BY JIM MASON
The Key to Coming to Terms With Nature
Conference Workshop—Animal Experimentation: Health, Environment, Law, Ethics
I have chosen to talk to you about the importance of The Animal Question. If you are wondering, the Animal Question is not: “Honey, should we have steak or chicken?”
The Animal Question is shorthand for all of those difficult questions about our views of and our uses of animals. The Animal Question is huge; it underlies all of the discussions that will be held here today.
This conference objective: To discuss some half-dozen or more questions raised about the use of animals in research. To many people, this discussion ought not be held, period. To many others, it might be held so long as it is a nice, safe, intellectual exercise. Because for many people, animals simply do not matter. They exist to serve our needs. We do not have to account for, to justify, to debate, to agonize over our uses of animals.
But animals do matter, and I’m here to tell you how and why.
Mine is NOT an animal rights argument; that is, an argument that animals have life interests. That their lives matter to them. That they deserve some of the same rights as we enjoy, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Mine is a good old-fashioned, selfish, anthropocentric argument. I will try to explain why we need to consider animals, why we need to discuss the Animal Question for our own good.
We start with what has been called the Nature Question. This is shorthand for about 150 years of wondering, worrying, and writing about our place in nature, of questioning our Judeo-Christian—or Western—tradition of seeing ourselves as masters over nature. This has been a burning question for most of the great minds of the past century and a half. Nearly all of the thinkers on the Nature Question write about our “alienation from nature”—our sense of apartness from the living world—as a basic cause of much human misery.
Richard Rubenstein, for example, has explored the role of Western traditions in the Nazi holocaust. The main theme of this short book, The Cunning of History, is that the West’s religion, or worldview, promotes such detachment from the world that we are able to mass-destroy it and each other with neither emotional nor moral qualms. Our agrarian (he calls them Judeo-Christian) cultural traditions set us up to mass-destroy life. He writes,
“When one contrasts the attitude of the savage who cannot leave the battlefield until he performs some kind of appeasement ritual to his slain enemy with the assembly-line manufacture of corpses by the millions at Auschwitz, we get an idea of the enormous religious and cultural distance Western man has traversed in order to create so unique a social and political institution as the death camp.”
This scale of human misery and environmental destruction has brought a pall upon twentieth-century society, one that we try to relieve with drugs, alcohol, television, spectator sports, and other commercially available distractions. Many who have looked carefully at modern society agree with George B. Leonard that “an uncommon and persistent malaise afflicts the advanced industrial nations.” Leonard says it dates at least from WWI. In 20th Century art, film, and poetry, the feeling is expressed that modern life in the high-technology civilization is, after all, sad, lonely, meaningless, and seemingly hopeless. “Here is the hidden price of the material surplus,” wrote Leonard in The Transformation.
“We have been taught in school that increasing human control of the nonhuman world has brought us leisure and art and culture and freedom from want. We have not been taught that control over nature has also meant an equivalent control over individual human beings. We have not been taught that whatever we have gained in dominance has been paid for with the stultification of consciousness, the atrophy of the senses, the withering away of being.”
Other writers have seen much of the same in modern, “developed” society. Max Horkheimer, the founder of the Frankfort School of Philosophy, wrote of the “regression of what once was called civilization,” and predicted that drug epidemics would come to the totally administered society because, “It will be so boring.” Writing in the 1940s, Horkheimer predicted that in the Leisure and Machine Ages meaning would disappear from the world and, “with no spiritual live, people’s need for dreams will be met pharmaceutically.”
Sigmund Freud explored this malaise in Civilization and Its Discontents. We have had a deep and long-standing dissatisfaction with the state of civilization and we have built on and made it worse, Freud wrote. As a result, “we are disappointed, and all our efforts have only produced more stress, more threats, more unhappiness.” Much of it, he noted, arises from our sense of control over the rest of the world.
“Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness, and their mood of anxiety.”
More recently, the late biologist Paul Shepard explored the same themes in his book Nature and Madness. Millennia ago, our early agricultural civilizations “fostered a new sense of human mastery and the extirpation of nonhuman life.” This ethos, he believes, has had serious repercussions for the animal- and nature-informed human mind: “A kind of madness arises from the prevailing nature-conquering, nature-hating, and self- and world-denial.” Shepard stands out among other thinkers on the problem in that he sees animal domestication in particular as the main culprit because it provides powerful models of slavery, exploitation, and monotony of being. In exterminating wildlife to make room for our clone-like food machines, we have mangled diversity in the animal world, and in doing so we have mangled both our model for existence and our link with the living world.
As awareness of our global social and environmental messes grows, we are seeing a torrent of thoughtful books, papers, and editorials, many of which suggest new directions. When reading through this literature, one is struck by how many writers call for “radical” (or words to that effect) changes in our Western worldview. Such words and thoughts are coming from high-ranking political leaders as well as respected scholars.
In March 1992, Vaclav Havel, president of an ethnically divided Czechoslovakia, a former political prisoner of the Communist regime, and thus one who should know, wrote in The New York Times of the social turmoil of the modern era and of impending environmental disaster. “Man’s attitude to the world must be radically changed,” wrote Havel.
Twenty years earlier, California law professor Christopher D. Stone used substantially the same language in a now-famous law review article that has become one of the “bibles” of the environmental movement. Entitled “Should Trees Have Standing?”, Stone wrote of the need for “a radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature.” Stone thought this could help in solving our material planetary problems as well as in “making us far better humans.”
Another bible of modern environmentalism is the 1967 essay by historian Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in which White urged a “rethinking” of “fundamentals,” suggesting that we “find a new religion, or rethink our old one.” He proposed “the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ, Saint Francis of Assisi,” as the “patron saint for ecologists.”
Theologians have called for radical new views. J. Barrie Shepherd, who wrote Theology for Ecology, called for a “totally new attitude” about the world around us. His colleague of the cloth, Larry Rasmussen, called for a “new ethic,” one “less anthropocentric” and “more humble.”
Other professionals continue the line of thought: Lord Kenneth Clark, the art historian, wrote that “What is needed is … a total change in our attitude of mind.” Native American writer Vine Deloria wrote in God is Red: “We face an ecological crisis compounded by a spiritual crisis. We need a radical shift in our world outlook.”
The list could go on and on. One can see part of the litany of famous names and famous books in the book, A Search for Environmental Ethics, published in 1989 by the Smithsonian Institution. Most of its entries indict in some way Western civilization’s secular and religious traditions for our messed-up relations with nature. Whether one reads the complete works of Marston Bates, David Brower, Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Rene Dubos, Anne and Paul Ehrlich, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Roderick Nash, or any of the other environmentalist writers, the message is the same: Humanity needs fundamental changes in its relationship with nature.
After having laid down such strong rhetoric, however, the movers and shakers of conservation and environmentalism, with rare exceptions, stop dead in their tracks when they approach the Animal Question—the whole sticky mess of human views toward, relations with, and uses of animals. This part of the Nature Question is oddly off limits. Should a great thinker step on it accidentally, he or she usually jumps back to safety in the remoteness of discussions about trees or the abstractions of biodiversity and species.
The Animal Question is regarded as illegitimate, silly, peripheral. Those who address it are regarded as emotional, sentimental, neurotic, misguided, and missing the bigger picture of human relations with the living world. One’s importance as a thinker on the Nature Question is measured, in part, by how widely one steers away from the Animal Question.
Now I do not mean to belittle Professor Stone’s contribution to environmental and legal thought; I simply want to show that something major is wrong here. Perhaps I can show it another way by posing this question: How would Professor Stone’s landmark article have been received if he had entitled it “Should Chimpanzees Have Standing?” Probably his reputation would be very different today. I think that Professor Stone and the great majority of our ponderers of the Nature Question are much more comfortable in their relations with trees than they are with animals. This is a sorry state of affairs in both science and law, for in either discipline the case for extending legal protections to chimpanzees is far stronger than it is for trees.
Here is a huge, red flag that needs to be hung in the areas or anthropology, psychology, biology, ethics, humanities, religion, and other disciplines where the Animal Question should be addressed, but isn’t. It is avoided, and where it cannot be avoided it is trivialized. It can hardly be a coincidence that this troublesome Animal Question should be skirted by so many professionals and scholars. Their response would probably be that it IS trivial or peripheral to the larger Nature Question, and so they OUGHT to avoid it.
On the contrary, the Animal Question is the very heart of the Nature Question. For the human mind—which is the sum of human experience—animals have always been the soul, spirit, and embodiment of the living world. To exclude discussion of relations with animals from the discussion of our relations with nature is to exclude the most important part of the discussion. Emotionally, culturally, psychically, symbolically—just about any way you want to measure it—animals are the most vital beings among all the things in the living world. They are fundamental to our worldview; they are central to our sense of existence in this world.
We are fooling ourselves if we think we can deal with the Nature Question without a soul-searching examination of our dealings with animals. That would be about as fair and productive as an attempt to work out a family matter in which one refuses to consider either a spouse or the children.
Let us ask the following question to all of those important thinkers who have proposed “radical” or “fundamental” changes in our worldview and our relations with nature: What does a “radical” or “fundamental” change in worldview mean if it avoids animals—the central, essential beings in the living world—the beings who have always been thought to embody and symbolize the whole of nature?
It is either dishonest or cowardly to call for a sweeping overhaul of the West’s dominionistic worldview and then rigidly avoid the very heart of that worldview.
I will admit that the Animal Question is the biggest and the most disturbing part of the Nature Question, but this is the very reason we have to tackle it. For if we try to steer around the Animal Question, then of course we leave it in place, forever troubling our relations with nature. If we avoid it because it is difficult, then I submit that we will continue to have difficult relations with the living world. If, as the leading thinkers suggest, we need to come to much better terms with nature—the living world—then we must wade into the Animal Question. The very first step is one of recognition—of seeing how basic, how important it is.
The next step is to feel out the barriers—cultural and emotional—that keep us away from the deeper parts of the Animal Question. When we get our feet wet and wade into it, what fears and questions come up? We need to identify these and explore their sources. When we do, we will see that many of them stem from a kind of prejudice, an attitude of hatred and contempt toward animals. I call this attitude Misothery (like misogyny). It is deeply embedded in our agrarian Western culture.
Is this misothery at work, ever trying to keep us a safe distance away from loathsome, bestial nonhuman beings? We need to listen to what the misothery in our minds and culture is saying to us as we enter these murky, forbidden waters. Is it telling us to keep away from a reunion with sinful animality? Why do we fear that?
Do we fear our own collective Beast Within, that it may get loose, run wild, destroy civilization like some internal Godzilla?
Do we fear the recognition that we have much in common with animals? Is that because it might take away from our comforting notions of human uniqueness and supremacy?
Do we fear coming to terms with the violence and injustice now institutionalized in our uses of animals on farms and in laboratories?
These are just a few of the questions and fears our agri-culture raises in our minds as we try to probe the Animal Question. If we seek a genuinely fundamental overhaul of our thinking about our place in the living world, then these must be faced and eventually resolved.
Many of our questions will be materialistic, many others pragmatic. We wonder: What about hamburgers, Thanksgiving dinner, leather jackets? What about the cures for AIDS, cancer, and other terrible diseases? We worry a lot about what we may have to give up if we give the Animal Question too much thought; we worry about how much worse our lives might be. We need to identify these fears and questions, for they, too, are significant barriers to our path of exploration into the Animal Question.
One can simply note them here, without answering them, so that it is possible to move on and map out the whole terrain of the Animal Question. They may seem like big barriers at the moment, but they may not seem so big once we have the larger picture in view. When we have it, then we will be better able to reexamine all of the cost/benefit thinking that crops up whenever any use of animals is brought into question.
With a list of these materialistic, pragmatic questions in hand, then, we move on to a round of questions about the questions: Which are realistic? Which are irrational? To what extent is the agrarian culture’s prejudice and misothery messing up the evaluation process?
How do we put our prejudices and culture aside as we delve into our own prejudices and culture? How do we put existing habits and values aside and try to move impersonally, objectively along the path into the whole, great big Animal Question?
We will probably stumble over fears and questions every step of the way. The point here is to identify them, and to not let them be barriers to exploration and discussion. I believe we must do this if we want to get into the Animal Question, the key to the Nature Question.
There’s much more to be gained than simple integrity and intellectual honesty. We human beings need a better, healthier sense of who we are as a species, and of how we ought to carry on here among the other living beings in the world. We might as well go ahead and say it: We need a better, healthier human spirit.
How do we get it? I suggest that we start with biological realities. We need to start with the facts of life right here on earth. This would help end the miseries of alienation that I talked about before. An honest view of life on the planet would keep us grounded in and bonded with the living world; it would give us a worldview and a spirit of living that is truly natural—that is, of nature.
We are, biologically speaking, creatures of this living world. We ARE animals—one evolutionary result among millions of other kinds of animals. Phylogenetically speaking, we are the youngest children of the great family of animals. It would do us very much good to grow up a bit and learn how to get along with the rest of the family.
Kinship is the biological reality here on earth, yet our Western worldview denies any human kinship to other life. It denigrates our evolutionary next of kin. It makes us hate them and have contempt for them. It keeps us apart from them. Our worldview puts us all alone—alone and over the living world, but not of it, not in it. Our worldview gives us a lonely station over a despicable chaos of animals and nature. No wonder we destroy the living world, no wonder we suffer a malaise of the human spirit.
These are some of the reasons why we must go into the thicket of issues about our views of, and relations with, animals.
Let me tell you another reason why it would be good for us to seriously consider the Animal Question. We start with the recognition that our worldview includes views of not only the living world around us, but of ourselves—as individuals, as sexes, as “races,” as people with all kinds of differences. This side of our worldview includes our ideas about human nature and human existence. Here is where we harbor our ideas about the nature of the human animal. Here we keep all of our basic notions about the nature of human sexuality, maleness, femaleness, physical differences (as in racial differences), and the other physical aspects of life. It includes as well our notions about instinct, temperament, and part of the human behavior we inherit irrespective of culture and learning. Are we by nature aggressive and selfish? Or are we by nature empathetic and social? Or are these extreme ends of a range of possibilities that are shaped by experience and culture?
Notions like these determine our identity as a species, our sense of humanity. They answer the age-old questions: Who are we? What are we? How are we to behave in the world?
The aggregate of these notions is the big notion of—again—the human spirit. This does not mean spirit in the sense of a ghost or a soul—some filmy, white essence that rises out of the body and goes to heaven. This is “spirit” more in the sense of spirit of the times or spirit of a nation: it means essential character or nature.
The human spirit in this sense depends, then, on the various notions of which it is made up, many of which are notions about animality—our own and that of animals who inform us and give us models. If we see the animal world as we have—that is, full of vicious, oversexed, predatory beasts driven by raw, selfish instinct—then these models will shape our sense of ourselves, our human being. These prejudices, which I have called misothery, will make up the bulk of our bigger notion of the human spirit.
In conclusion: We need to stop avoiding the Animal Question. We very much need a “radical” or “fundamental” overhaul of our whole set of ideas about animals and animality. We need to do so because this set of ideas is so basic to our worldview. We need to do so because our ideas about animals and animality determine so much of our views of life—of human life, of the life around us, and of our place in the living world.