Dr. Doolittle can talk with all the animals. I can only talk with my dog. Still, I can testify – because she’s assured me of this – that she doesn’t think of me as belonging to a different species. She thinks of me, and of my wife, and of our two cats, as belonging to her pack. We’re members of her pack in much the way that other people, other dogs, and other cats, are not. And my suspicion is that this trumping of pack over species was characteristic of us homo sapiens as well, both before we emerged from the cave, and for millennia thereafter.

What’s changed in the interim is not that we discovered some deep metaphysical fact about people not shared by dogs, some fact we hadn’t seen before. What’s changed is that we discovered we can hunt more effectively, and better protect against being hunted ourselves, by entering into packs with other homo sapiens. The idea that people and dogs were of different species, whatever that came to mean, was a much later development. And a useful one only for some purposes, procreation for example.

How came we to privilege some other members of our species has just been explained. They’re members of our pack, and we of theirs. But how came we to privilege all members of our species is answered even more simply. We never did. And we never will.

Somebody got it into his head that we should. But every argument for this has been a) a non-sequitur or else b) its premises have to be pulled out of one’s ass. Here are the three standard candidates:

1) We’re all God’s children, therefore we’re brothers, therefore homicide is fratricide.

But hang on. A deer is no less a child of God, and therefore likewise our brother, and therefore hunting is fratricide. But hunting is necessary, if only to prevent being hunted ourselves. That which is necessary must be permissible. So fratricide must be permissible.

2) A state of nature has a law of nature to govern it. And that law, which includes that thou shalt not kill, is made known to all who would but consult it.

So that must be how it’s known that homosexuality too is contra natura, right? And, finally,

3) Human beings are more valuable to each other alive and free than dead or in chains.

Unless, of course, they’re not.

So human beings are animals. Many animals feed on other animals. But some animals – and human animals are particularly adept at this – husband other animals. We let the deer fatten itself over the summer before taking it down in the fall. We let the villagers do the harvesting before we pillage their grain houses, leaving them just enough to survive the winter and replant the following spring. The distinction, if there is one, between animal husbandry and human husbandry has to be argued for, not presupposed. And as we’ve just seen, that argument is nigh impossible to make.

Unless, that is, conditions have changed, such that other human beings are no longer more valuable dead or in chains than alive and free. Hence our having put an end to slavery and – discretion having proved the better part of valour – our having given up on genocide.

Fair enough. But there are consequences to there having been slavery and to there having been genocidal programs. If we’re to live now as equals with those who’ve inherited those consequences, we’re going to have to shell out. Not as a matter of moral indebtedness. Do we owe the current generation of cattle or bison a moral debt? But as a matter of practical necessity. Qua underclass they’re dangerous to us, just as we’d be to them if our positions were reversed.

Some people think parsing race relations this way doesn’t capture the requisite spirit of inter-generational justice. I think fidelity to that spirit gets us no answers because it poses the wrong questions, questions like how much do we owe, in what currency do we owe it, to whom is it owed, and why should I have to pay for the malfeasance of others? My parsing asks no such questions. On my parsing, how Mary became homeless or illiterate or an alcoholic or whatever is irrelevant to what we can do for her, and thereby for ourselves, now. Why should it be any different with classes of people we find among us who are homeless or illiterate or alcoholics?

No doubt Mary has a story too. Should we demand to hear it and be satisfied it’s a good one before we offer her our hand?

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy

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2 replies

  1. Whatever happened to the social contract?

    And do we not help Mary because if we don’t, her life will become nasty, brutish and short?


  2. Argument one that “We’re all God’s children, therefore we’re brothers, therefore homicide is fratricide.” is just an incoherent version of the argument that “all humans are created in the image of God.” Of course for this argument to wash God has to exist but it solves the linguistic mumbo jumbo that is the phrase “a deer is no less a child of God.” This way your argument for thinking about reconciliation as purely practical can go through for those of us who are “enlightened” enough to reject the existence of God. However, the fact that religion still exists suggests that “privileging all members of our species” wont fly if all that is offered is a spirit of practicality. Better to leave a coherent escape from the final conclusion for the religiously minded.


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