Thinking Past Ourselves: Ecology and the Ethics of Cross-Species Partnerships

Thinking Past Ourselves: Ecology and the Ethics of Cross-Species Partnerships

John Bruni

John Bruni evaluates current proposals for animal rights and green capitalism, questioning whether the legal and economic discourse with which the question of animal life as thus far been bound up will ever allow us, as Cary Wolfe proposes, to think past ourselves.

What has helped to advance ecological conversations has been a critical examination of long-held beliefs about how we relate to our environment. Ursula Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global has questioned the primacy of local perspectives over global ones, while Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature asks if the idea of nature has held us back in our environmental thinking. In the spirit of these efforts, I want to speculate about the effects of liberal humanistic conceptions of self - as a rational-economic free agent and legal rights-holder - on arguments for global sustainability and cross-species partnerships.

There has recently been increasing interest in an ecological alliance with prevailing economic ideologies, what has been called “green” capitalism. I suggest that attempts to naturalize (or “clean up”) capitalism will likely mirror the results of merging animal ethics with legal discourse to create the concept of animal rights. With regards to animal rights, what occurs, despite the best intentions, is a reductive vision of justice, which hides the shaky foundations that support the idea of some kind of legal entitlement for non-human animals. In what follows, I will present a systems-based interrogation of proposals for animal rights and green capitalism. Focusing on Cary Wolfe’s thoughts about a posthuman framing of animal ethics, I will demonstrate how the limitations of legal discourse guide the application of both proposals.

A significant precept for the posthuman is furnished by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who describe subject formation thusly: biological systems, through maintaining their autopoiesis (self-making), are always becoming, not simply being. That there is no essential “self” parallels how Maturana and Varela describe the nervous system as not creating a representation of the external environment; instead the nervous system “brings forth a world by specifying what patterns of the environment are perturbations and what changes trigger them in the organism” (169). Following Maturana and Varela, Wolfe, in Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory, creates a model for animal ethics that resists “any representationalist account of how we might ‘ground’ the ethical standing of being X in some more empirically ‘true’ understanding of its actual nature” (39).

Wolfe’s model sheds light on how environmental complexity argues against objective, humanistic moral guidelines that, as we will see, inform rights-based proposals for the ethics of cross-species partnerships. Reading systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, Wolfe focuses upon his idea of functional differentiation, where, to handle environmental complexity, social systems differentiate themselves into subsystems, reintroducing the system/environment distinction: systems become environments for their subsystems. For Wolfe, the functional differentiation of social systems denies “some untainted, unmediated space of subjunctive interiority … some unquestioned and unquestionable yardstick by which the socially and linguistically constructed code of ethics may be judged” (AR 202). In other words, ethics can only be observed through a specific system constituted through its own operating codes - thus “the distinction between morality and merely ethical ‘roles’ is lost” (202). Thus ethics becomes performative, defined only through a constant state of becoming.

That said, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not counter-intuitive, to claim morality as the essentialist core of human identity. This issue is taken up by Paola Cavalieri. In her review of Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers, Cavalieri draws attention to the conflict between “a strong continuity between human and animal behavior … in the field of morality” and “the need to reaffirm human special moral worth.” Such a conflict seems grounded in the problem, as Wolfe says, of finding a “yardstick” to determine where and to what degree the connections between human and animal morality rupture.

If it becomes difficult to establish a solid difference between morality and ethics, likewise it becomes problematic to distinguish between humans and non-human animals on the basis of reason. According to Luhmann, for all systems, “[T]he connection with the reality of the external world is established by the blind spot of the cognitive operation.” In Luhmann’s words, “Reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it” (in AR 204). The paradoxical logic of a system’s code (for example, the legal system, Wolfe remarks, operates on the code: “legal is legal”) can only be detected by an act of observation beyond the system, an act that cannot discern its own paradoxical system code. What Wolfe calls “the paradoxical identity of difference of any given first-order observation in a second-order plurality of horizontally distributed systems” pressures the distinction between reason/human and non-reason/animal. As Wolfe puts it, “[T]he human makes way for the animal, but only by means of the human itself” (205).

Wolfe’s cross-species ethics dismantle the more traditional humanist and thus reductive forms of logic that shape appeals for animal rights. For instance, Peter Singer’s argument for defining the suffering of animals as an ethical consideration proposes, as Wolfe comments, that animals “have a demonstrative interest in avoiding suffering; and that means that such beings have a right to have those interests protected; to be regarded morally as ends in themselves” (33). As noble as it is, however, Singer’s formulation inadvertently reduces or discounts the individuality of animals. Wolfe, citing the ecofeminist Deborah Slicer, explains,

part of the problem with Singer’s position is endemic to the liberal justice tradition in moral philosophy of which it is a part. It holds [in Slicer’s words] ‘an “essentialist” view of the moral worth of both human beings and animals’ because it proposes ‘a single capacity - the possession of interests’ (or Singer’s ‘suffering’) ‘for being owed moral consideration,’ thereby excluding from ethical relevance anything other than the specific criterion for the interest in question, whether it is the subject’s specific ontogeny, its location or ecological role, its gender, and so on. (35)

At first glance, a more grounded argument for animal ethics is provided by Vicki Hearne, who carefully examines the training conditions under which animals and humans communicate with each other. She asserts that when dealing with animals, “[T]he handler must learn to believe, to ‘read’ a language s/he hasn’t sufficient neurological apparatus to test or judge, because the handler must become comprehensible to the horse, and to be understood is to be open to understanding, much more than it is to have shared mental phenomena” (in AR 48). So it is not a matter of having equal intelligence, or thinking the same way, or an equal ability to speak, or, even, communicating in exactly the same manner. Rather it is, for Hearne, “the flow of intention, meaning, believing” (in AR 48).

But Hearne’s proposal, that restates the social contract theory of rights, relies upon a legalistic backing for the ethical treatment of animals that results, despite its admirable intentions, in tying morality ever tighter to humanistic law and thus puts animals in an increasingly dependent and precarious position. Described by Hearne, the contractarian position proposes that

morality consists of a set of rules that individuals voluntarily agree to abide by, as we do when we sign a contract… . Those who understand and accept the terms of the contract are covered directly; they have rights created and recognized by, and protected in, the contract… . As for animals, since they cannot understand the contracts, they obviously cannot sign; and since they cannot sign, they have no rights. But those animals that enough people care about (companion animals, whales, baby seals, the American bald eagle), though they lack rights themselves, will be protected because of the sentimental interests of people. I have then … no duty directly to your dog or any other animal, not even the duty not to cause them pain or suffering; my duty not to hurt them is a duty I have to those people who care about what happens to them. (in AR 48-49).

In a particularly illustrative moment, Hearne claims that Drummer, her dog, “can speak to his owner, but he cannot speak either to or of the state. Therefore the state cannot grant rights to Drummer, cannot be his state. Hence it is not an incidental or accidental but a central fact that in practice the only way a dog’s rights are protected, against neighbors or the state, is by way of an appeal to the owner’s property rights in the dog” (in AR 49). Wolfe then proceeds to dissect Hearne’s logic:

Of course, this is tantamount to simply wishing that all owners will be ‘good’ ones. And if they are not - if an owner decides to set his dog on fire, instead of a chair or table, its equivalent under the law (as property) - then doesn’t this beg the question that the whole point of granting rights to the animal would be to directly recognize and protect it (as we do with the guardianship of the child) against such an owner who decides to forget or abrogate, for whatever reason, what ‘ownership means’? (50)

As critics, such as Tom Regan, observe, social contract theory simply puts a legal gloss on the idea that “might makes right” (in AR 38), a logic that, as we will shortly recognize, green capitalism shares. Cavalieri as well examines the problems with this theory, remarking that it “is, philosophically, the very paradigm of the moral doctrine based on self- interest” that “hinges upon an unwarranted conflation of the self-evident correlativity between A’s right against B and B’s duty towards A and the highly controversial correlativity between having rights and having duties.” As a result, we can recognize the discomforting passivity of Hearne’s statement that the “duty” not to injure animals is “a duty I have to those people who care about what happens to them.” Cavalieri quotes from Stephen Clark to illustrate the self-serving premise that what makes us morally superior to animals is our ability to address their treatment: “We are absolutely better than the animals because we are able to give their interests some consideration: so we won’t.”

No matter how noble the intentions, animal rights discourses put into practice cannot deliver on their ethical promises. For example, the Great Ape project, led by Singer and Cavalieri and endorsed by scientists such as Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond, expresses what Wolfe calls a “declaration of basic, universal rights” (191). Yet there are troubling implications contained in the project’s mission statement: “We seek an extension of equality that will embrace not only our own species, but also the species that are our closest relatives and that most resemble us in their capacities and their ways of living” (in AR 191-92). For, as Wolfe explains,

[T]he model of rights being invoked here for extension to those who are (symptomatically) ‘most like us’ only ends up reinforcing the very humanism that seems to be the problem in the first place. To put it very telegraphically, great apes possess the capacities we possess, but in diminished form, so we end up ethically recognizing them not because of their wonder and uniqueness, not because of their difference, but because they are inferior versions of ourselves, in which case the ethical humanism that was the problem from the outset simply gets reinforced and reproduced on another level. Now it’s not humans versus great apes, it’s humans and great apes - the ‘like us’ crowd - versus everyone else. (192)

And Wolfe reminds us that the concept of universal human rights, after which the extension of rights to animals is modeled, is “a very historically specific relic of Enlightenment modernity” (192). That is, a model of self-possession/ownership, found lurking as well in Hearne’s use of contractual language, that transforms nature into the object of scientific inquiry and economic exploitation.

In “Flesh and Finitude: Thinking Animals in (Post)Humanist Philosophy,” Wolfe foregrounds the work of philosopher Cora Diamond for surpassing the limits of animal rights arguments. Diamond explains, “When genuine issues of justice and injustice are framed in terms of rights, they are thereby distorted and trivialized [due to] the underlying tie between rights and a system of entitlement that is concerned, not with evil done to a person, but with how much he or she gets compared to other participants in the system” (in “F&F” 7). Here I would draw attention to how the legalistic pull of the idea of “entitlement” transforms the debate about justice into a kind of cost-benefit analysis, that is, “how much he or she gets compared to other participants.”

What I want to highlight, then, is how a functionally differentiated legal system can only understand, as Diamond suggests, justice through the concept of rights. In her words, “[T]here is something wrong with the contrast, taken to be exhaustive, between demanding one’s rights and begging for kindness - begging for what is merely kindness. The idea that those are the only possibilities is … one of the main props of the idea that doing injustice is failing to respect rights” (in “F&F” 7). And so if “injustice is failing to respect rights,” then, according to Diamond, this idea “pushes apart justice, on the one hand, and compassion, love, pity, tenderness, on the other” (in “F&F” 7). Read together, Diamond’s ideas clarify how legal discourses lead us to falsely conclude that rights offer the strongest appeal for justice, because they mimic and thus reinforce the very values that legal discourse favors. The functional differentiation of systems, Andrew McMurry comments in Environmental Renaissance: Emerson, Thoreau, and the American System of Nature, means that each system will “maintain autopoiesis without regard to one another” (213). So if each system produces its own intrinsic and self-enclosed worldview, then the legal system translates giving animals rights into treating animals as property - paradoxically, we might say, animals can only have self-ownership if they are owned. Furthermore, McMurry advises that “there is no sense in which business will ever be green, for business aligns itself with the economy, which is fundamentally a system of exchanging anything for anything else for profit” (213). The problem, then, for both animal rights and green capitalism is that legal discourse articulates quality of life issues and environmental diversity through an economic framework of profit and loss. To recall Diamond, the matter boils down to “how much he or she gets compared to other participants in the system.”

At this point, I fear some may think that my systems-based critique of animal rights will lead to a rationale for inaction. That charge has been previously addressed in ebr, starting with Stephen Dougherty’s review of McMurry’s book. Dougherty says that McMurry’s argument (and, by extension, mine as well) is “open to the charge of solipsism.” In his review of Lee Rozelle’s Ecosublime, McMurry responds by writing,

Under a systems approach, ‘solipsism’ is actually a vital principle of social systems - it will not go away unless the system itself dissipates. To make sense of this navel-gazing feature, we require an ecocritical theory that does not seek to reform self-reference, make it go away by chastening individuals and societies to think like mountains, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold. Better to consider why solipsism or self-centeredness is the organizing principle of systems in the first place, and so too about the ways we might steer them productively - if steerage is possible.

Following McMurry, I would therefore recommend that we try to steer the legal system away from guiding proposals for animal ethics. As Wolfe puts it, “Diamond would be the first to point out … what is ‘indeterminate’ is not our compassion for the suffering of non-human animals, but rather the very idea that ‘rights’ and ‘entitlement’ bear anything other than a completely contingent relationship (derived from the historically and ideologically specific character of our juridicial and political institutions and the picture of the subject of rights they provide) to the question of justice for nonhuman animals” (9). That concepts such as “rights” and “entitlement” appear to have a stable meaning indicates how the reintroduction of the system/environment distinction reduces environmental complexity for the legal system - but not, what could be said, for the benefit of our well-being. Thus Wolfe’s argument for thinking past ourselves (“the human makes way for the animal but only by means of the human itself”) helps us to recognize the dangers of relying upon contractual language that often figures in animal rights proposals, with its accompanying economic doctrine of self-ownership, to give animals ethical consideration. For that language shapes how biological science legitimates narratives about global sustainability through green capitalism, reducing ecological conversations to cost-benefit scenarios that miscalculate the value of our lives and those of our fellow species.

Annotated Bibliography of Key Texts

Cavalieri, Paola. “A Critical Notice on a Book on Primates and Philosophers.” Electronic Book Review. Oct. 2007. Reviews Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers, noting a disconnect between his “scientific claims” and “theoretical conclusions” about human and animal moral behaviors. Suggests that de Waal’s anxiety about the breaching of the barrier between human and animal is part of a disciplinary safeguarding of human uniqueness.

Heise, Ursula. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Looks at the environment from a global perspective, suggesting that transnational connections can be forged through a collective sense of shared risk, particularly with regards to ecological issues such as global warming.

Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1987. Their idea of autopoietic (self-making) biological systems in the continuous process of becoming derives from their study of the non-representational process by which the neural system’s “operational closure … brings forth a world by specifying what patterns of the environment are perturbations and what changes trigger them in the organism.”

McMurry, Andrew. Environmental Renaissance: Emerson, Throreau, and the American System of Nature. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2003. Proposes that, rather than a turn to models of global sustainability, the environmental constraints on social systems can be harnessed to regulate the ecologically destructive tendencies of the economic system.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. Addresses how dropping the ideologically-loaded term of “nature” may clarify our relationship with the environment, advocating an anti-idealistic view of our separation from the natural world.

Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Demonstrates that animal ethics must be perceived through a social system, rather than independently from that system. There can be no sense of ethics based on the essentialist being of non-human animals. As a result, we move towards a recognition of the fundamentally performative quality of ethics.

—. “Flesh and Finitude: Thinking Animals in (Post)Humanist Philosophy.” Special issue of Substance: “The Political Animal,” ed. Chris Danta and Dmitris Vardoulakis. Forthcoming 2008. Cited with permission of author. Uses philosopher Cora Diamond to argue for a posthumanist approach to animal ethics that can realize our compassion for what Diamond calls “fellow creatures” without being set apart from the issue of justice for non-human animals.