Why Humans Need Animals
Amersham Millennium Lecture, Tuesday March 11th 2008 as presented by Steven Shakespeare - Anglican Chaplain, Liverpool Hope University
DEAD MEAT: Why Humans Need Animals
Recently, I helped to organise a conference of chaplains from church-founded colleges and universities. One of our sessions was addressed by a senior member of my university’s education deanery. He spoke about the values that should be at the heart of education: that it should be about formation not information, the flourishing of humanity not the endless quest after targets. Too often, he argued, we talk about these ideals, but the culture of our institutions and the politics of education work against them.
Two things he said particularly stuck in my mind. The first was that we are obsessed with measuring things. If it moves measure it – and if it doesn’t move, so much the better. But this craving for quantification misses the heart of what education should be about – the wonder, the hope, the striving for justice. Measurement affects everything we do. It’s even the first question we ask when a baby is born: what did it weigh? 6lb 5? 8lb 2? We need to know. But we wouldn’t dream of applying the same thinking to adults. ‘I saw your sister on the street the other day. What’s she tipping the scales at these days?’ It doesn’t ring quite true, does it?
The second thing my education colleague said was simply this: that he prayed every day that he would die during a staff meeting, because then the transition from death to life would be imperceptible. His tongue may have been in his cheek. But I guess many of us will know the experience of meetings which chase their own tail, and exist in a parallel universe where time stretches out to infinity. When dull pointless monotony is the rule, what is there to tell us we are dead or alive?
Two thoughts, then, to begin my reflections. Firstly, we need to question our culture of measurement, because it’s not just a harmless preoccupation. It runs deep, and it is deadly. We come to believe that things only truly matter if they can be counted. And if they can be counted they can be turned into equivalent units, and if they can be turned into equivalent units they can be bought and sold as commodities. When that becomes the principal way we relate to our world, when we measure our wellbeing only in terms of what can be packaged, bought, sold and used, then we have begun to lose our soul. Obsessed with things, we become things ourselves. So much of the depth, vitality and diversity of life – everything which escapes measurement in any crude sense – is lost. No, I’ll put it more strongly than that. It is not just lost, it is killed. The life is drained from it. And no better instance of that is the way we understand and treat the nonhuman species with whom we share the earth.
So my first reflection is that we need to question the culture of counting and measurement. My second is related: we need to ask what it means to be dead or alive. When we turn the world into commodities and raw materials for our use, we let the worst kind of death rule: death as monotonous, meaningless objectivity. Death is the reduction of all things to the lowest common denominator. And life becomes the flip side of death: staving off the boredom by accumulating and exploiting the things that lie ready for us to use up. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard had a wonderful image of this when he anticipated our culture of mass production and entertainment back in the first half of the nineteenth century. He called it the ‘rotation of crops’. The idea was that life was pointless. Everything we did would turn out to be futile. The remedy was constant novelty, picking out absurd features of any situation to captivate our attention. It was a way of getting through the day – and Kierkegaard’s way of poking fun in all earnestness at the growing alienation from life he saw around him. If he had lived to see our TV sets now with their 200-300 channels, he would not have been surprised. Ever expanding possibilities meets ever reducing quality. For all the variety of channels, we are fed with a constant, monotonous diet of shopping, adverts, repeats and banality. And underneath it, behind the screen, the enormous injustices of the world persist, the conflicts and poverty that consume the hopes of millions are fanned by a culture afraid of life.
Notice I said that this was the worst kind of death. Because there are kinds of death. There are other ways of living with the mystery of our mortality, which do not hide behind the undying, pallid world of commodities. We need to befriend our death, our vulnerability, our interconnectedness if we are to know a different way of living – what the Christian tradition calls eternal life or simply life in all its fullness. Those who lose their life will find it. Those who cling to it will only choke it, turn it into a possession that has no heartbeat.
My concerns with a culture of measurement and commodities, and the living death which results, come together when we turn to our relationship with our animal others. But before I deal with that more directly, allow me to tell you about a small incident which happened when I was on a walking holiday with my wife in Ireland, south of Dublin.
We were following a rough farm track. As we turned a corner, we saw a herd of goats. They were straggled across the path, grazing on tuffets of grass. We were fairly confident walkers, and we assumed that the herd would notice us coming and move aside, nervous of our intrusion and not wishing us to get too close. But as we got closer, we realised that not only were they not moving, they were taking no notice of us at all. Then a shape separated itself from the herd. A billy goat. He must have been the leader of the pack. He was the biggest goat I have ever seen. He walked towards us slowly and deliberately, looking at us intently. The herd minded its own business. In a moment, we were the ones getting nervous. The lead goat did not hurry, but nor did he veer from its course. He walked right up to us. And then he began to nudge me, to push his huge forehead into my midriff. We quickly decided that retreat was the better part of valour, and we skirted around the herd, always on edge for the sound of cloven feet galloping towards us.
What did we meet on that Irish track? It was nothing dramatic, nothing to dine out on, not the stuff of heroic autobiography or high tragedy. But in that very mundane encounter, it felt as though we had crossed a line. Not a visible barrier, but a cultural one: perhaps the boundary of culture itself. It was a meeting with otherness. We were trespassing on territory we did not understand. We were never far from towns and farms, the land we walked through was thoroughly humanised. And yet here was a small taste of something wild, something which did not dance to a humanised tune.
One thing I cannot forget is the look in the eyes of the billy goat. In some ways it was obvious what was going on – we were being checked out and warned off. But in another sense, the animal’s gaze was unreadable. We shared no language, no horizon of meaning. I could not fathom it.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote about this animal gaze1.
He remembered being in the bathroom, naked, and becoming aware that his cat had entered the room and was watching him. He suddenly felt embarrassed, and reached for a towel. Later he reflected on what had happened. Why feel embarrassed in front of an animal? It makes no sense. And yet maybe that experience reveals something to us, something we’d rather keep repressed and hidden: that animals do hold us in their gaze, their worlds do meet ours, and not always on our terms. Perhaps this is what we fear: that what the animal sees matters to us.
Of course, as Derrida points out, even to talk of the ‘animal’ in general is one way in which we avoid facing the incredible diversity and strangeness of non-human life. By reducing the world of creatures into two parts – the animals and the human – we secure our own special place in the world. One of the guiding threads of my argument tonight will be this: that we so often define our identity with in relation to what is different from us. We know who we are by learning what we are not. We draw a line, we make a boundary, and from within this defensive circle, we look out on the world, on our other. And we feel a need to keep the other in its place, so we can remain confident about ourselves.
The trouble with this is that we allow our fears to gain the upper hand, and we need to back up our fragile identity with force. Difference becomes a basis for dominance, for superiority, for colonising and domesticating all that we consider savage, threatening, wild, animal. And there is a deep connection between the ways we categorise and exploit animal life, and the ways we label, partition and value human life.
The claims of patriarchy were long upheld by the belief that women were not born fully human. Aristotle even claimed that, by nature, only boys should be born. Girl babies were the result of an aberration in conception. Women were more closely associated with matter and the body and the senses. They were more earthy, more animal, and farther away from the true human ideal of reason and spirit exemplified by men. Such thinking might appear absurd stated so starkly, but how deeply it has affected our ability to come to terms with women’s empowerment, and with the identity crisis around what it means to be a man.
I could multiply examples. In the age of empire, indigenous peoples were labelled brute savages. In the disaster of Nazism, Jews, the disabled and others were considered subhuman parasites. Even now – and sadly sometimes within the church – we hear of homosexual people being associated with bestiality and predatory behaviour, as though they were monsters waiting to take away our children’s humanity. Ignoring of course the relentless evidence that heterosexuals are more likely to be the perpetrators involved in rape and abuse.
In each case, a link is made between behaviours or identities we wish to suppress or even eliminate and the supposed characteristics of animals. The implication is that these people are without reason, deserve no public voice, no understanding and can be treated as we wish – just like animals.
Of course our relationship to animals is far more complex than this. They often play a very positive role in our imagery, and in our affections. The UK is notoriously sentimental about animals, and the huge number of pets and high interest in wildlife programmes bear this out. And yet there is a huge split in our attitude. Those who keep pets and have any care for them know that dogs and cats and other species are not just commodities, not just equivalent units. They have individual personalities, they have a huge capacity for affection, enjoyment, suffering, boredom, stress, play. But the same people who dote on their pets and coo over lambs gambolling in the fields go out to the supermarket and buy slabs of meat clinically wrapped in cling film and served up on a polystyrene tray. There is little if no connection in our minds between that commodity and the living creature from which it came – how that creature lived, how it interacted with its world, where it was kept, what it was fed, and how it was processed.
Now there’s a good word: processed. We might turn our nose up at anything called processed meat, but the reality is that it’s all processed in one way or another. There is a transition from living creature to dead meat going on, that is not just something that happens at the physical level – it is a cultural, political, even a spiritual transition.
Let me try to explain.
In 1964, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote an influential book called The Raw and the Cooked. He argued that there was a huge symbolic importance in cooking food. It wasn’t just a neutral action, or one done to satisfy a physical need. It represented a cultural shift, by which plant and animal life was taken into the human world. Cooking was the culmination of a process by which wild, nonhuman life was made fit for our consumption. Cooking isn’t just a necessity or (for us) a hobby. It is a way of interpreting the world and negotiating the boundary between ourselves and the other creatures we rely on for our to survival.
Of course that process starts well before the cooking stage. Our relationship to animals and to nature in general is always an interpretation, a reflection of human culture. But the key thing to realise is that, if this relationship is mediated by culture, then it is not just a given, not something we simply have to accept as a brute fact – and note the pejorative use of the word brute there! Cultures differ from one another. They shift under pressure from material changes in human life. And they can be changed by us. We can’t just lift off from our cultural setting and live like angels, but we can intervene, interrupt, reflect upon and change the cultural ways of seeing the world which we inherit.
The term I have chosen for the title of this lecture – dead meat – is meant to provoke reflection on these cultural attitudes to animals. In one sense it is a redundant phrase. Meat is, by definition, dead. But in another sense, the phrase reminds us that meat only exists in a cultural setting, usually as a result of our practices: hunting, farming, killing. We even use different words for some animals when they have made that transition. Pigs become pork, cattle become beef, sheep become mutton. Death for the animal makes them available to us in another form.
That has always been the case from the earliest hunting cultures, of course. But our understanding of that relationship has changed hugely. In many so-called primitive or savage cultures, there is an intimate relationship with the land and with nonhuman creatures. Tribes often identify through totems with the spirit of a particular animal. Hunting is a highly ritualised activity, in which the spirit of the animal has to be honoured. Killing is not done for its own sake, it should not be cruel or needless. It involves a relationship between hunter and hunted in which there is reverence even in the rawness of the kill.
In her book Wild, Jay Griffiths explores the way in which indigenous peoples still today are formed by their interrelationships with nature and animals2. They learn the language of forest, tundra, river and sea. Shamans seek animals guides for their spirits, and hunters speak of the spirit of the animals which needs to be propitiated. Animals have their own ways of thinking and being. This is how Griffiths puts it: ‘The difference between creatures is just a trick of the light, a superficial thing, for underneath we are made of the same stuff’. She quotes the native American Luther Standing Bear, who says of the Lakota Indian ‘He knew that man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence.’
It might seem strange to associate a hunting culture with gentleness and intimacy with animals. And yet the contrast with contemporary life in the UK, when hunting is largely a minority sporting pursuit, brings out the issue. For us, food is mass produced. Nature is by and large humanised, and animals domesticated. And those who do not work on the land any more have largely become separated from the production of food. At the same time our methods of production – large scale, mechanised and often involving factory farming conditions – have fundamentally altered our relationships with nature and animals.
It is extraordinary to think that in the UK around 900 million animals are slaughtered for food each year, a figure that does not include untold numbers of fish. Many are treated like units of production. 80 % of breeding sows kept in small indoor stalls, unable to engage in natural practices of foraging and bedding. Piglets separated from mothers after 2-3 weeks, their tails amputated to avoid the problems of biting associated with cramped conditions. Two thirds of eggs produced by hens kept in battery cages, living four to a wire mesh box not much bigger than a microwave oven, unable to peck and scratch the floor or dust bathe. Unable even to stretch their wings or raise their heads fully.
Dairy cattle in a constant cycle of being made pregnant in order to produce excess milk, their calves removed often within 24 hours of birth. Many dairy herds are kept in concrete cubicles over winter, lameness and mastitis are commonplace. Some are subjected to zero grazing – the equivalent of the battery farm, in which cows are constantly kept in indoor sheds in metal barred stalls, moved only to automated milking machines. Male calves, being largely expendable are rapidly killed. Chickens bred for meat and turkeys crammed into sheds, their legs deformed, dead birds littering the feeding bins. Male chicks thrown into vats and then gassed or minced.
All of this is done for one simple reason: economy of scale. Animals are units of production. For all the argument is made that animal welfare can be maintained in these conditions – arguments I think are frankly incredible – there can be no pretence that the wellbeing of animals is in any way a primary motivation for them. Farmers, I should say cannot be asked to take the blame for all of this. They are subjected the demands of economic necessity. They are part of a system involving buyers and retailers and us the consumers, which relies upon exploitation and alienation to work. Farmers have to do the dirty work, endure the stress and the vanishing profit margins - and at the same time are expected to act as custodians of our unspoiled countryside! The one thing the system needs to do is stop us asking questions. So meat appears on our shelves, prepackaged, already dead, and more than dead – without us ever seeing the link between the living, sentient , suffering animals, without us wondering about its spirit, its relationship to the world. And something in us is caged, locked down and processed into dead meat.
How did this come about? The story of the shift from a mobile hunting culture to a an agrarian lifestyle is a varied and complex one, but there does seem to be evidence of it taking place as the first settled cultures and city states took shape from around 10-12000 years ago. In parts of Egypt, India, China and Mesopotamia, urban life began. And with it came the division of labour between those who worked on the land and started to domesticate animals, and those who were separated from food production. Centralisation – and with it hierarchy, the elevation of groups and classes of people to a superior status over others – went together. Totemism gave way to fertility cults and a priesthood dedicated to ensuring the land remained productive through their religious rituals. Society organised itself to intervene in and alter the natural environment, land was cleared, dry areas irrigated, animals tamed and fenced in.
The separation of human society from nature sowed the seeds for a growing demarcation of humanity from all other creaturely life. And yet the course that was taken was neither simple nor inevitable. The development of European ideas of nature and animals was radically shaped by the advent of Christianity, and the fact that the church absorbed so much from both its Jewish heritage, but more notably from Greek philosophy.
In the Hebrew scriptures, nature is no longer seen as sacred, but as distinct from the one, transcendent God. Animal sacrifice – prevalent in so many ancient societies – is practised to cement a relationship with God. The offering of life back to its source brings the people back into communion with the Creator. The wilderness is often a threatening and barren place, out of which a settled home must be won.
At the same time, it is still clear that all created life, including animals, witnesses to the glory of the Creator. Although Genesis states that it is humanity that is made in God’s image and given ‘dominion’ over all other animals, Hebrew scholars are clear now that this dominion involves a respectful stewardship, not simply the right to do whatever we like to animals. Rescuing an ox or donkey in trouble is a legal obligation. Jesus interprets this, not just as the restoration of a neighbour’s property, but as an act of compassion for the animal which justifies suspending the prohibition on working on the Sabbath. In the book of Isaiah, animal sacrifices are criticised, in terms which suggest that their cruelty to animals is part of their emptiness: ‘Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being; whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck’ (Isaiah 66.3). In the book of Jonah, God seems as concerned for the cattle of Nineveh as for its people.
Animals are included in the communion of life with life. In the second creation story of Genesis 2, the animals are created as companions for Adam and he names them, an ancient sign of intimate communion and understanding. And according to Genesis 1.29, all life, human and nonhuman is originally vegetarian, a circumstance that is only changed when sin and violence come into the world. Indeed, the book of Isaiah holds out the vision that, when the world is redeemed the original peace of creation will be restored. ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11.6-9).
The scope of redemption is no less in the New Testament. At the start of his ministry, Jesus is in the wilderness with the wild beasts. He teaches that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without the Father knowing, and birds and lilies provide images of God’s reflected glory. The gospel and epistle writers affirm that all things come into being through Christ, and the whole world will be transformed in him. Paul speaks of creation groaning in bondage for its liberation from decay. He hopes for a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, in which God will fill all things.
I do not pretend that these passages tell the whole story about the Bible’s treatment of animals. Clearly they are still owned, used and sacrificed. But the Biblical vision cannot be limited to a concern with humans alone. The Spirit moves through all creation, and in Christ all things come to be, and all things are reconciled.
When Christian theology met Greek philosophy, there was an enormously fertile and enriching dialogue. However, within this, there was tendency to view matter, the earth and animals life as devoid of spirit, far away from God in the hierarchy of being. Plato associated humanity alone with the reason that could look upon the eternal truth of things. Aristotle, whose placing of women below men on the hierarchy of being we mentioned earlier, claimed that animals possessed no reason and therefore had no purpose beyond the uses to which we decided to put them.
That position was more or less taken on wholesale by Christian theology, and came to prominence in the work of the great medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas. In his view, animals are dumb, soulless and irrational. They have no will to move themselves, but move as it were almost mechanically based on natural impulse. ‘By divine providence’, he writes, animals ‘are intended for man’s use in the natural order. Hence it is not wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing them or in any other way whatever.’
There is huge subtlety in much of Aquinas’ thought about how we can use analogy to talk about the transcendent God, about how nature is not abolished but finds its perfection in grace. And yet here he seems to take the crudest of domineering and objective approaches, with no real empathy for the worlds animals inhabit, for their own languages and inner life.
Between the medieval and modern worlds, between the kind of scholastic theology represented by Aquinas and the new, experimental science championed by Newton, Galileo and Bacon, there seems to be a massive leap. But it is just as important to recognise the continuities. The figures we have mentioned all saw themselves as people of faith, seeking to read the book of nature alongside scripture to see into the mind of God.
The machine provides both the break and the link with previous thought. Increasingly sophisticated technology led to an obsession with metaphors of mechanisation. The world was a machine, operating like clockwork. Its laws are regular and can be discovered, and experimental observation held the key, not speculation or arbitrary authority. That posed a huge challenge to the role of the church, but it also offered to keep human beings – with their rationality intact and their control extended – at the top of nature’s tree.
The early scientists paved the way for a complete humanisation of the world. The dominance and exploitation implicit in Aquinas’ view now became a practical possibility. And it was the quintessentially modern philosopher Descartes – himself a mathematician and scientist – who gave the strongest impetus to this trend. Descartes set himself to place thought on a sure foundation, free of all external authority and opinion. His famous saying – I think therefore I am – represented a crucial shift to locating the source of all knowledge within the human mind. And he went further. Having made human reason the criterion for all truth, he now had to work out how the mind was connected to the body. It was a problem invented by philosophy, and the answer Descartes gave seemed to compound the problem further. He argued that mind and matter were essentially different realities, a dualism which he never really resolved. Mind was free, conscious, rational. Matter was dead, inert stuff extended in space.
The consequences of this shift were immense when combined with enormous technological leaps in the years that followed. Matter and all that was associated with it was no more than raw material. It was not charged with the grandeur of God (to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ phrase). It witnessed to nothing beyond inflexible law, it had no spirit within it. It was just there, ready to hand for us to use, shape, dominate as we saw fit.
Animals were a case in point. Descartes argued that they were incapable of thought or sensation. They were effectively machines. And therefore they had no claim upon us, no capacity for suffering. They were nothing but the uses we put them to. The influence of the Greeks and Aquinas had found its modern fulfilment, and it is one that haunts us to this day. It was in 1966 – over 300 years after Descartes’ death - that a book appeared by Ruth Harrison called Animal Machines, one of the first exposés of factory farming to touch the conscience of the public.
The idealism of the machine age was invested in dreams of progress, the end of poverty and disease, and increasing control of nature’s variations. In practice, industrialisation meant the enclosure of common land, urban slums, workers treated as cogs in the wheels of the great factories. It meant the slave trade, on the back of which much of British wealth was built. It meant the expansion of markets by imperial means, under the banner of bringing civilisation to savage, dark and brutal lands. The animal machine was a sign and product of a world driven by a narrow view of knowledge, and an anxious and domineering mentality.
On the most pessimistic readings, the end of this supposedly enlightened European dream was not only empire but genocide. The industrial efficiency of Nazism meant that millions of Jews and others considered subhuman – Slavs, gays, gypsies, the disabled – could be processed and disposed of. The death camps were also factories.
And there have been some who have pointed out the connection between the way we have become alienated from animals, how we have become desensitised to their difference and their pain, and what we have been prepared to do to races and groups considered less than human. Isaac Beshavis Singer writes that ‘for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka’3. This might sound extreme and unreasonable, but remember that techniques of animal control – castration, hobbling, branding, chaining – have had their counterparts in the enslavement of human beings, and that slavery and genocide have been justified on the basis that the victims are no better than animals. Charles Patterson offers copious examples of how European settlers, missionaries and colonisers spoke of Africans, Native Americans and others as apes or other beasts. ‘These filthy animals’ said one explorer of the African Hottentot people, ‘hardly deserve the name of rational creatures.’4 The 19th century American scientist Edward Cope, who argued that lower human beings belonged to four groups: women, nonwhites, Jews and the lower classes5. And the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, who was an influence on Nazi ideology, wrote that non-European races are ‘psychologically nearer to the mammals (apes and dogs) than to civilized Europeans, we must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives’6. Arguments for the extermination of the Jews were prefigured by demands that Native Americans be eradicated, both positions being justified by associating the victims with animals.
To see these connections does not commit us to saying that human and all other animals are all the same, or all equal, or that containment and killing are never justified. But they do raise serious questions about what is at the heart of systems and people who allow themselves to be desensitised in the ways necessary to keep the machines of death running. What crazed dreams of power and lordship are unconsciously directing us?
Our assumption of godlike status is not only causing untold misery to farm and laboratory animals. It is changing the environment to the extent that we are destroying species and habitats in the wild, and even altering the climactic conditions that support life. It feeds the twin sides of our fragmented globe: economic imperialism and ethnic cleansing, the dream that history has ended with US domination, and the desperate reactions that cling to fundamentalism and bigotry.
It is important to note the connections between different types of oppression, because many still labour under the mistaken belief that a concern for animal dignity must in some way dilute our commitment to human liberation. That objection, I suggest, is based on the very assertion of invulnerable human superiority which is the problem. Models of human superiority are never simply descriptive. They reflect interests of power, and are intertwined with structures of oppression based on class, race, gender, sexual, orientation, disability and more.
In a capitalist system, workers become productive units, means to an end. In patriarchy, women represent a bodily and sensual nature that has to be controlled by male reason (though in reality this often means being abused by male lust). The racially different, the queer, the disabled, women, the earth itself – all stand in the place of the other to be dehumanised, exploited or contained. Those who deny worth to animals because they lack reason have a tough time justifying why we shouldn’t conduct experiments on the comatose, the mentally impaired or children. They lack resources to analyse the connection between cultures of violence towards animals and the oppression of human beings considered inferior. They have trouble addressing the environmental crisis for the simple reason that the production of meat places a huge strain on the planet. The resources that produce 1kg of animal protein could produce 10kg of cereal protein. Overgrazing encourages erosion and drains water supplies. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, animal farming contributes 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions thanks to methane from herds. From animal exploitation arises the destruction of human habitats, and the victims will be, as always, the weakest.
This interconnectedness means that animal oppression can’t just be brushed off as something for sentimentalists. It is the whole discourse, the web of power and symbolic relationships in which humans and animals are caught that needs to be unravelled.
On a more immediate level, our ignorance and indifference to animal suffering desensitises us. It encourages us to accept a world in which violence is the norm, and in which sentient creatures can be an instrument used solely for our good. In his book Making a Killing, Bob Torres quotes the fictional thought experiment first put forward by Gary Francione, in which we are asked to imagine that we have a neighbour called Simon who regularly tortures his pet dog with a blow torch. When asked why, he responds that he just does it for pleasure. Few of us would fail to be sickened by such an activity. Causing suffering for pleasure is morally beyond the pale7.
And yet we fail to apply the same moral imagination to other cases of suffering. Few people really appreciate what is involved in producing their food, or in animal experimentation. But even when this is explained, they argue that these things are necessary. Francione’s point is that they are not necessary. They are not a fact of nature, a given. For much of humankind there is no need to eat meat to survive, and certainly no need to produce it in industrial conditions. There is no need for anyone in the UK to wear leather. The only remaining reason we do these things, then, is pleasure. How many times have I heard that ‘I couldn’t give up meat because I like the smell of bacon sandwiches so much’? It is not so far from Simon’s case: I just can’t stop blow torching my dog, I can’t get the same pleasure from anything else.
I put the point provocatively because I believe we have become lazy and hardened in our moral imagination and because those same characteristics enable us to tolerate all sorts of other oppressive practices. What we end up with is a world of disconnection, of alienation – from the earth, from animals, from one another. And that is a paradise for the forces which want to reduce everything to commodities, which see all life as the means to an end of more profit, more consumption, more power.
Something more subtle is lost in all of this too, as Jay Griffiths points out: ‘In the days of empire, a single way of knowing invaded the wild world, and as it did so it claimed that it was an age of ‘discovery’ and an expansion of the ‘known’ world, the false claims of European history that knowledge increased in that era. It did not. The truth was the opposite. For, as Europeans destroyed human cultures and animals’ habitats, there was in fact a net reduction in the world’s knowledge.’
Griffiths puts her finger on something of vital importance. It is that arrogant assertion that there is one and only one way to know the world that has served the interests of empire and capital. What is lost is the intricate diversity, the ways that animals (themselves infinitely different from one another) know and sense the world; the ways human cultures have found to know the world from the inside, to listen to its languages and give voice to its songs. That might sound romantic, but the romantics of 19th century European culture were right, I believe, to resist the narrowing of knowledge and spirit into a channel that is merely functional, which grasps only the outside of things and uses that grip to control and eliminate what it does not understand.
There are, thank God, other voices. There have always been points of resistance. In my own Christian tradition, for instance, the dominant mode of thinking, which has reduced animals to soulless things, has been challenged again and again by those who have discerned a more holistic vision of creation and salvation: not just a world created for human beings, and a heaven designed to please them, but a world in which all of myriad life has its own value, and in which God takes flesh to bring liberation to all that is. We are created in the image of a God who is not a lonely monarch, not a reflection of the isolated rational ego, but a dynamic event of love in relationship.
Andrew Linzey has been one of the champions of this view in recent Christian theology8.
He draws our attention to those in the Christian tradition who took up the cause of animals before him, because they saw it was not a side issue. It was the test of whether we truly believed in a God who created all things, and who draws all things to himself through Christ. One of the figures he quotes is the little known Humphrey Primatt, whose Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals was published in 1776. Primatt rejects the argument that human rationality gives us the right to torment animals, and draws a connection between such an attitude and the belief that it is all right to exploit other human beings on the basis of the colour of their skin or other accidental physical qualities. In summary, unleashes his most provocative point:
‘We may pretend to what religion we please, but cruelty is atheism. We may make our boast of Christianity, but cruelty is infidelity. We may trust to our orthodoxy, but cruelty is the worst of heresies.’
There is an echo of the Biblical critique of animal sacrifices here. To sacrifice life and still to live in cruelty and indifference means that in effect we worship a false god of cruel power – or else we worship nothing but our own will to power. We are what we worship.
And we identify ourselves by the contrast we draw between our nature and others. Identity, I have been suggesting, is never a given. It is always shaped, negotiated. It responds to others, it is always connected to others even when we try to hide or deny that fact. Unfortunately, we have too often employed a narrow, flattened out, one-size fits all notion of identity and valuees. If we are to challenge what Linzey calls the dogma of humanism, a world in which a certain ideology of being human is put at the top of the hierarchy and given free rein over all things, then we need to let our identity be remade.
The challenge to narrow humanism comes from many sources: the awareness that human identity is rooted in cultural, social and economic contexts, which mutate and shift over time and space; the realisation that so much of our sense of who we are is shaped by unconscious, inherited and genetic factors; and more positively a break with the lonely, abstract rational ego, to a fuller sense of our relatedness. If Descartes began modern philosophy with the statement ‘I think therefore I am’, we are now learning the wisdom of saying ‘you are therefore I am’ and ‘we are therefore I am’. And included in that ‘you’, that ‘we’ are not only those like us, but those who experience the world through very different categories. There is no normal anymore: diversity and strangeness, the alien and the animal are at the heart of who we are.
The same applies to technology. Although I have identified the problems inherent in mechanisation and the machine metaphor, demonising technology is not the answer. There is no pure, technology free nature or golden age for us to escape back to. What we need is a new understanding of how we integrate our technological capacities within our understanding of ourselves. And this is in fact liberating. We can be freed from the idea that we must all live under some fixed and pure definition of what it means to be human. We are defined in part by the things we use and create. Technology is part of us, and it opens us to new possibilities.
Part of this involves allowing our moral imagination to be reborn. A recognition that animals are not simply there for our use and disposal, but have inherent worth is the beginning of this. Animal rights language – for all the critical questions that can be put to it – seems indispensable here. From a Christian point of view, as Linzey has argued, animals have a claim upon us because they are created by God, and are primarily in existence to glorify God. That idea, though not necessarily shared by secular advocates of animal rights, can help to round out a notion of creaturely worth. It is not in reference to us that they should always be defined. Animals do not need to be like us in order to be of value.
That step can release us for the practical work of liberation and for a new spiritual vision of our interconnectedness to underpin it. I see no tension between working for trade justice, for gender equality, for access to drugs for those living with HIV, for the full acceptance of same sex relationships – and being a vegetarian and working for animal liberation. Resisting oppression and promoting the flourishing of life need not be compartmentalised.
Seeing the connections demands an inner conversion, a new creation within ourselves, if it is truly to change us. Such a change is truly enriching. It offers a life that is more than what can be measured. It welcomes our relatedness, our mortality, our limits – it welcomes even death into our identity. No longer as something to be staved off, wrapped up, hidden away, imposed on others – but as a liberating reality in ourselves. We share mortality with all life. Does that mean that in the end, we are all dead meat? I do not think so. I believe it offers the promise that out of vulnerability a new strength, compassion and willingness to learn and serve can be born.
The animals’ many gazes are strange to us. And that is their gift. When we remove the packaging that turns creature into meat, perhaps we can allow those eyes to interrupt our circles of self-concern. To teach us something of life’s wonder again. Through our animal others, we can learn anew who we are called to be. We might agree that we have much to do to save animals. Maybe we also need to let them save us from ourselves.
1 Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (Fordham University Press, 2008). Other recent important philosophical works include Giorgo Agamben, The Open. Man and Animal (Stanford, 2004); Cary Wolfe, Animals Rites. American Culture, the Discourse of Species and Posthumanism (Chicago, 2003); Cary Wolfe (ed.), Zoontologies. The Question of the Animal (University of Minnesota, 2003); Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice. Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Harvard, 2007); Peter Singer (ed.) In Defense of Animals (Blackwell, 2006).
2 Jay Griffiths, Wild. An Elemental Journey (Hamish Hamilton, 2007)
3 Quoted in Charles Patterson, The Eternal Treblinka. Our Treatment of the Animals and the Holocaust (Lantern Books, 2002), p. viii.
4 Patterson (2002), p. 28.
5 Patterson (2002), p. 30
6 Patterson (2002), p. 25-26.
7 Bob Torres, Making a Killing. The Political Economy of Animals Rights (AK Press, 2008).
8 See, for example, Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (SCM, 1994) and the essays collected in Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto (eds.), Animals on the Agenda (SCM, 1998).
The Reality of Send-an-Animal Schemes - Since writing about the unsustainability of send-an-animal schemes in the previous Bulletin, the debate has crossed over from the ‘specialist’ press to the mainstream dailies.