Shifting Perspectives on Animals
Contemplating the human-animal relationship in both historical and ethical terms can be alternatively liberating and daunting. It’s liberating because we get to enjoy the intellectually indulgent experience of seeing a single matter through different lenses, sort of as if you were standing in front of a mysterious painting and looking at it with the help of an art historian and a chemist. At the same time it’s daunting because, well, when we apply today’s ethics to yesterday’s historical moments we cannot presume that the twain shall meet. Like dropping an i-phone into a Neanderthal cave, what use, we should ask, would such people have for this trinket of modernity. Are our principles ethical trinkets to another era?
In my “Eating Meat in America” class, we’re reading Virginia Anderson’s brilliant history of colonial Virginia called Creatures of Empire. In it, she argues quite convincingly that the dominant English ideology of the day considered humans superior to animals by virtue of their divinely chosen status as humans. Godly justification so deeply infused their worldview that any notion that humans might not be inherently superior to non-humans never entered their collective mind. Snippets of animal rights ideas might have dropped like shiny pearls from the utterances of Euclid and Pythagorus, but these ideas were immaterial in a settlement society that couldn’t count on its next meal. Equally irrelevant to the colonists was the manitou that shaped the Native American view of animals. Cultural sensitivity wasn’t a big value in the context of colonization.
So: context matters. But when you adhere to principles as if they were timeless, context isn’t supposed to matter, right? Truths are supposed to be timeless. But what if they fit like a square peg in the round hole of the past? Did the fact that the English who settled seventeenth-century Virginia completely lacked any reference point for treating animals with basic rights exonerate them from treating animals as if they lacked those rights? Can we cast judgment on people for not following an ideology they did not know existed? Or, can we subject our current beliefs about the human-animal relationship to the vagaries of the best and concede that, while they make sense now, they did not make sense then?
How, in other words, do we think ethically and historically at once?