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Presented May 30, 2010, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
A few weeks ago I was having lunch at the Pier with a person who is both a friend of mine and a friend of this congregation. When I ordered the Portobello Mushroom sandwich he asked casually, "How long have you been a vegetarian?" Now I am sure this person does not think everytime anyone orders a vegetarian sandwich they must be a vegetarian, but he knows I am the minister of the Unitarian Church in this town. I'm sure if I had been the Presbyterian or the Methodist minister he would have thought differently, but since I am the Unitarian minister and I ordered a vegetarian sandwich he simply put 2 and 2 together and asked me how long I've been a vegetarian.
Of course as you guys know, I am not a vegetarian. In fact, having the men get together and grill meat for the church picnic was my idea years ago, though now of course I quite unfairly abandon my fellow men at the grill as I scoot off to Romania with my wife and son.
So at the lunch a few weeks ago I had to somewhat embarrassingly say to our friend, "I'm not a vegetarian: I just like that Portobello sandwich." That whole incident gets at another question that I have been thinking about frequently in the last couple years, not am I vegetarian but should I be a vegetarian? Would the vegetarian lifestyle be more in keeping with my own ethico-political principles? How do I justify my own meat eating lifestyle? This might be a question many of us have been asking ourselves since we are, after all, Unitarians. This is the Unitarian Church, so certainly some of us are vegetarians and though most of us are certainly meat eaters, we are open to the question of whether we should be vegetarians and how we justify ourselves as meat eaters.
This question about vegetarianism and about the ethical justification for meat eating is one of the many ethical questions within a fairly new interdisciplinary discipline within the academic scene called animal studies or human-animal studies. Now in July we are going to be in France because I am speaking at a conference devoted to the French ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. My specific topic is what Levinas says about humans and animals, so my talk actually fits in to this much wider field of human-animal studies.
This new academic discipline called human-animal studies is exciting because it is genuinely interdisciplinary and draws together for conversation people from all different types of backgrounds and expertise: biologists and zoologists, scientists who actually study and live with all different kinds of animals, primatologists, ornithologists, anthropologists who are experts on how various human cultures have drawn lines between humans and animals, scholars of religions and mythologies, and of course philosophers, who examine how the distinction between humans and animals has been determined and justified within intellectual history.
There is little doubt that the most important source of intellectual history that shapes how western cultures have thought about animals and humans is the Bible. In the creation account in Genesis God clearly gives humans dominion over all the beasts of the ground and the birds in the air and all the fish that swim in the water. This has led to the dominant ideology in the west that humans are a higher creature than the other animals and that we are dominant over them. Crucial to this is also the concept derived from Genesis that humans are created in the image of God. This too places humans very much higher and superior to the animals. In Genesis, only humans are said to be created in God's image and not the other animals, despite what we just sang in our first hymn. That all creatures are created in God's image may be what Unitarians actually do believe or want to believe, and there is certainly an emphasis on this in the history of Franciscan theology and spirituality. Nevertheless, the dominant Judeo-Christian tradition for thousands of years has said otherwise, that only humans are created in God's image. This has done a great deal in terms of placing humans over animals and justifying our common practice of killing and eating animals.
We know there are plenty of people out there even today who would justify meat eating on the basis of these Biblical texts. Most Americans today probably don't know much about the Bible but they would say that in the Bible God gives humans rights over animals and that is why it is all right to eat them. That reason and the fact that animals taste good are probably the 2 main justifications most people in our country today would give for meat eating.
Of course it would be very strange for us, for Unitarians, to cite the Bible for justification for our own meat eating ways and for drawing a solid line of distinction between us humans and the other animals. Just imagine if we Unitarians actually said to each other: "we know we humans are superior to the animals and that we have the ethical right to eat them because God said so in the Bible." This is precisely the type of claim Unitarians would not and should not make. People like Unitarians and others, who desire not to stand on the shaky ground of superstition and antiquated inherited beliefs, seek to ground their beliefs in reason. So, in this case, since we don't wish to stand on Biblical grounds, perhaps we can feel more comfortable seeking rational grounds for our human superiority and for our eating of animals within the history of western philosophy.
The great 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes took up the question of the distinction between humans and animals in an attempt to give the notion of human superiority to animals not just a biblical but a rational foundation. Descartes argues that even humans that are born without speech or hearing still attempt other ways to communicate, and this to him proves that humans possess souls completely different from animals. Beasts, says Descartes, not only have inferior reason but no reason. They also have no language, and we should not make the mistake of thinking animals have a language of their own and that we just cannot understand it. Animals look like humans, says Descartes, but they are actually more like machines that are capable of only looking like humans. For Descartes, animals are some odd type of machine or automaton that are able to mimic some of the actions of humans.
Toward the close of the 18th century the great philosopher of ethics Emmanuel Kant took up the question of ethical obligations toward animals. He of course insisted that humans have inescapable ethical obligations to our fellow humans, but do humans have ethical responsibilities to animals? Kant answered this question in the negative. Animals, Kant said, do not possess rationality so humans do not have ethical obligations to them. Obligations to animals are actually indirect obligations to humans. It is wrong for me to come along and kill your cow, for example, because that would harm you. Kant asserted that my ethical obligations are entirely to you and not to your insensate cow.
If we Unitarians don't want to base our human superiority to animals and our meat eating ways on the Bible, is western philosophy here any help? Do we wish to say with Descartes that animals are really tricky machines without reason and without language? Do we wish to agree with Kant and say that we humans have no ethical responsibilities to animals? Surely we would be uncomfortable grabbing on to either of these modern philosophical views as justification for continuing to grab on to the fork and continue to eat meat.
So perhaps all we can do is end up as Nietzscheans. Nietzsche, of course, was a post-Darwin philosopher. He not only accepted the truth that humans are animals, but he taught that humans are relatively helpless and inferior animals quite ill equipped for our struggle with all the other animals. All we have is our superior brains, and for Nietzsche one of the most effective things we humans have done with those brains is to tell ourselves that we aren't animals, that we are above animals, superior to them. This is, Nietzsche says, a lie humans have been telling ourselves forever. For Nietzsche, the very word human is a lie. The notion that God created us as a special being separate from animals is a double lie. God is a lie, and our non-animal identity as humans is a lie. And Nietzsche would say we can live without these lies now. We animals who call ourselves humans are simply animals with bigger brains. That has enabled us to invent all kinds of weapons to kill animals and eat them. That is just the way it is. Nietzsche would say we should do this without guilt, but he would also say we should do this without lying to ourselves and telling ourselves the same old story about how we are some special creature. We are just animals among animals.
Probably many contemporary people, and not merely many Unitarians, would end up embracing Niezsche's view. For those who find this dissatisfying and desire more distinction language, more of a separation between humans on the one hand and all the other animals on the other hand, there are 2 great 20th century philosophical attempts to reinstantiate a serious dividing line between humans and animals, 2 great, post-Nietzschean attempts to reestablish the language of separation and distinction between humans and animals. These 2 great 20th century philosophical attempts are seen in the works of the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the great French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.
Heidegger takes up the distinction between inanimate things, animals, and humans in his work and gives us the famous Heideggerian formula about worlds: things are worldless, animals are poor in world, and humans are creators of worlds. Things have no consciousness and so have no awareness of the world of which they are a part. Animals for Heidegger are not dumb brutes and have conscious awareness of self and world but have a minimal and inferior understanding of world. So for Heidegger animals are not things and are somewhat aware of world but are poor in world. Animals exist with very little understanding of or relation to the world around them, as opposed to humans who live intelligently and responsively in the world and creatively refashion the world. So Heidegger gives us a treatment of the human/animal question that is more respectful of animals than the western philosophical tradition usually is while also reestablishing the distinction between humans and animals and human superiority over non-human animals through his claim that animals are "poor in world." Would ornithologists agree with Heideggerians that birds are poor in world? Would primatologists agree that apes and other primates are poor in world? Surely not, but this is the fun of this new interdisciplinary field of study called human-animal studies.
The second great 20th philosophical attempt to draw a dividing line between humans and other animals appears in the work of the great contemporary philosopher of ethics, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Of all contemporary thinkers, Levinas is the most obsessed about ethics and ethical responsibility. He insists that ethical responsibility is inscribed in the very origin of the interrelation between humans. He insists over and over again that the very epiphany of the human, what he calls the Face, brings an appeal to the other human not to do violence. It is as if the face of the other human says to the self, "Don't kill me." The appeal to nonviolence and to ethical responsibility is in the face of the other human.
Once anyone understands, or begins to understand, what Levinas is saying, there is one question that arises over and over again, from Levinas scholars to people hearing this for the first time. Well, if Levinas believes there is an appeal to ethical responsibility in the face of the other human, what about the face of the animal? Don't I become aware of my ethical responsibility to the animal when I look into the face of my dog, or a deer, or a bear?
Much as many people would like to get a positive answer from Levinas on this question and hear him say yes, there is also an ethical appeal in the face of the animal, the animal does have a face in exactly the same way I use the term in my philosophy to refer to the origin of the interhuman, Levinas just doesn't do that. As much as people want Levinas to be a postmodern, animal loving type of guy and bridge this traditional gap between humans and animals, Levinas just won't do it, and his philosophical work actually reinstantiates this dividing line or separation between humans and animals. For Levinas, the ethical force shows itself in the face of the other human but not in the face of the animal. The originary ethical sense is for Levinas an inter-human phenomenon and appears in the face of the other person, and as many times as people try to get Levinas to say that there is an ethical appeal in the face of the animal, Levinas just won't go there. This is a great disappointment to animal rights people and people in the human-animal studies area who hope that this most ethically concerned of all contemporary thinkers will bridge the traditional gap between human animals and non-human animals. Instead, Levinas actually reinstantiates that gap between human animals and nonhuman animals in his own ethically obsessed philosophy.
Of course really serious Levinas people know that Levinas himself was not an animal person and hardly ever mentioned animals. There is, of course, one huge exception to this every serious Levinas person knows. This reference to animals occurs in one of those very rare passages where he is actually talking about himself and his own experiences, something he almost never does. Late in his career, in 1975, he writes a brief piece called "The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights." In it he tells a story about W.W. II, when he and other Jewish prisoners of war were locked up away from the world in a POW camp deep in the forest of Germany. The passage is extraordinary. Levinas tell us what it feels like to live this human-animal distinction from the other side and be considered an animal: "The other men, called free, who gave us work or orders or even a smile - and the children and women who passed by and sometimes raised their eyes - stripped us of our human skin. We were subhuman, a gang of apes . . . We were beings entrapped in their species; despite all their vocabulary, beings without language. . . How can we deliver a message about our humanity which, from behind the bars of quotation marks, will come across as anything other than monkey talk?"
Levinas was in this forest POW camp for almost 5 years and says almost nothing about it, but just then in this essay he tells one remarkable story about a time in this camp, a story about a dog, a dog whom the prisoners named Bobby: "He would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight. For him, there was no doubt that we were men." Levinas goes on to describe Bobby the dog as "the last Kantian in Nazi Germany", meaning the last ethical being who recognized his ethical responsibility to human beings.
It's extraordinary, really. This philosopher who restricts the ethics of the face to the face of the human and disappoints everyone who wants to think the human-animal distinction otherwise, and yet one of the few stories he tells about his own life is this remarkable event where other humans thought of him and of his fellow Jewish prisoners as animals and the only person who recognized them as human beings was a dog!
That is extraordinary, extraordinary in the sense of ironic, contradictory. Perhaps we can see in Levinas's extraordinary situation our own extraordinary situation. We still eat meat, but how do we justify that? We certainly don't want to justify ourselves by Biblical mythology, or Descartes' animals as machines, or Kant's refusal to recognize human obligations to animals. The animals experts won't even allow us to tell ourselves that animals are poor in world. And we too wonder why there is no ethical command in the face of animals. After all, haven't we seen the appeal to responsibility ourselves in the face of at least certain animals?
Perhaps everything having to do with animals and humans in this time called postmodernity is extraordinary. Everything, including a Unitarian minister who is in the extraordinary situation of saying to a friend over lunch: "I'm not a vegetarian. I just like that portbello sandwich." Isn't it an extraordinary situation to on the one hand shove a turkey sandwich into my son's mouth and on the other hand to really want to raise him with a profound love for animals?
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.