Arne Johan Vetlesen / “There is nothing now but kestrel”

In his Lectures on Ethics, Immanuel Kant tells us that “so far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man. We can ask, “Why do animals exist?” But to ask, “Why does man exist?” is a meaningless question”. 

    Kant is in no doubt that animals are utterly different from humans, different in the morally crucial sense of classifying them as means and humans as ends. Their usefulness to humans provides the answer to the question why animals exist. Without humans, then, there would be no point to the existence of animals on earth. In holding this opinion, Kant takes is for granted that everything of importance and value about the existence of animals is inseparable from their co-existence with humans, inseparable in the strong sense of being derived from it. Outside the constellation with their “others” – us humans – their existence holds no philosophical interest for Kant. The fact that a considerable number of species of animals existed prior to the emergence of homo sapiens on planet Earth is not something that Kant dwells upon, placing them in a void where they have no way of mattering.

    This is not to suggest that animals, precisely in their co-existence with humans taken for granted by Kant, are not important to him. In fact, their absence would make for a sort of moral deprivation. Why? Following the statement cited above, Kant observes that “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals”; indeed, humans should endeavor to be kind to animals, “for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men” (1930: 240). In other words, the presence of animals in the lives of humans is important in providing individual human persons with a relationship with a species “other”, a relationship that is conducive to the cultivation of virtues appropriate in the dealings with fellow human persons, considered as the only carriers of moral status, of intrinsic worth. Animals are a means to this end, a go-between for the individuals who are the only genuine parties to a moral relationship.

    In her seminal essay “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts”, the British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, writing almost two hundred years after Kant’s lectures, shares the following experience with her readers:

“I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered, The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. […] We take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.” (Murdoch 1970: 84, 85)

    Murdoch takes this experience as her starting-point for exploring “moral change”, holding it to be “the most accessible one”, presumably because the experience is of a kind that will be eminently familiar to her readers. In speaking about moral change, Murdoch may seem to approach the importance of animals in the lives of humans in a way similar to Kant’s, highlighting the cultivating role that animals may play for us in our capacity as moral agents. But this similarity is misleading. Before sharing her experience of seeing the kestrel, Murdoch submits that “beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of experience and change of consciousness” (1970: 84). Hers then is not first and foremost a moral interest in the kind of change that experiencing, say, an animal like a kestrel may bring about, but an aesthetic one, allowing an access to, and a deep appreciation of, beauty understood as “something which art and nature share”. 

    To be sure, Kant is no foreigner to the affinity between art and nature that Murdoch points to, devoting an important section of his Critique of Judgment to it under the heading “the sublime”. “Nature is beautiful”, writes Kant, “because it looks like art, and art can only be called beautiful if we are conscious of it as art while yet it looks like nature” (1951 [1790]:149). But individual animals like Murdoch’s kestrel play no vital part in Kant’s account. And in fact, Murdoch too soon moves to other examples than those provided by animals. “Good art”, she contends, “reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolute random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form”; it “shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision”. Good art, then, “is something pre-eminently outside us and resistant to our consciousness. We surrender ourselves to its authority with a love which is unpossessive and unselfish” (1970: 86, 88). Being what Murdoch describes as “a kind of goodness by proxy”, art helps us “transcend selfish and obsessive limitations of personality”, thus enlarging the sensibility of the human subject (87). Attention, or looking, looking properly and deeply, is absolutely crucial for Murdoch, not only to grasp beauty but to orient oneself morally, to grasp and do justice to what really matters: “If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at” (40). In this spirit, inspired by Plato, virtue is “au fond the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature”, showing art and morals to be “two aspects of a single struggle” rather than in conflict (41).

    What became of the “self-forgetful pleasure” that we according to Murdoch take in “the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and tress”? What happened to the animals?

    Before trying to answer that question, notice a big difference between what Murdoch and Kant say about animals: Murdoch does not hold their not being self-conscious against them like Kant does, using that alleged deficit as a justification for viewing animals as merely a means to an end, that is, the end(s) represented and pursued by humans and humans only. Quite the contrary, in fact: the kestrel that Murdoch sees hovering when looking out of her window exemplifies “the sheer alien pointless independent existence” of animals in general. That the kestrel’s existence is aptly described in these exact terms is what we are invited to think of as what endows it with the value Murdoch recognizes in it, as inseparable from it, so that if we don’t see these features as meriting our admiration, our self-forgetful pleasure in their sheer existence, Murdoch will urge us to look again, and again, if necessary. 

    The deeper meaning of the difference between their views is more subtle, though. It is not that Murdoch refuses to go along with Kant in holding animals’ lack of being self-conscious against them; rather, it is that the self-consciousness or lack of such of animals does not enter Murdoch’s experience, and her valuation of that experience, at all. What makes such a big and morally crucial difference to Kant makes no difference whatsoever to Murdoch. Does she think that the kestrel she sees is self-conscious? We don’t know – she doesn’t say. Her not saying means that the possession or lack of such of this particular property is not part of what is important about the kestrel. What is important, then? Its sheer alien pointless independent existence.

    By far, I take the most intriguing part of Murdoch’s description to be her matter-of-factly remark: “There is nothing now but kestrel.” No further explanation is offered; it is as if this “nothing but” is self-explanatory. Having turned her attention, meaning full-fledged, concentrated attention, to the kestrel, it commands all Murdoch’s powers of attention: the possession of that ability is the gift it is endowed with, being the crux of what an animal like a kestrel can do, can be, once given the chance. And since it has, in and of itself, what it takes to command attention in this profound fashion, we may speak about a before and an after: there is Murdoch’s state of mind before noticing the bird outside her window, and there is her state of mind afterwards, being an altogether altered one.

    Mary Midgley, philosopher and lifelong friend of Murdoch’s, and a key figure in this book, makes a comment worth mentioning here: “If we found that we were in Disneyland, with plastic kestrels going up at carefully randomized intervals, [Murdoch’s] entire point would be lost” (1995: 346). Evidently, Midgley sees no need to explain, let alone argue her point: it goes without saying that the distinction between the kestrel observed by Murdoch and artificial ones is clear-cut and compelling for everyone, and that real kestrels such as encountered in nature possess an ability to instill awe and admiration in us that is wholly lacking in kestrels made of plastic.

    Philosophically, the distinction in play derives from the venerable one known to us since Plato and Aristotle, that between the grown and the made, whereby the grown – say, a bird such as a kestrel – exhibits an independence of being vis-à-vis us humans not found in the made, having been brought into existence by us and in order to serve some human-oriented purpose, as exemplified in the making of plastic kestrels: their very existence depends on us. True, we may admire what we have made, whereby works of art (Murdoch) certainly strike us as more worthy objects than, say, plastic kestrels. In either case, however, the admiration for such objects entails in no small measure admiration for their makers: look, and appreciate what humans are capable of creating.

    This is the dimension I take Murdoch to throw into sharp relief when picking the exact words cited above: “the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees”. The selected words all underscore that the things she directs our attention to here are precisely not of our making – this holds not only for their sheer existence, but – fundamentally – for the way in which they exist, the how of their distinct being in the world. True, she adds a thought I haven’t cited yet, namely: “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystical” (85). That may well be, but for my purposes the how – say, of a bird like the kestrel – is not secondary in importance to the that

    As for the how of animals, one may question whether the words of description used by Murdoch are as “objective” as her version of Plato-inspired objectivism aspires to be. Can we really say that the existence of animals is “alien”? Or “pointless”? Alien and pointless for whom, from whose point of view? Surely depicting their existence like this presupposes a particular point of view, particular in a sense giving the lie to the ambition of objectivity – namely, the point of view peculiar to humans. As for the animals themselves – can we say that their existence is alien, is pointless, to them? Shall we reply that “it depends”, depends on their possession of specific capacities, such as self-consciousness (Kant), in which case we may be willing to grant that some animals are able to experience their existence as meaningful (if that is the alternative to pointless), whereas others are not? And what about “alien”? If anything, isn’t the existence of nonhuman animals like birds the most natural thing there is? If depicted as alien, doesn’t that say something about us and our particular point of view, and nothing about the birds? 

    This may sound abstract and academic, but it’s not. The conditions under which animals live their lives are rapidly and drastically changing. Philosophers’ predilection for examining their selected entities in a once-and-for-all manner, sub specie aeternitatis, comes up short in a situation like the present one, affecting not only how animals live their lives, but increasingly also whether the form of life they represent will go on existing at all. Notwithstanding the many quarrels among philosophers over the correct description of properties taken to distinguish animals from humans, or one type of animal from others, the sheer continued presence of animals on earth is being taken for granted, unanimously. The constellation humans/animals, empirically and not only analytically understood, has been a constant, allowing for the assessment of alterations among the factors that do change, such as the geographical and numerical distribution of animals classified as wild, domestic, and pets. That there will be animals as long as there are humans, providing us with direct experiential access to our so-called “others”, has never been in doubt – doubting it would seem so fanciful as to not be worth the exercise.

    These days, it is not our inability to doubt the possible future absence of animals that deserves attention, but our inability – unwillingness – to recognize their disappearance even when staring it in the face. Perhaps this inability is not first and foremost a philosophical phenomenon but rather a psychological, sociological, or ideological one, suitable to the sort of inquiries that the disciplines thus alluded to will help us undertake. If we have difficulties recognizing the novel historical fact that animals – some types of them more than others, and some more rapidly than others – are disappearing, denial might be a better term than inability, as borne out in the title of my previous book The Denial of Nature (2015). Or perhaps we need to take a more long-term view on how it has come about that nonhuman “others” such as animals are seen as acceptable casualties of what we, generally speaking, welcome as progress, making the losses occurring along the way worth it, if not for the affected animals, then for us humans – a notion at the heart of the book preceding this one, Cosmologies of the Anthropocene (2019). 

Philosophers’ predilection for examining their selected entities in a once-and-for-all manner, sub specie aeternitatis, comes up short in a situation like the present one, affecting not only how animals live their lives, but increasingly also whether the form of life they represent will go on existing at all.

    What was Kant thinking when he said that animals “are there merely as a means to an end”, and “that end is man”? Are we now witnessing the utterly concrete consequences of acting – collectively, as a culture and society – in accordance with his matter-of-factly sounding assertion, one that drew little, if any, critical attention at the time? Or would putting it like this, in terms of a charge involving some portion of responsibility, be to do Kant an injustice, attributing an importance to his philosophical view about the relationship between humans and animals that is simply inappropriate, greatly exaggerating its historical impact? More to the point is perhaps to observe that he did not, and could not, foresee the situation we’re in, having for centuries treated most animals as are they merely a means to our human ends, dispensable at that. While kindness to animals reflects the existence of a properly social and moral individual, according to Kant, viewing and treating them in that spirit and for that purpose leaves them without any proper protection, philosophically as well as practically. 

    In speaking about the disappearance of animals, showing beyond reasonable doubt that their future existence can no longer be taken for granted, what precisely am I referring to?

    No longer is there anything new under the sun about newspaper articles that inform us that “researchers warned last year that two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction”, explaining that “climate change is disrupting hundreds of bird species” (The Guardian Weekly 15 January 2021: 31). A comprehensive study led by Professor of Ecology Gerardo Ceballos, using a sample of 27 600 terrestrial vertebrate species, and a more detailed analysis of 177 mammal species, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July 2017, offers the following summary: “The biological annihilation we now observe will without doubt have severe ecological, economic, and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay an exceptionally high price for the ongoing decimation of the only habitat we know in the universe. The situation is so critical that it would be unethical not to use strong words” (Ceballos et al. 2017: 3). The scientists continue: “Dwindling population sizes and range shrinkages amount to a massive anthropogenic erosion of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services essential to civilization. […] The ultimate drivers of the immediate causes of biotic destruction [are] human overpopulation and overconsumption, especially by the rich. These drivers, all of which trace to the fiction that perpetual growth can occur on a finite planet, are themselves increasing rapidly. All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.” (Ceballos et al. 2017: 7, 8)

    Thus the disappearance of animals that I spoke about above is part of a bigger picture: biological annihilation, a novel term marking a novel historical situation. With regard to animals, this means their ongoing decimation, eventually extinction. That’s where the scientists tell us we are heading.

    Since this is a book written by a philosopher, not a natural scientist, I shall not concentrate on numbers, knowing full well that some sorts of animals see a numerical increase (say, livestock), while others are becoming so few and far between as to be on the brink of extinction – partly because losing their habitat to the ever-expanding areas cleared for livestock. Indeed, to talk in general fashion about “animals” is hopelessly inaccurate. Not only do various sorts of animals exhibit an enormous heterogeneity as far as their capacities and ways of moving and being in the world are concerned. Different animals also face very different futures, often as a result of how differently some of them are treated by humans as compared with other animals. The arbitrariness to which we subject animals as members of what we hail as a scientifically informed, rationality-oriented society is staggering – if anything, it is more conspicuous today than in earlier epochs and in non-Western cultures, not less. Melanie Challenger puts it well: “The golden retriever that sleeps at the foot of someone’s bed is no more intelligent or special than the pig they may have eaten earlier that day. But the retriever is in partnership with a human. What the dog and the pig have in common is that their worth has been arbitrarily given on the basis of the relationship a human wants with them” (2021: 90). Literally, the way the human party defines the relationship is nothing less than a life and death issue for the animal in question: “The dog and the man are friends, and so the dog is given identity and a mind, of sorts. The pig, just as sentient and sensitive a creature, can be rendered unconscious, hung from an overhead rail and slit behind their jowl to sever both jugular and carotid” (ibid.). 

    But it’s not only that we are notoriously inconsistent in the way we discriminate between animals, maintaining best-friends attachment to the comparatively less intelligent retriever and having the more intelligent pig for dinner, making a mockery of the longstanding notion that intelligence is what counts. At a more basic level, the division that matters most and that never ceases to cut the deepest, both ways, is the generic and general one: humans versus animals, us versus them. As Challenger observes in How to Be Animal, “many people don’t like to be reminded that we are animals, so much so that we may unconsciously rebel against anything that seems to place us in this category” (2021: 177). At bottom, then, the differentiation that really matters is not in degree but in kind, thus reversing Darwin’s famous formula, as we shall see: it is an either/or, being human or being animal, as were the two mutually exclusive. If progress, the onward march of civilization, is about overcoming the limits of nature, attaining mastery over natural forces we previously were at the mercy of, then we will become increasingly intolerant in the face of conditions to do with the aging, ultimately the death of our bodies, intolerant when faced with the frailty of our existence as vulnerable and mortal beings, that is, as beings that share these features with our species others, animals, meaning with what we are so keen to maintain we are not.

    But, we may ask, what is specifically human, if not the ambition to escape the conditions reserved for all other Earthborn creatures, animals in particular? Animals are stuck with their natural being, are they not? Stuck with and forever condemned to their ever-renewed but essentially static live and let die, to their mortality in particular, to given conditions in a way precluding any attempt to break free from them. Nourished by an ever-increasing sense of mastery, of expanding the range of control thanks to advances in science and technology, we modern humans see less reason than ever to surrender to natural forces, indeed to surrender anything at all. The result is that the perceived difference between us and animals – dynamic us, static them; culture us, nature them – grows bigger and deeper. In this perspective, the whole point about animals being radically different from us and everything that we consider most distinctive and most important about us – intelligence in particular – works normatively and not just descriptively: the differences made to matter most are always and invariably to the detriment of the animals.

    Why does it matter whether we look upon animals first and foremost through the lens of difference from us, or through the lens of similarity? Factually, both approaches will get some things right, and overlook others. If differences appear to outweigh similarities, what follows? Traditionally, within Western thought and mentality, differences are to our gain qua humans, showing up what animals lack that we have, advanced cognitive abilities being the prime example. But why should the fact that birds (all sorts of them) are less adept than us humans at discussing abstract ideas and writing novels count as more important than the fact that birds can fly and we cannot? That they can navigate, down to the exact square meter, travels between continents thousands of miles apart? If anything, isn’t the arbitrariness shown in how we compare various types of animals with ourselves even more striking than the arbitrariness mentioned above in how we compare one sort of animal with another, such as the dog we call “man’s best friend” and the pig we have for dinner? And isn’t the first arbitrariness even more questionable than the second, in that it seeks to establish a categorical division between humans and (all sorts of) animals of utmost moral, legal, and political import, namely in reserving the status “end in in themselves” (or inherent worth) to humans, denying it to animals, notwithstanding how they excel in being capable of doing things we cannot?

If progress, the onward march of civilization, is about overcoming the limits of nature, attaining mastery over natural forces we previously were at the mercy of, then we will become increasingly intolerant in the face of conditions to do with the aging, ultimately the death of our bodies, intolerant when faced with the frailty of our existence as vulnerable and mortal beings, that is, as beings that share these features with our species others, animals, meaning with what we are so keen to maintain we are not.

    Of course, in saying this I make a point that has been made over and over again since Jeremy Bentham’s assertion that “The question is not Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” (1948 [1789]: 311), inspiring Peter Singer’s ground-breaking Animal Liberation. Even so, this book will pursue a different approach than the capacities-oriented one central to the discussion that Singer’s modern classic has helped define for almost fifty years. Although I agree that if we attempt to assess the moral status of animals in terms of capacities, suffering is by far a better candidate than “reason” or speech, my interest in animals lies elsewhere.

    To see where this leads, consider again Murdoch’s statement about “the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees”. As indicated above, to speak of the existence of animals as “alien” and “pointless” betrays a peculiarly human point of view, yet one less intuitively true about how humans view animals than Murdoch seems to think. Even if we grant that people in the contemporary Western society Murdoch takes to be her audience consider the existence of animals “alien” and “pointless”, their doing so is far from a self-evident fact. Rather, it makes for a conspicuous break with how animals have been viewed in Western societies in the past, besides making for an even more striking contrast with how animals have been, and still are, perceived in non-Western cultures studied by anthropologists and for the most part ignored by philosophers. 

    Murdoch shows no interest in how animals view their own existence. How plausible is it that they will agree with Murdoch’s human, all-too-human depiction of it as something “alien” and “pointless”? Even if it strikes humans (or some of us) as alien, can it really be held to be so to the animals themselves? Hardly. If anything, the existence of humans, and the ways in which we conduct ourselves, lacking such an elementary ability as that of flying, will appear alien to the animals, especially perhaps, by way of comparison, to birds, the one type of animals mentioned specifically by Murdoch. Speaking from experience, I am in no doubt that, say, the crow in my garden finds my existence and ways of behaving alien, full of contradictions and raising lots of questions about the possession of the kinds of capacities we identify (in ourselves only) as reason and advanced intelligence; whereas for other sorts of animals, such as the retriever, our behavior qua humans will appear as the most familiar thing in the world, inseparable from their lifeworld qua dogs. 

    This is not only a reminder of the massive limits to talking about “animals” in a general sense. To observe how enormously animals differ among themselves when it comes to what defines the world(s) they inhabit is important in its own right, showing the limits to the relative-to-humans perspective that Murdoch exemplifies, understood as the rule, not the exception. Having said this, Murdoch clearly values the existence of animals as something “alien” and “pointless”, experiencing it as something genuinely positive – that their existence strikes us like this does not detract from its splendor, its enriching the world. To the contrary, being – from a human point of view – pointless may be said to be the whole point about there being animals in the world.

    Why is it that the whole point of the existence of animals is borne out by their striking us as pointless in Murdoch’s sense? What does pointless mean? One possible answer is: without purpose. Or to be more precise: without a purpose accessible to, graspable for, us humans, or (more pragmatically put) without a purpose that seems useful to us, thus manifesting a limit on our part and not on that of animals, a limit to what we may hope to understand and to what we recognize as useful. There is, I think, something admirable about this view in that it departs from the culturally entrenched notion that the possession of a purpose, or the role in helping realize some purpose (be it one that is more manifest in other entities or creatures), is a requirement for having value and for meriting respect for what it – say, a kestrel or a crow – is in its own right. Indeed, the point can be put more strongly still: that there be, and continue to exist, creatures in the world that are admirable and valuable in themselves irrespective of and independently from the means-ends framework to which the notion of purpose is wedded (at least in modern Western philosophy and cultural mentality) – that is what is truly important about them, meaning animals in this case.

    I think that this is a better answer to Kant’s question “Why do animals exist?” than the one given by Kant in his lectures on ethics, tied as it is to the means-end nexus, unable and unwilling to grant animals an importance other than being means to human ends. What is more, the question Kant considers meaningless – “Why does man exist?” – is a very good one, not only from the point of view of the animals treated as mere means by this relatively recent species on planet Earth, but also, I will argue, for a growing number of humans today. Indeed, the question why we exist, understood not only as a metaphysical one that in a sense must remain speculative, but also as a question about our moral status, a status very much borne out in how we act upon a denial to accord that status to any other creatures than ourselves, is presently assuming a meaning and an urgency Kant could not anticipate. Let me put it like this: the way we as a society have treated animals in the recent past compels us to pose anew the question of who we are, and of what our role as one species among so many others should be, having seen ourselves as entitled to a set of behaviors that have led to the biological annihilation described by Ceballos and his colleagues. 

    Having commented on Murdoch’s use of the words “alien” and “pointless” to describe the existence of animals, something must be said about the third concept she uses, namely “independent”.

    For my purposes in this book, the issue of independence is more important than the other two, being less metaphysical and more literal. Now if I say that in my perspective the main thing about animals is their independence from us humans, the response will probably be that in taking such a view I greatly, and problematically, restrict the kinds of animals I am talking about, qualitatively as well as numerically. Well, that is exactly what I seek to do, in keeping with my critical remarks with regard to approaching animals as were they all the same as far as the question why they matter is concerned.

    Of course, to point of how much different sorts of animals differ has become commonplace. And yet the three-partite categorization that seems so self-evident to us today, exemplified in the types of animals we may encounter within a single day – namely wild, domestic, and pets – is nothing of the sort, but itself a product of profound changes within Western society during the last couple of centuries, changes that provide the sources I rely upon throughout this book. For fear of putting the major historical trends in too simplistic a manner, it is essentially a story about how animals that used to be abundantly wild – in the abundant wild – came to be domesticated, and how (some) domestic animals in their turn have increasingly become pets. Indeed, in the last chapter we will see that one of the most striking signs of the trend I sketch here consists in how even the few animals left in the wild nowadays tend to be turned into pets, if not literally then in terms of how they are perceived, making them subject to a sentimentality that I will argue sits uneasily with their nature as wild animals. 

    Given this situation pertaining to so many animals today, what do I mean by their “independence”? If the point of their existence is inseparable from their independence – speaking of some animals, not all, of course – what about the ecological argument that all creatures play a role in the existence of (some, not all) others, exhibiting their inter-dependence, cross- and inter-species at that, and giving the lie to the notion that there is such a thing as a truly independent creature?

    I do not deny the ecological argument thus conceived. In fact, it is part of my own argument, as brought out in my agreement with the holistic biocentrism worked out by environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston, demonstrating the continuity between my two previous books – Denial and Cosmologies – and this one. To get this, it is important not to conflate different perspectives and levels of analysis. In this book, I endorse the ecological argument about the essential inter-dependency and connectedness between different species, including different sorts of animals. No animal is an island. Hence I follow Rolston’s holistic biocentrism in holding that, put formula-like, the morally right and the ecologically required are but two sides of the same coin, meaning mutually supportive – in the big picture and in the long run, that is. This does not preclude conflict between the two in the concrete case, that is to say, a particular place involving particular animals; in Chapter Five we will look at several cases in point. Indeed, moral and ecological dilemmas unknown until recently today impose themselves as a direct result of the biological annihilation mentioned above, raising novel questions in a novel situation, questions about “sacrificial logic”, about deciding that some animals must die in order that others be saved from extinction; about the validity of the once clear-cut but now blurred distinction between animals in situ and ex situ, in their original habitat and in around-the-clock human-controlled artificial environments (zoos, labs); and about the appropriateness of holding on to a notion of wild animals, and of wilderness, in times of human-made impacts on the conditions of animals and the ecologies they are part of virtually everywhere on planet Earth. Practices of hunting, as still found in a number of indigenous cultures, play a major part in my argument here, challenging the view dominant among animal rights theorists, Singerian or otherwise, that killing animals is wrong, period. For me, the manner of death is not the primary issue; the place allowed for the exercise of the full powers of agency of the animals in question is. 

    To be sure, then, no animal is an island. But some animals can do without us. They even have a right to do – to live their lives – without us. This captures what I mean by their independence, and I guess that Murdoch would agree, her kestrel being just as apt an example as the eagle, the wolf and the saltwater crocodile. Speaking of their being independent creatures like this, independent from us, does not contradict their being ecologically interdependent and interconnected, with various other species of animals, as part of a wider ecosystem tied to a particular place, in the sense stressed in the biocentric outlook I endorse. As for us humans, the problem we may have with allowing these animals to retain and to flourish in their independence vis-à-vis our human ways and activities, expanding everywhere as they currently do, is in my view tied to our reluctance to recognize that we are the dependent party, not they. How so? Ultimately we depend on nonhuman species and forms of life – including animals – in order to survive. In saying this, I wish to leave aside the question of whether or not we may, if only we decide to, live without killing and eating animals. My point is a different one, inspired by Murdoch: the human dependence on animals that interests me the most is to do with quality of life; with how the quality of life of Murdoch’s kestrel enriches not only that bird’s life but Murdoch’s as well, whereby the bird’s independence from her, it being different, neither instructed nor controlled by her, is the precondition as well as the core of that quality.

    I shall move back and forth between a macro- and a micro-perspective to illuminate what relationships between humans and animals have come to be like in present-day society, drawing on cultural history and anthropology to help us appreciate the substantial changes that have occurred – changes entailing, as their end point, the decimation and ultimately extinction of a record number of species of animals at record-breaking speed. The biological annihilation that Ceballos directs our attention to serves as a backdrop that conveys a sense of alarm and urgency. But rather than being my main topic, the ongoing anthropogenic degradation of the natural world that cause annihilation provides resonance for my overall emphasis on encounters between humans and a particular animal; encounters that, when discussed by philosophers, tend to be generalized in ways not justified by their being just that: encounters with particular animals. Encounter is a better word than relationship, because the latter carry assumptions about reciprocity, actual or possible such, in a way that an encounter does not. To the extent that the encounters I talk about may be placed on a continuum from human-animal dependence to independence – with, say, a retriever exemplifying the one end and a salt water crocodile the other – I shall have more to say about the latter cases than the former, not least because of their rarity and precariousness. 

As for us humans, the problem we may have with allowing these animals to retain and to flourish in their independence vis-à-vis our human ways and activities, expanding everywhere as they currently do, is in my view tied to our reluctance to recognize that we are the dependent party, not they.

    This being my approach, the animals that figure prominently in the chapters that follow are the following: a group of baboons; a dog named Bobby; dingoes (Australian wild dogs); a cat looking at a naked and very famous philosopher; a crocodile perceiving its (his or her) human counterpart as food; a horse called Blue; and last but not least, Little Penguins trying to find their home. The fact that they constitute such a diverse sample is important and in keeping with my ambition to do justice to how richly different animals are, and the limits thus posed to philosophers’ predilection for generalization.

    In discussing Kant, Mary Midgley remarks that when philosophers announce that they will be talking about animals, they end up talking about humans. I am well aware that this book is no exception. I happen to be a philosopher, and I claim no expert knowledge in the field of animal studies, even though much of the material examined, and the authors whose views I discuss, belong to that field, especially – and tellingly – to the recently emerging one called extinction studies. One of the most fascinating things about writing this book has been to discover just how much a given philosopher’s views on animals reveal about his or her views on the matters that matter most to humans – animals not really being admitted as part of those matters, but coming in handy to shed light on them nonetheless. For example, Descartes’ statements about animals inform us just as accurately about his ethical position as his statements about humans, if not more; the same may be said, though perhaps more controversially, about Kant.  There is a kind of consistency to this in that the nonhuman creatures who are considered to be mere means to human ends, are treated as mere means analytically no less than in real life: to make a point about humans, not animals; points to some extent parasitic on our declared “others”, showing who we are by way of who we are not. Consistency is a virtue, even a trump virtue, in philosophy, but the price paid by those who are consistently treated as mere means in practice as well as in theory, is growing unacceptably high – not only for the animals affected. 


This book engages with the changing ways in which we, as a society and culture, look upon and interact with animals, stressing how much animals differ among themselves. An invitation to appreciate the peculiar role of animals in telling important if uncomfortable truths about who we are and where we are heading – namely, towards a world so much poorer in cultural, moral, and biological diversity – as a result of the ongoing decimation of so many other species. Drawing on a variety of thought ranging from that of Midgley, Plumwood, and Murdoch to Levinas, Derrida, and Habermas, from ecophilosophers to conservation biologists, Animal Lives and Why They Matter asks how we have come to this, and what an alternative, less destructive approach to our now precarious coexistence with animals might look like. Spanning the disciplines of philosophy, psychology, and anthropology, this enquiry into various cross-species relationships and encounters will appeal to scholars and students across the humanities and social sciences with interests in philosophy, ethics, human-animal interaction, and environmental thought. / Routledge.


Arne Johan Vetlesen is professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo. Having studied with Jürgen Habermas in Frankfurt am Main in the 1980s, Vetlesen has in recent years moved from moral and political theory to environmental philosophy interdisciplinarily conceived, drawing on anthropology, sociology and psychology. He has published thirty books, among them «Perception, Empathy and Judgment» (Penn State Press, 1994), «Evil and Human Agency» (Cambridge U.P., 2005), «A Philosophy of Pain» (Reaktion Books, 2009), «The Denial of Nature» (Routledge, 2015), «Cosmologies of the Anthropocene» (Routledge, 2019), and «Animal Lives and Why They Matter» (Routledge, 2022).

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