Of whales and men

The story of Tilikum the killer whale illustrates, in a rather horrible fashion, the weird contradictions in the way we relate to nature these days.

For those who haven’t followed the case, Tilikum is a prize exhibit in Sea World, Florida. The day before yesterday, it was being patted by its trainer, one Dawn Brancheau, when it reached up, grabbed her ponytail and then drowned her. It subsequently emerged that this is the third death in which the whale has been implicated. On a previous occasion, it, and two other whales, drowned another trainer; later, a man who broke into the enclosure was found dead in the tank.

The death – as well as another recent incident in which an orca killed its trainer – has sparked much discussion about the ethics of keeping huge animals in tiny tanks. ‘Tilikum is a casualty of captivity; it has destroyed his mind and turned him demented,’ explained Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer involved in the Dolphin Freedom Foundation. ‘If he was a horse, dog, bear, cat or elephant he would already have been put down after the first kill, and this is his third.’

What’s interesting, though, is how difficult we find it to think about animals as animals: that is, as living creatures that are neither objects nor humans. That is, Rector’s response involves the same anthropomorphism that led Brancheau to think of the whale as a friend. Where she saw her relationship with Tilikum as akin to that with a human buddy, he creates a narrative in which the whale becomes the Man in the Iron Mask. Those kind of responses might be an advance on the Cartesian attitude to animals as simply animated machines but they still miss the point that  animality is still fundamentally Other.

It’s something about which I’ve been thinking a lot lately, partly after researching slaughterhouses for my book Killing and partly, more recently, after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s (very annoying) book Eating Animals. On the one hand, it’s difficult to watch industrial slaughter without thinking something very wrong is taking place. On the other, the animal liberation movement often, either implicitly or explicitly, draws a parallel with human struggles that seems to me to be fundamentally misleading.

Anyway, I would be interested in what people think. How do we define an animal, and what moral and political considerations follow from that definition?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. I do think there is a refusal to accept the Otherness of animals. An implication of this could be that we argue, for example, that slaughterhouses are wrong because animals have feelings like humans, or intelligence like humans, when really the argument should be we should not predicated our lives on the mass slaughter of living creatures. It’s as if we can only develop sympathy, or empathy by creating a narrative in which we have both a ‘special’ relationship with an animal and also if we diminish it’s ‘creatureliness’ (to quote Michelle de Kretser). We make them cute. We try to tame them. It’s patronising and disrespectful.

  2. The main thing to change human attitudes to animals is that, most of us, no longer live in an environment where animals hunt and kill us.

    Once you alienate yourself from your place in the food chain you distort the whole picture.

    On another note, Joel Deane was telling me about a family of whalers on the NSW coast who, in the C19th, used killer whales to herd Southern Right whales (I think) into shallow water where they could be slaughtered more conveniently.

  3. I find the idea that animals are fundamentally Other a bit misleading, actually. It poses an ideal separation of the human from the animal, and those distinctions always end up becoming fuzzy, e.g. nurture vs nature themes. Or it could be that I’m too fond of ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ to accept such distinctions without having to mention the animality of the human.

    Either way it leads to an ethical question, and probably some irony about our civilized capabilities as humans.

  4. I’m a bit miffed about our tendency to humanise animals also and often find myself entangled in arguments about pets verses animals in the wild. For instance, it’s a shocking fact to me that pet cats eat more fish stock than humans in Australia – mainly because I worry about the low levels of fish in our oceans in general.

    And just to add, I was struck by the story of the whale in the same way I’m struck by dog owners claiming their dogs are perfectly safe around people. These owners seem to forget that their dog may come from a long line of specifically bred biters or worse. Makes me think of the case of a young man in QLD who, on being told that his mastiff cross had jumped a fence and killed an elderly woman, fainted.

    Oh, and no one’s mentioned money. Animals are big business.

    1. These sorts of exhibitionist institutions project all sorts of human-derived ideas onto the animals they keep, train and display, but I don’t see the problem with arguing that the animal has been psychologically damaged by captivity, or with describing this act as the violent resistance of a living creature against its captors. The otherness of animals doesn’t prevent them from being caught up in networks of anthropocentric power and resistance.

  5. I’ve also been thinking about this story so it’s good to hear everyone’s thoughts. My mind turned immediately to ‘Moby-Dick’, the classic malicious whale story, based on the true story of the whaleship Essex which was sunk in 1820 by a whale with apparent malicious intent. Reading malice into a whale’s behaviour is possibly as guilty of anthropomorphism as Rector is – as well as the whole of western culture which seems bent on seeing all animals as benign to the point of angelic – but I’d rather view them as wild verging on malicious and only tamed or domesticated to a certain point, the point being where it stops suiting them. And are we so very different?

    And I agree with Matt – I see no problem with seeing the whale’s attack as a result of the trauma of captivity. It is a killer WHALE. Living in goldfish bowl.

  6. The trainer may have thought she was friends with the whale, but I very much doubt he had the same opinion. People do tend to incorrectly attribute animals with human characteristics, but sometimes there is an overlap. Humans are animals that are very intelligent. The more intelligent the animal the more likely they are to have emotions and behaviours that are like those of humans (like but not the same or the same range). Orcas are intelligent, chickens are not. It depends on the animal. This is why I can eat chickens but will not eat dolphin. And I do not believe that orcas should be in captivity and even dumb animals get stressed (ie., exhibit stress symptoms like OCD) when in small and boring enclosures.

  7. I totally agree the whale was probably utterly traumatised. But I guess what I was trying to suggest was that that it’s problematic to understand animal trauma as simply a variant of human trauma. We have such little idea how human psychology works. What can we really say about the inner life of a whale, other than it’s miserable in a tiny tank?

    1. I suppose if you were to compare this whale to animals like horses or dogs, you could certainly see parallels in the reactions to being confined. If horses and dogs are locked in small spaces, and can’t stretch their legs regularly, they tend to get aggressive. I don’t think we can presume to know what the whale is/was feeling, or relate anything it did to human behaviour, but we can certainly debate whether or not the whale is being abused. Sadly, this particular whale has been in captivity for a long time…

  8. I didn’t mean to suggest that I too don’t do some of the things I am critical of – like Gabrielle I do eat meat but attempt to make some decisions about what kind depending on intelligence (though how do define such things. . . ) And Whaling appalls me particularly because Whales are such intelligent creatures. But if I’m honest with myself I’m not sure that really cuts it, ethically. I should give up eating meat altogether and it’s lazy that I don’t.

  9. sophie, i’m in the same boat. i eat meat because i’m lazy and selfish, even though i know i shouldn’t. i imagine that one day i’ll stop.

    as for the intelligence scale being a determinant of eatability, i’m not convinced that stands up. i mean, if you’re opposed [as i am] to human beings being valued and ranked and assigned rights based on their intelligence, then how does it fly with animals? and where does it end?

    my view on this is also complicated by being both a pet owner and from a family of farmers, who killed animals for their livelihood [as well as grew things]. i’ve seen a lot of animals being killed but not in that mechanical way that jeff describes in ‘killing’, so i didn’t find it traumatic. i think that people raising and killing their own animals, or breeding livestock on a small scale is preferable to the repulsive conveyor belt system that has blown up around us.

    but then again, we can live without eating meat, and i think we’ll learn how to eventually, either by choice or necessity.

  10. The other part of this is to do with the nature of zoos. They’re basically relics from the British empire, aren’t they, with the idea being that you exhibit examples of beasts from all the lands you’ve conquered.
    Nowadays, many — though not all — zoos try to provide a simulation of the animals’ native habitat. But of course as soon as you start doing that, you clash with the idea of displaying the animal to the public (since, most of the time, in its native habitat, it doesn’t want to be seen).
    So the humane zoo is more-or-less a conceptual contradiction.

  11. I have to confess to being a chronic anthropomorphiser, but I wonder if animals really ARE that different to us, physicaly and emotionally? Fear, pain, boredom, hunger, threat, lust, contentment, curiosity, playfulness, anger – surely we all feel and act on these sensations. So perhaps it’s not so silly to think that we can imagine what animals are feeling?

    Perhaps the only thing that really distinguishes us from other animals (apart from those handy opposable thumbs) is our capacity for self-analysis. And also our desire to preserve other animal species because they are cool. Seriously, wouldn’t pandas have gone extinct if we didn’t happen to find them adorable?? They’re loners, dislike sex, only eat bamboo…Also we want other animals to think WE’RE cool too, and become confused and hurt when they try and eat us instead.

  12. PS Agree with Karen re intelligence being a dangerous decider of who to eat.

    My sister made an interesting point when we were talking about similar issues a while back – if we all stop eating meat, it also means that many many animals will never be born. There aren’t going to be large herds of cows, pigs and sheep roaming free, for example. (Well maybe sheep, for their wool). Not quite sure what to do with this idea – similarities to the abortion debate? But in any case, ceasing to eat meat doesn’t necessarily mean we are ‘saving’ animals. They just will never exist.

  13. Thanks for your orca poem Gabrielle – that’s pretty much my view, but oh so beautifully put!

    And Jeff, you’ve gone to the heart of it for me – it’s about zoos, institutions I abhor. I can appreciate in the abstract that these days zoos are more ‘humane’ and serve ‘scientific’, research purposes, but I cannot enter one. I just see animals in captivity. Pacing. Or staring.

    And I tend to agree with you Alice, that we’re not so different from animals. Although we really have no idea if they have the capacity for self-analysis as we apparently do – as Jeff says, we know little enough about our own human psychology, how can we know what goes on inside the heads of whales or any other animal? On the other hand, I’m sure I know when my plants are ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, and how to make them feel better with words. I think there’s more intelligence in most living things (and possibly all matter) than we humans can imagine.

  14. Animals may not have our self-awareness nor the same awareness of death, but we do see animals express many of the same emotions we do including fear and joy and even sorrow. We love whales and cats and dogs and birds but care less about the animals we eat and how they live and die. The suffering of animals is so immense I can hardly bear to contemplate it, whether a sheep in a paddock with not even a tree to shelter it from the heat of a 40 degree day or a chicken crammed into a truck on its way to slaughter or a dog left alone all day and never walked. Decades or perhaps centuries into the future, humankind will look back at the way animals are exploited whether for entertainment, for profit or for our dining pleasure, and be horrified. I am convinced we can never truly be civilised until we treat animals humanely. A first step would be to stop eating them.

  15. I don’t think this is an argument of whether animals are entitled to the same rights as human beings, because how would this even be realised?

    But I think we can agree that people do not want animals to suffer.

    Capitalism drives away rights; it is, in fact, predicated on a system of no rights for anyone, human or animal.

    So I guess it comes down to a moral obligation. Even in a Marxist sense, human beings are seen as inherently compassionate and collective; is it that much of a stretch to extend this compassion and collectivity to animals?

    Just because rights for animals can only be conceived of by humans, doesn’t mean that the need for them is diminished or that we shouldn’t create them. Regardless of an animal’s capacity to express that right, they inherently have that right as ‘experiencing’ beings.

    This leaves only human beings with the capacity to express these rights for animals. Not all human beings have an interest in human rights, let alone animal rights: weapons manufacturers, abattoirs, factory farms, etc.

    People who have an interest and ability to change the system for human beings are the same people who can change it for animals.

    As for the anthropomorphism: how else do we understand experience, other than in relation to ourselves? (This is, of course, a rather complex question.)

  16. Perhaps part of the reason there has been such an outcry about whaling is that we have witnessed their death throes and seen the ocean fill with their blood. Millions of animals die just as cruelly each week but their deaths are hidden from view. And that’s probably just how we like it. Here’s a link to an article I wrote a few years ago that discusses among other things, factory farming and abattoirs.

  17. “But I’m a man man man man man man man eater
    But still you’re surprised prised prised when I eat ya.”
    -Neko Case ‘People Gotta A Lotta Nerve’.

    There is something here about whales (or dolphins, as we all know Orcas are more accurately described as*) specifically though, and our drive to anthropomorphise a creature that we’ve hunted to the brink of extinction and over in the case of some species. Hal Whitehead, Cambridge Mathematician and the world’s preeminent Spermwhale expert (“Spermwhale: Social Evolution in the Ocean”), claims that whales have a matrilineal culture, regional dialects, and given their brain structure may even have religion, or at the very least some faculty for serious ontological inquiry.

    Last year the NY Times ran a piece about inter-species communication in which Charles Siebert (whose book “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals” I’ve been meaning to read and may be of some interest to you Jeff) describes how whales – “teach and learn. They scheme. They cooperate, and they grieve. They recognize themselves and their friends. They know and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/magazine/12whales-t.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1 This is what I suspect is at the core of the debate: that we long for the whale to have the capacity to act in a morally punitive manner when we have “imprisoned the whale in a bathtub” for our entertainment, because if the whale is capable of making these types of higher-order judgments, it is also able to forgive us in the wild, to see the good in us if not as individuals than as a species. We can’t accept that the whale may in fact just be indifferent to us.

    I saw that last year helping out at a beaching where I live in WA: People bought their infants down to sort of wave over the whale, as if to catch some drift of a myth that was evaporating. Some were crying. You can’t kill a whale the same way you would kill a cow, because a bolt through the head (if you can manage to pierce the thickness of the skull) while killing the brain, takes a much longer time to register in the heart because of the length of the circulatory system. Shoot it in the heart, and the brain will take hours to die. So: the most humane thing to do is to dynamite them. Or, if they’re small enough as this one was being a yearling, sometimes the guys from Dept. Wildlife and Conversation give them a ‘green dream’, a euthanizing injection. After it was dead, the strangest reaction came from the assembled onlooking audience when it was announced they wouldn’t be towing the carcass out into the ocean, but burying it at the Tamala Park tip in Mindarie. People couldn’t accept the lack of ceremony, and in the end, the bobcats waited until the nightfall dispersed the crowd before collecting the dead whale.

    … I’d write more here but this is getting a little long for a comment! Jeff, you should also seek out Philip Hoare’s book “Levithan”; fantastic book.

    * Killer whales are in fact in the process of becoming two species http://news.discovery.com/earth/killer-whales-splitting-into-two-species.html

  18. Well, many species have inter-species communication. How are whales different to ants? Ants have a cooperative, decision-making society – they even have civil wars to determine who will be the next queen.

    People privilege mammals above insects, and whales and primates above all other mammals. (Interestingly, this is not a sympathy we extend to ‘obvious’ predators despite our own predatory behaviours.)

    I agree it could be argued that this is to do with self-consciousness (or ‘thought about thought’).

    Which reminded me of Nagel’s essay, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ and the call for ‘objective phenomenology’, or that the ‘the essential point about conscious experiences is that they are subjective’. We can’t objectively know what it’s like to be a bat [whale, ant, Other] but it is like something to be a bat [whale, ant, Other].

  19. OK, this is just thinking out loud. I don’t really have a coherent position on this: it’s more just a collection of thoughts.

    To me, though, one of the difficulties of working out a political attitude to animals is precisely that humans both are and are not animals.

    The various environmental crises have made humanity’s relationship with nature more obvious in recent years, so much so that a purely Promethean attitude, in which the natural world is simply an object which we can manipulate without consequences is no longer credible. For the same reason, no-one today seriously defends the old Cartesian view of animals as entirely unfeeling (Descartes dismissed the cries of animals during vivisection as the creaks of machines being dissembled).

    At the same time, humans are also something separate from nature, fundamentally different from animals. This is implicit in the very notion of society. Humans can shape the natural world in a way that animals can’t.

    An adequate politics of animals needs to centre on this contradiction but exactly how I don’t know.

    Like, the implicit assumption behind our current treatment of animals is Cartesian. In the meat industry, for instance, animals are, fairly explicitly, treated as objects, units of production.

    This is obvious nonsense, and the maintenance of the idea requires constant effort from people involved in slaughter. In Killing, I talked a little a bit about sheep dealers who said they couldn’t look too closely at any individual animal because if they did, they could no longer think of it as an abstract lump of meat. In fact, the breakdown of that abstraction seemed to be one of the major causes of trauma amongst people who worked killing animals. Coral Hull has some lines to that effect:

    There is always the goat who will penetrate you,
    who will look into you, glassy eyed, resilient,
    unresigned to the blade, to the breaking of the neck,
    & beside its stubborn terror,
    there is always the goat who will tremble inside,
    as its old knees buckle & scrap

    Nonetheless, it’s equally untenable not to accept a fundamental difference between humans and animals, and to me this is one of the difficulties of the politics of animal rights, since the usual attribution of rights draws an analogy with various kind of human rights, an analogy that just doesn’t work. The various struggles of oppressed groups involve an assertion of a common humanity, the truth of which becomes clearest in the recognition that their struggles eventually serve the interests of the rest of humanity. That is, the liberation of the oppressed is not a zero sum game but rather something that opens up an increasing possibility of broader solidarity, and (eventually) the liberation of the entire human race.

    The liberation of animals is quite different. It is not a self-assertion of rights; it is, by definition, something conducted by humans on behalf of animals.

    Which is not in itself to say that humans shouldn’t concern themselves with animals but simply to point out the very different dynamic. To give the most extreme example, it’s not altogether clear that animals wouldn’t be better off with the extermination of the entire human race. You couldn’t say that about any human group asserting its rights.

    Another way of thinking about the problem is illustrated in the Coetzee novel Elizabeth Costello, in which the titular character gives a lecture about animal suffering in which she describes how, after becoming conscious of the cruelty of industrial meat production, she comes to see society as a huge Nazi death camp (or something like that: can’t remember the exact quote and it doesn’t really matter).

    On the one hand, it’s an observation that has a lot of force. As I said earlier in this thread, it’s hard to look at cattle slaughter and not think that something very wrong is going on. And once you’re conscious of that wrongness, you see it everywhere you go, since the killing of animals pervades the entirety of society. Yet no-one ever talks about it. It’s like a conscious self-blindness, a determined effort not to mention the bloodstain on the floor.

    Nonetheless, the comparison with Auschwitz is still wrong — in fact, quite offensively so. The six million were people and animals are animals, and any theory that draws a simply moral equivalence between the two must be wrong.

    I’m not a philosopher but it does seem to me that this contradiction (we are both animals and not-animals) is why the subject is so difficult. Even leaving aside the morals, the politics of the issue require working out something more extensive about the relationship between humanity and the animal world. If animals are of less moral importance than humans (which seems to me undeniably true) and if the liberation of animals plays no role in the liberation of humans (which also seems to be true, by the argument above) than shouldn’t animal liberation be a secondary question until human oppression is ended?

    Of course, that’s the kind of argument that leftists (often unfairly, IMO) were often accused of making about, say, gender or sexuality: ‘oh, we will worry about those things after the revolution!’ But insofar as the Left did say that, it was wrong, since no real social change could ever take place without tackling the oppression of women (or gays or whoever else) in the here and now. I don’t think you can make the same argument about animals: certainly, it’s not clear to me why animal rights is a necessary precondition of social struggles for humans.

    OK, so that’s all pretty confused, so I’ll cap it off with another confused point.

    John Berger’s got a great essay entitled ‘Why Look at Animals?’ in which he relates the modern treatment of animals to the factory process as a whole. He writes:

    ‘This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man. The mechanical view of the animal’s work capacity ws later applied to that of workers.’

    Given the starting point of this post, his later consideration of zoos is also relevant. He writes:

    ‘The zoo is a demonstration of the relations between man and animals, nothing else. The marginalisation of animals is today being followed by the marginalisation and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarty: the middle and small peasants. The basis of this wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal. The rejection of this dualism is probably an important factor in opening the way to modern totalitarianism.’

    Anyway, the whole essay is worth reading. The point I want to make, though, is that articulating a politics of animals is connected with grasping that dualism, the contradiction in which humans are simultaneously animals and not animals. It seems to me this is probably also related to the argument that people like John Bellamy Foster make about what he calls the ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and nature (there’s a good summary here).

    But actually working through a dialectical politics of animals is beyond my feeble capacities. Hence these incoherent thoughts.

  20. I’ve not read Berger’s essay but I’d be interested to know how he makes a leap from the wisdom of peasants connected to animals, which I would not contest, to ‘The basis of this wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between men and animals.’ Presumably not a Cartesian dualism, given his anti-Cartesian position – or is it? What is the basis of Berger’s dualism? Something along the lines of ‘humans are imbued with intelligence/spirit and animals are not’? And therein lies their difference? And if we ignore that difference we are moments away from treating humans as animals, aka modern totalitarianism?

    And if that’s not what he means by ‘dualism’ is his dualism merely an assertion of what he believes to be a self-evident divide between humans and animals? Based on what?

    It’s murky territory, morally, politically, epistemologically. For example, I don’t see how you can say that ‘humans are separate from nature’ because we can ‘shape the natural world in a way that animals can’t’ – to name some obvious examples of animals that do shape the world, beavers, ants, birds. I thought Darwin’s legacy was to demonstrate that we are part of nature’s continuum. We are not separate from nature. We are ‘evolved’ apes.

    The words of Jonas Salk keep coming to mind: ‘If all the insects were to disappear from the earth within 50 years all life on earth would end. If human beings disappeared from the earth within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.’ Perhaps that’ what you mean by humans ‘shape’ the natural world. We prevent it from flourishing.

    And perhaps the liberation of animals is not a self-assertion of rights. But perhaps that’s exactly what Tilikum was doing.

  21. Hey, I said it was confused. 🙂

    The Berger essay is here, as a PDF. It is well worth reading.

    My point wasn’t that humans are separate from nature. It was that they both are and they aren’t. Yes, birds and ants and other creatures can build things but their capability of interacting with the world is quite different from that of a human. Most animals build in a very instinctive way: imagining something new and then building according to that plan seems to be something uniquely human. That doesn’t mean that we’re not part of nature — it just means that we’re not simply part of it.

    It also seems to me that if we don’t accept that — if we don’t accept that there is a distinction between humans and animals — it does have some pretty disturbing political implications. As you say, in many ways, we prevent the natural world from flourishing. But that doesn’t mean that the disappearance of humanity would be a good thing.

  22. Of course there is a distinction. But this reduces it to an argument that says because animals are not capable of asserting their rights, any kind of beneficial existence waits until after the liberation of humans.

    So what rights would they be entitled to then? Why would humanity have any desire to treat them differently?

    I haven’t yet read Berger’s essay either, and don’t have time to now, but was also wondering what his dualism is based upon.

    Jane, I liked the image of Tilikum asserting his rights.

  23. Thanks Jeff – and yes, you did say you were confused so didn’t mean to sound as if I was taking you to task for something you’d said was thinking out loud. I’m also confused – perhaps because it’s a both/and question. That we both are and aren’t animals. I’m surprised at how deep my response to this is going so perhaps I err more on the ‘are animal’ than the ‘are not animal’ side of the equation, or spectrum perhaps. I think we are animals with imagination and tools. (And yet I couldn’t presume to say animals don’t have imagination and certainly some of them use tools.)

    And thanks for the link to the Berger piece – I’ve just read it and it seems his dualism is rather spurious, based on the idea that in the case of animals we abstracted from the particular (and yet we do it with ourselves too – eg in Christian theology we are both God and man (and sometimes a Virgin Mother and a sinning woman too)). Berger’s dualism comes from this:

    ‘An animal’s blood flowed like human blood, but its species was undying and each lion was Lion, each ox was Ox. This – maybe the first existential dualism – was reflected in the treatment of animals. They were subjected AND worshipped, bred AND sacrificed. Today the vestiges of this dualism remain among those who live intimately with, and depend upon, animals …’

    I like his idea that anthropomorphism was the reside of the continuous use of animal metaphor and that the ‘animals of our minds’ have been co-opted into the family – Disney, Beatrix Potter – and the spectacle, ie zoos, circuses.

    Perhaps I have read too much Lyall Watson but I cannot let go of the idea that it is human hubris to think that we are superior to animals and different from them because we have language, can build cities, make art.

  24. Many of the conceptions of “humanity” that run through this thread seem to ignore the wide variations in capacities that exist within the human population. The picture painted is one of two distinct categories – humans and non-human animals – which have separate sets of capacities and never the twain shall meet.

    The real world is more complicated. Humans vary widely in their capacities and when it comes to some capacities – intelligence, ability to shape the natural world, ability to asserts one’s own rights, and so on – some humans have less developed capacities than some non-human animals. Think of a human with a severe and irreversible mental disability, for example.

    In those cases in which a human has less developed capacities than a non-human animal (and when these capacities are morally relevant), principles of equality and non-discrimination demand that the non-human animal be treated at least as well as the human. For example, if you wouldn’t eat the human, don’t eat the non-human.

    There is no need for a political or ethical theory to ignore the wide variations in capacities that exist within the human population. In fact, any political or ethical theory worth its salt would need to take this aspect of the real world into account.

    This kind of rationale is an important component of Peter Singer’s influential essay “All Animals Are Equal“, as well as his even more influential book Animal Liberation. Every well-rounded young man and woman should read these Australian classics!

  25. Hi James,
    Yes, I know the Singer book. That argument’s fine but it’s a moral theory rather than a political one. Or, perhaps better, it implies a very liberal politics, where the liberation of animals takes place on the basis of the good will of people. To me, it doesn’t seem very convincing — I can’t think of any other political change of a similar scale that has taken place like that. If you think of the social movements of the sixties (to which Singer’s idea of ‘speciesism’ is an analogy), they were driven by the mobilisation of the oppressed and then by a recognition from others not in that oppressed group of a material interest in that struggle.
    It’s a fundamentally different situation.
    That also goes to something that both Jane and Jacinda said.
    I suspect the reference to Tikkum asserting his rights was partly tongue in cheek but I don’t think it’s helpful, since it involves precisely the kind of anthropomorphism that we began the thread by discussing. The woman and the whale weren’t friends but nor were they enemies. Those are human categories and I can’t see how they apply without turning the whale into simply an aquatic person rather than a wild animal (or fish or mammal or whatever it is).
    Jane writes: ‘Perhaps I have read too much Lyall Watson that it is human hubris to think that we are superior to animals and different from them because we have language, can build cities, make art.
    Superior? It depends what you mean by that. But different, surely (as well as being the same — it’s dialectics, innit!). Language, culture, etc — surely these are part of the definition of humanity, and that means we’re not identical to other animals.
    To me, this is quite an important point. I know no-one is saying this, but if there’s no difference between humans and animals then it’s hard to see why, say, the destruction of all humanity wouldn’t be a good idea. Certainly, it would make life better for animals, and thus, on the basis of the greater benefit for the greater number, would seem justified.
    Again, though, that’s why I think it’s such an interesting and difficult argument. Yes, there is something morally and politically wrong with how we relate to animals at the moment. But thinking that through in a way that recognises BOTH the commonality and the differences between humans and animals seems very hard. Or at least, it seems very hard to me. 🙂

  26. Yes, I agree it seems very hard Jeff – and so interesting. And yes, I was being tongue in cheek when I used the language of rights to describe what Tilikum did – but my comment didn’t imply the woman and orca were friends or enemies. I was suggesting he was fighting captivity. I don’t know orcas, but I know horses, and if they’re mistreated, scared, threatened, they lash out, kick, buck, which can end in serious injury to any nearby human. That’s all I’m suggesting Tilikum was doing, expressing fury and frustration – that of a massive creature kept in captivity. The mental leap is not so great. And I don’t think it’s anthropomorphism to say so.

    A friend has seen first hand in the Orlando Florida marine park an orca, having played with a female trainer, dive down to the bottom of the tank and rub its erect penis round and round the observation window. There’s always that to consider. Sexual frenzy.

    OK, not superior (wrong word), but different, and I’d say on a continuum of difference. I go back to one of your original comments Jeff – ‘We have such little idea how human psychology works. What can we really say about the inner life of a whale, other than it’s miserable in a tiny tank?’ That’s really all I’m trying to say. We just don’t know.

    (In lieu of a smily face I’ll bow out of this really fascinating discussion by changing the subject completely and saying how much I loved your piece on the new atheism in the latest Meanjin Jeff. It explained so much to me, especially my own previously inexplicable discomfort with some of these rabid atheists. The best thing I’ve read on the subject.)

  27. I agree – it’s undeniably true that increases in the welfare of non-human animals have occurred on the basis of human good will, rather than being driven by the mobilisation of the animals themselves. That’s the predicament of the truly powerless. In this way the situation is different to that of the social movements of the 1960s, where the beneficiaries, while hardly being powerful, did not approach the levels of powerlessness that afflict non-human animals. Non-human animals aren’t alone, however. Campaigns aimed at increasing the welfare of humans with severe and irreversible mental disabilities seem to me to be in a very similar situation.

    While non-human animals may be dependent on human good will for increases in their welfare, it’s also possible that there are social processes at work – even powerful social processes – that are gradually transforming human attitudes towards non-human animals. To take violence as an example, it seems to me that over time there have been declines in the social acceptability of violence within certain domains of society – for example, violence against criminals, violence against children, and so on. These declines in the acceptability of violence against criminals and children have not been driven by the mobilisation of criminals or by the mobilisation of children – there have been some other social processes at work. Do I know what these social processes might be…Hell no! Nevertheless, it seems possible to me that the social processes that have led to declines in the social acceptability of violence within these domains could also potentially lead to similar declines in the social acceptability of violence against non-human animals.

    Obviously that is all a little vague… There is a huge sociological literature on these issues which I am yet to master – but I’m working on it!

    The initial post and the thread as a whole have been thought-provoking and interesting – thanks!

  28. And I agree too, James – that increases in the welfare of non-human animals have occurred on the basis of human good will, tuned into the suffering of animals I’d add. I do think some people really do connect with animals and have wordless communication with them. And I agree that there are social processes at work that are gradually transforming human attitudes to non-human animals (I think that’s a very useful term, by the way) – animal liberation movements, the vegan and vegetarian ‘movements’, which go back a long way, at least to the 19th century off the top of my head.

    And I think your example of the changes in public attitudes to the social acceptability of violence against children and criminals is useful too. I’m interested in extending this argument to the earth, the ultimate mute object of our ravages and violence – and it’s not even a sentient being with a hope of protesting by kicking out (although I’m not sure what James Lovelock would say about that). Equally, our attitudes to the wanton rape of the earth are changing, slowly, and are doing so as the result of social and political processes. I think those who speak for the earth are comparable to those who speak for voiceless animals.

    And yes, this is a fascinating thread (and I wasn’t so successful at bowing out of the discussion).

  29. None of this would have happened if Sea World had followed the Bible. From the American Family Association:

    If the counsel of the Judeo-Christian tradition had been followed, Tillikum would have been put out of everyone’s misery back in 1991 and would not have had the opportunity to claim two more human lives.

    Says the ancient civil code of Israel, “When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner shall not be liable.” (Exodus 21:28)

    So, your animal kills somebody, your moral responsibility is to put that animal to death. You have no moral culpability in the death, because you didn’t know the animal was going to go postal on somebody.

    But, the Scripture soberly warns, if one of your animals kills a second time because you didn’t kill it after it claimed its first human victim, this time you die right along with your animal. To use the example from Exodus, if your ox kills a second time, “the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:29)

  30. Brilliant Gabrielle. I am so with Louie. He knows orcas – and he’s almost speechless with the obviousness of who’s at fault in this story: Seaworld. Thanks for the link.

  31. I think this is an interesting point too, but often given too much weight. Ceasing to eat meat means fewer animals are born to live stunted, often painful lives that invariably end in premature and often painful death. Preventing these animals from being born is not only not a bad thing, but a good one. It’s about as morally objectionable, in my mind, as waking up every day and choosing not to get pregnant.

    Now — not eating meat AND advocating for better treatment of animals raised for food — then you’re actually going a way to ‘saving’ animals. Assuming that quality of life matters, which it does. Naturally the animals will still have their heads hacked off at some point.

  32. I don’t believe that ‘otherness’ is a very useful concept in helping to think about animals. It merely seals them off in a conceptual abyss: a hermetic zone in which they can never be part of our world.

    I strongly agree with the sentiments of Jeff’s article that, on the whole, anthropomorphism is often to blame for mistakes in animal/human relations. But I would say – given that 99.9% of animal/human relations take place in factory farm settings – that the by far bigger problem is invisibility and hence a lack of empathy and awareness. Anthropomorphism may be mistaken empathy, or misguided empathy, but it at least recognises that other species exist and may suffer.

    The majority of people who eat meat are either unaware or wilfully blind in this regard. Our challenge, I think, is not to focus on marginal cases, but to direct our energies towards making the major cases (factory farming) more visible and hence breaking down the alienation that modern production achieves.


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