Peter Singer vs. Elizabeth Costello
I recently finished reading the novel Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee, the South African / Australian contemporary writer. The main character of the novel, Elizabeth Costello, is herself a world renowned fiction writer (in the world of the novel, of course). The novel tackles, through Costello’s voice and the voice of other characters (e.g., her sister’s and her son’s) various important issues, such as the humanities, the problem of evil, the non-Western novel, the role of the writer, and animal ethics (the focus of this post). If a college should ever adopt for its students a list of common novels for summer reading or as a junior or senior year “common experience,” Elizabeth Costello should be on the list (the novel’s worth has as much to do with its form as with its content).
Two crucial chapters in the novel, which originally were Coetzee’s 1997-1998 Tanner Lectures presented at Princeton University, deal with animal ethics; they are titled “The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals.” These lectures became (before they made their way into the novel itself) part of a book entitled The Lives of Animals, edited by Amy Gutmann with four essays commenting on the lectures. Gutmann’s introduction opens the book, followed by Coetzee’s lectures, followed first by an essay by Marjorie Garber (a literary critic), by Peter Singer (a philosopher), by Wendy Doniger (a historian of religion), and lastly by Barbara Smuts (an anthropologist and psychologist). The essays are thought-provoking, and Singer’s will be the topic of this post, specifically whether it successfully criticized Costello’s views of our treatment of animals. I will argue that it did not.
First, however, something brief about Costello’s views. I do not assume that they represent Coetzee’s, especially since there are counter, even if sometimes sympathetic, voices to Costello’s. For instance, Norma, a philosopher and Costello’s daughter-in-law, vehemently disagrees with her views, so does Costello’s son (Norma’s husband) to some extent, and so do two professors at Appleton College (where Costello delivers her views on animals in the form of a lecture and a seminar), one of whom is Jewish and who objects to Costello’s use of the Holocaust in an analogy to our treatment of animals. I will thus speak only of Costello’s views, not of Coetzee’s. (Garber’s essay addresses the issue of Costello’s vs. Coetzee’s voice.).
Well, what are Costello’s views? The core view, around which the rest revolve, is that our treatment of animals, especially that which takes place in slaughter houses, is evil: “we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed, dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them” (The Lives of Animals, p. 21).
This treatment of animals is abetted by a failure of empathy on our part to understand their lives, a failure in turn abetted by the idea that we have reason whereas they don’t. This belief in our deep separation from animals has been supported by various luminous philosophers, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and Thomas Nagel. Costello takes special aim at Nagel’s famous essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” claiming that Nagel was wrong to think that being a bat was an alien life form for us, because both we and bats are full of being: “To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. Bat-being in the first case, human-being in the second, maybe; but those are secondary considerations. To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy” (p. 33).
Thus, in “The Philosophers and the Animals,” Costello’s lecture to Appleton College’s English Department, she rejects philosophers’ claims to human beings’ separation from animals. More than that, she raises doubts about our faith in reason, claiming that contrary to what we might believe, reason need not be the universal mechanism by which to understand the universe, and it might be merely “the being of human thought”; indeed, even merely one “tendency” of such thought (p.23). Reason might be our (human beings’) particular mode of understanding the world, nothing more. “Do we really understand the universe better than animals do?” (p. 45).
In “The Poets and the Animals,” Costello chastises scientific experiments that attempt to prove animal intelligence by not only assimilating it to our own way of thinking, but to even downgrading it to that aspect of our thinking that is practical thinking (how to put boxes on top of each other to reach a banana, e.g.). She also takes to task the line of philosophical thinking that tries to show that human life is more valuable than animal life because we have and use concepts whereas they do not, so their lives matter less to them than our lives matter to us. But anyone “who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve. When you say that the fight lacks a dimension of intellectual or imaginative horror, I agree. It is not the mode of being of animals to have an intellectual horror: their whole being is in the living flesh” (p. 65).
When we fail to occupy the consciousness of animals, we fail morally. We fail, according to Costello, just as all the Germans and Poles failed when they did not occupy the consciousness of the people in concentration camps or on trains being shipped to their deaths. In this sense, Costello is not comparing the moral wrongs of the Holocaust to those we inflict on animals, but finding a common element to our silence in both cases. And this is why Costello urges us “to read the poets who return the living, electric being to language; and if the poets do not move you, I urge you to walk, flank to flank, beside the beast that is prodded down the chute to his executioner” (p. 65).
Peter Singer is a very famous philosopher, whose work on animal ethics has been seminal and has given shape to the contemporary animal rights movement (though he himself does not subscribe to rights-talk). Singer’s response to Coetzee’s lectures takes the form of a fictional story involving a philosopher called “Peter” in conversation with his daughter Naomi. Peter was pouring over Coetzee’s chapters because he needed to write a response to them when Naomi comes down for breakfast and asks him why he is frowning, which gets the conversation going. (I have to admit that I always cringe a little when philosophers attempt fiction; the fiction is often bad and sounds silly and pretentious. Singer’s attempt is no exception. In his case it is even worse because the story seems to have a slight mocking tone, which falls flat because Singer’s own argument against Costello’s falls short.)
Singer thinks that Costello’s view is too egalitarian to be acceptable. His own egalitarian view is that of equal interests—that, given each species’ interests, animals belonging to that species are entitled to proper consideration. So the equality in question is proportional: we ought to give consideration to a chicken’s interest equal in proportion to the interest of human beings.
To understand this better, consider having to compare the killing of a chicken with that of a human being. If we had to kill one, which ought we choose? Singer’s answer is that it should be the chicken, because a chicken’s interest in continued life is not the same as a human being’s. We have different and more complex interests in existing than do chickens, and equal proportional consideration means that we give each type of interest its due. Human beings’ lives are much more “future-oriented” than chickens, and that gives us much more to lose. So our interests should be given their proper consideration.
At this point, Naomi accuses her father of speciesism in his belief that human interests are more important than animals’, to which Peter replies that killing an animal, such as their dog Max, is not in itself wrong, because even though Max would lose the rest of his life and whatever joys it contains, other dogs can come into existence and “there would be just as much good aspects of dog-existence” (p. 88). Of course, the death of Max would still lead to some negative consequences, because, after all, his human family will feel his loss because they loved Max (p. 89). Peter, using pigs, makes his point as follows: “Let’s assume the pigs are leading a happy life and are then painlessly killed. For each happy pig killed, a new one is bred, who will lead an equally happy life. So killing the pig does not reduce the total amount of porcine happiness in the world” (p. 89). So as long as the total amount of pig-happiness in the world is not reduced, killing pigs is okay, because the individual life of a pig is not very crucial.
The pig example is just an example, and whether killing pigs is indeed intrinsically wrong (wrong in itself, aside from any bad consequences it has) depends on the extent to which pigs are self-aware (it is the complex self-awareness of human beings that makes killing them intrinsically wrong). If it turns out that pigs and dogs have self-awareness, then the more complex it is, the more intrinsically wrong it is to take their lives. In the case of animals that have no self-awareness or whose self-awareness is minimal, killing them is not intrinsically wrong (though causing them to suffer is; we should not confuse the capacity to suffer with that for self-awareness).
Peter grapples with Costello’s view only in one paragraph at the end of the story. He says that Costello would not agree with his views because of her acceptance of the idea of the fullness of being (explained above). Naomi seems to understand Costello better: “I see what she’s getting at. When you kill a bat, you take away everything that the bat has, its entire existence. Killing a human being can’t do more than that” (p. 90). That is, if fullness of being is what’s at stake, then whether you’re killing a human being or a bat, you’re taking that away, period. But Peter disagrees, because what you take away might have a different value in one case than in another: when you kill a human being, you take away more value than when you kill a bat or a chicken or a pig, precisely because human beings have more valuable capacities than the rest (p. 90).
Singer’s story, however, seems more of an excuse to showcase Singer’s own views than to seriously grapple with Costello’s. But since we should not assume that Peter’s views represent Singer’s, I will continue to speak of “Peter’s views.” (At the end of the story, Singer raises doubts about whether Costello’s views are Coetzee’s, saying that Coetzee’s fictional device allows him to distance himself from them. Perhaps Singer is doing the same in using a fictional story. This is good fortune for me because it enables me to not have to wade into all that has been written on Singer’s views to complete this post!) Still, Peter fails to take seriously Costello’s views, even though Naomi gives him a few opportunities to do that. This failure is serious when we remember that Peter is a philosopher, and philosophers are supposed to be charitable in their interpretations of their opponents’ views.
(Note that Peter commits a fallacy when he infers that more value is lost when you take away complex capacities than is lost when you take away less complex ones. The fallacy here is deriving an evaluative claim from a factual one. But since this is a thorny topic in philosophy, including how serious this fallacy is—if we take it seriously most moral discussions to date will have to be fully revised—I set this point aside.)
How does Peter fail to seriously take Costello’s views? The failure hinges on Costello’s idea that reason might merely be our way of understanding the universe, not the way to understand it. Part of what Costello means by “reason” is not just the ability to reason (e.g., making inferences), of course, but the whole gamut of abilities that come with it: self-awareness, self-conception, imagination, future projections, understanding of our finality, and so on. And these are exactly the same kinds of features because of which Peter thinks we have more value than animals. What Costello is proposing, and what Peter does not seriously engage, is the idea that our abilities are different than animals’ but not superior. Costello emphasizes this claim when rejecting, as imbecilic, the experiments we have designed for animals, such as whether animals can get out of a maze: such a program of scientific experimentation ignores “the fact that if the researcher who designed the maze were to be parachuted into the jungles of Borneo, he or she would be dead of starvation in a week” (p. 62). Costello’s point, by the way, is not new, and previous philosophers have made it (e.g., Paul W. Taylor). What is strange is that Peter the philosopher does not give it a fair airing.
Animals, like us, have their own ways of understanding the world, according to Costello. This is part of what it means for them to be full of being. I was watching recently one of the BBC nature shows narrated by David Attenborough. The episode was about the zebra’s stripes, and why zebras have them given that they make them stand out conspicuously, thereby making them easy prey for predators. One hypothesis has to do with flies. Apparently, and I don’t really understand this, flies have a certain way of seeing the world (of vision) such that having stripes makes it more difficult for them to see the zebras or to identify them as potential “feeding-lots.” This in turn enables the zebras to not be bitten as much as other animals (such as cattle) by dangerous flies, especially by the Tsetse, whose bites can be fatal. The point is not about the zebra’s abilities (having stripes is not as such an ability) but about the way that flies see the world, which is very different from ours. Indeed, nature is full of examples of animals and creatures whose mode of being is utterly different from ours.
What Costello is suggesting is that although these differences in abilities exist, they do not amount to differences in value and they do not prohibit our ability to understand animals’ desire and need to experience the joy and fullness of being.
Moreover, if each animal has its own fullness of being, then we cannot simply replace that fullness of being with another, as long as we have the same amount (or more) of fullness of being. Peter’s view of replacing a dog’s happiness with another neglects that Costello’s idea of fullness of being refers to something of intrinsic value to each animal, not something to be replaced, without any moral loss, by another animal’s fullness of being.
Peter’s view thus neglects to seriously take Costello’s idea of fullness of being.
I have only argued that Singer’s response, with Peter as its mouthpiece, does not seriously engage Costello’s views. I have not argued that Costello’s views are convincing. The idea of fullness of being still needs fleshing out, and there are some potential inconsistencies between viewing animals as possibly capable of theoretical thought (e.g., her discussion of Sultan the monkey) and the idea that their being is different than ours. There is also the additional, serious worry that if reason is merely our way of understanding the world, how we can use it to establish the equality of animals is problematic because it ushers in the possibility that our understanding of them can be utterly wrong.
But Costello is a writer, not a professional philosopher. Peter is. And as a philosopher he should have known better than to cherry-pick points in his intellectual opponent’s views for criticism. He thus provides an example of exhibiting the intellectual vice of being uncharitable to a fellow thinker.