Kelly Oliver


On her book Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human

Cover Interview of January 19, 2010

The wide angle

Animal Lessons engages with, yet radically departs from, discussions of animal rights and animal welfare that dominate philosophical conversations about animals.  I move away from the framework of animal rights because the history of this discourse and the notion of rights are bought at the expense of animals.  We need to do more than merely expand our concept of rights to include some animals.  Rather, we need to rethink what it means to be animal and what it means to be human.  We need to acknowledge how our conception of ourselves as superior to animals is dependent upon those very animals that we disavow. 

The concept of rights originated with property rights as people began to own and keep animals.  They needed laws to insure that their “property” was protected, particularly because large animals needed space for grazing.  Property rights eventually spread into human rights, a notion that is also intimately related to, and dependent upon, animals. 

As we know, torture and genocide are usually justified by comparing the victims to animals who deserve such treatment.  I argue that we need to explore why our conception of the animal or the beast justifies mistreatment.  Our concern to rethink the animal and animality beyond debasement and abuse extends not only to animals, but also to humans who are treated “like animals.”  What does it mean to “treat someone like an animal” or to “behave like an animal?”  Certainly, it is time to leave behind these archaic notions of animals as mere objects or beasts deserving the whip. 

I argue that only when we give up these ideas of animals as objects, or brutes, or our servants, or property, can we begin to treat other humans with dignity rather than relegate them to the subhuman category animal.  In other words, our inhumanity to man is both physically and conceptually a direct result of our abuse of animals. 

My point is not to argue that in the end animals are like us.  Rather than look to qualities or capacities that make them the same or different from humans, I am interested in the relationship between the human and the animal, between humans and animals.

To insist, as animal rights and welfare advocates do, that our ethical obligations to animals are based on their similarities to us reinforces the type of humanism that leads to treating animals—and other people—as subordinates.  Consideration of animals makes it more pressing than ever not to repeat exclusive gestures that justify our treatment of animals based on what we take to be salient about their nature or behavior.

Can we learn to appreciate animals for their differences from us and not just their similarities?  If recent philosophies of difference are any indication we can acknowledge difference without acknowledging our dependence on animals, or without including animals in ethical considerations.  We can talk about both identity and difference without examining the relationship between them.

What we need is to move from an ethics of sameness, through an ethics of difference, toward an ethics of relationality and responsivity.  Animal ethics requires rethinking identity and difference, by focusing on relationships and response-ability.  An ethics based on response-ability must acknowledge that all creatures on earth are blessed and cursed with the ability to respond.

This project started as a work of mourning for my beloved companion of eighteen years, Kaos.  Friends sometimes warned me that I should quit thanking Kaos and Wizard in the acknowledgements of my books; they said that scholars would not take my writing seriously if I continued to thank my cats.  Now, they are probably convinced that I have gone to the dogs (except those who know that I am a cat person). 

Recently, at a small symposium where I presented some ideas for the first chapter of this book, friends and strangers alike challenged my turn to animals; some of them even said that they had followed my work up to this point, but could not follow the animals.  Certainly, in the face of domestic violence, endless war, genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, sexism, and all of the other forms of violence humans inflict on each other, the ethical treatment of animals seems secondary; indeed, focusing on animals in this context may seem unethical, a way of displacing the injustices inflicted on human beings and distracting us from the history of oppression, slavery and torture whose bloody reach continues to mar what we call humanity. 

It is legitimate to ask, why turn to animals at a time when our inhumanity to man continues unabated?  Yet, following animals through the history of philosophy, particularly recent philosophies of difference, has shown me that the practices of oppression, slavery, and torture are historically inseparable from the question of the animal.  Tracking the animal through the writings of three centuries and more of philosophers has taught me that our concepts of man, humanity, and inhumanity are inherently bound up with the concepts of the animal, animality and animals. 

The man-animal binary is not just any opposition; it is the one used most often to justify violence, not only man’s violence to animals, but also man’s violence to other people deemed like animals.  Until we interrogate the history of this opposition with its exclusionary values, considering animals (or particular animals) like us or recognizing that we are also a species of animal does very little to change “how we eat the other,” as Jacques Derrida might say.