Cary Wolfe

The essential conservatism of Ferry's position is hard to spot at first because his framing of "the new ecological order" sets against the "fundamentalism" and moral puritanism of contemporary environmentalism the apparent openness and commitment to change—the "uprootedness, or innovation" as he puts it (xxi)—of the liberal humanist tradition he defends. Ferry contends that "the hatred of the artifice connected with our civilization of rootlessness" that we find in Deep Ecology "is also a hatred of humans as such. For man is the antinatural being par excellence" (xxviii). According to the blend of Rousseau and Kant with which Ferry identifies himself, the

"humanitas" of the human "resides in his freedom, in the fact that he is undefined, that his nature is to have no nature but to possess the capacity to distance himself from any code within which one may seek to imprison him. In other words: his essence is that he has no essence.

"Romantic racialism and historicism are thus inherently impossible," Ferry continues. "For what is racism at its philosophical core if not the attempt to define a category of humans by its essence?" (5). There seems much to admire here and very little to condemn. Unfortunately—as with his concept of democracy—the reality of Ferry's notion of the human is that it is a good deal less "open" and "innovative" than it at first appears. For as we shall see, even though Ferry condemns racism for its attempt to define a category of beings by its essence, this is precisely what Ferry's liberal humanist speciesism does in relation to non-human others in his critique of animal rights philosophy.

One of the fundamental problems with Ferry's discussion of animal rights is foreshadowed by his reliance upon ideal types and reified oppositions in his discussion of Deep Ecology: that he constantly presents as differences in kind what are only maitainable as differences in degree. Ferry consistently overstates the degree to which "the animal is programmed by a code which goes by the name of 'instinct'" (5), and he consistently understates—likely out of ignorance, it seems—the degree to which new work in ethology has shown that many non-human animals demonstrate degrees of the volition, free will, and abstraction that Ferry is at great pains to protect as the sole domain of the human. Meanwhile, he consistently overstates the degree to which the human being "is nothing as determined by nature" (9), not bound by instinct, biological needs and intolerances, by sexuality, the body, and so on. This is not to suggest that Ferry's treatment of animal rights philosophy is as harsh as his attack on Deep Ecology. Ferry is clearly genuinely concerned with the ethical call upon us of non-human animals, and he is at some pains to try to do justice to the ethical relevance of the fact that animals, if they are not "man" (as he puts it), are also not "stone." But Ferry's relative receptivity to animal rights philosophy is less surprising when we remember that the philosophical basis for animal rights as put forward by its two most important practitioners—Peter Singer (in Animal Liberation) and Tom Regan (in The Case for Animal Rights)—is based squarely in the liberal philosophical tradition of utilitarianism (Singer) and Kantianism (Regan). As Ferry quite rightly notes, the animal rights argument "is inscribed in a democratic framework: in the tradition of Tocqueville, it counts on the progress of 'the equality of conditions,' so that, after the blacks of Africa, animals in turn enter the sphere of rights" (27).

The philosophical foundation for animal rights articulated by Singer in his Animal Liberation (often called the founding text of the animal rights movement) is relatively easy to state, and follows Jeremy Bentham's well-known challenge to what would later come to be called speciesism:

What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty or reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, What would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (quoted in Ferry 27)

For Singer, beings who have a capacity to suffer—and this is very broadly construed, including not only physical pain but pyschological pain and anticipatory duress as well—have a demonstrable interest in avoiding suffering; and that means that such beings have a right to have those interests protected, to be regarded morally as ends in themselves and not, as Regan puts it—in a phrase with some resonance for specifying his revisionist relationship to Kant's "indirect duty" view—"as mere 'receptacles' of valuable experiences" for humans. [ 12 ] And all of this is true, both Singer and Regan argue, regardless of the species of the being in question.

And if we propose a criterion other than suffering as the basis for distinguishing between beings who deserve ethical consideration and those who don't—as the humanist tradition has a long history of doing—then the problem, as Singer points out, is that "Whatever the test we propose as a means of separating human from non-human animals, it is plain that if all non-human animals are going to fail it, some humans will fail as well." [ 13 ] This rejoinder, in turn, is often met by appeals to the potential of the human infant to outstrip, in time, her animal counterparts in intelligence, speech, etc., thus achieving a difference of subjectivity in kind from the non-human animal. But the problem with this reply, of course, is that a significant number of humans—the severly handicapped, say—do not possess those capacities and never will. "Why," Singer asks, "do we lock up chimpanzees in appalling primate research centers and use them in experiments that range from the uncomfortable to the agonising and lethal, yet would never think of doing the same to a retarded human being at a much lower mental level?" (6). The only answer, Singer argues, is that we are not really using the usual humanist list of capacities—language, tool-use, reason, etc.—to decide the matter of ethical consideration here; rather, we are deciding solely on the basis of the being's species. And to do that is to indulge in speciesism, which—like its cognates racism, sexism, and classism—discriminates against an other solely on the basis of its species and not on the basis of its capacities or qualities.

This does not mean, as Singer is quick to add, that non-human animals have the same rights as humans, or that all beings suffer equally in all situations. Indeed, both Singer and Regan go to some lengths to rebut this common misunderstanding about the idea of animal rights. [ 14 ] As Singer points out, confining a herd of otherwise well cared-for cows to a single county for weeks would probably not infringe upon the interests of those animals; doing the same to the human inhabitants of that county probably would. What it does mean is that all beings who share the fundamental interest of avoiding suffering share it equally, and should therefore have the right to have that interest respected, regardless of species.

From Ferry's point of view, the problem with Singer's animal liberation position is that it is based upon a faulty fundamental assumption. In an articulation that expresses the very core of his difference with animal rights, Deep Ecology, and eco-feminism, Ferry writes: "The fundamental difference that separates utilitarianism from the humanism inherited from Rousseau and Kant," is that for the latter, "it is, on the contrary, the ability to separate oneself from interests (freedom) that defines dignity and makes the human being alone a legal subject" (32). Singer "never considers the criteria of freedom defined as the faculty to separate oneself from nature, to resist selfish interests and inclinations" (36).

Here again, Ferry is right to alert us to the danger of naturalism in ethics harbored by Singer's thesis. As the eco-feminist Carol Slicer has pointed out, in a somewhat different key, part of the problem with Singer's position is that it holds "an 'essentialist' view of the moral worth of both human beings and animals"; that is, if we follow Singer we "propose a single capacity—the possession of interests" [or Singer's "suffering"]—"for being owed moral consideration." [ 15] Slicer's point is well-taken, but it is hard to see how Ferry could deploy such a critique, since his own basis for maintaining a categorical distinction between the human and non-human animal is to posit, precisely, a single and defining characteristic ("freedom") as the basis for ethical consideration.

It is in part to meet the sort of objection to "essentialism" raised by Slicer—and, in a different register, by Ferry's objection to Singer's biologism—that Tom Regan, in The Case for Animal Rights, critiques the utilitarianism of Singer and broadens the concept of what he calls "inherent value" beyond the emphasis on suffering alone. As Regan puts it,

we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and our pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death—all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of those animals that concern us (the ones that are eaten and trapped, for example), they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own. [ 16 ]

But Regan's position, though it moves us beyond the biologism critiqued by Ferry, does not exactly dispose of the problem of essentialism that Slicer would find not only in Singer and Regan but in Ferry as well. Indeed, in this light, the problem with animal rights philosophy is not that it is anti-humanist, but rather that it is too humanist, insofar as it, like Ferry, proposes as the foundation for ethical consideration a single quality—namely the capacity for suffering broadly construed—that human beings turn out to possess in greatest abundance. Stephen Zak captures the problem nicely:

Lives don't have to be the same to be worthy of equal respect. One's perception that another life has value comes as much from an appreciation of its uniqueness as from the recognition that it has characteristics that are shared by one's own life. (Who would compare the life of a whale to that of a marginal human being?) . . . The orangutan cannot be redescribed as the octopus minus, or plus, this or that mental characteristic: conceptually, nothing could be added to or taken from the octopus that would make it the equivalent of the oriole. Likewise, animals are not simply rudimentary human beings, God's false steps, made before He finally got it right with us. [ 17 ]

Zak lucidly locates a fundamental problem with animal rights philosophy in its current state of the art—and it is the problem that links it to Ferry's own position. Even within the liberal philosophical tradition, Ferry's Rousseauistic/Kantian critique of animal rights encounters all sorts of difficulties. First, his reliance on "freedom" to serve as the ethical wedge between the human and non-human animal does nothing, despite his gestures to the contrary (42), to address the problem of the "lowest common denominator" raised by animal rights philosophy. Following Ferry, we would be forced to say that the encephalitic infant had no interests and rights, and could therefore be exploited as pure means (just as laboratory animals are) because it neither embodies nor has the capacity for the liberal "freedom" that insures ethical consideration. Ferry attempts at the end of his second chapter to forestall this pursuit of his humanism to its logical conclusions, but he can do so only at the price of an utterly question-begging and bare-faced resort to speciesism. "Why sacrifice a healthy chimpanzee over a human reduced to a vegetable state?," Ferry asks.

If one were to adopt the criteria that says there is continuity between men and animals, Singer might be right to consider as "speciesist" the priority accorded human vegetables. If on the other hand we adopt the criteria of freedom, it is not unreasonable to admit that we must respect humankind, even in those who no longer manifest anything but its residual signs (42).

But of course, it is "unreasonable," because in this instance Ferry isn't relying upon the quality of "freedom" at all to ethically adjudicate the matter—the human vegetable, by his own admission, does not possess this quality—but only membership in a given species. And this, of course, is no better than the racism that would extend ethical consideration not on the basis of the qualities possessed by the beings involved but solely on the basis of their membership in a given race.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Ferry is unable to satisfactorily address an important issue raised by animal rights philosophy: that the discourse and practice of speciesism in the name of liberal humanism has historically been turned upon other humans as well. It is entirely to the point that the first chapter of Singer's Animal Liberation is entitled "All Animals Are Equal, or why supporters of liberation for Blacks and Women should support Animal Liberation too" (1). And that point has recently been made quite graphically in eco-feminism, in texts such as Carol Adams' flawed but nevertheless important study, The Sexual Politics of Meat, which demonstrates that the species system makes possible not only the systematic killing of many millions of animals a year for food, product testing, and research, but also provides a ready-made symbolic economy which overdetermines the representation of women by transcoding the edible bodies of animals and the sexualized bodies of women (chick, beaver, Playboy bunny) within an overarching "logic of domination." [ 18 ] The discourse and institution of speciesism, then, is by no means limited to its overwhelmingly direct and disproportionate effects upon non-humans. Indeed, as Gayatri Spivak puts it,

the great doctrines of identity of the ethical universal, in terms of which liberalism thought out its ethical programmes, played history false, because the identity was disengaged in terms of who was and who was not human. That's why all of these projects, the justification of slavery, as well as the justification of Christianization, seemed to be alright; because, after all, these people had not graduated into humanhood, as it were. [ 19 ]

To his credit, Ferry seems to recognize this problem. "This distinction between humanity and the animal kingdom seems to carry horrifying consequences in its wake" (12), he writes; "it is impossible to avoid racism and its political consequences if one subscribes to the belief that primitive man cannot attain authentic humanity due to his essence or nature" (13). "But this was not," he writes, "the Aufklärer's response" (13); for liberal humanism,

this difference is not inscribed in a definition, in a racial essence. We are forced to agree with Musil that a "cannibal taken from the cradle to a European setting will no doubt become a good European and that the delicate Rainer Maria Rilke would have become a good cannibal had destiny, to our great loss, cast him at a tender age among the sailors of the South Seas." (14)

But what such an example demonstrates is not so much, as Ferry thinks, the progressivism of Enlightenment humanism, but rather the question-begging concept of "freedom" in his own critique. For how can Ferry locate the basis of ethical consideration in freedom, defined "by perfectibility, by the capacity to break away from natural or historical determinations" (15), and at the same time praise how Enlightenment culture recognizes (as in Musil's example), precisely, the force of historical determination to wholly shape one's character? [ 20 ] It is a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, for as both Spivack and Adams suggest, you don't need the argument from "racial essence" to justify oppression if you can control the discourses and institutions that reduce human beings to the status of objects. No one believes that human women have no more free will and control over the finality of their actions than a cow or pig; but that doesn't stop the use of the discourse of specieism in the oppression of women. As was the case with Ferry's use of the term "democracy," "freedom" in his humanist lexicon turns out to be a good deal less free—and a good deal more historically and socially specific—than he would would have us believe.

In some places, for example, he holds that freedom is the ability "to separate oneself from interests" (32), "the faculty to separate oneself from nature, to resist selfish interests and inclinations" (36). The problem with this formulation, of course, is that it obviously applies to a number of non-human animals as well. As a great deal of very prominent work in ethology, field ecology, cognitive ethology, and ape language experiments over the past twenty years has shown, the "defining" characteristics of the distinctly human—language, tool-use, tool-making, social behavior, altruism, and so on—have been found to be not so "defining" after all. Whether in academic studies such as Marc Bekoff and Dale Jamieson's Interpretation and Explanation in the Study of Animal Behavior, Marian Stamp Dawkins' Through Our Eyes Only?: The Search for Animal Consciousness, Donald R. Griffin's Animal Minds, or in rather more popular texts like Singer and Paola Cavalieri's The Great Ape Project and the recent When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, [ 21 ] it has become clear that some non-human animals—chimpanzees, for instance—

share with us tool-making and tool-using capacities, the faculty for (non-verbal) language, a hatred of boredom, an intelligent curiosity towards their environment, love for their children, intense fear of attack, deep friendships, a horror of dismemberment, a reportoire of emotions and even the same capacity for exploitive violence that we so often show towards them. [ 22 ]

This list can be—and has been by a diverse array of scholars—expanded in great detail to include self-awareness, the ability to regularly engage in both deceptive and altruistic behavior, and many another quality thought for centuries to be exclusively human. This body of work makes it abundantly clear that many non-human animals "separate themselves from selfish interests and inclinations" all the time, as a matter of course.

In other places, Ferry seems to realize the futility of the "freedom from instinct" strategy, and offers instead a tortured argument that, "because of this capacity to act in a nonmechanical fashion, oriented by a goal," the animal is an "analogon of a free being" (46), that "life, defined as 'the faculty to act according to the representation of a goal,' is an analogue of freedom" (54). The problem with this rather desperate gambit, however, is that it assimilates "life" in general to goal-oriented behavior, while declaring beside the point the complex forms of social interaction, communication, and self-awareness that would seem very much to the ethical point. Such a formulation would force us to crudely lump the mountain gorilla in with the amoeba (both are instances of "goal-oriented" "life"), but clearly the mountain gorilla—for reasons not addressed by this formulation—has much more in common with homo sapiens.

Finally, Ferry attempts to raise the bar of "freedom" and the "distinctly human" once again. In almost the only place in the book where he seems to be vaguely aware of the explosion of revisionist work in ethology in the past twenty years, he writes,

one can cite the suicide of whales—an indication that they too can distance themselves from their natural tendency—the language of monkeys and dolphins, the capacity of certain animals to manipulate tools in order to realize their objectives, not to mention canine devotion or feline independence . . . The problem, of course, is that this separation from the commandments of nature is not transmitted from one generation to the next as a history. A separation from natural norms only becomes evident when it engenders a cultural universe . . . . (6)

In his desperate attempt to maintain the species barrier, Ferry first tries out "freedom from instinct," then freedom versus the "analogue" of "goal-oriented behavior," and finally cultural transmission. Aside from begging the question, "why is the transmission of cultural behavior from one generation to the next ethically fundamental ("freedom from nature," the crux of the whole Kantian/Rousseauian position Ferry espouses, would fall well to this side of "cultural transmission")?; and aside from providing an eerie echo of similar statements made during the past two centuries about "primitive" societies, for whom culture would seem to be a form of constraint and continuity, and would thereby run afoul of Ferry's ethnocentric view of cultural as "innovation" and "uprootedness"; and aside from leaving completely untouched the ethical relevance of the "lowest common denominator" problem raised by animal rights—aside from all that, Ferry would seem to have his facts wrong. For as Jane Goodall points out

We can speak of the history of a chimpanzee community, where major events—an epidemic, a kind of primitive "war," a "baby boom"—have marked the reigns of the five top-ranking alpha males we have known. And we find that individual chimpanzees can make a difference to the course of chimpanzee history, as is the case with humans . . . .

Chimpanzees, like humans, can learn by observation and imitation, which means that if a new adaptive pattern is "invented" by a particular individual, it can be passed on to the next generation. Thus we find that while the various chimpanzee groups that have been studied in different parts of Africa have many behaviors in common, they also have their own distinctive traditions. This is particularly well-documented with respect to tool-using and tool-making behaviours. Chimpanzees use more objects as tools for a greater variety of purposes than any creature except ourselves, and each population has its own tool-using cultures. [ 23 ]

One can only imagine that Ferry's response to this would be to raise the bar once again, so that only those who have read all of Kant's Critiques and passed the exegesis on to their grandchildren would be eligible for ethical consideration!

In the pragmatist vein whose epistemological and political complexities I have elsewhere articulated,[ 24 ] it is perfectly possible to argue that taking account of the ethical relevance of the work of ethologists like Goodall does not mean committing ourselves to naturalism in ethics. From a pragmatist point of view, all it means is that, in the language-game or discourse called "ethics," we are obliged—not least because ethics cannot ground itself in a representationalist relation to the object—to apply consistently, without prejudice toward species or anything else, the rules we devise for determining subjectivity, personhood, and all other ethically relevant traits and behaviors. We need not cling to any empiricist notion about what Goodall or anyone else has discovered about non-human animals—any more than we need to do the same for our knowledge of human beings—to insist that when our generally agreed-upon markers for ethical consideration are observed in species other than homo sapiens, we are obliged to take them into account and to respect them accordingly. This amounts to nothing more than taking the humanist conceptualization of the problem at its word and then being rigorous about it—and then showing how humanism must, if rigorously pursued, generate its own deconstruction once these "defining" characteristics are found beyond the species barrier. But this, of course, is precisely what Ferry is unable and unwilling to do.

In the end, then, it is Ferry's "human," and not the non-human animal, who is "the enigmatic being," the "dreamed object"—"enigmatic" because incoherent, and "dreamed" because an imaginary subject, a fantasy. And yet, for all that, quite familiar. For as both George Bataille (in Theory of Religion) and Jacques Derrida (in "Eating Well" and "Force of Law") remind us, the humanist concept of subjectivity is inseparable from the discourse and institution of speciesism, which relies upon the tacit acceptance—and nowhere more clearly than in Ferry's beloved Kant, as Slavoj Zizek has noted—that the full transcendence of the "human" requires the sacrifice of the "animal" and the animalistic, which in turn makes possible a symbolic economy in which we can engage in a "non-criminal putting to death" (as Derrida puts it) of not only animals, but other humans as well by marking them as animal. [ 25 ]

To talk about the "discourse" of species is to focus our attention, as Bataille and Derrida do, upon a systematic logic that operates in the same way as its cognates, racism and sexism. Like those, it operates on the basis of a disavowal or repression of difference and materiality, of the "pathological" element (to use Kant's term) that infects and corrupts what Ferry tells us is the properly "human" effort toward transcendence. It may be the case, as Ferry argues, that ethics is always ineluctably human, always about human concepts and not about objects; but what Ferry's concept of "the human" fails to acknowledge—indeed his project depends on its disavowal—is what Zizek calls "humanism's self-destructive dimension."[ 26 ] As Zizek puts it,

The subject "is" only insofar as the Thing (the Kantian Thing in itself as well as the Freudian impossible-incestuous object, das Ding) is sacrificed, "primordially repressed". . . . This "primordial repression" introduces a fundamental imbalance in the universe: the symbolically structured universe we live in is organized around a void, an impossibility (the inaccessibility of the Thing in itself). [ 27 ]

"Therein," Zizek continues, "consists the ambiguity of the Enlightenment"; the transcendence of the Enlightenment subject is shadowed by "a fundamental prohibition to probe too deeply into the obscure origins, which betrays a fear that by doing so, one might uncover something monstrous" (136).

We could scarcely do better than Zizek's characterization to provide a thumbnail psychoanalysis of Ferry's The New Ecological Order. But to broach the question of the institution of speciesism, as Derrida does with particular force in "Eating Well," is to insist we pay attention to the asymmetrical material effects of these discourses upon particular groups; just as the discourse of sexism effects women disproportionately (even though it may theoretically be applied to any social other of whatever gender), so the effects of the discourse of speciesism fall overwhelmingly, in institutional terms, on non-human others. But the effectiveness of the discourse of species when applied to social others of whatever sort relies upon a prior taking for granted of the institution of speciesism—that is, the ethical acceptability of the killing of non-human others. What this means is that the ethical priority of confronting the institution of speciesism, and the pressing question of the ethical standing of non-human others, does not depend upon whether or not you like animals. Rather, it involves stakes for us all, human and non-human alike.

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Cary Wolfe teaches American literature, culture, and critical theory at Indiana University. His most recent book, Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the "Outside", is due out in the Spring of 97 from the University of Minnesota Press. His double issue of Cultural Critique on the politics of systems and environments (co-edited with William Rasch) was reviewed in ebr3.

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