Oppression, slavery, and torture are historically inseparable from the question of the animal

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

Animal Lessons is about how philosophers throughout Western history have used animals to make the case that humans are special. Philosophers have argued that humans are so unique that they have transcended their animality and become something entirely other. In this book, I show how the animals “bite back” and betray the very service into which they have been corralled in the name of humanity. Our concepts of the human, of kinship, of language, and even of human rights are borne on the backs of animals, whose importance to philosophy goes unacknowledged. Philosophers unthinkingly use animals to develop their theories of the human subject and human nature.

What philosophers have called “man” learns to be human from those very animals against which he defines himself. It is not just that the concepts of human and animal are intimately and essentially related in these texts, but also that animals themselves show man how not to be one of them. It is not just that animals and animality remain excluded from the concepts human and humanity, or that they are the debased others against which what is properly human is defined and maintained, though this is certainly the case. What is striking in these texts is the ways they rely on examples, illustrations, metaphors, and studies of animals that belie their central theses about the human subject and humanity. It seems that the more adamantly these authors insist on an absolute distinction between man and animal, the more dependent their arguments on animal pedagogy become.

In spite of the explicit message of these texts—that humans are radically distinct from animals—animals function to teach man how to be human. Not surprisingly then, this animal pedagogy goes unacknowledged. To acknowledge the dependence of man and humanity on animal and animality is to undermine man’s sense of himself as autonomous and self-sovereign, and to deny what he has considered his rightful place as lord over the creatures of the earth.

“Our inhumanity to man is both physically and conceptually a direct result of our abuse of animals.”

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.

January 19, 2010

A close-up

Throughout Western history, philosophers have suggested that what is human is determined by what we eat. Whether they think that we are what we eat (like Rousseau and Herder) or that we are not what we eat (like Freud and Kristeva), their notions of humanity either implicitly or explicitly maintain that man becomes human by eating animals.

I begin by looking back at eighteenth-century notions of humanity and animality that define man in terms of what he eats in order to set the stage for an investigation into how more recent philosophers from Freud through Kristeva repeat those romantic gestures that abject animals and exclude them from personhood or humanity, or from consideration as thinking or feeling beings. I argue that within the history of philosophy, animals remain the invisible support for whatever we take to be human subjectivity, as fractured and obscure as it becomes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In Animal Lessons, I distinguish between two types of eating or assimilation that not only speak to our relations with animals, but also our relations with each other. We can, as humans have for centuries, eat animals (and plants) as a sign of our dominion over the earth and its creatures; we can kill for the sake of conquest and mount our trophies on the wall, dissect them, or train them to jump through hoops. Since we need to eat, a more ethical way to eat others might be to eat only what we need and not more; and to eat in ways that nurture and nourish ourselves, each other—including other animals—and our shared environment. We have a fundamental ethical obligation to others and the earth that sustain us.

“Since we need to eat, a more ethical way to eat others might be to eat only what we need and not more.”


The implications of thinking through our relations with animals are vast. Considering animals releases a menagerie of problems that affect almost every aspect of our lives. On the philosophical level, the very conceptions of animal and human, of rights and intelligence are at stake. On the social level, giant global capitalist enterprises such as factory farming and much of the pharmaceutical industry are ventured. On the personal level, what (or whom) we eat, what (or whom) we wear, and whom (or what) we call friends and family hang in the balance. (Our use of pronouns may need an overhaul depending on whether we conclude that animals are things or persons.)

The stakes of bringing animals into philosophical thinking about ethics and politics are mammoth. Indeed, much of the history of philosophy, particularly in ethics and politics, has been dependent on an explicit or implicit commitment to the man-animal dichotomy that defines man against animals.

I have called on philosophy’s animals to bear witness to the ways in which the various animal examples, animal metaphors, and animal studies that populate the history of Western philosophy have been harnessed in order to instruct and support the conceptions of man, human, and kinship central to that thought. Hopefully, doing so not only tears down fences but also reveals how and why those fences were constructed. Can we imagine a “free-range” ethics that breaks out of the self-centered, exclusionary, and domineering notions of individuality, identity, and sovereignty? Considering animals necessarily transforms how we consider ourselves.

In this era of species extinction and shrinking biodiversity, military occupation and expanded torture, record wealth for the few and poverty for the rest, gated-communities and record incarceration, we need a sustainable ethics more than ever. A sustainable ethics is an ethics of limits, an ethics of conservation. Rather than assert our dominion over the earth and its creatures, this ethics obliges us to acknowledge our dependence upon them. It requires us to attend to our response-ability by virtue of that dependence. It is an ethics of the responsibility to enable responses from others, not as it has been defined—as the exclusive property of man (man responds, animals react)—but rather as it exits all around us. All living creatures are responsive.

All of us belong to the earth, not in the sense of property, but rather as inhabitants of a shared planet.

© 2010 Kelly Oliver
Kelly Oliver Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human Columbia University Press 376 pages, 9 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0231147279 ISBN: 978 0231147262

Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of over seventy-five articles and nineteen books, including Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media (2007), The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Oppression (2004), Noir Anxiety: Race, Sex, and Maternity in Film Noir (2002), Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (2001), Subjectivity Without Subjects: From Abject Fathers to Desiring Mothers (1998), and Family Values: Subjects Between Nature and Culture (1997). Her current book project is Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Film and Popular Culture.

Cover Interview of
January 19, 2010