Gary Steiner

 

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

Cover Interview of May 20, 2009

A close-up

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that “in all essential respects, the animal is absolutely identical with us…  The difference lies merely in the accident, the intellect, not in the substance which is the will.  The world is not a piece of machinery and animals are not articles manufactured for our use.”  We today are heirs of a tradition of thinking that has asserted the fundamental superiority of human beings over non-human animals.  Thus the challenge we face is how to subject some of our deepest prejudices to critical scrutiny, how to envision a new way of understanding ourselves and our relationship to non-human nature.

Chapter Five in the book takes up this challenge.  Entitled “The Ideal of Cosmic Holism,” this chapter seeks to understand human being as a special form of life—a form of life that is capable of reflecting on its own nature, and hence of taking on moral responsibilities, but whose capacities for critical reflection do not render it morally superior to non-human nature.  Human beings are in the unique position of being able to recognize and act on moral obligations toward animals (and perhaps toward non-sentient nature as well), even though non-human beings lack the capacity for reflection and hence lack the ability to take on reciprocal obligations toward humanity.  Our moral relationship to animals is one of stewardship: we have obligations to protect animals and to refrain from interfering with their efforts to flourish according to their natures, even though animals have no corresponding obligations toward us.  The fact that for millennia we have exploited animals with little if any self-restraint is a sign not that we have any right to do so but simply that we have failed to acknowledge our place within a cosmic whole of which we are merely a part.