Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Wrongs of Animal Rights


One might perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the proponents of rights for animals are the only ones left who have not yet heard about the challenges posed to the liberal subject of right from all sides. While this is not strictly true, neither is it particularly false.

A large part of the problem centres upon the fact that the so-called “fathers” of contemporary animal rights theory absolutely refuse any truck with possible alternatives, dismissing them out of hand as without relevance. As a result, a great many activists today – having inevitably turned to animal rights discourse in the first instance due to its privileged media position – believe that rights theory is not so much the best as rather the only position from which to address animal concerns. This is part of a retrograde and, at times, extremely bitter defensive battle concerned only with preserving that privileged position. While this is of course an all too human reaction, it is, however, just such anthropocentric conservatism that must be done away with.

Here then, the discourse of “animal rights” must be contested from both sides, that is, as regards both animal and right. Ironically perhaps, this can best be illustrated by way of its two greatest proponents, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, whose books, Animal Liberation (1975) and The Case for Animal Rights (1983) respectively, are generally considered the founding texts of contemporary animal rights theory.

According to Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, it is insofar as nonhuman animals are sentient, and only by virtue of this, that they are therefore entitled to have their interests taken into account in any utilitarian calculation. In this, however, Singer is not – as he himself makes clear – making a case for animal rights, but rather only for the necessity of including sentient animals in the determination of morality by utilitarian calculation in order to avoid falling into contradiction and thus irrationality. Singer’s basic position, in other words, remains inevitably inscribed within the calculus of ends, a human mastery which thus views the animal only according to its enclosure within an ordered technological schema. A schema, moreover, within which any oppression of a minority for the sake of that judged – by human standards – as the “common good” can all too easily be justified.

While Singer is not strictly proposing a theory of animal rights, Tom Regan meanwhile is not proposing a case for animal rights. Rather, Regan attempts merely to demonstrate that certain privileged nonhuman animals are the “same” as humans insofar as they too are “subjects-of-a-life,” that is, that they, in common with humans, possess interests and desires regarding their own individual existence. In other words, Regan’s neo-Kantian liberal approach determines the place of the nonhuman animal only according to an essential human morality, and in so doing inscribes human subjectivity as the ground of the animal. As philosopher Matthew Calarco notes, “Regan’s work is not a case for animal rights but for rights for subjects, the classical example of which is human beings.”[1]

Already then, we see how the notion of “animal rights” necessarily moves within the same or another humanism, redrawing again and again the same unthought lines of exclusion, the same metaphysics of either-man-or-animal. In both cases, it is man who must determine, and thus delimit, the animal. Similarly, the bourgeois liberalism upon which rights theory rests is clearly evident in the shared privileging of the individual – of individual consciousness (Regan) and of an individual capacity for suffering (Singer) – at the expense of wider considerations. In short, for both Singer and Regan it is only ever sentient animals who count, that is to say, it is only the most human animals who matter.

Here then, it is not only the anthropomorphising of the animal that renders rights theory hugely problematic, but also the liberalism that necessarily inheres within the notion of “right” itself. As Jacques Derrida insists, insofar as rights theory remains structurally incapable of dissociating itself from the Cartesian cogito, it necessarily finds itself condemned to helplessly reiterating an interpretation of the masculine human subject “which itself will have been the very lever of the worst violence carried out against nonhuman living beings.”[2] This inevitable contamination of the notion of “right,” as well as the refusal of its principal theorists to consider other possible avenues, has resulted in the alienation of several potentially sympathetic groups from thinking with other animals, feminists chief among them.

This chasm is further broadened in that, insofar as the Western human male constitutes the measure of everything, rights theory fondly imagines that the inferior status of nonhuman beings can be fundamentally challenged by way of the legal and political institutions of that same Western human male. As a result, as Calarco again points out, animal rights activism is left with no other choice than to adopt “the language and strategies of identity politics.”[3] which in turn serves to further isolate animal concern from other arenas of political activism that are similarly seeking to challenge structures of oppression such as ecofeminism.[4]

Moreover, there are further, less directly related problems regarding the underlying liberalism of rights discourse. Consider the political and ethical issue of veganism, for example. The individualism inherent in animal rights, itself dependent upon the liberalist idea of the free human subject of will, results in the ethico-political praxis of “enlightenment.” Politics, in other words, becomes for the adherent of animal rights the ethical practice of enlightening others through the power of that very will.

As a result, it becomes very easy to understand the widespread negative perception of veganism as the last pure, proselytising religion. Indeed, in a book written with Anna Charlton, rights theorist Gary Francione and even attempts to defend animal rights on the basis of its reduction to a “belief system,” that is, to a religion.[5] It thus comes as no surprise that animal rights activists tend to believe that “active inclusion in the movement carries with it certain proscribed beliefs such as the assertion of the moral righteousness of the movement and the necessity of spreading that revelation.”[6] Or, as Tom Regan puts it, one must – with all the moral superiority that this entails – enlighten “one person at a time.”[7] Here then, the focus is once again returned to the human “believer,” with animal concern being displaced onto a human concern serving what Jamison, Wenk and Parker describe “as an alternative expression of ‘repressed transcendence’” – a repression that is itself characteristic of modernity.[8]

It should be noted, however, that all such people in need of moral “enlightenment” in fact already know about the almost unspeakable horrors, about the intense suffering and resolutely quotidian cruelty undergone by other animals every minute of every day all over the world – a systematic and systemic torture-slaughter machine which, transcending every geographical boundary, carries on regardless. Where then does this leave the righteousness of “persuasion”? Presumably waiting either for a much more effective art of rhetoric, or for a messianic (re)incarnation. In the meantime, how can a proselytising practice founded precisely on liberal or neoliberal individualism ever result in the cessation of exploitation and consumption?

Intimately related to these Christo-capitalist foundations of contemporary animal rights theory is the all too frequent recourse to the rhetoric of moral innocence as regards nonhuman animals. At the same time as reinstating a very traditional human-animal dichotomy, this conservative yet unfounded rhetoric again serves only to burden animal concern with religious overtones – activism thus becomes penance for the moral culpability of the fact of being human. In this way, human exceptionalism finds itself once more safely inscribed within a Christian teleology as the only animal to Fall into sin and thus in need of salvation.

By contrast, the priority of animal liberation resides instead in disclosing an epistemic shift that, already underway, ultimately makes eating flesh simply unthinkable. In this sense, the issue of veganism is both subordinate to, and a necessary consequence of, a thorough deconstruction of speciesism, itself dependent upon the dismantling of the various mutually-articulating structures of oppression. Without this, veganism all too easily risks becoming merely a pious operation of ressentiment.

One way to think about this is through Carol Adams’ concept of the absent referent understood here as that which solicits – in the double sense of both shaking and importuning – that unacknowledged knowledge of the global torture-slaughter machine. Not, however, in the staging of a one-to-one dialogue – itself an all too human, all too individualist, all too egoist privilege – but by way of an undeniable manifestation of an habitual and constituent refusal to think and to see, one with the potential to solicit on a far larger scale. From this we can begin to understand why the future cessation of exploitation and consumption of other animals does not rest with the persuasive power of the minority of “enlightened” humans, but with the return of the repressed. A return which, as that which is most real, quite simply can no longer be denied at the level of our very being. Only then will consuming other animals become unthinkable in an absolutely literal sense.



1. Matthew Calarco Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p.8.

2. Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.65.

3. Matthew Calarco Zoographies, op.cit., p.7.

4. It would seem that, forming a group dedicated to exposing connections between sexism and speciesism, ecofeminists Carol Adams and the late Marti Kheel sought perhaps to “queer” the associations of rights theory by naming the group Feminists for Animal Rights (FAR). This, however, only confuses the issue, which is that of removing the focus on “rights” entirely.

5. See Francione & Charlton Vivisection and Dissection in the Classroom: A Guide to Conscientious Objection (Jenkintown: The American Anti-Vivisection Society, 1992).

6. Wesley V. Jamison, Caspar Wenk, & James V. Parker “Every Sparrow that Falls: Understanding Animal Rights Activism as Functional Religion” in The Animal Ethics Reader 2nd Edition. Ed. Susan J. Armstrong & Richard G. Botzler (London & New York: Routledge, 2008), pp.609-614 (p.611).

7. Tom Regan “Preface: The Burden of Complicity” in Susan Coe Dead Meat (New York & London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995), pp.1-4 (p.4).

8. Jamison, Wenk, & Parker, op.cit., p.610.

Wo und Ob: Heidegger’s Rethinking of the Heideggerian Animal


Okay, I admit that the following is perhaps somewhat esoteric, but it nonetheless has important consequences for (re)thinking animals with Heidegger from within both animal studies and continental philosophy. (Also, there is another post on the way soon – entitled “Salvation Dreams: The Wrongs of Animal Rights” – which will probably have a broader appeal. Anyway, back to M.H.)

According to Heidegger, the authentic encounter is marked by a “calling” [Anrufen] proper only to the human-Dasein as the sole possessor of the “as”-structure. However, once one comes to recognise the shared existence (or ek-sistence) of all beings as similarly constituted outside of themselves and irreducible to egological consciousness, this exclusive privilege can no longer be maintained. As a result, Heidegger’s assertion in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that the call is precisely a demand that “impels us toward the singular extremity [Spitze] of whatever originarily makes possible” (144) thus has far broader implications in terms of that which potentially remains to come.

It is toward this potentiality which Heidegger perhaps gestures when he later suggests that—

The difficulty of the problem lies in the fact that in our questioning we always and inevitably interpret the poverty in world and the peculiar encirclement proper to the animal in such a way that we end up talking as if that which the animal relates to and the manner in which it does so were some being, and as if the relation involved were an ontological relation that is manifest to the animal. The fact that this is not the case compels us to the thesis that the essence of life is accessible only through a destructive observation [Wesen des Lebens nur im Sinne einer abbauenden Betrachtung zugänglich ist], which does not mean that life is something inferior or that it is at a lower level in comparison with human Dasein. On the contrary, life is a domain which possesses a wealth of being-open [Offenseins], of which the human world may know nothing at all (The Fundamental Concepts, 255; trans. modified).

It remains the case then, beyond what is yet one more anthropocentric mirror—beyond, that is, this “fact” which compels Heidegger to speculate—, that this necessarily destructive observing with and to which the animal is sacrificed nonetheless reserves for nonhuman animals, on the far side of the abyssal rupture, the possibility of an unknown and unknowing being-open which remains to be differently thought.

Important in regard to this “different thought,” one centred upon the opening of possibility for nonhuman animals, is the very minor – but nonetheless hugely significant – emendation which Heidegger makes prior to the publication of the seventh edition of Being and Time in 1953. While a small number of other changes were made at the same time, these were all merely corrections of typographical errors. By contrast, this one particular change – thus far to my knowledge overlooked by scholars of the Heideggerian animal – opens up a new direction and a possible rethinking of Heidegger by Heidegger.

The change in question can be found on page 346 of the original German edition of Sein und Zeit, and page 396 of the Macquarrie & Robinson translation, with a footnote marking the revision. Here, Heidegger is highlighting a certain difficulty, a difficulty he appears to subsequently refuse two years later in The Fundamental Concepts; viz, in the early editions he argues that—

It remains a problem in itself [bleibt ein Problem für sich] to define ontologically the way in which the senses can be stimulated or touched in something that merely has life [in einem Nur-Lebenden], and how and whether [wie und ob] the Being of animals, for instance, is constituted by some kind of “time” (Being and Time, 396 [Macquarrie & Robinson translation]).

For the seventh edition, however, Heidegger replaces this problem of knowing “how and whether [wie und ob]” the Being of animals is constituted by some kind of ‘time’ with a different problem, that of knowing “how and where [wie und wo]” the Being of animals is constituted by some kind of ‘time.’” This change thus marks a an explicit shift in Heidegger’s thinking with other animals: the question is not (or no longer) whether animals have time, but only where and in what way such time(s) might spatialise itself. Here is Joan Stambaugh’s translation of the revised sentence:

How the stimulation and touching of the senses in beings that are simply alive are to be ontologically defined, how and where [wie und wo] in general the being of animals is constituted, for example, by a “time,” remains a problem for itself (Being and Time, 317).

Glossing this sentence, Derrida speculates whether the “pure concept” of “mere,” “bare,” or “simple” life—“this fiction, this simulacrum, this myth, this legend, this phantasm”—is not precisely a symptom of that history which “man tells himself, of the philosophical animal, of the animal for the man-philosopher,” a history intimately linked to the Christian narrative of the Fall (The Animal That Therefore I Am, 22-3). As a supplement to, rather than as a replacement for, this reading, however, Heidegger’s sentence can also be read as both a deferral of nonhuman animals beyond the anthropo-magical mirror[1] and a foreecho of Heidegger’s later hesitation concerning the “being-open” [Offenseins] of nonhuman animals cited above. Unfortunately, in translating “bleibt ein Problem für sich as “remains a problem in itself,” Macquarrie and Robinson efface the alternative rendering of “a problem for itself” (as chosen by Stambaugh) and, as a result, efface too the suggestion that Heidegger might rather be arguing that the “kind” of time by which the Being of animals is constituted remains essentially separate. (The reduction to a singular kind of time, refusing the much more likely possibility of infinte kinds of times, serves here only to yet again reiterate Heidegger’s unthinking reduction of the multiplicity of “living beings” to a single homogeneous essence.)

Hence, in this alternative reading of the sentence, rather than it being a logical problem to be put off until later, the “problem” is one which rather remains always and only an ontological question for nonhuman animals, in that its question—and, more specifically, it is a question of touch in its broadest sensecannot be accessed given the particular restrictions of the human world. In this reading then, its subsequent refusal in The Fundamental Concepts could not, after all, be considered a refusal. Rather, as Heidegger acknowledges with this correction, the question, once actually thought, must instead come to rest upon how that which is humanly unthinkable may be given its space. And that, both stimulating and touching, is indeed a question, one which perhaps even calls “toward the singular extremity of whatever originarily makes possible.”




[1] For a detailed explication of the anthropomagical mirror in relation to Heidegger’s avowed commitment to a “humanism beyond humanism,” see my “Animals in Looking-Glass World: Überhumanism and Posthumanism in Heidegger and Nietzsche” in Humanimalia 1:2 (2010), pp.46-85.



Derrida, Jacques The Animal That Therefore I Am trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

Heidegger, Martin Being and Time trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962).

Heidegger, Martin Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany, New York: State University of New York, 1996).

Heidegger, Martin The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude trans. W. McNeil & N. Walker (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995).

Heidegger, Martin Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik. Gesamtausgabe Ln, BD. 29/30 (Vittorio Klostermann, 1992).