Embrace your inner animal

We need a new classification of life

A child raised together with a chimpanzee

By Bart Braun

We’re becoming increasingly reconciled to our inner beast, claims philosopher and animal-rights activist Erno Eskens – it stimulates emancipation and combats discrimination.

(Het originele Nederlandse artikel staat hier)
The grounds of the International School of Philosophy (ISvW) are a fascinating place. During Mare’s visit, the central hall, where eminences such as Carl Jung, Rabindranath Tagore, Karl Popper and Noam Chomsky were once welcomed, has been booked for a funeral. The profits go to the philosophy division of the ISvW.
Philosopher Erno Eskens invites the speakers, draws up programmes and manages the ISvW publishing house. Last month, under the supervision of Leiden legal philosopher Paul Cliteur, Eskens was awarded his doctorate for his latest book: Een beestachtige geschiedenis van de filosofie [A Beastly History of Philosophy]. The two philosophers are united in their fight for animal rights, the subject of Eskens’ previous book, Democratie voor dieren [Democracy for Animals]. In brief, the book argues that animals have interests, that democracy has a duty to consider all interests and a state governed by the rule of law has a duty to treat all similar cases equally. A civilised country, therefore, cannot not allow animals rights. Eskens is an active member of the Party for the Animals and tries to maintain a vegan lifestyle.
Beestachtige geschiedenis relates how philosophy sees animals throughout history. They are usually of minor importance in philosophy, but an interesting topic nonetheless: time and again, philosophers have defined humans by comparing us to animals. Aristotle calls man “a political animal” while Nietzsche talks about das noch nicht festgestellte Tier. “The animal is a reference point used to determine the unicity of humans”, Eskens writes. “Once that is done, we tend to look forward and animals disappear from view.”
How we think about ourselves and other animals is changing, however, and an added effect is that animals – and humans - will be better off, Eskens argues. “Many histories of philosophy are neutral. Histories are lists, as if we haven’t progressed, but we have.”
In Eskens’ opinion, we passed the first milestone with Erasmus at the end of the middle ages. Before then, the Ancient Greeks ruled: Plato and Aristotle and their schools. Man is the “rational animal”, capable of controlling his animal passions, which animals can’t. If animals can plan their actions, it is because the devil controls them. Animals are our food, leather or our work force – no more than a commodity.
Erasmus is in favour of humility. “You are not a ruling intelligent, as Plato says, though you might have intelligence”, Eskens says, paraphrasing Erasmus. Thus, the distance to animals diminishes. Erasmus, disliking the ideology of authority and calling on everyone to investigate the world for themselves, paved the philosophical way for the natural sciences. Aristotle’s words had been considered the truth for centuries, but on closer inspection, women proved to have just as many teeth as men and eels do not materialise in mud out of thin air.
The next step is taken by a former student of Leiden University, René Descartes. He divides the world into two: there are material things with physical properties and immaterial, thinking things. Descartes removes properties like virtue, courage and social feeling, held by Plato to be “herd thinking”, from animals: they cannot think, and consequently, cannot have any thinking-thing properties. Others responded quickly to his mechanical reasoning: Voltaire claims that animals have feelings and those feelings are meaningful while Immanuel Kant explains that a civilised human being treats animals humanely. People who are cruel to animals are cruel to humans.
Under the influence of the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attention turned to man’s inner beast, or as Eskens calls it, “organic primal force”.
“He looks to the natural world to ‘find himself’ and people responded enthusiastically to Rousseau’s state of nature. Animals are free, because they can give into their desires without being hampered by culture.” And those humans who are closer to animals, such as women, go up in the estimation of the white men who follow Rousseau’s line of thought. Blacks become ‘noble savages’. Are women and blacks liberated because they are considered full citizens, or because “the beast” deserves its freedom? It is, at least, partly, the latter – and that’s one reason why their emancipation has bumbled along for so long without them becoming truly equal.”
He fears that the same applies to the emancipation of animals. “They are liberated as idealised beings, instead of actual creatures with interests.” The liberation of the idealised animal – Bambi, Cecil the lion – is thwarting the liberation of real animals.
Humans and animals have grown closer, and not just by philosophising: biology is constantly finding more bridges that connect us. Descartes’ anatomy lessons showed us that we are made of the same material and modern behavioural scientists are finding more and more examples of those elusive thinking-things in the animal world. It seems that animals are rational beings too. And when Frans de Waal, the Dutch ethologist, discovered chimpanzee politics, it emerged that mankind is not the only “political animal”.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that we have a lot in common”, says the philosopher, which raises the question as to why we should allow the sharp boundaries between mankind and the animal world to continue to exist. We would never consider conducting medicine trials on the mentally impaired or on convicted murderers, let alone consider eating them or turning their skins into fancy underwear. What privilege-giving property do humans have that cannot be touched by any chimp, whale or elephant? Australian philosopher Peter Singer coined the term “speciesism” to describe it: we unashamedly favour humans.
Eskens reflects: “We need a new Linnaeus: someone to classify life – but not in order of relationships but by properties and the interests derived from them. Take chickens for example: they’re sensitive to high-frequency light, so we shouldn’t expose them to it. It would be an immense project, with biologists, lawyers and philosophers, but it can be done.

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