Human Ethics as Violence towards Animals: the Demonized Wolf


Unfortunately, one of the bonds that ties the United States to its European neighbors and forbears is a long tradition of unthinking violence against animals. Many acts of violence against animals are motivated by the pleasure in cruelty, the greed for profits, the fear of the unfamiliar, the need to feel powerful, and so on. The act of violence against animals that I find most disturbing is however the violence that is undertaken with a mistaken sense of moral obligation or at least with a sense of self-righteousness at the fact that one is doing some good in hurting, maiming, torturing or killing this animal. This kind of violence might even extend to a felt calling or an articulated rationale that we have an obligation or at least the right to eradicate an entire species, what I have named “speciocide” (Mazis 2008). I intend to discuss the human treatment of wolves in Europe and the United States as a painful example of the ways in which sometimes our sense of doing what we think is an ethically laudatory deed can be misleading, disastrously so, and actually can lead us to cruel and even evil behavior. I also intend to address how our traditional ethics may harbor assumptions that lead to the misperception of animals and a misunderstanding of their behavior. Finally, I intend to show how phenomenology, as one specific philosophical approach, may have a critical edge in helping us to see (or literally perceive) our animal fellows more clearly, to understand them better, and discern our moral obligations to them.

Before turning to the European and American behavior towards wolves, there are a few general ideas about this theme that I would like to discuss as they are suggested by Jacques Derrida in his book, The Animal that Therefore I Am. Such general points could lead us to the realization that our very way of conceiving ourselves in regard to the beings of nature and the way in which we formulate our ethics may be simultaneously a disregard for animals.

The European and American philosophical traditions as passed down from the Greeks and Romans are informed by a cosmology that puts the animal world on a hierarchical inferiority with respect to the human world as human beings are conceived of as the bearers of reason, speech, and agency. The animal is seen as unthinking, mute, and a being of reactions, rather than responses. Response is meant to indicate a conscious relationship with the world, whereas to react is a merely mechanical interaction with no awareness involved. Derrida points out that in the tradition of Western philosophy and intellectual discourse, there have been two discourses, and the one of them that has been dominant has been spoken by those who “have taken no account of the fact that what they call ‘animal’ could look at them, and address them from down there, from a wholly other origin” (Derrida 2008: 12). This detachment of those who consider themselves “above” the level of the animal is exemplified by the story Derrida narrates in The Beast and the Sovereign regarding the Sun King, who had the first zoological garden built, the Menagerie de Versailles, where for his pleasure, the Sun King could gaze upon the beasts and “where sovereignty is marked by the power to see, by being-able-to see without being seen” (Derrida 2009: 293). Derrida calls this sort of gaze “autopsic” and “de-vitalizing” (Derrida 2009: 296) — it is both self-enclosed and deadening. The Sun King may have externalized this sense of “existing above and beyond” the “brutes” into architectural structures, but philosophers and the common sense of the European and American culture have long regarded their consciousness as the same kind of fortress.

Human Ethics as Violence towards Animals: the Demonized Wolf

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