12 ago. 2011

Snakes Are Not Evil

Surely snakes are evil; in fact, they are the very symbol of evil. Yet when you think about it a moment, it is obvious that snakes or spiders are not ethical agents at all. They are not even evil, in the sense that you can be not even wrong about something. I do not believe that squirrels make ethical judgments about right or wrong, that there are some squirrels that are "better squirrels" than others. Of course, some might have nastier or more gentle temperaments, but they don't form ethical judgments. An ant is not "unselfish" or altruistic just because it works on behalf of the group. A grasshopper is not lazy because it isn't an ant. Nor are cows to be praised because they don't wage war on other herds of cows. Those are just misapplications of categories. I don't even think a leopard is less ethical than the gazelle that it hunts, kills, and eats.

Now with certain animals domesticated during ten thousand years to be companions to humans, it is hard not to think in anthropomorphic terms. Or with close genetic relatives of humans, like the great apes. But these are, in the end, anthropomorphic terms. In other words, we attribute ethics to animals to the extent to which they resemble humans. We also value animals aesthetically to the extent that they appeal to the human eye. Nothing wrong with that, a hippo is not as cute as a koala, as long as we know exactly what we are doing.

What provoked this little rant was this paragraph by Marianne DeKoven, quoted by Perloff in an article I linked to a few days ago::
I think that many have turned away from our own species in dismay at what it has wrought and turned toward other animals as a locus both of the other who calls us to ethics and of many of the things that, in our various modes of ethics, we value: purity of affect, unselfish altruism, absence of genocide and infrequency of random, unmotivated violence, and connection to what is for us a source of powerful spiritual experience.

What is striking about this is how anthropomorphic it is, and how unconscious it is of this quality. A chipmunk never read Levinas, The pretentiousness of the language is also unbearable. A person who writes a phrase like "a locus both of the other who calls us to ethics..." should be reincarnated as a chipmunk 10,000 times, or at least sent back to remedial freshman composition. I can assure you. It is no comfort to me that other animals do not mimic the depredations of humans, the unspeakable horrors of history, because there is no particular merit in this. I won't even say that the animal kingdom is ruthless and cruel, that one fish eats a smaller fish in a brutal competition for survival, because that is just a human projection. Animals are not ethically superior or inferior to humans, because they just aren't ethical in the first place, in any meaningful sense. Negative perceptions about their evil, or positive judgments about their moral purity, have no toe-hold.

(In no way would I approve of cruelty to cats or puppies, or excuse and human failings, whether collective or individual. I am in awe of the biodiversity of the planet, etc... I respect your love for your dogs... That is not what this post is about.)

2 comentarios:

Vance Maverick dijo...

Her phrase "purity of affect" is worth dwelling on. You respond with "moral purity", but that's not quite the same. If animals have "affect", and we can know it, it's something deeply and problematically mediated, by (in your word again) anthropomorphism. I don't for a minute suggest (I recapitulate your disclaimers) that animals don't communicate emotion; the big question, though, papered over by the bland term "affect", is to whom, and if not to other animals of the same species or indeed clan, how.

Jonathan dijo...

Right. What makes human affect impure by comparison?