One of Us

One of Us, discussing some Western concepts of animal consciousness through the ages. Simon was right that I would like Spinoza.

Anguish (1880), by August Friedrich Schenck

Apart from the general point—horses feel horse joy, cats feel cat joy, etc.—Spinoza makes two less familiar but equally significant claims. The first is his lovely definition of the soul: that it is in some way wrapped up with, coextensive with, the “essence” of the creature possessing it. The particular nature in which every creature is able to rejoice precisely by being most entirely itself is the soul. That settles the matter of whether animals have souls. Of course they do. The horse has a horse soul, the fish has a fish soul. The second claim is Spinoza’s radical—but instantly persuasive— statement that one human being’s essence could be unintelligible to another. The drunkard is a different type of human being than the philosopher, but he is also a different creature, full stop. Are we so sure that species identification is proof against the canyons of misapprehension that separate us from, say, the monkey spider? This could be a frightening thought: accepting that no two consciousnesses can ever have transparency, or at any rate can never have certainty about it, leaves us on some level cosmically alone. Spinoza takes the notion in stride. He’d be more prone to say, Well, no doubt we sometimes understand each other.

Suprisingly, perhaps, these thoughts did not lead Spinoza to a recommendation of total empathy with the animal kingdom, as the animal-rights activist in us would hope. He is fairly cold-eyed, even cold-hearted, writing,

It is plain that the law against the slaughtering of animals is founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason. The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours.

In order to understand this, we have to know something about Spinoza’s definition of fundamental or natural right, which comes very close to meaning, simply, power. We have the right to do with them “as we please,” just as they have the “right” to eat us, if the meeting happens on ground more favorable to them. Spinoza isn’t trying to argue that we shouldn’t act kindly toward them, when we can, but he does imply that we needn’t feel guilty about it, when we treat them violently. It’s our right. It suits us.

That is a common ex-vegetarian place to end up. Animals are amazing, individual, worthy beings, and also we find their bodies delicious and useful.