I have this bad habit of reading several books at the same time. I was reading (and still am) Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Then I picked up Julian Franklin’s Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy, which was rather boring, and this made me think of Raimond Gaita. Because I remembered that he treated this bond we have with animals in a much finer way in stead of skirmishing about legal niceties and Kants categorical imperative.
So I started reading Gaita again. But this is by no means an easy book. Gaita tries to find out what our bonds with animals and nature are and what this knowledge means for our attitude towards life.
Our understanding of the definitive facts of the human condition — our sexuality, our vulnerability to misfortune, our morality — is determined through and through by our creatureliness. Like other living creatures we die rather than break down. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, rather than rusting or recycling, is the manner of our ending. [p. 28]
Gaita tries to find a balance between downright reducing the human species to animal ‘level’ like John Gray does in Straw Dogs and on the other hand the well-known pedestal. Also:
[a]ttempts to explain and also to reconstruct our deepest values by looking to evolutionary theory belong to a family of ethical theories that assume that those values serve purposes. [p. 181]
Gaita discards the usual ways to see animals or as completely inferior or in a mystical sympathetic way. He places man and animal side by side on the same planet, with many of the same problems, but of course with utterly other possibilities. From this point of view he looks at meaning, at creatureliness, at the preciousness of the human being.
When dogs respond to our moods, to our pleasures and fears, when they anticipate our intentions, or wait excitedly to see wether we will take them for a walk, they do not assume that we are sensate beings with intentions. I imagine that it was the same for us in our primitive state. Out of such unhesitating interactions, between ourselves, and between us and animals, there developed — not beliefs, assumptions and conjectures about the mind — but our very concepts of thought, feeling, intention, belief, doubt and so on. Misunderstanding this, captivated by a picture of ourselves as spectators, certain about our own minds, we have misconstrued the natural history of the development of our concept of the mind. We have constructed the fiction that at a certain point of intellectual development we had to step back from our assumption that others have minds and to seek evidence for it. Only then, we think, did we make ourselves worthy hosts to the gift of reason. It is an edifying narrative, but it is, I believe, fiction. [p. 61]
As I said, this is not an easy book. It reads very easy because of the well-told stories about animals and then, all of a sudden, you are in the midst of an intricate philosophical discours. His ideas are always very subtle. He does not make his thinking easy, even for himself I believe. But this makes it a wonderful and very rich book. I made a lot of annotations, and I’m left with the hunger to read more: his A common humanity, Thinking about love and truth and justice and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. And I think I’ll have to read it again some time, because there are so many ideas in it.
Did you read it? And if so, in what way did it affect you?