The Death of the Animal

The Death of the Animal: A Dialogue

Paola Cavalieri
Foreword by Peter Singer
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 168
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/cava14544
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  • Book Info
    The Death of the Animal
    Book Description:

    While moral perfectionists rank conscious beings according to their cognitive abilities, Paola Cavalieri launches a more inclusive defense of all forms of subjectivity. In concert with Peter Singer, J. M. Coetzee, Harlan B. Miller, and other leading animal studies scholars, she expands our understanding of the nonhuman in such a way that the derogatory category of "the animal" becomes meaningless. In so doing, she presents a nonhierachical approach to ethics that better respects the value of the conscious self.

    Cavalieri opens with a dialogue between two imagined philosophers, laying out her challenge to moral perfectionism and tracing its influence on our attitudes toward the "unworthy." She then follows with a roundtable "multilogue" which takes on the role of reason in ethics and the boundaries of moral status. Coetzee, Nobel Prize winner for Literature and author of The Lives of Animals, emphasizes the animality of human beings; Miller, a prominent analytic philosopher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, dismantles the rationalizations of human bias; Cary Wolfe, professor of English at Rice University, advocates an active exposure to other worlds and beings; and Matthew Calarco, author of Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida, extends ethical consideration to entities that traditionally have little or no moral status, such as plants and ecosystems.

    As Peter Singer writes in his foreword, the implications of this conversation extend far beyond the issue of the moral status of animals. They "get to the heart of some important differences about how we should do philosophy, and how philosophy can relate to our everyday life." From the divergences between analytical and continental approaches to the relevance of posthumanist thinking in contemporary ethics, the psychology of speciesism, and the practical consequences of an antiperfectionist stance, The Death of the Animal confronts issues that will concern anyone interested in a serious study of morality.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51823-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    PETER SINGER

    As plato so ably demonstrated, the dialogue form is well suited to philosophy. In the context of a more or less natural exchange between two inquiring minds, it enables the author to develop a position while forestalling possible misunderstandings and dealing with likely objections. In the first third of this book, Paola Cavalieri uses her dialogue to develop an objection to the idea that because some conscious beings have certain desirable or important characteristics that others lack, or have these characteristics to a higher degree, they have a higher moral status. This aspect of our thought, which Cavalieri calls “perfectionism,”...

  5. The Death of the Animal: A Dialogue on Perfectionism
    (pp. 1-42)
    PAOLA CAVALIERI

    THEO: Hi, Alexandra—already at work?

    Alexandra: Hi Theo—not quite—oh, well, in a sense . . . I am reflecting. And looking at something that reflects . . .

    T: Do you mean the sea?

    A: Yes. But please, Theo, sit down. It’s a beautiful morning.

    T: (sitting by her side) Thus, reflecting on what?

    A: On ethics—to be a little formal: on the question of what is right or what ought to be, so far as this depends upon our voluntary action. . . . Do you think that ethics can be perfected?

    T: Well, in...

  6. Roundtable I
    • Humanist and Posthumanist Antispeciesism
      (pp. 45-58)
      CARY WOLFE

      I’m not a philosopher, much less an analytic philosopher, so I’ve never had much use—even less, perhaps, than Paola Cavalieri herself—for the idea of “moral perfectionism.” For a nonphilosopher who isn’t invested in the technical nuances thereof, the term itself is bound to sound, well, a little self-flattering—a fantasy, even, that the “human” has of itself (a point I’ll return to in a moment). To paraphrase Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, philosophers who take such a term seriously are bound to find sooner or later (and we hope it is sooner) that their ideas are too good...

    • No Escape
      (pp. 59-72)
      HARLAN B. MILLER

      Alexandra leads Theo toward the rejection of perfectionism with a number of mutually reinforcing arguments and analogies, from both philosophy and history. Theo is an intelligent man, sufficiently intelligent to see that following her to the end would require substantial changes in his life. And of course he has been around long enough to realize that not every plausible argument is in fact sound, and to hope that he can avoid her conclusion, or at least the inconvenient consequences.

      I propose to demonstrate to Theo that there is no escape and that even if we grant, without argument, priority to...

    • Toward an Agnostic Animal Ethics
      (pp. 73-84)
      MATTHEW CALARCO

      There are a number of things about Paola Cavalieri’s writings¹ that I admire and with which I am in near complete agreement. I want to begin here by briefly articulating these points. I do so, however, not with the aim of developing a kind of homoiōsis between our respective positions, but rather in order to elaborate more precisely where my approach to animal ethics, which is informed by recent work in both analytic and continental philosophy, differs from hers; and create the space within which a critical exchange about the larger stakes of animal ethics can occur.

      Like Cavalieri, I...

    • Comments on Paola Cavalieri, “A Dialogue on Perfectionism”
      (pp. 85-86)
      JOHN M. COETZEE

      Let us reflect on Alexandra and Theodore, the two interlocutors in this dialogue, and on the form of their exchange.

      A and T are children of Socrates, not only in the way in which they speak but also in the relationship they have with each other. Whatever may go on between them once they have stepped off the page, on the page they exhibit an amicability of a rather bloodless and certainly sexless nature. They speak fluently, at times eloquently, but never with heat.

      Their inhuman calm, which is of a piece with their unvarying rationality, is accompanied by an...

  7. II
    • Notes on Issues Raised by Matthew Calarco
      (pp. 89-92)
      JOHN M. COETZEE

      We (participants in this dialogue) are where we are today not because once upon a time we read a book that convinced us that there was a flaw in the thinking underlying the way that we, collectively, treat nonhuman animals, but because in each of us there took place something like a conversion experience, which, being educated people who place a premium on rationality, we then proceeded to seek backing for in the writings of thinkers and philosophers.

      Our conversion experience as often as not centered on some other mute appeal of the kind that Levinas calls the look, in...

    • Pushing Things Forward
      (pp. 93-110)
      PAOLA CAVALIERI

      The dialogue is the form rational ethics assumed when it first appeared in ancient Greece. Any attempt to reckon with our tradition should therefore start from this form, which, far from showing any need to be “completed,” is a philosophical archetype. The dialogue is the son of the enigma—the “próblema” through which the god’s hostility intrudes into the human sphere—and the father of discursive thinking—the agonistic encounter between reasoning individuals set in motion by a question in alternative form.¹ The art of dialectics, whose seeds can be traced back to pre-Sophistic eras, can plausibly be seen as...

    • Distracting Difficulties
      (pp. 111-118)
      HARLAN B. MILLER

      It is easy to overstate the contrast between the analytic and the continental flavors of philosophy. The clumsiness of the distinction is apparent in the very labels, one by method and the other by geography. It is often a matter more of style than content, of family resemblances, as Calarco rightly says, with various hybrids and overlaps. Wittgenstein is usually put on the analytic side of the ledger, but he is surely as oracular and perplexing as any figure in the continentals list.

      But there is one frequent difference that is noteworthy here: the view of the relation between philosophy...

    • On Appetite, the Right to Life, and Rational Ethics
      (pp. 119-122)
      JOHN M. COETZEE

      (1) when one is misunderstood it is usually because one has expressed oneself badly. So let me reiterate: there are human beings who, pushed into a corner, may be induced to say that it is the possession of reason that defines humanity, but who prefer not to be pushed into corners, and who at other moments in their lives, sometimes through words but far more often through their behavior, give expression to a conviction that we are most ourselves (meaning specifically that we as human beings are most ourselves) when we are living ourselves out most fully, or, as I...

    • “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”
      (pp. 123-134)
      CARY WOLFE

      I’d like to begin with a joke, whose relevance to the current discussion will, I hope, become clear in due course:

      A guy walks into his doctor’s office one day and says, “Doc, I don’t know exactly how to tell you this, but I’m dead. I know it sounds weird, and I really can’t believe it myself, but I’m dead, I just know it.”

      The doctor replies, “C’mon, Bill, what do you mean you’re dead? You’re sitting here talking to me right now, aren’t you? Don’t be ridiculous. You’re as alive as I am.”

      The patient shakes his head and...

    • Between Life and Rights
      (pp. 135-138)
      MATTHEW CALARCO

      John Coetzee’s initial response to Cavalieri’s dialogue suggests that her critique of perfectionism itself is an instance of performative perfectionism, inasmuch as it advocates for and grants a higher value to a life of reason that is closed to most human and nonhuman animals. A further problem, as Coetzee notes, is that individuals like Alexandra and Theo who live this kind of “bloodless” and “sexless” life apparently know nothing about “brawling and guzzling and fucking,” any more than they know the pleasures of hunting and eating animal flesh. Thus, even though the “upper intelligentsia” might grant higher value to this...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 139-150)