Normally I wouldn’t comment on such things, but this strikes me as the perfect opportunity to bring up several things that are on my mind on a regular.
Having recently read Douglas Hofstader’s I Am a Strange Loop (Basic, 2007), I’ve been thinking about what he calls the “sizes of souls.” That is, the hierarchy we apply to animals. If you think about what separates us humans from the rest of the animals, I’m sure you don’t think of it as a distinctly black and white demarcation (this shades-of-grey attitude is, perhaps unintentionally in most cases, quite Derridian): dogs have bigger souls than mice, mice have bigger souls than roaches, and so on. Consciousness (or “souledness”) is meted out in an inverted cone-like manner (Hofstadter’s “consciousness cone,” from I Am a Strange Loop, p. 19):
I don’t believe many of us would argue with the basic logic of such a view of animal life, but how do we manage this perception of living things? Why is one animal okay to eat and another is not? This poster exemplifies the conundrum to which I’m referring:
This is rather arbitrary — and culturally determined — distinction, but another one that most people wouldn’t argue with.
In no way am I trying to defend Michael Vick’s alleged behavior, but why is it okay to eat a cow and abhorrent to watch dogs fight? Or, to make the comparison more direct, why is it okay to eat a chicken and not to watch cock fights?
Emmanuel Levinas based his theory of ethics and his views on the animal question on an ethical relationship he called the “face-to-face.” That is, a close encounter with the Other that results in submission to the Other, a responsibility to the needs of the other (this latter distinction is what differentiates Levinas’s views with those of Martin Buber’s conception of the “I and Thou” relationship). Applied to an encounter with the face of an animal, Levinas conceded that the life of a non-human animal leaves no room for ethics, but that needless suffering was to be avoided. My friend, colleague, and Levinas scholar Peter Atterton has gone as far to say that the Levinasian model of ethics grants animals more respect than they are traditionally given. I agree. How could I not?
I never thought of myself as much of an activist or a political person, but now that I see the personal as inextricable from the political, I can’t help but bring it up whenever the opportunity arises: I don’t eat meat or wear leather, and I do my best to avoid most animal products (it’s all but impossible to avoid them all — even your TV and your computer have animal byproducts in them). By the same token, I do my best not to be preachy about it, but I can’t help but feel that we’re all being a bit hypocritical to condemn Michael Vick for his alleged cruelty toward dogs when we’re just as happy to inflict the same on other animals. I also find it funny that meat-eaters justify their dietary whims with both religion and evolution.
I agree with the fuzzy hierarchy. I mean, ants don’t have the same amount of consciousness (or as big of a soul, to keep it in Hofstadter’s terminology) as cats, but why do dogs have more consciousness than cows?