Gary Steiner


On his book Animals and the Moral Community: Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship

Cover Interview of May 20, 2009

The wide angle

Animals and the Moral Community is divided into two parts.  In the first, I examine historical and contemporary debates surrounding the question of the mental capacities of animals.  In the second, I develop a theory of cosmic holism that accounts for the fundamental kinship relation that exists between humans and non-human animals.

Historically, philosophers have denied that animals possess language and the capacity for abstract thought.  But more recently philosophers have begun to attribute to non-human animals capacities for complex mental functions.  Thinkers such as Charles Darwin forced us to reject the traditional prejudice that language and reason make human beings different in kind than animals, to accept once and for all the idea that humans are animals, and to acknowledge that the differences between humans and animals are merely differences of degree.  With the increasing recognition that human and non-human animals share many emotional and cognitive capacities, many contemporary animal advocates have moved from one extreme to the other: instead of arguing that animals are completely devoid of cognitive abilities (or, as Descartes argued, that animals have no subjective states of awareness whatsoever), many philosophers and others concerned with animals now argue that non-human animals are capable of sophisticated mental activities such as abstract conceptual thought.

But it is not necessary to attribute such sophisticated mental capacities to animals in order to affirm their moral worth.  I argues that even though animals are incapable of conceptual thought and predicatively-structured mental states such as belief and desire, animals nonetheless have rich inner lives.  It is on this basis alone that we must recognize that animals possess moral worth comparable to that of human beings.  To argue otherwise is simply speciesism—making dogmatic assumptions about species differences much in the way in which sexists or racists make dogmatic assumptions about gender or racial differences.

In the second half of the book, I present a conception of cosmic holism according to which our moral obligations toward animals are a function of the essential kinship between human and non-human animals.  Our kinship with animals consists in the fact that human and non-human animals alike struggle to flourish according to their natures.  The fact that human beings can conceptualize and reflect on their potential and their subjective experiences while animals cannot has no moral significance.  This fact does not justify human beings in using animals to satisfy human desires.  In particular it does not justify human beings in killing and eating animals.

In contemporary society, such thinking is typically met with the reaction that it is totalitarian to the extent that it imposes the demand on human beings that they alter their behavior whether or not they acknowledge the legitimacy of the demand.  So I conclude the book with a discussion of how liberal individualism, with its emphasis on the value of individual self-determination, might be inscribed within the larger framework of a cosmic holism that demands the cessation of animal exploitation.