Animal Rights & Veganism · philosophy

Derrida and The Animal

When one says, “animals,” one has already started to not understand anything, and has started to enclose the animal into a cage. 

That is a snippet from this quite interesting interview with Jacques Derrida, and, although he is a dirty continental, he makes a very valuable point. And does so in a way that is accessible to virtually anyone of at least – to be conservative – a college student or graduate. I am very unfamiliar with his work and therefore am not able to place this in the context of his own philosophy – this of course creates a danger of grossly misunderstanding a philosopher. So if I do so, not that anyone reading this is going to be familiar with Derrida anymore than I am, take this to just be a launching point into what I want to talk about. Many people have been inspired by misunderstanding other people, after all.

Derrida says that the act of using the word animal in the general sense is to engage in an act of violence against animals, and from this we end up with further violence. What we are doing when we use the word in that way is to create a division between human animals and every other animal. We are saying that of all the differences between various species – consider a pigeon and a dolphin – the most important difference is whether or not it is a human. It seems utterly absurd to divide the biological world in such a manner – to say that we have humans and then those “animals” over there. And let’s not kid ourselves by talking about how we know that humans are also animals, and by saying that we acknowledge this in every biology book that includes humans. The prejudice in society, in our consciousness, is there and obvious – when we call another human an animal we are not giving them a reminder of their biological status, we are saying they are savage, cruel, brutal, uncivilized, and all other sorts of negative traits. Hell, even saying that calling someone an animal would be a reminder is to demonstrate this attitude – if someone said, “humans have eyes too” you would not be having a temporary shift of perspective. You would look at them like they were pulling a prank on you, or maybe as if they were a total moron.

So Western culture has a long history of making this theoretical error. In Genesis we are told that it is man’s responsibility to rule over the animals (leaving aside that this does not necessitate violence or even cruelty). Descartes did not feel absurd in entertaining the thought that only humans had conscious experiences and that animals were automatons, their pain behavior not reflecting an actual experiential state. Aristotle saw the final cause of animals as to serve mankind. Kant wrote that it is a bad thing to abuse an animal not because of the animal’s suffering, but because it will encourage similar behavior against other humans. And we could go on and on. But this division does not reflect any relevant ontological distinction – it is wholly arbitrary. It’s no more advanced than the circular reasoning that humans are more important than non-humans because they more strongly possess things like morality and rationality; those cows are less because they do not possess human-specific traits!

So what. We have a hilariously ungrounded division between human animals and non-human animals. Is this relevant outside of being another ridiculous thing humans have done? Unfortunately, yes. Because my brain is not working and I don’t feel like using Google, there is a ton of psychological research into group dynamics, group pressure, etc – we see members of our own groups as heterogeneous while members of out groups to be homogeneous. If I encounter a carpenter – who happens to be white, male, and of my age – then I am going to distinguish him from myself based on his carpentry. However, if everything were the same outside of his skin color, his race would become the focus of any distinction – an intuitive, automatic response that needs to be overcome. We have seen the damage that this sort of lumping can cause over the course of human history. Whether through racism, genocide, or even something as minor as prejudice. This is what enables our horrific treatment of animals – the same sort of group division, and one that is based on nonsense reasoning. If we differentiated between a goat and a child by their ability to suffer, not their species, could we justify – to ourselves – sacrificing the goat? Would we still see that as a cultural difference, or would we recognize it as something objectively wrong?

Let’s just put it this way: if we replaced all the pigs in United States factory farms with dogs would you still feel okay about eating the meat that came from those farms? If someone raised a puppy to full grown size before slaughtering it and eating it (don’t worry, it’s totally possible to cut something’s throat “humanely!”) would we not go past a feeling of squeamishness to one of outrage? You cannot pass judgement on people for engaging in an activity that absolutely permeates the culture – it does not make someone a bad person for eating pork in the way it makes them a bad person for eating a toddler. But they are both just as wrong.

I was very careless in writing this in virtue of being on my Chromebook. It’s just not the same as a real computer’s keyboard. And screen. Also I really started having to pee so I just began rushing through without much thinking. TMI. Bye.


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