Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A Critique of Ecological Animalism

In this post, I would like to offer a critique of Val Plumwood's philosophical theory called ecological animalism, which she formulated in an attempt to address the human relationship to other animals and to the environment. The theory can in many ways be best understood by contrasting it to what Plumwood calls ontological veganism, so we will start our discussion there.

The term 'ontological veganism' really just denotes the common variants of animal rights philosophy. The idea here is that we find some property the possession of which would accord moral standing to any item that possesses that property. In this context, the property in question is usually something like 'sentience' or 'being a subject-of-a-life'. Once we establish this, and once we recognize that all (or nearly all) animals possess this property, we then conclude that animals are not food and are not to be exploited by humans.

But, so Plumwood argues, taking this notion on board actually serves to reproduce the human/animal duality that vegans are trying to avoid. For if animals are not food, and if we condemn humans for consuming them, then why do we not also condemn carnivorous animals for doing the same thing? If we answer this question by saying that such animals are a part of 'nature', and humans are a part of 'culture', then we have quite seemingly just erected another duality between the two.

This is where Plumwood's theory comes into play. ecological animalism, she claims, avoids such dualities by placing humanity right back into the fold of nature. For her, all natural items are deeply interdependent upon one another and must of necessity make use of one another. Just one among many of these uses in that of consumption. In some situations, humans have no choice but to do this. Conversely, other animals must sometimes consume humans. Thus humans are at the same level of importance as the other animals, and like the other animals, they can also be food.

My critique of this view will take the form of a reductio ad absurdum. To begin, let us consider a widespread behavior within the animal kingdom; namely that of sexual coercion. This is a behavior that has been observed in numerous animal species (those who doubt this should check the wikipedia article here for the references). But the interesting thing to note here is that if a human commits an act that would qualify as sexual coercion, then we would say that the human has committed rape, and thus they have committed a moral transgression. The reason we say this is because we consider all sentient beings or all subjects-of-a-life to be not the kind of items that can be sexually assaulted.

But if sentient being/subjects-of-a-life are not the kinds of objects that can be sexually assaulted, and if we condemn humans for committing this act, then why do we not condemn the other animals for doing the same thing? If we answer this question by saying that such animals are a part of 'nature', and humans are a part of 'culture', then we have just erected another duality between them.

Therefore, if we are beholden to ecological animalism, we should just get rid of this otiose duality and place humans right back into the fold of nature. Indeed, we must recognize that there are certain times when species must make use of one another for the purpose of procreation, and this might require them to commit sexual coercion. Thus, we should discontinue punishing rapists and other assorted sex offenders.

If it is not clear at this point, ecological animalism has one key flaw that very well might be fatal: namely, it does not give due consideration to moral agency. Indeed, to say that the Vegan's response to the question concerning why we do not condemn carnivorous animals is merely that they are not a part of culture, the ecological animalist has committed a strawman fallacy. For this is not anywhere near the strongest reply we can give, as any requisite analysis will demonstrate.

In fact, the appropriate response that the vegan should give is to point out that most human beings are moral agents, while all nonhuman animals (so far as we can tell) are not. This is the key difference at issue. For if a being lacks any understanding of right and wrong, and thus is incapable of making moral judgments, then it is analytically true that they cannot be held accountable for their actions. This is precisely why vegans do not condemn carnivorous animals, because to do so would be entirely nonsensical.

But we should also note that this is not a human/animal duality, for some actual humans lack moral agency, and just like the other animals, these humans also cannot be held accountable for their actions. There might be a worry about the harmful effects of a potential moral agent/non moral agent duality, but I think we can avoid this altogether by carefully avoiding any assertions that would entail the superiority of moral agents over nonmoral agents.

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