Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals

April 15, 2010

Philosopher Jean Kazez takes as this book's starting point the difficult, highly relevant, and often avoided question: "How should we treat animals?" She approaches the question from different angles, which one by one coalesce into a coherent argument. This work reads as a journey into animal ethics, within which the author, together with her audience, is seeking to find the right answer.

First, Kazez looks at how we have valued and treated our non-human kin in the past and present. Viewpoints from different cultures, biblical interpretations and grand old philosophers are briefly analysed. After this, attention is placed on the nature of the beast, as Kazez takes a deeper look at what types of minds animals have. The third part concentrates on ethics, and finally, in the fourth part, she reminds us of the context of the question: how what we do to domestic animals affects wild animals and ecology in general.

Kazez has many highly plausible things to say. She attacks the intellectually lazy anthropocentric tradition, according to which animals have very few and very primitive cognitive capacities. The fascinating spectrum of animal capacities is brought to the fore, and the reader is quickly convinced that even if they are instinctual, animals are also highly cognitive creatures, capable of thinking, feeling and awareness. She also argues that animals should be given significantly more respect (all due respect, as she says in the playful tone that runs throughout the book) than contemporary society is willing to admit. We simply cannot treat beings with minds as mere matter, and the horrors to which animals are subject are inexcusable.

What is interesting is that Kazez combines two notions that are usually alien to each other. On the one hand, she argues for ethical vegetarianism and veganism. On the other, she maintains that, while much animal research may lack justification, research that is necessary for the basic welfare of human beings can be justified. We should give up animal products because in the contemporary world they are unnecessary for survival, cause a great deal of suffering and are harmful to the planet - however, vivisection is justified when absolutely necessary.

Overall, the arguments she presents are intelligent and convincing. But she does get into trouble when she seeks to justify vivisection. Most specifically, Kazez fails to explain away "the case from marginal arguments". If we believe it is morally unjustifiable to use human beings of very low cognitive ability in experiments, why is it permissible to use animals of a higher cognitive ability? Why is biology (species) so important here, when in other contexts it is highly unimportant (biological sex, "race", age, etc)?

Kazez is rather brief in her argument, but the gist is that we favour "unfortunate" humans because of sympathy, and we have sympathy because we could, ourselves, end up like them. Ultimately, we save the mentally impaired because of self-interest. This is rather cynical. One could say that "unfortunate" humans (perhaps an ill-chosen term) have value in themselves and deserve respect regardless of our self-interest. There is reason to hold on to the argument common in animal ethics: inherent value is based on the capacity to experience one's existence. This renders experimentation on both humans and animals dubious. Kazez would have done well to explore the philosophy of animal rights more thoroughly.

Setting aside this criticism, Kazez has written a persuasive book. It may not satisfy more radical thinkers and activists, but it will offer brain food for those who follow the taken-for-granted ways of treating animals. Kazez writes in an enjoyable and accessible fashion, and wit and humour are used generously. Combined with many fruitful arguments, this makes the book a good read for anybody curious about whether it is, indeed, morally justifiable to eat one animal and love another.

Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals

By Jean Kazez. Wiley-Blackwell. 216pp, £50.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9781405199377 and 9384. Published 12 January 2010

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