The Inhumanities

Anthropocentrism and Theoricide

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Within animal ethics, there are two generally accepted views with commonly accepted names: animal welfare and animal rights. The simplest way to parse the difference between these two views is to analyze them in terms of “use” and “treatment.” Animal welfare accepts that it is permissible to use animals in most cases, but that use must be limited by humane treatment; animal rights does not accept that is permissible to use animal regardless of how well they are treated. Speaking in broad terms, the animal welfare position is usually underpinned by an utilitarian ethical theory (e.g., Peter Singer or Paola Cavalieri) while the animal rights position is underpinned by a deontological ethical theory (e.g., Tom Regan or Gary Francione). Both views make reference to their own understanding of the principle of equal consideration, although coming to extremely divergent conclusions. The problem, of course, is what it is that needs to be considered equally.

Modern animal welfare has a long pedigree, dating back, in most accounts, to the publication of Jeremy Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (specifically, Ch. XVII, para. 4) where he outlines what we might call, respectively, “The Humane Treatment Principle” and “The Never the Worse for Being Dead Principle,” viz.:

  1. “A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
  2. “If the being eaten were all, there is very good reason why we should be suffered to eat such of them as we like to eat: we are the better for it, and they are never the worse. They have none of those long-protracted anticipations of future misery which we have.”

In sum, the standard of treatment is one which minimizes suffering while recognizing that suffering is the only harm an animal can suffer; in other words, it is permissible to kill an animal so long as it doesn’t suffer too much. As a result, modern animal welfare legislation is usually framed in terms of “unnecessary suffering” which is to say that it is legally recognized that “necessary suffering” is permissible. For instance, it is not a crime to kill an animal, but it is a crime if you cause excess suffering during that killing. A recent case in Ottawa is exemplary in this regard: the charge was not in killing a cat, but killing a cat by whacking it on the head five times with a wooden spoon because it stole the accused’s steak. He had chosen to kill the cat otherwise–medical euthanasia or an otherwise less violent method–then there would have been no charge and no crime.

The problem emerges, however, when the desire to consume flesh or other animal products is weighed against the humane treatment principle: if people want to consume animals to the tune of roughly 53 billion per year (8 billion in the US; just under one billion in Canada), then it is absolutely necessary that animal products be made using industrial methods, which necessarily entails the infliction of suffering and which seems to justify that suffering as necesssary. In other words, a human’s interest in a three egg omelete for breakfast trumps the hen’s interest in not being forced into a battery cage to produce eggs until the hen can no longer produce eggs at an acceptable rate of exploitation. (At this point the hen becomes your McNuggets.)

Thus, while apparently granting some minimal consideration to animals, the animal welfare position is always organized in such a way that human interests–regardless of how trivial–will always trump animal interests. In this regard, we legitimately call this position anthropocentric.

But what about the deontological theory that supports the modern animal rights position? It is true, that in its original formulation by Kant, the deontological theory limited moral consideration to beings of a very particular sort: viz., fully rational and autonomous ethical agents. As a consequence, no animals were included in the category of moral agent and many humans were excluded. For Kant, the treatment of animals is only a consideration insofar as it involves an indirect duty to humanity: “But so far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as means to an end. That end is man. […] Animal nature has analogies to human nature, and by doing our duties to animals in respect of manifestations which correspond to manifestations of human nature, we indirectly do our duty to humanity” (Lectures in Ethics, 239).

The modern animal rights position has shifted attention from the usual Kantian concepts to ideas such as “inherent value” and “sentience” thereby setting aside the issue as to whether a given being is rational, self-conscious and autonomous. Julian Franklin revises the categorical imperative as follows, “Act in such a way that you always treat sentience, whether in yourself or in the self of any other, never simply as a means but also at the same time as an end” (Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy, xiii).

Superficially, at least, the animal rights position successfully avoids an explicit anthropocentrism. The question remains as to whether or not there is an implicit anthropocentrism in the animal rights position. Given that the categorical imperative, even the rewritten version offered by Franklin, is a dictate of reason, it divides the world into two sorts of beings: those who are able to recognize the force of reason and thus act in accordance with reason and those who are not able to recognize the force of reason and thus are not able to act in accordance with reason. In other words, there are moral beings (i.e., humans of a particular) and there are amoral beings (i.e., some humans and all non-humans). The world is judged, whether from the perspective of pure reason (i.e., the rational limits to logical knowledge) or from the perspective of practical reason (i.e., the rational limits to moral knowledge). Rationality, and the possessor of reason, is thereby elevated over instinct and irrationality. As a consequence, even the animal rights position, which is the only (nearly) mainstream position that takes animals seriously is likewise constrained within an anthropocentric perspective.

This brings me to my question, one to which I do not have a satisfactory answer, critical animal studies (CAS) has identified anthropocentrism as a primary target. This is a view held in common with speculative realism (SR). In effect, both movements correctly question the priority of humans over animals (or, indeed, over any other non-human object) in the domains of ethics (CAS) or ontology (SR). In the view of SR, reality is such that it would exist whether or not there are humans present to experience (against empiricism) or know (against “correlationism”) reality. Further, many of the major thinkers of SR, drawing upon actor network thoery, point to the importance of non-human actors (the paper on scallops by Michel Callon or the pseudonymous paper on door-openers are classic examples). As a result, non-human objects must be granted reality and agency. This emphasis upon the reality and agency of non-human objects must certainly be exciting to many in CAS. However, it isn’t clear that a recognition of the reality of objects implies any sort of ethical consideration; that is, an ethics cannot be derived from an ontology. Indeed, it has been a mantra within SR that politics and ontology must be separated from one another as though we were protecting a sacred object (reality) from a profane object (politics). It is assumed that ethics is a special case of politics, thus SR must likewise maintain that ontology must be protected from ethics. (We’ll bracket the problem, within animal ethics, that rejects politics in favour of ethics, for instance the strand of animal rights theory known as “abolitionism,” which articulates a consistently pacifist politics–which is, in effect, no politics at all–in order to attain social change.)

What if there are two senses of anthropocentrism that are being confused with one another in CAS? That is, what if we could distinguish between metaphysical anthropocentrism, which posits the centrality of humans in the constitution of the world (in effect: no humans, no world) and therefore the centrality of humans in all facet of the world (ethics, politics, aesthetics, etc), and a cultural anthropocentrism, which posits that humans would much prefer to be humans than cows just as cows would much prefer to be cows than humans. SR’s commitment to a world existing independent of human consciousness is certainly correct and CAS is well advised to follow this rejection of metaphysical anthropocentrism. Cultural anthropocentrism, however, presents other problems that are not easily avoided.

Let me explain. Much forgotten and mostly ignored anthropologist, Pierre Clastres, distinguishes between ethnocentrism and ethnocide. Genocide and ethnocide are closely related concepts. The former refers to the destruction of a race, while the latter refers to the destruction of a culture. “Ethnocide is then the systematic destruction of ways of living and thinking of people different from those who lead this venture of destruction” (44). While one leads to bodily death and the other leads to “mental”death, both share “an identical vision of the Other; the Other is difference, certainly, but it is especially wrong difference” (44). This “wrong difference,” in turn, leads to different sorts of treatment: the absolute evil, at the level of race, must be destroyed, while the relative evil, at the level of culture, must be civilized. Thus, ethnocide is the process of transforming difference into identity. From the perspective of the practitioner of ethnocide, it is an exercise in perfection: the savage is being made civilized and for the good of the savage; but, from the perspective of the victim of ethnocide, it is an exercise in cultural destruction. From one perspective it is benevolent, but from the other perspective it is lethal. Thus, ethnocide rests upon two principles: first, there are cultural hierarchies; second, western culture is absolutely superior to all other cultures.

The question then concerns the relation between ethnocentrism and ethnocide: the west, many would argue, is ethnocidal because it is ethnocentric. Clastres rejects this step because most cultures attribute to themselves a name meaning more or less, “men” or “human.” Hence, the Guarani call themselves “Ava” (men), the Guayaki call themselves Arché (persons), and the Waika call themselves Yanomani (people). Similarly, outsiders cannot be, by definition, human (or persons or people) in the same way as the culture designating itself human, otherwise those “outsiders” would really be “insiders.” Consequently, the thesis that the west is ethnocidal because it is ethnocentric cannot be maintained: all cultures are ethnocentric, but only a few cultures are ethnocidal. That is, all members of a culture prefer their own culture to other cultures, but that doesn’t entail that all members of a given culture want to destroy another culture. Ethnocentrism, then, is not a necessary step on the path to ethnocide.

The key to understanding the move from ethnocentrism to ethnocide relies upon another institution: one possessed by the west, but which is purposefully absent from savage and primitive cultures–viz., the state. Here we see Clastres’s most well-known distinction: between “societies with a State” and “societies against the State.” A society against the State is one in which the society is structured so as to prevent the emergence of a distinct and autonomous sphere of power from society as such. To use terms from liberal political theory, a society against the State is one in which society as such is organized to prevent the differentiation of “civil society” and the “state.” Or, put in yet other terms, the separation between force and power is resisted. Thus, in these societies, power is organized such that it is not political power as it is understood in State societies. For instance, the social function of the “Chief” does not come to resemble the social function of the “King” until after the discovery of the New World by the Spanish. Summarizing briefly: only societies with a State are ethnocidal, but all societies are ethnocentric. What, then, is the connection between State and ethnocide? The State operates as an institution which separates itself from society through processes of centralization and concentration, which leads to the rationalization of the domains subject to its rule. “All state organizations are ethnocidal, ethnocide is the normal mode of existence of the State” (“Of Ethnocide,” 49). In other words, the State functions as a machine which replaces difference with identity. Consider, for instance, the situation of the Basques or the Quebecois, or numerous other cultural minorities, who resist the standardizing, centralization and concentrating tendencies of the State in the name of difference. The result is that ethnocide is a key weapon in the arsenal of the State: European societies are not only ethnocidal within themselves, but they are also ethnocidal external to themselves.

Let us, then, return to the problem of animals. The question, then, is whether or not there is a similar connection between “theoriocide” and anthropocentrism. Again, we can parse this problem in terms of the State. It is plainly evident that societies with a State are also theoricidal societies and, further, that the degree to which the State has established itself as an independent organ of power correlates very strongly with the destruction of animal lives. Recall the earlier numbers, given above, about 53 billion animals used annually, 8 billion of which are killed within the borders of the United States. Further, also recall the connection between racism and animalization: the representation of Jews as rats in Nazi Germany or the representation of African-Americans as apes in the United States (to this very day). Animality is a marker of inferiority in State societies. But, what about societies against the State? Many, albeit certainly not all, societies against the State posit at once difference and identity between animals and humans. Rather than appearing as mere means, animals in many societies against the State appear as ancestors: a human is at once a human and a kangaroo. This system of difference and identity is represented in the totem. Among the economic strategies pursued in societies against the State is the purposive avoidance of surplus and, when a surplus is accumulated, the purposive destruction of the surplus (this is the institution of the potlach). Marshall Sahlins has called this strategy “underproduction,” which leads to the counter-intuitive result that no one goes hungry in societies against the State, but somewhere between one third and one half of people go hungry in societies with a State.

The problem, then, that must be addressed by CAS is not the connection between anthropocentrism and theoricide (after all, the savage man just like the civilized man prefers being human to being a cow–even if the savage man is, from time to time, a cow), but the connection between theoricide and the State (which includes not just the political structure, but also the economic structure). These connections, of course, do not justify the slaughter of animals by primitives–an animal should it have rights held against humans holds those rights regardless of whether a human is civilized or savage–but it does condemn the use of animals by societies with a State in a which we cannot condemn societies against the State. The unavoidable conclusion is that anthropocentrism is not our enemy in the domain of ethics.

Works Mentioned

Bentham, Jeremy. Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, edited by J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart. London: Athlone Press, 1970.

Callon, Michel. “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieuc By,” in Power, Action, Belief:A New Sociology of Knowledge?, edited by John Law. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Cavalieri, Paola. The Animal Question: Why Non-Human Animals Deserve Rights, translated by Catherine Woollard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

Clastres, Pierre. “Of Ethnocide,” in Archeology of Violence, translated by Jeanine Herman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1994.

Francione, Gary. Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2000.

Franklin, Julian H. Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy. New York: Columbia UP, 2005.

Johnson, Jim [Bruno Latour]. “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans: The Sociology of a Door-Closer,” Social Problems volume 35, number 3 (1988): 298-310.

Kant, Immanuel. “Duties Toward Animals and Spirits,” in Lectures on Ethics, translated by Peter Heath, edited by Peter Heath and J.B. Schneewind. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Sahlins, Marshall. Stone Age Economics. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1972.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Written by Craig McFarlane

December 5, 2009 at 6:04 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] Best First Lines Animal Welfare, Animals Rights December 6, 2009 A great post up at the Inhumanities providing a nice summary of debates in animal ethics, which I’ll probably use for its concise […]

  2. Craig, this is great. I put up a longish reflection on how the role of the State in the ethicality of our relations to nonhumans ties in to the transitional concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat.


    December 6, 2009 at 11:22 pm

  3. I stumbled upon your blog while browsing, and reading this article was my first exposure to “the inhumanities.” Absolutely brilliant! Thanks for writing this extremely clear, yet thoughtful, essay.

    Robert Minto

    December 11, 2009 at 9:29 pm

  4. […] parses some differences within Critical Animal Studies Posted in personal, the blog | Leave a Comment »Tags: […]

    ends and odds « a few words

    December 15, 2009 at 12:15 am

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