animals and the limits of postmodernism

Gary Steiner

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When someone says that by extending justice as far as animals we destroy justice, he does not realise that he himself is not preserving justice, but increasing pleasure, which is the enemy of justice. —Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals

In recent years there has been a great profusion of scholarly writing about the mental capacities and the moral status of nonhuman animals. While much of this writing has come from ethologists, historians, and philosophers writing under the influence of traditional humanistic thought, an increasingly large proportion of it has come from postmodern thinkers who see in humanism a fundamental obstacle to the prospect of doing justice to the experiential capacities and the moral worth of animals.1 A key prejudice of traditional humanistic thought is that there is an essential divide between human beings and nonhuman animals: only human beings possess reason or language; hence only human beings can perform a variety of cognitive functions traditionally considered to be essential for possessing full moral status. These functions include the ability to form intentions, contemplate the consequences of different possible courses of action, establish abstract principles, and articulate and respect rights and responsibilities. The Western philosophical tradition has assumed that because animals lack these capacities, they either possess no inherent moral worth or possess moral worth fundamentally inferior to that of human beings. A number of postmodern thinkers challenge the human exceptionalism that lies at the core of humanism, thereby opening up the prospect of acknowledging that animals are cognitively and experientially much more like human beings than the tradition had been willing to admit. This acknowledgment would appear to hold the promise of according to animals a more adequate sense of their inherent moral worth, and of

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motivating humanity to take considerably more seriously our moral obligations toward our animal kin. And yet this is precisely what one does not find in postmodern writings on animals. Instead one encounters a panoply of vague gestures toward some indeterminate sense of continuity between human and animal life, and a general sense that we ought to have more compassion for animals. An examination of the terms of postmodernism makes it clear why its proponents never get to the point of making definitive claims about the moral status of animals: fundamental to postmodernism is the endeavor to challenge the pretensions of traditional philosophy to objective truth and determinate principles. From an epistemological standpoint, this endeavor is born of the belief that all experience is essentially obscure and indeterminate, and that any characterization of experience in perspicuous terms is an idealized distortion of the irreducible complexity of experiential phenomena. From a political standpoint, the endeavor is born of a conviction that abstract principles are simply tools for the suppression of difference; the appeal to abstract principles, we are told, simply reproduces established regimes of dominance and submission. Principles thus become reduced to nothing more than weapons in polemical struggles in which those in power seek to preserve their position of dominance and thwart the endeavor of the powerless to attain recognition and empowerment. The notion of principles is part of a larger ensemble of notions such as selfhood, agency, right, norms, responsibility, and rational argumentation, notions that are absolutely essential to the humanism that is a prime target of much contemporary postmodern thought. In seeking to dismantle humanism, postmodernism poses a radical challenge to all these notions. Thus one may recognize that animals have rich subjective lives that are in fundamental respects very much like the lives of human beings; but one, we are urged, should not attempt to advance any definitive principles on the basis of this recognition. On the last page of my previous book, Animals and the Moral Community, I assert that “what is absolutely clear is that cosmic justice demands universal veganism, the refusal to consume animal products of any kind.”2 A great many humanist thinkers, even those who make a place for animals as members of the moral community, refuse to embrace veganism as a strict ethical duty. Humanists who reject veganism do so because they consider animals to be morally inferior to human beings. Postmodernists, on the other hand, refuse to


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embrace anything like ethical veganism because of their epistemological and political opposition to principles. The embrace of postmodernism leaves animals in an extraordinarily precarious position. It is fair to say that life is essentially precarious and that no appeal to principles can change this fact. But it is quite another thing to dispense with principles altogether. Even if they have no ultimate metaphysical basis and their application is not reducible to an a priori recursive procedure, principles have the potential to remind us of our moral connectedness and obligations to other sentient beings. One of the aims of this book is to show that the postmodern critique of principles is born of a basic misunderstanding of what principles are, how they are formed, and how they can regulate our conduct. A related aim is to argue that the postmodern rejection of principles is itself an unwitting evasion of responsibility. Postmodern work on animals shares with a good deal of humanist thought an implicit commitment to what I call “feel-good ethics,” ethical commitments and sensibilities that permit us to express general abhorrence at the treatment of oppressed groups such as animals but do not push us out of our comfort zones by requiring us to take concrete steps to ameliorate the oppression we so abhor. As regards the plight of animals, Derrida once stated that he was “a vegetarian in [his] soul” but scrupulously refused to articulate any principled commitment to vegetarianism, let alone to veganism.3 If such a position appeals to our desire to do justice to the irreducible complexity of reality, it equally appeals to a primordial desire in us not to have to rethink fundamentally our place and prerogatives in the moral scheme of things. Thus while postmodernism may outwardly appear to hold the promise of dispossessing us of idealized distortions and of providing us with a more adequate grasp of reality, its real function is to leave reality and our relationship to it essentially unchanged—which is to say that it can offer us no prospect of progress in the endeavor to reduce the violence that we encounter in the world every day. My focus in this book, as in the two books that preceded it, is the moral status of animals and the need to articulate and live in accordance with moral principles that do justice to animals.4 Postmodernism takes its bearings from Nietzsche’s perspectivism and a pointedly polemical conception of discourse. I argue in the first two chapters that this leaves postmodernism ill-equipped to make coherent sense of the proposition that peace is to be preferred to

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violence. This essential limitation of postmodernism has tragic implications for human interrelationships as well as for our relationships with animals. But it would be a mistake to conclude, as Hilary Putnam does, that postmodernism is “lacking in intellectual substance.”5 It is this misunderstanding of postmodernism that has led so many people to reject it without attempting to examine its basic commitments. Postmodernism is many things, but the various viewpoints that express the postmodern ethos share a commitment to the fundamental indeterminacy of meaning. This ethos is “amorphous, protean, and shifting,” which is to say that it resists simple reduction to a straightforward definition.6 Some postmodern thinkers, such as Heidegger and Lacan, retain conspicuous humanist commitments. Others, particularly poststructuralists such as Derrida, offer thoroughgoing criticisms of humanism. When I explore the commitments and the limits of postmodernism in this book, I am referring primarily to poststructuralism. Nonetheless, an examination of other postmodern thinkers (such as Heidegger, whom I discuss at length) makes it clear that they are in no better position than the poststructuralists to articulate clear principles that can govern ethical and political decision making.7 Like Nietzsche before them, contemporary postmodern thinkers seek to debunk the Cartesian understanding of reality by returning us to the very realm of obscurity and confusion that Descartes considered to be the enemy of truth. But unlike Nietzsche, contemporary postmodern thinkers seek to wed this view of reality to a political program for the liberation of oppressed segments of humanity—even though Foucault himself acknowledges at the end of volume 1 of The History of Sexuality that the terms of postmodern thought render the prospect of liberation as illusory as the ideal of absolute knowledge that the proponents of postmodern thought wish to dispel.8 The fatal limitation of postmodernism is not that it lacks intellectual substance, but rather that it embraces two notions that are fundamentally incompatible with one another: a commitment to the indeterminacy of meaning and a sense of justice that presupposes the very access to a sense of determinacy that postmodern epistemology dismisses as illusory. Postmodern appeals to justice are fundamentally incoherent in the absence of humanistic notions such as agency and responsibility. The goal of contemporary reflections on the problem of oppression should not be to move toward some ill-conceived “posthumanist” future but instead
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to revise traditional humanist conceptions so that they better reflect the lives and needs of sentient beings. Contemporary postmodern thought expresses an awareness that the traditional distinction between human beings as agents and animals as biological reaction devices is woefully reductive, and that our culture has employed this reductive characterization to justify the subjection of animals for the gratification of human desires. But too many postmodern thinkers fail to recognize something of crucial importance: that human beings are different from animals in being capable of articulating and living in accordance with ethical principles. The humanistic tradition has erred in supposing that the possession of this capacity makes human beings morally superior to animals. We can correct this error not, as many postmodern thinkers suppose, by dispensing with humanism altogether but instead by divesting humanism of its anthropocentric prejudice. Human beings can and ought to strive to live in accordance with principles. To the extent that many animals have rich subjective lives that in essential respects are like those of human beings, one of these principles is that we ought to strive as far as possible to avoid doing violence to humans and animals alike. The tragedy of postmodernism as regards animals is that it comes so close to embracing a notion of human-animal continuity and kinship but fails to advance so much as one clear principle regarding our treatment of animals. In this book I take the prospect of committing ourselves to veganism as a candidate for a principled way of seeking to do justice to the moral status of animals. Along the way I discuss a number of postmodern thinkers, but my main focus is Derrida, both because the anthropocentric prejudices of so many other postmodern thinkers have been amply exposed and because Derrida does by far the best job of any postmodern thinker of showing the limitations of traditional thought and of gesturing toward the prospect of affirming a fundamental kinship between human beings and animals. But even Derrida fails to articulate any clear moral principles bearing on our relationship to animals. I take this failure as an index of the best we can hope for from postmodern thought regarding the moral status of animals. It is against this background that I argue for the need to remain humanists just a little bit longer, and to seek to develop and live in accordance with principles such as the vegan imperative, which in my judgment holds unparalleled promise as a basis for reorganizing our lives in a way that truly extends the scope of justice so as to include animals as its beneficiaries.
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