I’m tempted to say that, about animal ethics presented in the 9th installment in the series The Power of Thought, I know nothing. But since it’s hardly my style to admit that I’m ignorant without first searching my brain for some other connections that would prove otherwise, I won’t. This being the case the best strategy is to keep it short, so we’ll see how it goes.

The first thing we hear on the show is that animal ethics is closely related to moral philosophy, at least where methodology is concerned. The questions posed in the two disciplines are similar: to what extent can we afford – and is it morally defensible – to behave in a certain way towards others (here, animals)? Some commandments come to my mind. In terms of their relevance, especially the following two are worth mentioning: “thou shall not kill”, “do onto others what you want others to do onto you”.

Peter Sandøe talks engagingly about utilitarianism, the question of how we determine what’s good for animals, and lunatics who, because they are concerned, ring the police when they see cows in winter lying on some field. They presume that the poor animals must be freezing. Good point.

It occurs to me that Hendricks’s questions on this particular show are all cultural: utilitarianism, he posits, presents us with the danger of exclusion: what’s good for the majority is not always good for the marginals; sex with animals is a taboo; cloning is more interesting from a cultural rather than technological point of view. Sandøe takes the cue and offers, quite entertainingly, some positions: in theory cloning is good, in praxis, too much trouble. Women having sex with their dogs is not a problem if it gives both parties pleasure – and here one is left to imagine the stereotype of farmers fucking sheep up their asses, which is not so good. Enhancing a turkey’s body parts is not so good, while allowing women to get bigger breasts is good. And at this point I laugh my wits out, as Sandøe suggests, while addressing Hendricks directly, that the latter is particularly good for someone like him [“for sådan én som dig”; ja gad vide hvad han havde i tankerne].

This is the wonderful thing about culture: unlike hard core traditional philosophy, it offers instant gratification: you get infinitely smarter without having to think too much about things. Perhaps this is what Sebastian Roch Nicolas Chamfort had in mind when he formulated the phrase used as the regular introductory quote to the show: “Philosophy, like medicine, has plenty of drugs, few good remedies, and hardly any specific cures.”

This is also what theorists such as Freud understood, when he wrote such seminal works as Totem and Taboo (1913) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930). As everyone knows, particularly totems have been used in all cultures instrumentally as vehicles of identification between man and animal. This implies that if we are concerned with the well being of animals, it is ultimately our own well being - not to mention the preservation and perpetuation of strong characteristics, if the animal is an eagle or a lion - that we are concerned with. And so it goes.

Sandøe advances the argument that what makes us happy is precisely the act of allowing – not to mention creating – taboos to infiltrate culture. But insofar as such acts are fraught with violence, it’s interesting to consider the idea that the dynamics of happiness is constituted through and against the background of aggressive and instinctual feelings. Freud has already covered that ground when he said “Civilization therefore, obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.” So we need some moral philosophy to free us from ourselves.

As an alternative to that, I suggest that we read Bataille’s Erotism: Death and Sensuality (1957) where he claims that taboos are illogical. Taboos are eventually and always transgressed by agents. Taboos themselves naturally incline agents to transgress them. Here, Bataille goes on to argue that taboos are thus agents that clearly coerce people into transgressing them. We find a simplified version of this in Homer Simpson’s line: “always submit to peer pressure”.

On the philosophy of animal ethics, I’m willing to give up my ignorance. I thus submit to moral philosophy – and its discontents. Breasts and all.


Bent said…
There is no such thing as animal ethics, only humans trying to formulate a way to be ethical towards animals. Thus, this is not a separate branch of philosophy, just the same old moral philosophy with the addition of trying to perceive of a radically Other as its target - the non-human living entity.

The program rather convincingly showed how that doesn't really work: philosophers tend to anthropomorphise the furry critters by constantly positing analogies to how humans would think, never truly envisioning how animals are exactly other than humans.

Of course, what the program was really about was the application of so-called animal ethics. On that I would suggest that it would be more apt to teach the human target groups to commune with their tribal totems, as Camelia suggests: The farmer from Østre Bøvelse would be kinder to his muh cows if he had learned to identify with the great 44-titted Mother Bovine, and the society lady from Hellerup would be more in tune with her Shih Tzu, Mopsy's needs if she had spent some time hunting with the Lion Dog in Tibet...

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