Sunday, April 8, 2012

Coetzee, "The Lives of Animals"

            “…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 [animals] ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them” (119).  This excerpt, taken from Elizabeth Costello’s lecture, “The Philosophers and the Animals” illustrates the idea that humans are committing violations equal to that of the Third Reich, in their harsh slaughter of animals for food purposes.  She makes an interesting and valid point when she maintains that we deemed the Germans inhumane because of a kind of “willed ignorance” on their part about the slaughter of the Jews, and then argues that the major crime of the Holocaust was the way in which the Nazis treated humans like animals.  However, Elizabeth formulates a controversial argument when she compares all humans to the Nazis in our slaughter of animals- that we mercilessly raise and kill innocent animals, and then walk away feeling that our conscience is still clean.

At first, I was a little taken aback and somewhat angered by her comparison between the Nazis treatment of the European Jews and our treatment of animals, because it was hard to imagine that in eating meat, I was helping to perpetuate a process that was equal, or worse, than the Holocaust.  However, upon reading more of the lectures, I realized that this was probably due to this accepted philosophical belief that humans are, in a sense, morally superior, because of the notion that humans have abilities that humans do not have, such as abstract reasoning and fear of death (144-145).  Some of the audience even used the religious argument, that man was the only being created in the image of God, to prove man’s superiority and therefore the acceptability of slaughtering animals. 

Elizabeth Costello counters these arguments.  She maintains that using the inability of animals to speak/reason as a justification for their inferiority and prove that humans are the only people over which we don’t have the power of life and death highlight the falsity of the argument (151-152).  She asserts, “…in history, embracing the [superior] status of man has entailed slaughtering and enslaving a race of divine or else divinely created beings and bringing down on ourselves a curse” (154).  This quote seemed especially interesting when looking at previous subjects and atrocities committed through out history. We can argue that the slaughter of animals does not matter because of their inferior status, but haven’t humans used this justification all through out history to legitimize the torture and destruction of entire groups of people?  The “inferior intelligence” and “unclean” argument that we use when justifying the slaughter of animals seems awfully similar to that used by the Nazis in exterminating the Jews, and in genocides committed through out history.  The idea of a superior status has been utilized in justifying the Americans’, and other groups’, atrocious treatment of entire groups of people through out history.

When looking at it this way, it does not seem so ridiculous to compare the daily massacre of animals to that of the Jews in the Holocaust.  Each day we raise animals and herd them into abusive conditions only to kill them later for our own enjoyment. We too close our hearts to sympathy for these creatures, just as they did so many years ago.  

We claim that humans are superior because of our reason and intelligent skills, but we seem to be the only beings that terrorize and kill other members of our own species because of ideas like “ethnic cleansing” and as a source of entertainment, as in the torture at Abu Ghraib.

While I felt the comparison was a little far-fetched in the beginning, I was surprised to find myself recognizing the reason behind her arguments.  However, I wonder how much of an effect these arguments can really have on people.  The process of killing animals has become so institutionalized and accepted, as have other forms of mass violence through out history, that I wonder if it is possible to really get people to change their views and habits. Is it a fight worth fighting?  While I accept her arguments, I realize how easy it would be to continue to close our hearts to sympathy and just go on with life eating meat, because it tastes good and provides nutrients that we are told we need.  I recognize the atrocious conditions in which we subject animals, but found myself struggling with the right action to take after this acknowledgement.  


  1. In reading Maddie’s post, I found that many of the thoughts I had throughout the Coetzee reading are thoughts Maddie also had. When Maddie asks if it is possible to really get people to change their views and habits and is it a fight worth fighting, I had been asking myself the same question. To some extent it even connected to our two prior units, what fights are worth fighting and to what extent to we justify our action or inaction? While eating meat, for some, is much less extreme than say ending torture in war or the racial inequality and mass incarceration occurring in our country, to some extent they function on the same level. Those who believe animals’ rights don’t matter seem to be using the superior status of man over others as a basis for their argument. While animals are not human, we take away their “animal qualities” by putting them in small cages, feeding them through tubes and not allowing them to have a life prior to killing them for our own consumption; prisoners of war are put into cages, have their lives taken from them in order for us to gain information for our protection, much like a form of consumption.
    We cage animals so that humans have cheap food to eat and plenty of it and this is a form of control in which man demonstrates their superior status to others. Connecting to our unit on torture in war, our rights and safety here at home are more important than those in the countries we are at war with, and therefore we will dehumanize them in order to keep our “superior” status. The extent to which we use different kinds of “reason” to justify our actions of dominance over others appears to be one of the ideas Coetzee strives to make sense of in her argument comparing the holocaust and animal consumption.

    The question Maddie asks is a question I have been thinking about a lot, as a person caring about all of the issues I have mentioned above, but I seem to be asking the question: to what extent is it reasonable that one person can really create change? However as Coetzee states “We understand by immersing ourselves and our intelligence in complexity. There is something self-stultified in the way in which scientific behaviorism recoils form the complexity of life (159).” Therefore it seems as though Coetzee would suggest that a simple answer is, in fact, not the answer. Living and figuring out the complexities of life is the only way in which one can begin to grapple the complex question about human morals, animal rights and to what extent one can effectively change a state in which humans (in our case western humans) hold themselves as superior to all other kinds of people and things.

  2. I can also relate to Maddie’s post insofar as I, too, started out questioning whether or not this was a fight worth fighting. In my opinion, there are a lot of more serious issues that need to be addressed in this country and world. But maybe that rank ordering of issues is problematic in itself. In this increasingly interconnected world can we really create stark distinctions and ranks of the issues that are being faced? Does one issue not have to do with the others?
    Before I read this article, I was pretty firm in my stance that eating meat was okay. And I still am. But the issue as I see it isn’t really about eating meat. Certainly animals kill other animals for food all the time. I don’t think anyone is debating whether moral blame should be bestowed on the lion that eats the antelope, and for the same reason, I don’t think moral blame should be debated when considering the human who eats the chicken. The issue that I see as worthy of consideration is the way that these animals are treated before we kill them for food. There is something that seems very ‘wrong’ about caging animals in death camps, and treating them disgustingly, simply for our own consumption. Hunting with the bow and arrow, in a manner more closely aligned to the tactics employed by natural predators in the rest of the animal kingdom seems much more organic.
    Even Elizabeth Costello agrees, however, that it would be impractical to hunt all of our animals in that manner. So instead, we do what is most convenient. And efficient. And profitable. Which brings me back to my original point about the interconnectedness of all of the issues this world faces. Like overconsumption, for example. In order to get the most meat, as cheap and easy as possible, we raise animals in these killing camps with no regard to their dignity. In order to get the most sneakers, as cheap and easy as possible, we “hire” people to work in labor-lawless factories with no regard to their dignity. In the end, we’re left with everything we want at the cheapest price possible. And such is over consumption in this world.
    Further, Costello argues that “being cruel to animals may accustom us to being cruel to men” (120). This may be true, but I am inclined to say that the opposite may be more true. We are so cruel to men that it is only natural that we are cruel to animals. We lock up the poor in our country, torture the prisoners in Afghanistan, and photograph the suffering in Africa. What of all of this would lead one to believe that humans wouldn’t do the same to animals? So although I understand Maddie’s concerns, I don’t think we’re even at a place where we can ask “Is this a fight worth fighting for?” Instead, we still must ask “Is this a fight that we could fight, even if it was worth it?” We cannot garner enough sympathy or impetus to make real change regarding the systemic torture or mass incarceration of our fellow humans. How should we go about garnering enough sympathy and impetus to make real change regarding cows?