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Hypatia Symposium: Ambivalence toward Animals and the Moral Community by KELLY OLIVER

In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.

Title:  Ambivalence toward Animals and the Moral Community


 W. Alton Jones Chair of Philosophy with appointments in African-American and Diaspora Studies, Film Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies, Vanderbilt University

Read the full special issue here

Download a PDF of this Symposium

I recently attended an excellent session on Animality and Race at which two young feminist philosophers, Erin Tarver and Alison Suen, presented their research. Tarver presented an insightful analysis of football fans’ reactions to Michael Vick’s criminal sentence for fighting pit bulls (Tarver 2011). She argued that in the media, pit bulls are associated with gangs and ghettos, rounded up without due process, and killed because they are seen as dangerous and spreading danger like contagion. Suen presented a fascinating account of the film The Cove, in which Japanese fishermen are figured as cruel because of their treatment of dolphins (Suen 2011). She argued that the fishermen are seen as dumb beasts whereas the dolphins are seen as innocent victims, intelligent and sensitive in ways that the fishermen are not. With the pit bull, the animal is imagined as dangerous and threatening, whereas with the dolphin the animal is imagined as innocent and victimized.

This leads me to again wonder about the ambivalent place of animals with regard to the moral community: on the one hand, they are often figured as innocents by nature and therefore not morally culpable; on the other hand, they can be figured as monstrous threats that require immediate “disposal,” as in the recent case of exotic animals in Ohio where dozens of large animals were summarily killed after their “keeper” freed them before committing suicide. Although it is true that we have different relations to different animals—some are cute and cuddly and others seem abject or dangerous—animals, animality, and “the animal” occupy a fundamentally ambivalent place in our cultural imaginary. Indeed, I would argue that our sense of a moral community is essentially linked to the ambivalent function that animals and animality play in our fantasies about what is cruelty, what is innocence, and what is natural.

Returning to the pit bulls and the dolphins, Tarver and Suen articulated various connections between these animals and race and the racialization of humans. In both cases, animals are part of an imaginary configuration wherein human beings are seen as dangerous by virtue of a process of racialization involving animals. And, in both cases, the ways in which human beings treat animals reflects on their own figuration as animals, a point that Suen makes in her analysis. Yet it seems to me that there is more going on in what I would call the displacements of our own cruelty and animality onto other animals, on the one hand, and our animalization of racialized others, on the other. In both cases, at different extremes, animals come to represent the limits of the moral community such that we justify excluding from that community the people associated with them.

In the case of the pit bulls, as Tarver’s analysis suggests, these dogs come to stand in for black men, who cannot be quite so easily rounded up and killed without due process; although statistics show that by far those incarcerated in the United States, and those on death row, are African American or men of color. In this case, dogs represent the imagined threat of black men as dangerous, a fantasy familiar to us within our racist culture. The supposed threat of black men is displaced onto the dogs who are then rounded up and killed, satisfying our fantastic desire to excise what we imagine as dangerous, even monstrous, from our moral community. In other words, whereas black men can be “rounded up and killed” only as part of the moral community, or more precisely the legal community wherein their imprisonment and executions must be sanctioned by the state, their dogs can be excluded from both the moral and legal communities as symptoms, so to speak, of “our” desire to exclude black men. On the other end of the spectrum, think of the sympathy directed toward the abandoned dogs of Hurricane Katrina who received more media attention than the abandoned people. Here again, the sympathy that could have, or should have, been directed at African Americans suffering loss and death is displaced onto their dogs, seemingly because many white Americans can feel more sympathy toward dogs than they can toward African Americans. In a sense, the sympathy for Katrina’s human victims can be felt and articulated only through Katrina’s dogs. Once again, the Katrina dogs can be seen as a symptom of “our” inability to properly include African Americans in the moral community such that we extend to them the care and compassion required—at least as articulated by feminist moral theorists—to be part of it.

In the case of the dolphins, Suen argues that the Japanese fishermen are presented not only as cruel and beastly but also as illiterate or even dumb in the sense that the filmmakers cannot understand them and they cannot understand the filmmakers, who don’t speak any Japanese. On the other hand, as Suen points out, the filmmakers listen to dolphin communication using high-tech apparatus. As she suggests, the dolphins begin to move into the moral community only insofar as the Japanese fishermen are moved to its margins. Conversely, through the juxtaposition with these playful, intelligent, and ultimately innocent creatures, the fishermen are marginalized as barbaric racial others, more other to proper human society than the marine mammals they kill. The dolphins, like the pit bulls, are presented as not only at the limits of the moral community, but also as a test case for entrance into it. If the pit bulls represent nature’s cruelty as the monstrous limit, the dolphins represent nature’s guilelessness as the innocent limit. In both cases, animals come to represent the limits of the moral community, either as monsters or beasts who are too cruel to be included in the moral or civil law, or as absolute innocents who are too childlike or naïve to be included in the moral or civil law.

Animals occupy either pole of the limits of the moral community: they are absolutely innocent because they act on instinct and therefore do not control their behavior and cannot be morally blameworthy; they are absolutely monstrous because they cannot control their violent instincts and are therefore beyond the pale of the moral community. Either way, animals serve to shore up the boundaries of what we consider the proper—and properly human—moral community. Either way, animals (and humans associated with them) are outside of moral and civil law. Either way, they are not considered moral agents; or they are liminal moral agents who can be disposed of outside of any civil or moral codes. Even innocents can be sacrificed (like the exotic animals in Ohio, seen as simultaneously innocent and dangerous). And monstrous vermin must be killed in order to protect the proper moral community (like the pit bulls associated with gang violence).

In a sense, animals are what we might call “transitional objects” through which human beings are given, or refused, entrance into the moral community. Human beings are marginalized or excluded from the moral community through comparisons with animals as either dumb innocents who don’t know any better (for example, children or the mentally disabled), or as monsters and beasts whose cruel nature puts them outside of human law (for example, racialized others considered violent by nature or terrorists figured as monstrous). Through their animal representatives, operating in a somewhat totemic fashion, both naïve innocents and certain racialized others are pushed to the margins of the moral community. Ambivalence toward animals, then, becomes both a symptom and a displacement of ambivalence toward racialized others whom we imagine as threats to the properly human—and humane—moral community.

Animal studies, especially within philosophical debates over animal rights and animal welfare, continues to be driven in large part by discussions that revolve around some notion of a moral community and whether animals are part of it, and if so, how. Questions of our obligations toward animals, and animals’ rights and responsibilities, continue to be at the center of debates in animal studies. Some feminist theorists (Adams 1990/2010; Donovan 1990; Gruen 1993; MacKinnon 2004; and others) have made important connections between animal theory and feminist theory, sometimes also making references to race and critical race theory. Associations among objectified others, including women, racialized others, sexual “minorities,” and animals or animality have become commonplace. The role of animals, animality, and “the animal” in our fantasies of gender, race, and sex, however, is complex, and, until recently, undertheorized. Moreover, although many have argued that the domination of, and violence against, women and racialized others is (or has been) justified in the dominant discourse by appeals to their supposed animality (or lack of reason and other characterizations that would make them full members of the moral community), few have interrogated how and why the concepts of animality or of the animal are employed in this way. Why does association with animals justify mistreatment of humans? In other words, what does it mean to treat a being, human or otherwise, “as an animal”? And, following Tarver’s and Suen’s analyses, we might ask, what does it mean when our own humanity revolves around treating or not treating animals “as animals”?

What is missing from most discussions in animal studies is consideration of the ways in which animals occupy an ambivalent place in what we might call the psychic space of what we take to be human. Although philosophers have acknowledged that we define our own humanity against animality, and thereby disavow our own animality, few have diagnosed how this dynamic of avowal and disavowal works, or how it is manifest in both our treatment of animals and in our treatment of other people. Some psychoanalytic concepts can be useful in disarticulating the ambivalent position of animals in our culture: from animals who are valorized, even loved, like dolphins and companion animals, to those who are vilified, even hated, like pit bulls and cockroaches or vermin. Our love or hatred is obviously not species-specific since pit bulls are also icons for everything from RCA to Buster Brown shoes and are often beloved pets; and cockroaches and other “vermin” have become idolized by children across the globe in Disney and Pixar productions featuring insect and rodent protagonists. Rather, animals and animality occupy an ambivalent place, both inside and outside the moral community, or at the limits or margins of that community, whatever we take it to be.

I’d suggest a psychoanalytic supplement to animal studies to diagnose this ambivalence toward animals. Specifically, Freud’s notion of phobia and Kristeva’s reinterpretation of phobia as abjection go some distance toward understanding the dynamics of avowal and disavowal at the heart of our ambivalence toward animals and animality, particularly our own animality. Freud’s most famous cases are those of animal phobias—the rat man, the wolf man, and Little Hans’s fear of horses (Freud 1909a; b; 1918). In all of these cases, among other things, Freud diagnoses a displacement of unconscious fear onto the animals in an attempt to manage ambivalence. In the case of phobic boys, this ambivalence is toward their parents, whom they both love and hate. The phobic negotiates this internal ambivalence by projecting it onto an external object from which he can run away—since he cannot so easily run away from his own feelings, or from his parents’ authority over him.

Kristeva extends Freud’s analysis with her notion of abjection—again triggered by ambivalence—defined as something that calls borders into question (Kristeva 1980). She suggests that abjection is fear of what we do not know and cannot neatly define. Like Freud, she sees the process of abjection as a projection onto the external world of internal ambivalence and confusion. Moreover, she identifies the process of separating ourselves from animals as a process of abjection whereby we project everything beastly in ourselves outward onto animals in order to identify ourselves as “clean and proper” human beings. In her reinterpretation of Little Hans’s fear of being bitten she finds his own desire to bite projected outward onto the horse. By projecting all of the ambivalence of his relations with his family onto the animal, he “resolves” his profoundly troubling feelings of aggression toward them, this family that he both loves and hates. The dynamics of displacement, and projection of aggression outward, become defensive mechanisms that protect the boy from facing his true fears, which lie in himself: indeed, his true fears about his own uncertainty and ambivalence, which is to say, his true fears about his own identity.

Returning to pit bulls and dolphins, the psychoanalytic concepts of displacement, projection, phobia, and abjection help explain how dogs, particularly pit bulls, can simultaneously be both icons of domesticity and contagions of danger; why we imagine it easier to communicate with dolphins than with Japanese fishermen; and why we feel more sympathy for the dogs abandoned to Katrina than for the abandoned people. These concepts also help explain the movement between animals and racialized others, not only in terms of displacements of animality or beastliness onto other human beings through which we rationalize our fear of them and hostility toward them (that is, African American men or Japanese fishermen), but also in terms of the displacements wherein animals take the place of those whom we abject and onto whom we project those fears and desires (the dogs of Katrina or the pit bulls summarily rounded up and killed). We project our own ambivalence and aggressiveness onto these animals and onto racialized others, and thereby we protect the proper boundaries of both the human and the humane by seeing others as animal and inhumane.

Through the perverse logic of phobia, we protect the borders of the proper moral community through this inclusive exclusion of animals and animality as simultaneously beloved or fascinating and hated or feared. Animals occupy both poles on the spectrum of the moral community, from naïve innocents who are not morally culpable to monstrous beasts beyond the pale who can be killed, even extinguished, without recourse to law. The level of our ambivalence toward animals as the limits of the moral community both in themselves and through slippery displacements among gendered, racialized, and sexual others requires much more analysis.

7 comments on “Hypatia Symposium: Ambivalence toward Animals and the Moral Community by KELLY OLIVER

  1. Pingback: COMING SOON: Hypatia Special Issue and Online Symposium! « Philosophy Compass

  2. Rebecca Tuvel
    July 12, 2012

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. The question, “Why does association with animals justify mistreatment of humans?” brings to mind for me another question: Why do animals almost always occupy the place of the external object we fear or hate? Kelly turns to Freud and Kristeva to diagnose our ambivalence toward animals, but there remains a question as to why animals themselves are so central and primary in our cultural psyche (American? Western?). As Kelly explains, Kristeva’s concept of abjection defines the “fear of what we do not know and cannot neatly define.” But surely animals are not the only objects we fear and cannot neatly define, so why are they chosen so prominently over and against other external objects (e.g. Freud’s child phobics invariably choose animals as their objects of fear)? Kelly locates at least part of the answer in an explanation about ambivalence regarding our own animality, but this still leaves open the larger question as to why animality is so central, something to BE disavowed. Are there not other aspects of ourselves that we might disavow (e.g. embodiment) that could also serve to account for “negative” human qualities we try to expunge? What makes animals the external objects par excellence?

  3. Scu
    July 12, 2012

    Thank you so much for your contribution. I wrote a little bit about this short article and your book Animal Lessons over at my blog. Here is the link:

    It was on the long side, so I didn’t want to leave it in comment form over here.

  4. kelly oliver
    July 13, 2012

    Rebecca and James, Thanks for your comments.

    The centrality of animals in our fantasies and phobias, along with what mainstream culture may see as the pathology of those humans who mourn animal deaths, particularly the deaths of animals who are strangers and not “pets,” speaks, perhaps, in part to the disavowal of the atrocious ways in which we make animals suffer, which remain covert and for the most part hidden from public view, along with our attempts to distance ourselves from our own animality.

    I just finished rereading the exchange between Eva Kittay and Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan over whether or not people with severe mental disabilities can be compared to primates or other animals that demonstrate intelligence. Your comments put into stark relief my initial reaction to what seems to be some disability scholars’ *relative* acceptance of the notion of “vegetative” state to refer to human beings and their repugnance at the comparison of humans to other animals. Although my off-the-cuff remarks here cannot do justice to the complexities of this issue, it seems to me that the comparison with animals is offensive in large part because of our attitudes towards animals. Whatever the philosophical arguments for or against, in some sense the repugnance is associated with animals, evidenced by the fact that the comparison to pigs, rats and dogs seems worse than the comparison to chimps. Some animals are more repugnant than others. [Among other things, this points to the problems with grouping all animals together under the label “the animal,” which is the central focus of Derrida’s *The Animal that Therefore I am*. Kittay and others argue that the animal philosophers are doing the same thing with people with disabilities by grouping them all together.]

    In his chapter on disability and animal studies, Cary Wolfe invokes Derrida’s discussion of blindness wherein he insists the invisible or unseen is not the opposite of the visible or seen. Or, to put it in the terms of debates over comparisons between animals and disabled persons, blindness is not a deficit of sight. This view flies in the face of both Utilitarian arguments like those of Singer and McMahan about having or not having intelligence, and recent attempts by Kantians such as Christine Korsgaard and Cheshire Calhoun to address animal ethics in terms of animals’ deficit of reason. Korsgaard, for example, argues that human beings have a function that includes rationality; and mentally disabled people have “defective” reasoning capacities, unlike animals that have none. On Korgaard’s view, blindness would be the opposite of sight, mental disabilities the opposite of mental abilities. In both the Utilitarian view and the Kantian view, however, the “normal adult human being” is taken as the gold standard against which all others are measured–either as measuring up or not, as having or lacking. For the Utilitarians this becomes the measure of moral worth, while for the Kantians not necessarily so, but this is where they have to stretch and contort their Kantian principles.

    Leaving aside debates between Utilitarians and Kantians, it is noteworthy that Wolfe concludes his chapter on disability and animal studies by suggesting an alternative conception of ethics to either; namely, (again following Derrida) an ethics of compassion in which the primary function of the eye is not to see, but to cry. Compassionate tears tell the truth of the eyes. Reading Wolfe after seeing the film trailer for the documentary “Earthling”–two minutes of human violence towards animals and some of the most traumatic sights I have ever seen that made me burst into uncontrollable tears–I wonder what kind of shift in imagination or fantasies about animals it will take to stop our obviously unethical treatment of animals. Can we sustain ourselves and our relationships to them in this constant state of mourning, or its disavowal as the case may be?

  5. Erin Tarver
    July 13, 2012

    Kelly, thanks for this piece; I appreciate so much hearing your thoughts on my and Alison’s work. And I absolutely agree with your response comment when you point out that “some animals are more repugnant [to us] than others,” and thus that there are necessarily problems in dealing with the notion of “the animal” as such. I noticed this in particular with the discussion of ‘pit bulls’, (I use the scare quotes to indicate that there is no such AKC breed, and that breed-specific legislation typically refers to a ‘pit bull type’ that one presumably knows when one sees it). Interestingly, at least one popular explanation for ‘pit bulls” dangerousness is that they are purported to have been bred to be extremely loyal to *their humans* (see, e.g. Martin Wallen’s 2011 article “Foxhounds and Curs” for an explanation of this), such that they will display aggressiveness toward other dogs who would come between them, or whom their humans would see them fight. If one accepts my account of the racism involved in anti-‘pit bull’ rhetoric, I think one should read this as a sort of cultural indictment of these dogs for loving the “wrong” kinds of people.

    I wonder, though, if something like this would complicate or enrich the account you give here about the role of these particular animals in/out of the moral community. Or, more broadly, I’d love to hear you say more about how you think about addressing this question about the role of “animals” in relation to the moral community while at the same time recognizing that it’s not the case that all animals are (socially, morally) equal.

    • Margarita
      November 12, 2013

      I agree with 積.It’s much better if we can make anamil cruelty to become a “taboo”, much like bullying or even murder. Raising the penalty is a resort to reflect that this is unacceptable rather than as a deterrant – as we discussed earlier those who do it do not feel they have the danger of being caught….Connie

  6. Alison Suen
    July 14, 2012

    Thank you Kelly for (another!) thought-provoking piece on animals. I especially appreciate the way you articulate the link between the pit-bull and the dolphin. I agree with you that they represent the margins of the moral community—they are, as you say, “absolutely innocent” and “absolutely monstrous.” While you present the pit-bull and the dolphin as occupying “either pole of the limits of the moral community,” your argument also helpfully suggests that “monstrosity” and “innocence” are not necessarily binary opposition. This is especially true when we consider the way “violence” is perceived when it comes to animal behavior: although their “violent instinct” is what makes them “monstrous,” the language of “instinct” also renders animals inculpable and hence “innocent.” After all, if animals are *supposed* to be violent, if they *couldn’t help* but to be cruel, then their monstrosity is also a testimony to their innocence. (In light of your important intervention on monstrosity and innocence, it is noteworthy that in _The Beast and the Sovereign vol. 1_, Derrida points out that both God and animals occupy a space “external to the law,” he actually compares their “outside-the-law” status to that of the criminals!)

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