Saturday, 1 May 2010

Review: Animalkind (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 1 Spring 2010


By Martin Cohen

Animalkind: What we owe to animals, by Jean Kazez, Wiley-Blackwell 2010 ISBN 978-1-4051-9938-4 226 pages
Jean Kazez has written a great little book here, but it is full of bad arguments. (To borrow a phrase from Walter 'Waldo Gazza' Runciman.) It starts promisingly enough. Kazez has a superb, easy style, and is in full command of the material, at least in terms of the facts. She sweeps up the existing literature on animal exploitation, from UN reports to Peter Singer's polemic against meat-eating, such as Animal Liberation and that disguised as an educational text, Practical Ethics, along with issues like biodiversity, cultural aesthetics, and the neurobiology of animal brains. She misses out on my own excellent survey of much the same terrain - 101 Ethical Dilemmas (Routledge 2002 and 2007) but never mind. Suffice to say she has clearly read a lot on the topic - and she is a natural communicator (just as Singer, in his rather acerbic way, is).

Singer offers no particular arguments, merely a machine-gun utilitarianism, that tolerates no dissent. For SInger, and most animal rights exponents, animal suffering, is no different in 'quality' from the kind we experience, and hence on a utilitarian calculus, usually outweighs the supposed needs of humans. Babies and the mentally handicapped have a status somewhere below poodles in his universe.

Kazez, by contrast plods obediently, like a donkey perhaps one might say, through as many possible positions on animal rights as she can think of before coming up with Ö a limp kind of utilitarianism. Is vivisection wrong? Not if it helps save human lives. Is meat eating wrong? Not when it is necessary for human well-being. Was it okay to kill thousands of monkeys to develop the Polio vaccine? Most certainly. Will it be okay if I swat this mosquito that is annoying me? Ah.. now that, probably not, and if it must be done, then it should be done 'respectfully'. Above all, we return to the question, is it okay if I eat meat? Yes, if it is important to you and you don't care about the consequences on the world's rainforests/or about climate change.

Actually that's one of the book's 'bad arguments'. Kazez says that meat-eating involves deforestation, which it does, and that deforestation causes 'climate change' which it also must, at least locally. But climate is much more complicated than that. In much of the temperate zones, meat can be pastured without any such concerns, and indeed chopping forests there is said to have a cooling effect on the regions. And in the tropics when rainforest is being cleared, much of it is cleared for soya beans - the diet of choice of course for vegetarian authors.

Kazez however, does not even aspire to persuade the world to stop eating meat, instead opting for the 'low hanging' fruit by arguing for 'pain reduction', quoting approvingly the efforts of Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation, to redesign slaughter houses to reduce the anxiety of the animals being slaughtered there. I'm sure this is a good idea, but then, who exactly opposes it?

But, of course, it should surprise no one who has ever discussed meat eating 'at the table' as it were, perhaps over Christmas Turkey, that there are plenty of such people, primed and raring to go with a lot of bad arguments to raise in relation to the topic. Take Professor Peter Carruthers', who is quoted here:

Much time and money is presently spent on alleviating the pains of brutes, which ought properly to be directed towards human beings , and many now are campaigning to reduce the efficiency of modern farming methods because of the pain to the animals involved. If the arguments presented here have been sound, such arguments are not only morally insupportable but morally objectionable.
Kazez notes that Carruthers' book has a "charming dedication to his child whose 'animal days are almost done'", and in this simple way she surely wins that argument. If we object to children feeling pain, we should object to animals suffering it too.

Another debate which Kazez airs and in my view emerges triumphant, is the issue of whether animals are really just machines driven by automated responses (instinct) or rational 'problem-solving' animals, like wot we're supposed to be. But just as I'm about to be convinced, along comes a lousy argument. Kazez offers the variety of designs of birds' nests, and beaver dams as evidence that animals really are thinking about what they are doing.

Yet trees grow in a variety of ways too - a branch this way on this one, or a root this way on that one, always for a good reason (to get more light, or to grip more firmly the ground). Trees, it seems likely are not 'thinking', but merely following simple chemical promptings. The range of results produced by such promptings does not mean that there is a higher level of decision making required, and I suspect beavers could likewise be following mere instinct when they adapt their dams to the water flows.

Many defenders of animal rights, such as Singer, accuse humans of speciesism, that is judging animals prejudicially because they belong to the 'wrong species', but another curious twist in the tale here, is that Kazez thinks the problem is anthropomorphism - respecting animals that are like us more than animals that are very different - like birds.
"If we're biased in placing ourselves on a higher rung than other animals it's a bias we can't avoid... but there's a related bias that we can and should void. That's the bias that say there's something special about other animals the more they are genetically and evolutionarily close to us."

There, in a bold sweep, Kazez undoes most of the 'consciousness-raising' efforts of animal welfare groups, on behalf of apes, monkeys and so on, not to mention all our fellow mammals, in favour of a more egalitarian concern for insects, birds, fish and yes, poor old laboratory mice. "The sheer fact that a mouse is a conscious entity, unlike a wind-up, toy mouse, is impressive", she thinks. I like mice too, but to rise their rights up to those of bonobos or chimpanzees seems to be a step backwards.

The book has a strong and welcome personal flavour, enhanced by many interesting anecdotes and asides. One such is that Montezuma had a huge zoo that needed 300 people to run it, feeding, for example the birds in the bird collection 500 turkeys a day. And he had colour coded animals too - putting all the white plants and animals and trees together in one collection. The spookiest thing about that, was the collection included some white (albino) people - men, women and children.

Was it right to do that? As Bentham might say, did the albino's suffer? As Singer might ask, how much pleasure did their presence give the spectators? These are the sorts of questions that animal rights discussions tend to raise. Kazez instead attempts to shift the debate by appealing to something she terms as a sense of the 'respect' owed to all life. Respect, that is, in the manner that indigenous people offer prayers to the Gods before hunts. She prefers this approach to the efforts of philosophers from Kant to Bentham to come up with hard and fast rules. But it's a weak remedy for that virulent and dangerous disease of contempt for animal lives that has taken such a firm hold on 'humankind'.

About the author: Martin Cohen is author of several books including Paradigm Shift and 101 Ethical Dilemmas
Address for correspondence: Readers can contact him via Twitter @docmartincohen

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