Peter Singer
Peter Singer; drawing by David Levine

Life on a factory farm is well-nigh unbearable for the animals or birds, and it is often foul for the women and men who process the meat that results—especially in factories for chicken parts. But do not sentimentalize. Do not imagine barnyard life is a bowl of cherries. Here is the second paragraph of Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee, the South African novelist. He classifies the book as nonfiction.

At the bottom of the yard they put up a poultry-run and install three hens, which are supposed to lay eggs for them. But the hens do not flourish. Rainwater, unable to seep away in the clay, stands in pools in the yard. The poultry-run turns into an evil-smelling morass. The hens develop gross swellings on their legs, like elephant-skin. Sickly and cross, they cease to lay. His mother consults her sister in Stellenbosch, who says they will return to laying only after their horny shells under their tongues have been cut out. So one after another his mother takes the hens between her knees, presses on their jowls till they open their beaks, and with the point of a paring-knife picks at their tongues. The hens shriek and struggle, their eyes bulging. He shudders and turns away. He thinks of his mother slapping stewing-steak down on the kitchen counter and cutting it into cubes; he thinks of her bloody fingers.

It is not even a barnyard, just a yard at the back of the house in a drab housing estate in the Karoo, the parched uplands of Cape Province. Later the boy goes to a real farm owned by Coetzee relatives. It specializes in sheep, thanks to the high price of wool. The boy watches the weekly killing of a sheep for dinner, from the moment the workman picks out the one to die to the use of a “harmless-looking little pocket-knife” to extract “the great blue stomach full of grass, the intestines (from the bowel he squeezes out the last few droppings that the sheep did not have time to drop), the heart, the liver, the kidneys—all the things that a sheep has inside him and that he has inside him too.” He also watches the castration of the lambs.

The chickens were shrieks and blood, the result of indifferent cruelty for what is supposed to be a good end, namely eggs. But butchering the sheep for dinner is something else. Inside, the animal is just like me. Outside too, in the castration scene. When you’ve read a lot about animal rights this comes as refreshingly non-intellectual. No talk of the interests of the lambs being infringed, or the rights of the sheep being denied. Were it not for some tedious puns, one would say that these scenes are wrenching at a gut level; they stick in the craw and by-pass the intellect. It is the boy’s body, and his feelings of identity with other bodies, that are at work.

Animals were an aside in Boyhood (1997), but dogs took center stage two years later in Coetzee’s most recent novel, Disgrace. What to make of this? Not allegory, although, as we shall see, Coetzee can construct a shattering metaphor to connect killing dogs and killing people. In an interview Coetzee once said he does not think of himself as an allegorist even if readers say he is. That’s a bit disingenuous. In Disgrace there are plenty of—shall we call them mirrors? Lurie, the disgraced university lecturer, is offered every chance by a university committee to confess and repent his initially casual seduction of an undergraduate girl in one of his classes. He’ll admit to it, but will not express regret. That committee is a mirror of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Lurie’s behavior a mirror of some of its more recalcitrant witnesses. (I got the impression that Coetzee sided with Lurie, and has deep reservations about the Commission.) But when Coetzee is writing about dogs, he first of all means dogs.

Fired and stripped of his pension, Lurie retreats in disgrace to his daughter’s farm in the same region that figured in Boyhood. There the two of them experience the novel’s most grueling moment, her rape. After that, Lurie is increasingly drawn to work at “Animal Welfare,” the name of a clinic whose chief role is killing cats and dogs. “The old, the blind, the halt, the crippled, the maimed, but also the young, the sound—all those whose time has come.” Why the young and sound? “Because they are unwanted. Because we are too menny.” The killings happen on Sundays.

On Mondays Lurie takes the corpses in garbage bags to the incinerator of a nearby hospital. He cannot bear leaving the animals he has killed alongside hospital waste, road kill, and filthy remains from the tannery. “He is not prepared to inflict such dishonor upon them.” Rigor mortis sets in while the corpses wait their turn to be burned, and he cannot abide the workmen smashing the stiffened limbs to make the bodies fit the trolley that bears them into the flames. So he takes the disposal upon himself.


For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honor and dishonor anyway?

For himself then. For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more conventional shape for processing.

But that’s only a provisional answer. Lurie knows there are many better things he can do to redeem himself. But others will do those things with as much or as little effect as he would have. “He saves the honor of corpses because there is no one else stupid enough to do it.” On the second to last page: “He has learned by now, to concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love.” He is not one to make you comfortable, this Coetzee.

Incinerating the bodies himself to preserve the honor of the dogs? That is not so crazy. We need to attend to the bodies of those we love, and to save them from humiliation after death. I have been noticing in my local daily paper how important it is to reclaim the body of a loved one cruelly killed—not just the honorable dead in warfare or victims of an air crash, but especially when the body has been defiled. A Canadian woman of Vietnamese descent has been executed in Vietnam for (we all believe) being the dupe of a drug dealer and unwittingly carrying drugs when about to return home to Toronto. The family here is desperate to reclaim the dishonored body.

Worse, if possible, was another trans-Pacific feud: Where will the remains of a child be buried? This girl’s body was chopped into several pieces in a ghastly intrafamily murder and disposed of in a public park. Will the body parts be buried with ceremony and atonement in Canada, where some of the extended family lives, or in Pakistan, home to more of the same family? This emotion, a profound care for the dignity of the loved body after death, seems quite universal, crossing most cultural boundaries. (I chose my two local examples deliberately.) Lurie experiences the same emotion, crossing yet another boundary, the species boundary.

This emotion seems totally irrational, even for human corpses, let alone dogs, unless you believe in the literal resurrection of the body. Coetzee has become the artistic voice of those who, almost against their reason, begin to feel how we are bound to our fellow animals. He speaks for a felt sympathy between some people and at least some animals. (Writing about Coetzee I need not ape the correct cant, “sympathy between human and non-human animals.”) Sympathy between (not for) may be the primary message of his recent book The Lives of Animals. Not that it makes much sense to talk of a primary message from such a many-messaged multilayered messenger.

Coetzee likes to try on different genres. The philosophical dialogue may be the hardest genre of all. Even the best of dialogues sound dreadfully stilted, conversations that would never take place. Coetzee’s dialogue, in The Lives of Animals, is set at Appleton, a generic liberal arts college. Elizabeth Costello, a celebrated Australian novelist just turned seventy, gives a distinguished lecture. She is famed for her novel about a day in the life of Molly Bloom. Professors and the college president provide audience and interlocutors. Costello’s son, who teaches physics and astronomy at Appleton, serves as narrator and chorus, while his wife, Norma, an out-of-work philosophy Ph.D., is the voice of irritated good sense, normal.

The dialogue is divided into two parts set up by Plato himself: first the philosophers, and then poets. It is built around a lecture and a seminar given by Mrs. Costello, a dinner party in her honor, and a public debate over animal liberation. And yet it is itself formed from three Tanner Lectures in Human Values that Coetzee gave at Princeton in 1997-1998.1 In Plato, or Galileo, or Berkeley, you know the master message; one character, perhaps helped by a couple of sidekicks, is advancing the truth, while the other major characters put the most powerful objections, and are remorselessly ground down. Only Hume’s dialogues about religion leave room for ambiguity. Readers of The Lives of Animals relentlessly pose the same question: Does Coetzee really believe what Mrs. Costello says? After all, Lives was billed as a trio of philosophy lectures, and so should present the theses and arguments of the lecturer we came to hear. Or have we been duped? Is Costello just a character in a novella?


I did not have that problem. I imagine that Coetzee feels the force of almost all the ideas and emotions that his characters express. He is working and living at the edge of our moral sensibilities about animals. Much is fluid, changing, being created. One positively ought to hold incompatible opinions as one works and lives one’s way through to their resolution. Coetzee conforms to David Hume’s maxim “Reason is the slave of the passions.” Except the passions aren’t fixed yet; they are evolving, growing in our breasts as we talk and act and are disturbed. They are hardly ripe for our brains. Coetzee and Costello are vegetarians. But she tartly, and without repentance, reminds her slightly befuddled interlocutors that she is wearing a leather belt. I suspect that she and I are not the only ones who incline to deep vegetarianism, but who wear leather shoes or a leather belt.2

I’ll single out just two of the scenes from Part One, “The Philosophers and the Animals.” One target is a wonderful essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”3 Nagel convinces most of us talking heads not just that we can’t know what it is like to be a bat, but that there is no sense to the question. He thus teaches us something about how we know what it is like to be another person. Costello, perhaps missing the latter point, thinks Nagel is wrong because he has no idea of what it is to feel one’s way into the being of another. That comes more readily to novelists and poets. “To be a living bat is to be full of being…. One name for the experience of full being is joy.”

She starts with bats but her argument works at the standard interface between man and beast, the ape. She starts with Red Peter, the narrator of “A Report to an Academy,” a story published by Kafka in 1917 in Martin Buber’s journal Die Jude. Rotpeter was an ape until five years before, when he was kidnapped from what we now call Ghana. Since then he has “galloped” through evolution, and now performs in a variety show on the German stage. Most readers, helped by the site of publication, take the story to be about the assimilated Jew in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Rotpeter has a choice: the variety show, read professional or intellectual, or the zoo, read shtetl.) Not Costello: “Like most writers, I have a literal cast of mind…. When Kafka writes about an ape, I take him to be talking in the first place about an ape….” She’s at one with Kafka (and with Coetzee talking about dogs in Disgrace). Buber wanted to publish this story and another under the heading “Two Parables.” Kafka would have none of that: “If they are to have any overall title, the best might be ‘Two Animal Stories.”‘4 (Which does not mean they are not also parables.)

Next comes an almighty twist, Costello’s “scholarly speculations… on the origins of Red Peter,” complete with footnotes. There is a literary, television, and coffee-table-book genre involving intrepid female scientists living with animals in the wild, or with captive animals who are learning human skills like sign language. That did not exist when Costello and Coetzee were growing up. The classic study was one set in motion by the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1912, culminating in Wolfgang Köhler’s The Mentality of Apes (1917). It was standard fare for sophomore debates about the nature of mind, man, etc. What we scantily remember from those days are the ways in which chimpanzees, who like Rotpeter had been abducted by Germans from Ghana, gradually solved increasingly difficult problems about how to get bananas. The experimenters brought in some packing crates that could be stacked up, then filled them with stones to make them too heavy to move. Costello imagines what it felt like to be Sultan, the ape, and what Sultan thought about the man:

Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur the limits of one’s thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more?…

These marvelous pages do not refute Nagel, but they do turn the tables. Moreover Costello suspects that Kafka had read about Sultan. The Rotpeter of “Report to an Academy” is for real, a transformed Sultan, reporting to the Berlin Academy that funded Köhler.

Such weakly grounded but tantalizing speculation is contagious. Costello would have known of one other great body of psychological experimentation on animals: Pavlov, dogs, and the conditioned reflex. In 1922 Kafka wrote “Investigations of a Dog”—the German word is Forschung, scientific research. Unlike Rotpeter, the aging dog-narrator has not become a monster, a former dog. He is a dog scientist, who repeatedly says he is committed to the values of good science.

But first consider Pavlov, who performed grotesque operations on the glandular systems of his dogs so he could measure the secretions that were produced by the scent of food, or by “conditioning” stimuli like ringing bells. It is less well known that the dogs responded with passive resistance. As soon as they were put in their stalls, they became sleepy, and often went to sleep.5 This was potentially disastrous for Pavlov, who was running a knowledge factory, with a vast corps of trainee doctors, all of whom had to publish a research dissertation before qualifying.6 Sleeping dogs equals no doctoral theses.

Pavlov and Köhler make a pretty contrast. When Sultan sat still, contemplating a new arrangement of bananas, Köhler said he was solving problems. Pavlov scoffed at such anthropomorphism. Sultan was just resting. But because Pavlov’s lab processed so many dogs, distinct personality types were recognized. Different dogs had different characters! Passionate dogs are easily excited by the sight of food, easily teased by experimenters playing around with the food. Other dogs are self-possessed and cannot be teased. Others see through the experiments “as if they understand the deceit being practiced on them, and turn their back on the preferred food, apparently from a sense of insult.” “Suspicious” or “depressed” dogs. “The older the dog the more restrained and peaceful it is.”7 The personality of the dog was the “main enemy” of the experimenter—but could be put to good use, for you could blame bad results on psychic idiosyncrasies of individual dogs.

And now Kafka. “Investigations of a Dog” reads uncannily like the night thoughts of someone who knows a lot about Pavlov (which Kafka could well have done—by 1922 Pavlov was almost a household name). The dog scientist designs complex experiments to find out where the food comes from. “Whence does the earth procure this food?” Some experiments are beset by teasing, just as in Pavlov’s lab. “Sometimes the food did not appear…but then the food would appear…. Often, indeed, the food appeared in greater abundance than formerly, but then again it would stay away altogether.” What of the insulting behavior? The dog scientist says, “I decided to allow the food to fall to the ground, but to make no effort to snatch it.” Pavlov thought his dogs were sleeping, but were they? “The next time he comes I shall slip away, or pretend I am asleep, and keep up the pretense until he stops visiting me.” But also this: “If I were to withdraw myself in this manner, remain lying day and night with closed eyes…. During that time, however, I dared not sleep much, better indeed if I did not sleep at all….”

So I was wrong. Pavlov’s dogs were not engaging in passive resistance. They were feigning sleep as part of their experiment to discover where the food is coming from. To discover why these men, source of all laboratory food, play with it. This man who has submitted our very glands to gross indignities, who is sapping our vital fluids while he subjects us to strange sounds and shocks and constantly teases us with his food games and his deceit… This is not the place to pursue such a fantastical reading, but it is my offering to Mrs. Costello.

There is another scene in The Lives of Animals that many have found repulsive. Costello compares the slaughterhouses for animals to the Nazi extermination camps. We are like those who knew but were silent:

Let me say it openly: we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.

The poet Abraham Stern sends a note, expressing the repugnance many of us feel, but many may still be nonplussed by the entire exchange.

In addition to the healthy hostility that Costello’s analogy has produced in some of Coetzee’s readers, I’ve encountered a slightly trivializing response. He does not really mean the comparison; it is a wake-up call, a reminder. No. Insofar as a novelist or writer of dialogues really means something by words, Coetzee is dead serious. Return to Disgrace. Some twenty-three ailing dogs have been killed this Sunday. There is just one more to do. Lurie

is convinced the dogs know their time has come. Despite the silence and the painlessness of the procedure,…despite the airtight bags in which they tie the newborn corpses, the dogs in the yard smell what is going on inside. They flatten their ears, they drop their tails, as if they too feel the disgrace of dying…

In the book’s final pages, Lurie reflects:

What the dog will not be able to work out (not in a month of Sundays! he thinks) what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and gone. It will be beyond him, this room that is not a room but a hole where one leaks out existence.

Just in case anyone misses the reference, the passage begins by telling us that Lurie and the vet “are engaged in one of their sessions of Lösung.” That’s German for solution. I am very troubled here. Of course I agree with Abraham Stern: “If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews. The inversion insults the memory of the dead. It also trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way.” Yet I cannot formulate, to my own satisfaction, what is wrong with Costello’s rhetoric. Coetzee is not being cheap.

Tanner Lectures are published with invited comments. There are four here, of which I shall mention only two. Barbara Smuts is Professor of Psychology and Anthropology at the University of Michigan. She studies the social lives of primates and dolphins, and does so by associating with their communities. Coetzee’s dialogue, she says, ignores (unlike Disgrace) the bonds of friendship between some people and some animals. Smuts tells of baboons and dolphins whom she knows. The species barriers diminish. The emotions of the wild creatures are not so unlike many of ours. And you cannot pretend that they don’t think. The traditional grounds for treating animals as alien, perhaps even as machines, is that they do not think (Descartes), do not speak (Chomsky and Descartes), or do not socialize with us (Aristotle). Even a brief reading of Smuts casts most such claims into implausibility.

Many men work closely with dogs or horses, but the most powerful reflections on these collaborations are once again by a woman, Vicki Hearne.8 She is best known for her accounts of training horses. Recently she offered insight into animals neither captive nor free-ranging. She calls them “at liberty.” They collaborate with their trainers. They work, such is the technical expression, “off lead.” Sheep dogs, for example. Hearne tells of search and rescue dogs who work miles from their handler to perform a sweep of difficult terrain. Working with the dog, one relates to it as part of an “I-Thou” pair. Incidentally, Hearne is a wicked iconoclast about those who study animals in the wild. She thinks that “a logging or circus elephant can be at liberty, but…research animals who tend to stay near an area because there is a feeding station, such as Jane Goodall’s chimps, are not at liberty, because food, rather than a particular social understanding, is the gravity that keeps the animals near the human.”

Hearne admires not the courage or fortitude of dogs that so often prompts admiration, but the plain old work that we do together. So I would like to put in a word for the lap dog—not my favorite, but one that provides all sorts of satisfaction to lonely people. The work of the lap dog is giving comfort, and offering power to the weak who in turn provide creature comforts. Lap dogs are not at liberty, but they are not captive either. They cohabit with people.

Hearne is a careful philosopher who faces objections with analytical skill. “The idea that training, of people, cheetahs, or elephants, is a priori cruel…has its source in a mistake about freedom and, in particular in Western thought, a mistake about the nature of the freedom that is knowledge.” Her arguments are important, and may go some way to meet a radi-cal objection, analogous to Costello’s comment on the death camps. You are talking about nothing less than slavery! (We hear.) You say it is splendid to have animals with whom you work, whom you respect, whom you train to fill your needs, on the field, in the hunt, in the well-run barnyard, in the circus, but these are not even your servants, able in principle to leave and find work elsewhere. They are your slaves. You own them. Everything you say about these dignified relationships could be said about the good slave-master who participates in an immoral institution!

I am worried by the analogy with slavery, but not to the same extent as my confusion over comparisons to genocide. It is not to be forgotten that our pets, our dogs “off lead,” our lap dogs, and our domestic animals have all been created by us, for us, and along with us. There is archaeological and mitochondrial evidence that dogs began living with people as soon as there were people.9 A traditionalist will lay great weight on this. These animals are part of the human community, to whom we have responsibilities and for whom we must have respect. We are now their stewards, but they are neither our serfs nor our slaves. Their lives are with us; most would die, if not in a year, in a generation or two, without us. Packs of domestic dogs gone wild make a lot of noise but do not do well. The ornery species do best, above all goats, who can freely return to a natural state, and camels.

I found The Lives of Animals a genuinely troubling book. The four commentators seem less disturbed. One of them is Peter Singer, the most influential living philosopher. I mean just that—not that he is the most important, or even that he has a great influence on philosophers. Ever since 1973 he has been the intellectual leader of movements for animal liberation and rights. In that year he published, in The New York Review, his essay “Animal Liberation.” It became a book that has sold close to half a million copies.10 You may disagree with him, and many hate him for his approving view on euthanasia, especially in the case of children who have mental and physical limitations that are profoundly severe and beyond the reach of healing. But you never have any doubt about where he stands. We are moved by the passions, he says, but we also have to be able to justify our choices and actions before the judge of reason.

He is not Coetzee’s kin. Costello’s apparent “radical egalitarianism” takes him aback. He does expose a few fallacies, but his comments on The Lives of Animals do not make reason look very good. Singer is too damn calculating, in the utilitarian tradition of calculating pleasure and pain. Suppose we had a system where happy animals were painlessly killed and replaced by a new cohort of youngsters who go on to live happily until executed. That would be just fine, he argues, for the quantity of happiness in the universe would be constant. Contrast Coetzee’s scenes in Disgrace of the painless killings. It is the individual animal for which he cares, its dignity, its dishonor, even after death. Those are concepts that have little place in Singer’s utilitarian philosophy.

Many will, nevertheless, be glad to turn from Coetzee’s complexities to Singer’s bluff good sense. Although he is the chief spokesman for one school of thought on animal rights, he manages to emphasize the big picture, the forest over the tangled thickets of little arguments. He is a practical man, but even his praxis pales beside that of his friend and fellow activist Henry Spira. I had never heard of this man until I picked up Singer’s book Ethics into Action. He is a hero.

Spira had a long history of tough activism. A seaman and faithful union man, he became disgusted with the corruption in his union and was a key figure in breaking it, at much risk to life and limb. One can say without false sentiment that he was dedicated to right and helping his fellows. He was a little bit at loose ends when he came across a denigrating mention of Singer’s 1973 New York Review article. Spira had a good nose and sensed that the rude remarks were rubbish. He noticed that Singer was giving a night course at CUNY, “Animal Liberation.” He enrolled. A firm alliance was born. He became devoted to the cause of rescuing animals from suffering.

It was not Spira’s nature to grumble. Pick a specific goal and achieve it. He found out about some nasty experimental uses of animals at the New York Museum of Natural History. He made connections, gently threatened, ran powerful full-page ads in The New York Times. The museum caved in. He kept at it. We all know that the cosmetics industry did dreadful things to rabbits when testing their products. We believe they have mostly stopped, and that other tests, not using living creatures, are cheaper and more reliable. Spira spearheaded the campaign against Revlon and others, and won. He was not always successful. Factory farming of chickens is not so easy to change.

Spira is a model for us all. Unlike so many activists, he always tried to play down confrontation. Once he had selected a target, the big stick of public opprobrium was always there to be used. He would make that plain, but would talk to the head people at Revlon or whatever, asking how they could, working together, get rid of an evil, even improve the company’s image.

Singer’s story of his friend is engrossing, and will inspire moderate activists the world over. The didactic part of the book at the end, “Ten Ways to Make a Difference,” reads like something on the self-help shelf in your local bookstore, but it could do a lot of good. Spira was a master of mobilizing public opinion. Understand the public’s thinking, and where it should be encouraged to go tomorrow. Select targets that are vulnerable to public opinion. Set achievable goals. Meaningful change, one step at a time (raising consciousness is not enough). It all sounds banal. That is where the rest of the book comes in, telling the real story of the use of such maxims, the real fights, the real successes, and the occasional losses. It also confronts the problems of excess zeal—violence from protesters themselves, for example against people wearing fur, which hurts the step-by-step amelioration demanded by Spira. It is a wonderful adventure story.

Singer and Spira were a formidable team. Spira was finally hit by esophageal cancer and died in 1998. Singer is still in his prime. He has his enemies. It was not clear to me, until I read an early passage in the book about Spira, that Singer took up his stand on animal liberation at the same time, and for identical utilitarian reasons, that he took up his less popular stand on euthanasia, which has earned him mighty protests and even physical assault.

We desperately need more people like Spira, more writings by Singer, for any number of practical moral issues. I like the clarity of Singer’s positions, the fact that he can sell half a million copies of a closely argued book on ethics. But oddly, I do not really believe him. He wishes to convince us of certain theses and codes of conduct. He starts with the claim that animals have interests because they are sentient, capable of pain and pleasure. When I reflect on my own actions and responses, I see that I occasionally do something good for some other people who are far from my circle of friends, family, or even countrymen, and perhaps beyond the call of any common duty. But I do not do so because they have interests, or because I respect their interests. Nor because they have rights. I often do not understand why I do it. It is partly what I have been trained to do, and childhood training does not readily wear off. But it is also something else, a certain kind of sharing, of sympathy between myself and another, the Humean basis of moral action.

Singer would protest, but you can-not just leave it there. First, you have these sympathies because these people whom you do not know are sentient beings like you. It is not the resemblance in digestive systems that moves you, but the fact that you feel they feel as you do. Second, you are a reasoning creature. You must find reasons for your actions. Sympathy we may need, but we also want reasons.

What reasons? There is a division among animal advocates that recapitulates the main cleavage in recent English-language moral philosophy. Singer, as I’ve said, is a utilitarian, a descendant of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who began with the thought that the best actions are those that are conducive to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of sentient beings. A rival approach to ethics emphasizes rights and duties. The classic text to put beside Singer is Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights.11 The rhetoric of rights is at present the most powerful argumentive tool in American political activism, but it is far from clear that animals could have rights. How do they exercise them? If rights go together with duties and obligations, how do animals have duties? (When you put up a “beware of dog” sign in Germany, it reads, in translation, “dutiful dog,” but only a few animals who are trained or work with us can sensibly be said to have obligations.) The German sense of caring for animals is far more sensitive than ours, but rights play no role at all. Animals were brought to trial for wrongdoing in medieval times, but we have lost that feeling for animals today.12

Many moralists suppose that there must be a timeless and correct answer to the question “What matters to ethics, right or utilities?” I disagree. I suspect that the place of reason-giving is more forensic than moral. We need codes and precedents to form arguments and reasons in order to regulate civil society. Singer and his fellows are forging the laws of tomorrow or the next century. One step at a time. Statutes and ordinances and laboratory ethics committees increasingly regulate animal research. Laws about slaughtering beef are more “humane” in Europe than America, but they will spread here. The Parliament of New Zealand may codify some fundamental rights of the great apes. These changes are less the consequences of reason than of changes in our passions and our sympathies, changes encouraged by the likes of Henry Spira’s advertisements against cosmetics testing on rabbits, by photographs of a rabbit hooked up to a grotesque and obviously painful apparatus.

So Ithink we have to be Humean and first worry about how to enlarge our sympathies. Rights and utilities will fall into place much later. This fits with the title of one of Singer’s finest books, The Expanding Circle.13 It is mostly about the possibility of altruism. He’s writing here against sociobiology, but his larger message may now (twenty years after he wrote the book) be more important. We must expand the circle of those for whom we are concerned. Different civilizations have different circles. The Hindu and especially Jain cultures give living things much more space in the sphere of value than is common in the West, but that is the result of doctrines that are never likely to move me. Albert Schweitzer’s slogan, “Reverence for life,” is about as far as my tradition will go. Nevertheless, we do enlarge the circle of our concerns. Thanks to Victorian agitators our attitude toward animal cruelty is astonishingly different from what it was 150 years ago. In the West, the greatest moment of expansion occurred in the second century BCE. The Stoics taught that women, slaves, and barbarians were all part of the human community, each of comparable moral worth, but, against considerable opposition, they argued against including animals in their community.14 They coined the label “cosmopolitics” for their political philosophy. Perhaps we are entering a new era of cosmopolitics.15

But if we are to do so, we shall have to broaden our sympathies in ways that we do not well understand. We shall have to own up to the messiness of our passions. Disgrace ends with an action I cannot comprehend, and only barely feel as possible. That is where we need Coetzee, not to make us reason, yet, but to help us experience the confusion. Lurie has finally formed an attachment. He is more than friends with a crippled young dog, still full of puppy joy, still wanting to do everything, still lapping up experience. The dog likes music, dreams of lolloping after his comrades. Minutes before he is to kill it, Lurie sees how it “wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it.” “Come,” he says, leading the dog to the zinc table. The vet had expected Lurie to keep the dog another week. “Are you giving him up?” “Yes, I am giving him up.”

This Issue

June 29, 2000