Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life III

(I just lost about an hour's worth of thoughts on Cavell's essay.  What follows will be truncated and written while grumpy.)

Cavell wonders whether it might be possible to "suffer" (p. 93) from a kind of blindness in respect to non-human animals, in the way that one can be blind to the humanity of other human beings.  I think the answer is No.  There might be kinds of mental handicap that make one incapable of seeing others as human beings, but otherwise failure to recognize someone as human, to treat them as a human being, is a moral failing.  It is not something from which one suffers.  Everyone knows that animals can, for instance, see, be sane, be loved, care for their young, fear for their lives, and so on.  There is no therefore (...they have rights, or ...they should not be eaten, say), but the kind of blindness Cavell has in mind seems like a kind of bad faith, nothing more.

On p. 108 Cavell talks of different realms, seemingly meaning the human and the animal realms.  He compares the difference with that between the human realm and the divine.  I find this unhelpful, partly because I don't recognize any such thing as the divine realm.  But also because, like Cavell, I want to acknowledge a host of differences and similarities between human and non-human animals.  Talk of separate realms seems to downplay the similarities and make something like a metaphysical truth (something platonic or God's eye) of the differences.

He goes on to talk about the comparison of modern farms and Nazi death camps made by both Heidegger and Elizabeth Costello.  He questions whether anyone not crazed could make such a comparison.  I think they could.  It's true that there are obvious and crucial differences, and that making the comparison risks insulting the victims of Nazi genocide.  But ignoring the similarities also risks being insensitive to what they suffered.  Remembering the Holocaust means (to my mind) thinking that we must never let such a thing happen again.  And that means being alive to what is such a thing, perhaps even being extra sensitive to it.  And feeling horror when we come across such a thing.  Factory farms are not the same thing, but you don't have to be mad to find them too close for comfort.

Finally, on p. 122 and p. 124 Cavell talks about why he has not become a vegetarian, and connects this with the idea that vegetarianism is something like a self-righteous distancing of oneself from the rest of humanity.  Orwell said something similar, I believe.  This might be a reason not to insist that one's hosts go out of their way to serve one only vegetarian food.  It might be a reason not to go on about one's vegetarianism.  But I don't see how one could read Diamond's work, or Coetzee's (including works he has endorsed), and come away thinking that this is what motivates (or even constitutes) their vegetarianism.                  


  1. I've been puzzling about your first paragraph. My first reaction was, of course there can be such "blindness" (e.g. cases where someone's saying, "But it's just a chicken," might show they are not seeing something--a lot depends on tone etc here). But then I thought of your emphasis on "suffers." I get your point, but could that have been reading more into Cavell's original use of "suffer" than he intended? (Or is the point that Cavell of all people should be more careful with his words? Or is there something about Cavell I'm missing?)

  2. I don't really mean to be critical of Cavell here, since I don't think he commits to either a Yes or a No. Any critical tone might just be my grumpiness showing through. And I don't mean that he should have chosen different words, necessarily. Perhaps he meant 'suffers' or perhaps he meant 'has.' But if he means 'suffers,' then I think the answer to his question is No.

  3. would not the reference to suffering there have been in line with cavell's general line of thought that taking up certain attitudes toward others can have certain effects on oneself? othello becoming stone, etc. it's a pathos kind of suffering, a way of characterizing its internal relation to happiness (and thus morality).

  4. That sounds right, so perhaps I'm wrong. But the word 'blindness' didn't sound quite right, either, for something voluntary. At least it seems to me that people turn a blind eye rather than having some inability to see the suffering of animals. That combined with 'suffering' sounded wrong to me, but maybe I need to adjust to Cavell's way of thinking and writing. The relation to happiness and morality is tricky, too, but not in any way that is likely to be news to Cavell.

  5. one thing that seems to have been skirted rather widely—i haven't read all the essays yet—is the relativity of, let's say, (im)moral response suggested by what diamond says about the difficulties each side has appreciating the other side's… form of moral response.

    it seems quite consistent with your being pretty well on the 'meat is murder' side that you take the proper emphasis to be 'turning a blind eye' rather than 'blindness'.

    which does make it seem odd, what application the concept (metaphor, whatever) of 'blindness' as opposed to willful blindness has here, since i don't see who would be interested in using the former concept. perhaps (along the lines of your remark just now) it expresses a kind of resistance to a diamond-style position? 'ah, so in a way we are blind to the suffering of animals'. 'yes. yes you are.' 'ah, if only there were some way of seeing their suffering, but we must not even know what we're missing, it's no wonder we don't see it.' 'yes, if only there were some way.'

  6. I've also been puzzled by the claim that it would be crazy to compare factory farming to the Holocaust, or that you never should, or even that you cannot make such a comparison. Of course you can. You can compare any two things you like. Whether it would be crazy or unintersesting to do so, is to a large extent a question of what you are trying to do with the comparing. Sure, we have seen some crude examples of this, but the problem isn't that you're finding similarities between factory farming and the Holocaust, but what point you are trying to make with these similarities.

    I think you're right that we can compare what's happening on modern farms with the concentration camps in order to drive the horror (at both places) home, without necessarily offending anyone. (Many jews have indeed done the same thing. They've lamented that the nazis treated them like slaughter animals.)

    If you, on the other hand, don't know what you're doing and imply that the two are identical in every (morally) relevant sense, you're sure to offend a lot of people. This would perhaps be crazy, and we shouldn't do it. It would be an insult the jews, an exaggeration of the wrongness of what we're doing to animals, or both.

  7. I see that my choice of words in the last paragraph unclear. I'm not implying that you, DR, are guilty of any of this.

  8. Thanks, j. and vh.

    I think Diamond's view is that different people react differently to things, which means they have different moral views on some issues, but also different understandings of what the issues are, or even of whether there is an issue there at all. But it's not as if there is simply nothing one could ever do about this. A good liberal arts education is just the kind of thing that one would hope might cure someone of certain kinds of blindness, by expanding their moral imagination. An expanded imagination is not just different--it's better. Some people might be immune, though, and then they would have a kind of blindness. But they might still be reachable by other methods. Peter Singer and Cora Diamond are very different philosophers, but each is capable of persuading people to become vegetarian, for instance.

    I think most people choose to turn a blind eye to animal suffering because it isn't pleasant to think about it. If you do think about it a lot you probably won't want to eat a lot of meat (if you still were happily omnivorous despite such thoughts being near the front of your mind then you might have a kind of blindness, and the word 'suffering' might be a good choice--I'm thinking of the people who kill animals for a living and end up abusing them; they are surely suffering from something: bad work conditions, low pay, and probably something like despair, for instance).

    I wonder whether Elizabeth Costello has a sort of duck-rabbit view of factory farms, so that at times they look to her exactly like the death camps, but at other times quite different. So that when she makes the comparison with the Holocaust, while she's making it, it seems to her to be completely apt--the two things are one and the same, morally speaking.

    Diamond talks about the men in the photograph described in Ted Hughes' poem seeming both as alive as anyone could be (as alive as life itself, perhaps, immortal) and yet utterly dead too. One of Hughes' ideas is that you could go mad trying to hold these two thoughts in your mind at the same time. I think it's possible that Costello thinks of factory farms as just like, and also utterly different from, Nazi death camps. Not that she is mad, but that she can feel the possibility of madness in this double vision. Like the feeling some people supposedly have that they are afraid they will jump off a high building.

    It is objected to Costello that just because the Nazis treated Jews like animals it is not OK to say that we treat animals like Jews. Her view is not "Oh yes it is," but rather that we should not treat animals like animals, any more than we should treat people that way. It is butchery itself to which she objects.

  9. I think I might have already said too much despite also not having said enough to answer either of you, but I'll say one more thing in this comment. G. K. Chesterton praises Christianity for seeing things in black and white instead of in a more reasonable grey. I'm not saying he's right, but I'm suggesting that perhaps Costello wants to have an unreasonable double vision rather than a more reasonable compromise in a similar way. The reasonable thought would be that factory farms are somewhat like the death camps, but of course not as bad because animals are not human beings (and the simile is questionable because the memory of the Holocaust ought to be kept with more respect than this comparison shows). Costello's thought (maybe) is that this is too reasonable to do justice to the truth. We have to have the incompatible thoughts that: the Holocaust was a unique evil, not to be compared with anything else; the slaughter of human beings is far worse than the slaughter of animals; the slaughter of animals is morally just the same as the Holocaust. Diamond's thought might be that nothing less than reality presses these thoughts on us, and that the seeming impossibility of believing all three is an example of the difficulty of reality. A philosophy that sees this as a relatively simple issue (we must obviously drop or modify at least one premise) is blind.

  10. that all sounds fine, duncan.

    i really wish i could read an honest response to diamond's core points about their reading of coetzee's 'lectures' by one of the 'lives of animals' commentators, especially singer. i get what she's doing, more or less; what i don't get is how it's apparently so easy to try not to get it. the whole volume has the air of confirming the attitude elizabeth costello projects toward the entire business of 'arguing about important ethical issues'. even marjorie garber kind of punts and does a typical academic-talk thing—some talk about her own issues, some scholarly knowledge sprinkled around.

    maybe the mere fact of the occasion (important public lectures about values, author stands up and reads, commentators have to respond to 'the issues') and the brevity of the lectures had a very strong effect on what the commentators found to comment on. before reading them i already knew part of the later 'elizabeth costello' (as the 'philosophy and animal life' readers did?), so i guess i found it easier to hear them as literature (as the literature they are).

  11. Yes, I haven't read those responses yet. I guess that's next (although I might spare you all any blow-by-blow thoughts on them). I wonder whether Singer has read Diamond's essay. Or Mulhall's book (in which Singer's response is vivisected). He might just think it's not worth his time to engage with them (either in print or in his mind).

    Perhaps they thought their job was to respond as specialists in their disciplines rather than as something broader.

  12. Hi All-- I'm coming in late here (I was halfway through a comment last night but gave up on it). I can imagine a kind of non-willful blindness in the animal case, j. Not so much about the suffering of animals, but the idea that we can use them for food--"I don't see what the problem is. They're just animals." (Sorry this is really quick.)

    I took one of Cavell's contributions (or was it McDowell or Hacking reading him?) that the duck-rabbit model doesn't work for Costello's situation (that's Hacking): there's nothing at stake in the duck-rabbit image, but there is something at stake once one sees factory farms as like death camps. "Switching back" to seeing them a different way isn't a neutral activity: a thousand other little things also have to shift in one's thinking (Cavell, I think, says something like this.)

  13. i'm not too clear on my idea, matthew, but i think it's that 'blindness' as a term of criticism in issues with this sort of structure seems to generally include the idea that it's willfully maintained (perhaps against some kind of affective resistance, subconscious discomfort, what have you), because it's a term used to account for the otherwise hard-to-make-accountable disparities between the other side and one's own point of view. perhaps your example there points out that there are other ways to happen to be blind? carelessness, unconcern, negligence, uncuriousity, outright ignorance, and so on?

    i would be pretty pleased by any outcome where the official diagnosis turned out to be a general label for a variety of ways of being morally benighted.

    DR, garber does note that thoughts about disciplinarity had been circulating around the event that year, in its planning stages or whatever. and in their own ways the religion scholar and the primatologist did basically contribute, across disciplinary boundaries, something of relevance to the questions about literariness brought into focus by coetzee's performance. (the religion scholar gives a rundown of conceptualizations of relations between people and animals through the histories of hinduism and somewhat of buddhism and other eastern religions, as embodied in their myths and legal writings, which comes off an awful lot like a kind of world survey of the grammars of concepts of 'animal' and 'human'. the primatologist gives a personal account of her experiences of relating to baboons she studied in the field, and to her own dog, as equal social subjects.) but it seems as if garber could have done a lot more engagement and a bit less 'yes, CAN we learn something from literature?'

    wasn't singer also subject to criticism in 'eating meat and eating people'? at least in my circles (i.e. not just wittgensteinians), that's a pretty well known essay, so you would think he'd get around to replying to the criticism eventually. but he really might not know what to make of it.

  14. I suspect that Singer just doesn't accept Diamond's earlier criticisms of his views. She says (as I remember it) that his argument leaves untouched the idea that there is nothing wrong with eating an animal killed by lightning, say. I think he might well just say that's right, in that case there is nothing wrong with eating meat. Two kinds of blindness (at least) are at work here (not necessarily in Singer himself, but generally). One is the kind of moral failing that involves someone saying "They're just animals" when they would never say such a thing if they were at a petting zoo. That's willful blindness or bad faith. The other is the kind of blindness that would lead to consistency even at the petting zoo. "These animals are fun to feed and stroke. Then we kill them and eat them. What's the problem?" I think this is rare, that most people would feel at least some discomfort in killing an animal. And most "What's the problem?" questions, I imagine, are somewhat aggressive, not asked out of sincere puzzlement. But I'm sure there are people who really don't feel anything like what Diamond feels either when faced with animals or when reading Coetzee and others. And some of these people are no doubt embarrassed that they don't get books that are said to be great literature. There is some interesting hostility towards Dostoevsky in The God Dialogues, where Nabokov is cited with something like relief as a respectable author who rejects Dostoevsky's way of thinking. I imagine insensitivity to good writing is fairly common among philosophers.

  15. Yeah, this is sort of what I was suggesting in response to j about "blindness"--that someone's "not seeing it" may not always be willful (though this can perhaps be complicated to untangle). It's true that if one's not being able to "see it" really isn't willful, then grounds for negative moral judgment (say) seem to be absent. But if one were to reason, "I don't see it; therefore, it isn't there to see," that would still be fallacious.

  16. Moral judgment is tricky in these cases, partly because it's hard to know what's willful and what isn't. Refusing to judge someone could come across as patronizing and dismissive, but that might be better than accusing them of bad faith. And then there's the question of how genuine (moral) blindness comes about. Are people somehow culpable for their own blindness?