The Choice Quandary – A Response to Bridget Crawford

David Cassuto

Imputing a lack of agency to sentient beings of whatever type makes for a difficult row to hoe.  In the animal advocacy community, there are many who feel strongly that domesticating animals is ethically wrong because it involves involuntary servitude.  Thus, the practice should be phased out.  Since most animals bred for a domestic existence could not exist on their own, this would, of course, mean phasing out the animals as well.

This position raises all sorts of interesting issues.  For example, the same Marxian critique that Professor Crawford cites could cut either way.  One might argue that choosing to portray companion animals as involuntarily enslaved reflects an androcentric conception of class relationships and denies the domestic animals their right to exist.  One could conversely maintain that the act of keeping the animals reflects a lack of class consciousness borne of false consciousness.

More quandaries present themselves.  Abolitionists might say that in addition to the ethical problems inherent to domestication, practical reality also militates for the institution’s demise.  Billions of animals suffer and die each year in agriculture and countless millions of unwanted companion animals die in shelters.  This wholesale slaughter should not stand.  And, since it results directly from our misguided and exploitive relationship with animals, if the relationship goes, so too will the exploitation.

The counter-argument might propose that exploitation need not be inherent. As Michael Pollan among others has argued, there exists a potentially symbiotic relationship between humans and domestic animals.  In other words, animals and humans co-evolved into mutual reliance.  One might further note that exploitation is subjective in its very essence.  If one doesn’t feel exploited, how can one be exploited?  And that leads to the query: what do the animals feel about their situation?  Putting aside the factory farm situation where it would be hard for any rational person to argue that the animals benefit from or enjoy their torment, we cannot know what the animals feel.  It’s the dilemma of Wittgenstein’s lion: If the lion could talk, we could not understand him.

So what do we do?  I think about this stuff all the time but feel less certain every day about the bounding principles of the discourse.  In other words, I do not know what is right.  However, I remain confident that certain things are wrong.  Factory farming, vivisection, gratuitous cruelty, etc.  Maybe we could agree to get rid of the obviously wrong while continuing to talk about the not so obvious stuff.

All this by way of circling back to the high heels issue.  Is there choice there?  I feel like there is because there exists both the potential for choice and the language through which to express it.  I say this though fully cognizant of the argument that language is itself a tool of the oppressor and thus inherently constrains choice.  Still, I maintain that — though imperfect — language in its present form can express a feminist perspective.  Not so for the lion’s perspective.  Or the chicken’s.  Or that of  any other non-human.  And that’s what makes speaking for the voiceless so darn hard.

x-posted in Feminist Law Professors

2 Responses

  1. Part of the issue is, of course, essentially definitional. When one describes the ownership of animals, at least those that are companions rather than part of the food chain for humans, by ascribing their status to “involuntary servitude” a feeling of innate wrongness is clearly imparted.

    As my colleague points out (perhaps a bit grudgingly), many, indeed the vast number of people in societies both developed and not, have always bonded with animals for mutual support and, dare I say it, love.

    I type this with one of my cats on my lap. He likes superintending my time at the keyboard and I stroke him while I send out all sorts of cyber missives (missiles too). For anyone to describe his status as one of involuntary servitude not only irrationally deconstructs the historic animal-human relationship but also, in my view, cheapens appreciation of historic enslavement of humans which still goes on today in the form of peonage and sexual control of women.

    I can’t help thinking about two and a half years ago when I was slowly recovering in an ICU from a near fatal heart attack. I’m very good at keeping my feelings under control and, in fact, I spent more time consoling and reassuring visitors than I did worrying about my questionable prognosis. Then a man came into my room with a “canine therapist,” a gorgeous Australian sheep dog. He asked if I wanted the dog in bed with me. I said “yes,” the dog hopped into bed and I was left alone. I hugged the dog and for the first and only time I cried. That dog understood everything. Involuntary servitude? If anyone can’t understand the ancient but enduring bonds between people and animals they bring into their personal lives, they can continue with their theories and beliefs. But they will never convince many.

    Comment by Ralph Stein | March 14, 2009

  2. Hello,
    New here. Thanks

    Mary Aloe
    Proud Mary Entertainment

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