Last month marked the fortieth anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed in 1973 and signed by President Richard Nixon. Whether one considers this legislation from the right or from the left of the political spectrum, its anniversary provides an opportune moment for reflection on its deep messages about the relationship between humans and other animals, and about relationships between and among humans as well.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
In Plato’s seminal work, The Republic, he presents an allegory about the relationship between the abstract world of ideas and the concrete material world. Plato asks us to imagine a cave in which prisoners are chained and required to live out their lives facing a blank wall, illuminated only by a fire that burns behind them. All that the inhabitants of the cave can see before them are mere shadows of real objects, fuzzy images that necessarily fail to reflect the richness and multidimensionality of reality.
Then one day, the prisoners are freed from the cave and able to see reality in all of its glory. Once the former prisoners can see and understand, this new vision of reality is infinitely greater and more profound than what the prisoners previously believed was all that there was—shadows appearing on the walls of a cave.
For Plato, the prisoner who ultimately becomes free is a metaphor for the philosopher, and the inhabitants of the cave are those whose experience revolves around the material world. The philosopher can contemplate the abstract idea—the Platonic “form”—of which any concrete material feature of the world is merely a shadow. A specific table, for example, is an imperfect example of the form of “table,” which is the perfect table that resides only in the world of ideas. In contrast to how we normally think about “reality,” Plato thus tells us that our idea of a table (or of kindness, truth, or justice) is more substantial and real than any individual instance of it in the material world could ever be. In this Platonic worldview, individual items in the world are mere exemplars, far less important than the abstraction that they collectively represent.
Animals in the World of Forms
What does Plato’s cave have to teach us about humans’ relationship with animals, in general or as specifically envisioned in the ESA? Consider the level of reality at which the ESA contemplates animals. On its surface, the ESA appears to be a statute that protects animals (as well as plants) from human predation and rapaciousness. If we reflect upon the ESA, however, we see that it does so—if at all—only incidentally. The statute does provide for the classification of some animals as threatened or endangered, and it limits or prohibits the killing, harming, and exploitation of animals belonging to those classifications. Meanwhile, though, the ESA leaves other animal species (those not threatened or endangered) unprotected. That is why hunters of particular sorts of animals seek to have them removed from the list of “endangered” or “threatened” species.
An individual animal, however, is threatened and endangered any time someone attempts to hurt or kill that animal, and he or she will react accordingly (by attempting to run, or by flailing about ineffectually while suffering at human hands). No individual animal reserves the “fight or flight” impulse for occasions on which the entire species is in danger.
Yet the ESA focuses not on particular animals as beings with value in and of themselves but instead views them each as an exemplar of his or her particular species, important only insofar as he or she provides an outward manifestation of the characteristics common to the species. The enemy of the ESA, then, is not a particular animal’s untimely death or suffering. It is the extinction of a species—a state of affairs in which the “form” of the species will cease to have living exemplars in the material world. Thus, the ESA has nothing to say about the billions of animals we slaughter for food, so long as the species to which they happen to belong continue to have sufficiently numerous exemplars in our world, however briefly and miserably each individual animal lives.
We accordingly see that the ESA protects animal “forms” rather than protecting actual animals. And the ESA’s view of animals as forms illuminates the way in which many of us have been taught to think about the beings with whom we share this world. An understanding of this helps make sense of some of the things that people say in conversations with vegans like myself, who have come to see animals as distinct individuals.
Some people have said to me, for example, that they feel good about consuming “heritage” breeds of turkeys or pigs, because there would be no turkeys or pigs of these particular sorts in the world, in the absence of the slaughter that people endorse through their consumption choices. If one is attending only to the continuing life of a species (or, in this case, of a particular breed of turkey or pig) rather than to the life of the animal, then one might indeed view oneself as “protecting” the animal (i.e., the form of the breed) by consuming its exemplars. After all, the farmer breeds these material exemplars only because (and so long as) there are people prepared to pay for their slaughter, by consuming them.
By the same token, the “forms” approach to animals helps explain why people who consume the flesh and secretions of cows might simultaneously express concern for the future of cows, if the world were to become vegan, a concern that I have heard on more than one occasion. What is good for the individual, living, breathing cow—an end to her exploitation, an end to her separation from her offspring, an end to her mutilation and slaughter—may be “threatening” to the form of cow. The form of the cow is the idea of the domesticated animal that might eventually have few or no exemplars in our world, if people stop consuming the flesh and secretions of those exemplars.
Breeds created for exploitation and slaughter are indeed unlikely to be purposefully bred if their offspring are no longer to be used by humans. And if one is attached to the form of the cow (but not to actual cows, in all of their particularity), then exploitation might seem paradoxically like a kindness to “the cow.” In the world of the forms, individuals and their concrete experiences matter very little, while the ongoing production of exemplars matters a great deal.
Humans in the World of Forms
Contrast the ESA’s conception of animals—as exemplars of the forms of particular species, to be protected only insofar as is needed to replenish the supply—with the view of humans reflected in civil rights and human rights legislation. Laws like Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibit an employer from treating an individual employee in a manner motivated by the individual’s membership in a racial (or other statutorily identified) group.
To decide to fire, to fail to promote, or to otherwise mistreat an employee on the basis of race is to engage in “forms” thinking. Rather than attend to the particular characteristics that an individual employee brings to bear, the discriminatory employer instead focuses on the fact that an employee is female, African American, Mexican, or Jewish, to make a decision. Far more important than an employee’s individuality, from the perspective of the employer who discriminates, is the fact that the employee is a member (and thus an exemplar) of a group, who is therefore presumed to carry the traits stereotypically associated with that group.
Racism, sexism, and other such approaches to our fellow humans embrace—to a greater or lesser extent—the notion that what is real is race or sex, with the individuals who fall into a disfavored category seen as largely interchangeable and interchangeably tainted with whatever group characteristic preoccupies the racist or sexist. In their most extreme manifestations, racism and sexism yield the obliteration of the individual as someone with cognizable interests and entitlements of his or her own. If a member of a hated group gets in the way of the racist’s or sexist’s plans, the thoroughgoing racist or sexist feels little compunction about utilizing and disposing of the individual, someone who was never truly seen by the racist or sexist as more than a shadow to begin with.
Ordinarily, one does not associate the elevation of ideas over the material world with oppression and even genocide, but the association is nonetheless real. Hitler looked at Jews and saw only exemplars of a despised idea, “The Jew,” rather than seeing and appreciating particular individuals with a vast array of characteristics, interests, and preferences. Proponents of slavery looked at African Americans and saw only instances of live property to be used, rather than individuals with the same basic needs and dreams as their oppressors. And in a less extreme but still troubling context, people involved in a war or other serious conflict tend to see members of the enemy camp as exemplars of the idea of “the enemy.”
In a comical reference to how fans express loyalty to sports teams, despite the fact that the individual membership of the teams frequently changes, one Seinfeld episode described sports fans as rooting for “laundry” (i.e., the uniform worn by whichever people happen to occupy the positions for a particular team at a given time). Cheering for one’s team is not, of course, akin to genocide or to slavery, but it manifests a related tendency to elevate the idea of a group over the unique individuals who make up that group, albeit for an innocuous pastime. Even in relatively innocuous settings (like watching sports), it is worth noting this tendency with a critical eye.
How to View Animals As Individuals
For the most part, modern legal and ethical customs require that, except in extreme circumstances (such as war), we treat and think about the humans with whom we interact mainly as individuals, rather than as exemplars of an idea or stereotype of a group. By contrast, our primary interaction with nonhuman animals is one of “forms.” Our interactions consist in exploitation, and we treat animals as lacking in inherent value, worth only what we can take from them, the exemplars of the various species, in the way of food items like dairy, eggs, and flesh; clothing materials like leather, wool, and fur; and other consumer products.
Most of us, however, have had the experience of valuing an individual animal for him or herself. One common example is the family dog or cat, who receives a name and whom we often call “him” or “her” rather than the ubiquitous “it” we use to refer to most farmed animals. For a great number of people, the illnesses of companion animals inspire worry, and their deaths provoke genuine grief.
The animals who endure farming and slaughter do occasionally make an appearance as valued individuals. This sometimes occurs when a cow or a pig escapes from a slaughterhouse. People who regularly consume animal products nonetheless will cheer for the escaped animal and want her to be spared. The contrast is between seeing and valuing an individual being as the unique creature that she is, and regarding the animals whose flesh and secretions one consumes as abstractions, mere exemplars of the idea of “cow” or “chicken” or “pig,” an idea that represents a source of food, rather than real living beings who want to live just as much as our dogs and cats do.
Re-Entering Plato’s Cave
Upon reflection, one might view the process of leaving Plato’s Cave as a morally hazardous one, when sentient creatures (rather than inanimate objects like tables) are involved. It is a process by which our natural ability to empathize and care for others, including other humans and nonhumans, begins to evaporate into the ether, replaced in our minds by an abstract conception of a category into which we may arbitrarily place members of the individual’s group. Once abstracted in this way, the individual becomes vulnerable to discrimination and violence that fail to trigger the pangs of conscience that might otherwise accompany the harm we do to our fellow living inhabitants of this planet.
We might consider embracing an allegory that reverses the one envisioned by Plato. In this alternative allegory, the philosopher who can easily turn individuals into abstractions has been dazzled and hypnotized by the sun, now unable to see the material world clearly and in all of its texture and complexity. This philosopher, unwittingly chained to abstractions, enters the beautiful cave in which reside all manner of sentient creatures. In that cave, the philosopher is once again able to see particular people and particular animals and is able now to appreciate that his actions have consequences, not just for ideas but for real-life beings. Though the world of ideas may be an interesting place to visit, truth, goodness, and justice must be practiced, pursued, and lived in the real, concrete world.