Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents

Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents: The Moral Status of Animals in the History of Western Philosophy

Copyright Date: 2005
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    Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents
    Book Description:

    Anthropocentrism and Its Discontentsis the first-ever comprehensive examination of views of animals in the history of Western philosophy, from Homeric Greece to the twentieth century.In recent decades, increased interest in this area has been accompanied by scholars' willingness to conceive of animal experience in terms of human mental capacities: consciousness, self-awareness, intention, deliberation, and in some instances, at least limited moral agency. This conception has been facilitated by a shift from behavioral to cognitive ethology (the science of animal behavior), and by attempts to affirm the essential similarities between the psychophysical makeup of human beings and animals.Gary Steiner sketches the terms of the current debates about animals and relates these to their historical antecedents, focusing on both the dominant anthropocentric voices and those recurring voices that instead assert a fundamental kinship relation between human beings and animals. He concludes with a discussion of the problem of balancing the need to recognize a human indebtedness to animals and the natural world with the need to preserve a sense of the uniqueness and dignity of the human individual.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7098-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-XII)
    (pp. 1-3)

    The pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes said that “if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.”¹ The fact that the Greeks drew their gods as likenesses of human beings reveals their anthropocentrism, the view that human beings are primary and central in the order of things. Philosophers in the West conceptualize the human condition as a middle station between animality...

    (pp. 4-37)

    Martha Nussbaum concludes her review discussion of Steven Wise’sRattling the Cagewith the observation that the moral status of animals “is an area in which we will ultimately need good theories to winnow our judgments because our judgments are so flawed and shot through with self-serving inconsistency.”¹ The clearest sign that such theories are needed is that, often against their proponents’ best intentions, the leading contemporary theories of the moral status of animals ultimately privilege the interests of human beings over nonhuman animals. Academic philosophers use such terms as “robust” to characterize theories that are well grounded, persuasive, and...

    (pp. 38-52)

    Carol J. Adams wroteThe Sexual Politics of Meat“in memory of six billion each year, 16 million each day, 700,000 each hour, 11,500 each minute.”¹ What is most shocking about these numbers is not that they open our eyes to the extent of factory farming of animals for human consumption, but that they are an underestimation. In 1994, in North America alone sevenbillionbroiler chickens were slaughtered for human consumption.² In the United States, one hundred thousand cattle are slaughtered daily.³ The use of animals to satisfy human needs is firmly entrenched in our culture’s value system. The...

  7. 3 ARISTOTLE AND THE STOICS: The Evolution of a Cosmic Principle
    (pp. 53-92)

    Richard Sorabji opens his study of ancient views of animals with the powerful claim that “a crisis was provoked when Aristotle denied reason to animals.”¹ None of the pre-Socratic thinkers make any rigorous distinction between faculties of the soul such as understanding and perception. They all acknowledge differences between human beings and animals, but they do not see human reason as the sign of an essential distinction between the two. Instead they either emphasize the commonality of humans and animals (this was particularly the case for exponents of metempsychosis), or they base their arguments for differential treatment of human beings...

  8. 4 CLASSICAL DEFENSES OF ANIMALS: Plutarch and Porphyry
    (pp. 93-111)

    The Stoics leave us with a view of animals as possessing merely instrumental value in the cosmos. The experiential capacities of animals are fundamentally inferior to those of rational beings, and as nonrational beings animals exist only for the sake of rational beings. It follows from this cosmic principle that animals are excluded entirely from the sphere of right. When the later Stoic Seneca deplores the delight that people take in watching their dinner of surmullet die at the dinner table, his moral outrage is not due to any transgression against the dignify of surmullets; the canonical Stoic position is...

    (pp. 112-131)

    In 1967 Lynn White initiated a firestorm of controversy when he published “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” In that essay, White argues that the book of Genesis sanctions the wholesale exploitation of nature for the sake of human welfare. All of creation was made “explicitly for man’s benefit and rule.” Building on this anthropocentric commitment, Christianity “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends…. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to...

    (pp. 132-152)

    For centuries a certain conventional wisdom prevailed concerning Descartes’s views about animals. He was long assumed to maintain not simply that animals are morally inferior to human beings, but that they are in fact due no moral obligations whatsoever. On this view, Descartes was able to justify such practices as vivisection on the grounds that nonhuman animals are mere machines. Scientists need have no moral scruple about cutting up live animals because animals have no souls, and their shrieks of what would appear to be pain are nothing but purely mechanical responses on the part of creatures with no experiential...

    (pp. 153-171)

    Descartes and the Christian medieval thinkers address the problem of animal suffering in different ways. The Christian tradition acknowledges animal suffering but sees it as an inevitable consequence of human dominion. Acts of cruelty are prohibited, but only on the grounds that such treatment is ultimately bad for human relations. Descartes treats animal suffering as a pseudoproblem by arguing that animals are mechanisms and therefore not sentient. The views of the leading philosophers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reflect dissatisfaction with Descartes’s strict dualism and recognition that Aquinas’s views on animal capacities merit further consideration. These philosophers agree that...

  12. 8 CONCEPTIONS OF CONTINUITY: Schopenhauer, Darwin, and Schweitzer
    (pp. 172-201)

    Kant’s transcendental turn brings with it the denial that we can know the inner nature of reality, and this means that we cannot purport toknowthat the soul (or God, or anything outside the physical realm) exists. Kant treats notions such as the mind and human freedom as transcendental conditions for the possibility of experience and scientific knowledge, that is, these are theformsthat the coherent experience of nature and ourselves always take. Thus, for example, we cannot prove that we are free, but instead freedom is the necessary presupposition of a viable ethics—freedom is the precondition...

    (pp. 202-222)

    The confrontation between the liberal humanist and Romantic conceptions of animals poses a central problem for contemporary environmental ethics: The tension between human self-assertion and the sense that we are part of a larger cosmic whole seems irreducible; and yet as long as this tension remains unresolved, the moral status of animals will remain critically problematic. On the one hand, we have the claims of liberal thought, according to which, following the trajectory initiated by Aristotle and the Stoics, animals at best possess inferior moral status vis-à-vis human beings (Mill), and at worst no intrinsic moral status whatsoever (Kant). On...

    (pp. 223-252)

    In the history of Western philosophy, capacities play a primary role in reflections on the moral status of animals. Expressions of a sense of kinship with animals recur throughout that history as well. A combination of the capacities and kinship approaches provides a basis for overcoming the limitations and confusions in the contemporary debates about animals.

    Near the end ofAnimal Minds and Human Morals, Richard Sorabji asks whether any one philosophical theory or viewpoint is capable of adequately grounding our sense of the moral status of animals. After discussing the views of Regan, Singer, and others, Sorabji concludes that...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 253-310)
    (pp. 311-324)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 325-332)