The Moral Menagerie

The Failure of Traditional Theories

In the second part of his book, Fellenz goes through a list of ethical theories and shows that they all fail to give a proper accounting of our ethical relationship with animals. He does note that there is some consensus on animal rights in ethical discourse; notably that they all reject "unnecessary" animal cruelty and embrace a weak speciesism that prioritizes human interests over those of other animals (p. 122). They fall short in that they do not offer a consistent condemnation of what Fellenz regards as exploitative practices related to the food industry and scientific research (p. 124). Moreover, they fail to question the morality of domestication (p. 125). Fellenz argues that domestication is immoral and any theory that fails to recognize that is inadequate.

Three Shortcomings of Traditional Theories

Fellenz attributes the shortcomings of traditional moral theories to three things: anthropocentrism, rationalism and individualism. The anthropocentrism is evidenced by that fact that "the fundamental concepts in Western ethical thought will function best when our practical sphere is divided between two ontological categories: human persons and inhuman things" (p. 128) Since it is awkward to try to make animals into or evaluate them like human persons, these theories fall short. The emphasis on rationality in ethical discourse is a symptom of this anthropocentrism. Finally, ethical theories focus on individual conscious beings as the locus for moral concern (p. 133). These traditional theories do not have the equipment to talk about moral issues concerning the harm we might be doing to a species. Instead they focus on harm to particular animals.

Since Fellenz sees anthropocentrism, rationalism, and individualism as essential features of traditional ethics, he argues that our moral relationship to animals requires us to find a new approach to morality. In the choice between denying animals moral relationships with humans and rejecting traditional ethics, Fellenz seems to think that it is clear that we cannot deny animals their moral status, so there is no other option but to do away with traditional ethics. Fellenz is prejudging the issue by labeling the emphasis on rationality and autonomy as a "bias" in Western ethics (p. 135). It's only a "real" bias if there is no reason to place higher moral status on rationality and autonomy. But there are strong arguments in favor of the idea that those qualities are essential to being a moral agent and that all moral worth is derived from the exercise of moral agency. These arguments need to be addressed before closing off the possibility that animals can only have derivate and indirect moral status.

The Lessons of Postmodern Philosophy

In chapter 8 of “The Moral Menagerie”, Fellenz shifts his focus to the predicament of animal ethics in postmodern philosophy. According to Fellenz, the notion of animal ethics is, ostensibly, a counteractive force to postmodernism employment of modern humanism. Because postmodern thought had successfully deconstructed many of the prior social and cultural norms/categories, it also provided room for a newer interpretation of animals; through yet an even stronger anthropocentric lens. Instead of assessing the value of animals as organisms with ends in themselves, postmodern thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre applied humanist terminology to re-evaluate the purpose of animals in relation to the human individual. Hence, the emergence of postmodern philosophy posed an even greater question to the significance of animals, as it strived to rule out non-humanist approaches to animal ethics (Fellenz, pg. 156). This is where Fellenz concludes that “if the call of the animal challenges modern humanism, postmodernism perhaps signals the demise of the animal” (pg. 142).

Postmodernism Applied

Fellenz applies two prominent postmodern thinkers and beings his analysis of the postmodern conception of animals with select passages from Martin Heidegger’s lecture course The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. Within his analysis, Fellenz focus primarily on Heidegger’s notion of Being (Dasien), as a “world forming” entity, and whether or not such a category holds relevance to animals. According to Heidegger, humans are Beings who have a “world forming” relation to the world because they “make the world possible”, whereas inanimate objects (e.g. rocks, tables, houses) are “worldless” because they “are without access to other beings” (142-43). The controversy with Heidegger’s philosophic explanation of Being, however, is that it omits a secure category for animals. Since animals are neither “world forming” nor “worldless”, there becomes a much-needed explanation for the categorical placement of animals. Hence, Heidegger describes animals as being “poor in the world”, thus adding more to the already ambiguous topic of animal ethics. Evidently, this where Fellez attempts to advance his point on the general exclusion/ “demise” of animal ethics in postmodernism.

Although Heidegger’s conception of animals appears to strengthen Fellenz’s argument that postmodernism’s emphasis upon the human individual often marginalizes, if not excludes, the subject of animals, it does, however, uniquely consider the relationship of animals to humans; by bringing to mind whether or not the existence of animals entails a certain telos in light of both their own existence and human existence. Thus, the questions to be asked from Fellenz’s conclusion, is whether or not indeed the subject of animals ethics does holds significance to human ontology, and if so, then why should animals be of moral concern to humans?

Marc Fellenz. The Moral Menagerie: Philosophy and Animal Rights. University of Illinois Press, 2007.
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