“Who Are We?”: Animals, History, Ethics, and Questions of Inclusion

Side by side with the question of animals and history are the question of ethical inclusion in general, and the conception of the ethical position of animals in particular. Historian Gary David Shaw’s idea of “we” as a limiting principle in which those writing history decide which entities are ‘”…enough like us to count’” mirrors issues of animal ethics, as well as the more broad-sweeping ethical question that philosopher Richard Rorty asks: “Who Are We?” Perhaps considering Rorty’s ideas can help with the first theoretical question posed by Shaw: “what the animal is, historically” (Shaw 2013, 5).

Rorty views “Who Are We?” type questions in tandem with metaphysical and scientific “what” questions regarding man and other entities (Pogge & Horton 2008, 313, Introduction to “Who Are We?”). He asserts that the questions that postulate who we are exist as “attempts to forge, or reforge, a moral identity” and that this attempt can be linked to the metaphysical and scientific questions in a specific way (313).

Nietzsche and other philosophers regard methods like religion or science, which strive to answer the questions about “what” we (and other entities) are, as tools that each serve different understandings and ultimately different purposes and values, rather than as means for discovering an objective reality (that doesn’t exist). In a statement paralleling this perspective, Shaw states that:

the definition and usage of the word “animal” has never been straightforward. It has changed significantly through history in a variety of overlapping registers—scientific, agricultural, literary, colloquial, domestic, legal, and theological—that we continue to need to discern and analyze.  (Shaw, 6)

Shaw’s statement on the term “animal” appears to illustrate the perspective of Nietzsche that asserts that methods exist as tools that ground different purposes related to what we as humans are, as well as what other entities are, or are considered to be. Following the philosophical view on methods and relating to Shaw’s statement, Rorty suggests that by asking, first, who we are, we make decisions about values and purposes that will guide the answer to the “what” query (Pogge & Horton, 313).

In terms of the ethical question of inclusion particular to animals related to the bounds of the ethical “we,” the dominant view of animals still embeds questions regarding them on a scale of anthropocentrism. By placing emphasis on the instrumental value of animals for humans, unique intelligences and behaviors are diminished in importance through a comparison with human functions based on human perspectives. Philosopher Carl Cohen, for instance, in attempting to justify the use of animals in medical research, places great emphasis on the idea (now being questioned through non-medical research and study of animals) that morality is a uniquely human construct, and that therefore, animals can never possess more than indirect moral standing.

As I have noted amongst my Global Ethics students, such black and white views seem to make it very easy for those wishing to maintain their use of animals to categorize them as not ‘enough like us to count’—one very bright student even noting that animals certainly don’t get up and go to work like we do. Even though, as Shaw states, both shared feeling and scholarly work have begun to draw non-human animals into the circle of the human “we,” as someone who studies the question of the continuum of humans and the environment, ethically, animals are still generally considered to exist in the “world of nature that was difficult if not quite beyond us” (Shaw 1, 3).

Perhaps the resistance to considering the importance of animals is based on the vice of hubris, as Thomas Hill suggests regarding the preservation of nature in his essay on virtue ethics. Overcoming what seems to be a certain self-importance, as well as a learned fear of the agency and interagency of non-human creatures and the environmental realm, however are necessary and nuanced steps for deciding both, who constitutes ‘the “we” of history’ (Shaw, 12), as well as who constitutes the “we” of our moral identity.

A Deeper Sense of History

When introducing deep history, Daniel Lord Small discussed two ideas that I see as particularly fertile both intellectually and in terms of cultural perspective.  The first is that of a unique, new interdisciplinarity that would link “physical and life sciences” to social sciences and the humanities (Small 2008, 9).  Considering history through the ‘”reciprocally creative relationship’” that comes from the interchange between the biological, behavioral, and cognitive elements of the human mind and human culture creates more nuanced understandings of the symbiosis of culture and biology (Small 2008, 8).

This interplay reminds me of environmental philosophy, particularly the idea that there is continuity between culture and nature rather than a natural division, or dualism, that became established through Enlightenment views of nature, human mastery, and Cartesian separation of brain and body.  Related indirectly to this sense of interdisciplinarity is what Small calls “ghost theories,” which he describes as “old ideas that continue to structure our thinking without our being fully aware of their controlling presence” (Small 2008, 3).  Small suggests that these entrenched ways of thinking about history frame and limit the understanding of the world, particularly the richness of the human world.  These ideas call into question the way that knowledge and the control of knowledge function in general, as well as in historical scholarship.

For instance, the idea that documents and writing have more credibility as scholarly historical evidence than do artifacts or oral stories parallels issues in indigenous studies, and even Foucauldian concepts, that show that ways of knowing have been hierarchized in dominant Western thought.  When non-dominant forms of thinking, living, and being are acknowledged through those studies, it is possible to see the world in a new light that includes elements overlooked through the predominant perspective.  By joining biology and culture to the world of history in a non-presentist manner, a new, deep sense of historical continuity can develop that might open our eyes to more elements of history and of the present.