are all themes seamlessly woven into a gripping narrative thread. Coetzee brings sudden and scathing clarity and depth to the work of a litany of earlier writers, scientists, and philosophers: of Thomas Aquinas and Jeremy Bentham, Franz Kafka and Tom Regan, Wolfgang Köhler and Mary Midgely, and many others.

And yet, the implications are not thrust on you as absolutes, as dogma. It comes in measured words, prompting a dawning awareness. To do this Coetzee draws brilliantly on Kafka’s Red Peter, the ape presenting A Report to An Academy, and Costello’s words only seem to echo his own hidden voice:

I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.

A phenomenal work, worth reading and re-reading, even if only to be touched by Coetzee’s prose, or perhaps for introspective and outwardly illumination.

Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement (P.S.)Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement by Peter Singer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Compelling and well-written, Peter Singer’s book is a classic that should be required reading for anyone concerned with the interests of animals. Without taking recourse to the issue of the rights of animals, Singer explains how moral and ethical positions we can take and understand become inadequate if restricted only to humans. Trying to separate humans as a species as somehow distinct and above beings of all other species (speciesism), if pursued logically and through all its implications, only leads to moral, ethical, and philosophical positions that are untenable.

A considerable portion of the book is devoted to detailed and balanced consideration of two major issues affecting the interests and welfare of animals: (a) the millions upon millions of animals used in research and vivisection, and (b) the billions and billions of animals ‘reared’ (=imprisoned) in factory farms and other facilities in cruel conditions and inefficiently (from social and ecological perspectives) only to be ultimately slaughtered, often painfully, for use as food for humans. This is not to overlook the (ab)use of animals for other reasons, such as for fur or other animal products such as leather, but just that the number of animals cruelly treated for vivisectional research/animal testing and for food is enormous. According to Singer, the greatest impact on the largest number of animals will result from immediate changes in these two areas: by avoiding and finding alternatives to animal testing and vivisection, and by going vegetarian, vegan, or being far more circumspect and choosy about where the animal flesh or produce you eat comes from and how the animals were raised and treated.

Besides bringing these issues forward and in-your-face for serious consideration, Singer’s major contributions in this book are a lucid articulation of some central issues. First, the issue of what equality involves (not assuming that everyone is equal as there is undeniable variation, but the ethical imperative of equal treatment). Second, bringing consideration of the interests of animals to the forefront (without need to draw on or call for animal ‘rights’). Separating issues related to preventing pain and suffering, from issues related to the actual killing of animals is another distinction that leads to nuances in treatment of animals and animal welfare in various contexts.

The book is perhaps titled Animal Liberation to raise analogies with other liberation movements, for instance against slavery, racism, and sexism. In fact, many ethical and moral issues raised are consistent across these various movements. The way these are highlighted by the author and the analogies that he draws are very useful both to understand issues and to strengthen reasoned debate. One can ponder on the ideas Singer presents. One can grasp practical suggestions he gives for more ethical personal choices. And one can act.

Worth reading, absolutely.

2 thoughts on “In the interest of other animals

  1. I find the article very relevant, and indeed necessary, in present times. The notion of “compassion,” so to speak, or “empathy,” in the context of animals is very deeply felt after spending considerable lengths of time with them. But how important is it for people, in their scheme of things, to give it importance when, for example, during Wildlife research? That’s a good question to be pondering over.

    The books seem wonderful. I’ll soon be heading out towards the bookstore!

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