13 min read

Answering 'The Enigma of Animal Suffering'

I am not completely convinced the recent New York Times piece "The Enigma of Animal Suffering" by Rhys Southan is not a performative over-identification with its own arguments in order to display an untenable position. Barring this scenario, I'll respond to its arguments and conclusions at face value.

The central pivot of "The Enigma of Animal Suffering" is its contention that making an analogy between animal suffering and human suffering is an illicit one. In short, that such analogies are unsound or simply anthropomorphic projections. Nevertheless, at no point in the piece does the author offer an argument expressing exactly how or why such analogies are illicit. By and large, it remains a tacit presumption. Consider this passage:

Our perception of the external, of disturbing images or scenes, is sometimes a projection of our own feelings as observers; it does not match what the subjects of such treatment actually experience.

While it is true that humans have been known to project their own baggage onto others, nothing in this scenario of "disturbing images or scenes" would point to this being the case here. René Descartes could interpret dog screams as automatic and mechanical, but we cannot do so today without falling into bad faith. You do not need to be a speculative realist to affirm that forms of life who share with you eyes, nerve endings, ambulation, limbic systems, communication, forms of kinship, blood, and sexual drive overlap with you in some way.

One also needs to understand the difference between homology and analogy. Human and nonhuman animal screams and suffering – not to mention joy and sociability – are homologous forms of expression, not analogical. In fact, this homologous human-animal meeting place has provided us with some pretty secure forms of knowledge: it is the basis for evolution, for ethology, and alas, for all the forms of experimentation that understand the animal to be just human enough to give us usable information about ourselves (from cosmetics to space flight).

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (1929) famously fed off this human-animal meeting place. The last-second stand-in of a calf's eye as sacrificial surrogate for a young girl's eye flaunted the censors and legality. A speciesist sense of relief might come over the viewer once the switch is recongnized. Nevertheless, the fact that a bovine eye could so readily be confused with a human eye – in its capacity for sight, in movement, and in orbital integrity that pops and becomes viscous if its membrane is broken with a razor – is a traumatic meeting point between a human and nonhuman animal. This is a scene of homology and analogy, not a projection of our own feelings as observers. The hope is that today sacrificing a calf's eye - for film or food - is as disturbing and violent as any other.

Immediately following the tenuous claim that "sometimes a projection of our own feelings" might be playing a role in our disposition towards eating meat, the writer continues with the following:

Animal slaughter, for instance, looks gory and disturbing, but when the animals are knocked insensible first, the discomfort is our own - not theirs.

Surprisingly, this sentence undercuts the very claim of the one immediately preceding it. After all, the fact that these animals need to be "knocked insensible" before processing surely points to the fact that we are not simply projecting suffering or our discomfort onto them. They do, in fact, have and show this capacity (along with much else). Why coerce or anesthetize them if they cannot suffer harm in all the ways we so plainly share and empathize with?

Moreover, just because animals can be rendered unconscious before death and dismemberment does not negate this knowledge we have of their being in the world. Neither does dissimulating violent intent or action - in order for those afflicted to be processed unawares - make this violent intent or action ethical. The wrong of killing a being that would prefer to live cannot be sidestepped by anesthesia.

If all this were true, then where is the "enigma?" If violence against nonhuman animals only "looks gory and disturbing," and if it is simply a matter of our own "discomfort," then the author has already settled the case. There would be no enigma. There would only be confusion and anthropomorphic projection.

The major flaw in "The Enigma of Animal Suffering," however, is the writer's reliance on the very mode of analogizing he seems to be arguing against. This happens in at least four instances:

The recourse to these four analogies tacitly endorsed by the author, which are in turn employed to argue against the use of human-animal analogies, is an irrecoverable flaw in thought. Instead of doing away with analogy all-together (should that even be possible), it would be better to understand where and when it might be constructive in thinking ethically.

We might simply envision a Venn diagram of human and nonhuman animal capacities converging at some geometrical area, which would certainly be big enough for us to make ethical claims for protecting them both (and yes, even for making analogies). In fact, recognizing human-animal homology or analogy works well in forging ethical claims and communities between human and nonhuman animals. This recognition of human-animal affinity might lead to a community of species that neither upkeeps the strict humanist separation between human and nonhuman animals, nor collapses the human with the nonhuman animal (nor nonhuman with nonhuman, for that matter, as the plural "animals" does so blindly), which would only lead to the justification of violence towards both. Instead, such a community of species would maintain difference while never losing sight of the existential overlaps in sentient being that form the very basis for ethics, community, and ecology. After all, we humans are mammals with similar capacities for breathing bad air, suffering harm, fearing death, recognizing and protecting our young at all costs, and so on.

However humanist, circular, and self-serving, it seems only natural for the human to tell himself that human suffering is more valid than animal suffering. The human may even convince himself that lessening animal suffering can justify exploitation and an early death, something he would presumably never advocate for his own kind. It is not difficult to see, however, that these positions amount to species discrimination pure and simple. Since the writer himself says that eating animals is not necessary for human thriving (not without throwing in a "perhaps," even though this dietary fact is becoming clearer and clearer by the day) all these questions of ameliorated animal suffering are rendered moot.

At base, the arguments in this piece fall into the pseudo-ethical camp of corporate "happy meat," which happily co-opts the locavorialy minded and specious omnivorous dilemmas (specious because the very fact that we are omnivores does away with any dilemma; the only true dietary dilemma would be if we humans were biologically carnivorous, for only then would we be conflicted and forced to choose between our death and the death of other animals. For an intelligent critique of this purported dilemma, see James McWilliams' excellent essay "Loving Animals to Death" in The American Scholar).

There are many wonderful thinkers working today on various questions of human-animal meeting points: Donna Haraway, Kalpana Rahita Seshardi, Cary Wolfe, Margo de Mello, and many others besides (not to mention, the late Jacques Derrida's invaluable philosophical corpus on the nonhuman animal). If after all the advances of the past few decades still leaves us with the impression that the nonhuman animal is truly an "enigma," then the human animal remains an indelible participant in this enigma. It would not only point to impoverished arguments, but to impoverished imaginations that ignore empathy and all those with the ability to empathize back.