This symposium opens with a provocation: What are animals for? The question almost solicits its own rejection, invoking as it does one of the central tenets of much animal advocacy: animals are not for anything, and they ought to be liberated from any sort of use. (Within animal ethics, the abolitionist or animal rights position is often distinguished from the animal welfare position, but both share the common and perhaps commonsensical thought that use is a problem; something that should be limited, curtailed or ended altogether.) This tenet finds one of its most pointed formulations in the work of legal scholar Gary Francione, who diagnoses contemporary Western culture with a “moral schizophrenia” about animals: “We treat some nonhumans as persons, as members of our families; we treat some as things that we eat or use in other ways.” Behind Francione’s charge of schizophrenia is something of a Kantian logic in which the ethical universe is carved into two: persons, ends-in-themselves that demand respect; and things, entities available as means, consigned to use. Francione puts this bluntly: “[Animals] are either persons, beings to whom the principle of equal consideration applies and who possess morally significant interests in not suffering, or things, beings to whom the principle of equal consideration does not apply and whose interests may be ignored if it benefits us. There is no third choice.”
I want to think a bit more about the two choices Francione lays out—either persons or things, either ethical consideration or use. I want to think, in particular, about use. Many people concerned with the ethics of human-animal relations share Francione’s sense that use is a problem. In the introduction to the 1983 anthology, Ethics and Animals, for example, we find a section entitled “Using the Others,” along with the following list: “We use other animals in many ways: we eat them, experiment upon them, test an enormous number of substances on them, hunt and kill them for entertainment, race and fight them for entertainment, produce a wide variety of products from the uneaten parts of their bodies, and keep them as pets and as servants.” Later in the same volume, Annette Baier glosses the standard (Kantian) thought “that it is only right and proper that [animals] serve the ends of rational beings like us, thus becoming our food, our clothing, our playthings, our prey, our experimental subjects our guinea-pigs, and our sacrificial lambs.” In each case, the form of the list implies a kind of equivalence between different sorts of use—the use of animals as food and as entertainment, as prey and as plaything. This is a familiar move, but I’m not sure it’s a self-evident one.
In looking for the logic that underwrites this equation of different sorts of use, we could do worse than turn to Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, a foundational text for our notion of what it means to treat something as a thing, as something available for use. In developing his account of the origin of our right to use things—of the ground of property rights— Locke bypasses the text to which many before and after him have turned: the first chapter of Genesis, in which God grants Adam (and humankind) dominion over all creatures. “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” For reasons of his own—which have to do with distinguishing private property from property in common, as well as with extending private property to an unprecedented degree—Locke isn’t satisfied with Adam’s dominion. He is interested instead in God’s covenant with Noah some nine chapters later. For only then, as Locke writes, did Noah and his sons have “given them the utmost Property Man is capable of, which is to have a right to destroy any thing by using it; Every moving thing that Liveth, saith God, shall be Meat for you, which was not allowed to Adam in his Charter.” (Adam was granted, as Locke notes, “the Herbs but in common with the Beasts”). Noah’s “right to destroy any thing by using it”—that is, his right to eat animals, to use moving, living things as food—is for Locke the origin and the paradigm of private property. And it seems to me that we can see something of a Lockean logic (though it is not Locke’s alone) in our common notions of what it is to use: to use is to use up or to destroy, on the paradigm, here, of eating animals.
There may be conceptual and strategic gains to be had from equating use with using up, on the model of eating. But I think there are also losses. I think of Barbara Johnson’s recent reflections on “the ethical importance of ‘using people,’” for example, which reads Kant with the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott to defend a particular kind of use—the way an infant uses her first possession or her mother—as crucial to living well with others. This may seem a long way from the sort of use that concerns animals, and it is. But as Johnson’s Winnicottian sense of use opens onto the scene or subject of play, it also recalls Montaigne’s question about using animals as playthings, which undercuts any sense that use goes only one way: “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?” In a very different register, I also think of Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Animal Food, one of the most important classical discussions of animal ethics, which insists on distinguishing “laborious uses” like shearing sheep, milking cows, taming and yoking oxen, from the use of animals for food. Each of these examples makes a similar point: not all use is equal. And each makes a case, too, that use is not necessarily anathema to ethical consideration, as it is for animal rights advocates like Francione.
In Porphyry, social and ethical relations often go together with relations of use, and sometimes stem from them. Porphyry insists that we owe justice above all to the animals with whom we associate most closely, and of which we make use: “The ox that ploughs, the dog that is fed with us, and the animals that nourish us with their milk, and adorn our bodies with their wool.” Henry Salt says something similar in his landmark 1892 defense, Animal Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress, namely that the animals we use “have a special claim on man’s courtesy and sense of fairness, inasmuch as they are not his fellow-creatures only, but his fellow-workers, his dependents, and in many cases the familiar associates and trusted inmates of his home.” These may sound like sentimental and perhaps wrongheaded efforts to satisfy the demands of justice with something like benevolence or kindness. They may, in part, be that. And yet our ways of living with animals would be radically transformed if we took seriously the sorts of ethical obligations that Salt and Porphyry think stem from all that animals are for.
To set use and association together as Salt and Porphyry do is to move into the domestic realm, where humans and animals have long lived (and worked and played) together. Among those who think and write about animals, philosopher Mary Midgley has paid particular attention to this domestic realm. Reminding us that no other species “draw[s] in, domesticate[s] and live[s] with a great variety of other creatures … on anything like so large a scale,” Midgley urges us to “take this peculiar human talent more seriously and try to understand its workings.” To think seriously about domestication would, I think, make it difficult to divide the world into persons and things, or to identify use with using up. We might instead see a world in which it is difficult to parse person from thing, family from food, companion from property. Midgley’s word for this is “association”: her examples include dogs (animals “with whom our association seems to be an incredibly ancient one, amounting to symbiosis”), but also reindeer, weasels and elephants, the cattle of the Masai and the horses of nomads. All of these associations are explicitly social relations and also relations of use; in each case, as Midgley puts it, “tractors cannot be substituted.” It’s worth quoting Midgley at length here:
Of course [domestic animals] were largely there for use—for draught and riding, for meat, milk, wool and hides, for feathers and eggs, as vermin-catchers or as aids to fishing or hunting. In principle, it might seem reasonable to expect that these forms of exploitation would have produced no personal or emotional involvement at all. From a position of ignorance, we might have expected that people would view their animals simply as machines. If we impose the sharp Kantian dichotomy between persons and things, subjects and objects, and insist that everything must be considered as simply one or the other, we might have expected that they would be viewed unambiguously as things. But in fact, if people had viewed them like this, the domestication could probably never have worked. The animals, with the best will in the world, could not have reacted like machines. They became tame, not just through the fear of violence, but because they were able to form individual bonds with those who tamed them by coming to understand the social signals addressed to them. They learned to obey human beings personally. They were able to do this, not only because the people taming them were social beings, but because they themselves were so too. … It is hopeless trying to understand this situation if we keep pressing the crude Kantian question, ‘but are lambs people or things?’ If we want to grasp it, we must wake up to a much wider range of possibilities. Our conceptual map needs revising.
For Midgley, revising our conceptual map means that there is indeed a third choice between Francione’s respect for persons and the use, as using up, of things: a position occupied by domestic animals and our associations with them. For Johnson, revising our conceptual map means crossing Francione’s two choices to think more about the ways in which persons are treated as things (and things as persons), as well as the ways in which use might be an ethical good. In both cases, it is the domestic realm that prompts or requires this kind of conceptual revision. Domestic relations (between an infant and her first possession, between a nomad and his horse) call for ethical paradigms that are sensitive to conditions of dependence, vulnerability and embodied life, to scenes of work and play as well as of potentially nondestructive, even ethical forms of use.
I’ve been arguing that those of us concerned with animals might do well to consider use outside of the paradigm of using up, destruction or eating. What, then, about eating? Is there a way to bring eating into the field of ethics—to take not only the nomad and the horse as a model of moral relation, but also the eater and the eaten? I admit I’m not sure. To borrow a phrase from Baier, “the moral enterprise is built on the faith that interests can to some extent be reconciled, that flourishing need not always be at the expense of others.” And eating, by definition, would seem to be flourishing at the expense of others. But eating also raises questions about what counts as a unit of flourishing, and so troubles ethics in part by troubling boundaries between individuals. One doesn’t have to think for long about eating before one comes to the idea of the food chain, which is not so much a model of one individual flourishing at the expense of others as it is one in which individuals are difficult to discern at all. Porphyry criticizes the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus for invoking the food chain to underwrite his extreme formulation of the claim “that animals are for man,” which holds together various sorts of use: bugs are for waking us up, mice are for making us put away our things, pigs are for eating. Porphyry replies that “if we define, by utility, things which pertain to us, we shall not be prevented from admitting, that we were generated for the sake of the most destructive animals, such as crocodiles, balaenae, and dragons.” I find Porphyry’s move (like Chrysippus’) striking for the way it can seem at once true and trite, the way it can induce a sense of both vertigo and banality. It can do this, I think, because it rests on what is finally a formal and reversible ecological point, that all is interconnected: pigs are useful to man, man is useful to crocodiles. This point says little about how to move from ecology to ethics, from the food chain to individual units of concern or value, from the fact of interdependence to the normative sense of being “for.” It says little about how we might decide who or what is to be used by whom, and how.
In his captivating work of environmental legal theory, Should Trees Have Standing, Christopher Stone argues that taking the ecological fact of interdependence seriously unsettles the sense that anything—person, animal or thing—is “for” anything else. Stone insists that nothing that exists is simply given for human flourishing or food or use:
To be able to get away from the view that Nature is a collection of useful senseless objects is … to reach a heightened awareness of our own, and others’, capacities in mutual interplay. To do so, we have to give up some psychic investment in our sense of separateness and specialness in the universe. And this, in turn, is hard giving indeed, because it involves us in a flight backwards, into earlier stages of civilization and childhood in which we had to trust (and perhaps fear) our environment, for we had not then the power to master it. Yet, in doing so, we, as persons, gradually free ourselves of needs for supportive illusions.
Stone doesn’t specify what supportive illusions we might get free of if we as a species were to return to something like childhood. But I take it that the separateness or specialness that we might give up is that of the human species, but also that of individual persons, and, perhaps, of individual animals as well.
The relationship between animal rights and environmentalism is often uneasy, not least because animal rights tends to worry about individual animals, while much of environmental thought moves toward ecological units like species, ecosystems and the food chain. For those interested in ethics and animals, there is often a sense that the individual animal (like the individual person) is something separate and special in the universe, something given for our concern or respect, something that demands freedom from being used, or at least from being used up. There are good reasons for this sense, including notions of what it means to be alive or have a life, to suffer or be free from pain, to be endowed with consciousness, sentience or feeling. But I wonder whether something might not be gained from starting at the other end, with things. Perhaps thinking environmentalism and animal rights together—thinking ethics in ways that might encompass humans and animals and also Stone’s trees—requires us to think more capaciously about use, but also to acknowledge that carving out units of concern or respect is difficult and often uncertain work. We (humans, persons) are not separate and special in the universe, though we can be. So too can others, animals and things alike. I am attracted to Porphyry’s defense of vegetarianism, which he frames as an injunction against treating animals as things: “For how is it possible that he should not defame and calumniate animals, who has determined to cut them in pieces, as if they were stones.” Instinctively, I sense that it is a defamation of animals to treat them as if they were stones. But then maybe we need to think more about how we treat stones.