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Creatures Like Us?Review - Creatures Like Us?
A Relational Approach to the Moral Status of Animals
by Lynne Sharpe
Imprint Academic, 2005
Review by Tuomas Manninen
Dec 31st 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 52)

Lynne Sharpe begins her book by some personal reflections on how she never doubted that the animals in her family were creatures like us, and how it was a shock for her to realize that the acceptance of animals as equals was not universal. In Creatures Like Us? Sharpe offers a detailed analysis of the views one is likely to encounter in contemporary moral philosophy that mirror the popular, largely anti-animal, views. The recent events in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina testify that Sharpe's concern for animals is rather widespread, once one moves away from strict academic considerations: many residents of the flooded New Orleans refused to evacuate when they learned that the rescuers had no provisions to care for their companion animals; these people opted to risk perishing than abandoning their companions. This illustrates that Sharpe is by no means alone in the view she is advocating, even if she voices a minority philosophical view. Given this, Sharpe devotes the bulk of her book to challenging the prevalent moral theories that subjugate the moral status of animal to that of humans.

Drawing from moral philosophers whose theories both acknowledge the moral status of animals and from those who deny such status, Sharpe argues that each of them is flawed, albeit for different reasons. The general flaw of these theories is in their underlying anthropocentrism (or 'us-ism'), the notion that humans are superior to other species.

In Chapter 1, "Us and Them," Sharpe focuses on a motley collection of philosophers on the rights of animals, and argues that even those who generally support the inclusion of animals into the moral domain (such as Peter Singer and Thomas Regan) rely on biased assumptions on how the individual life predominates over the social life (52). Primarily, Sharpe argues against the different value-of-life theories that take humans to provide the gold standard of valuable life, against which all other animals are to be judged based on how much 'like us' they are. Sharpe challenges these approaches because they take for granted that we have a clear understanding of what 'we' are, and which of our attributes give us moral status. Her suggestion is that we can understand the status of animals only by understanding our own status. Throughout the book, Sharpe criticizes the popular moral theories for relying on an overtly cerebral notion of human life: the introspective and linguistic abilities of humans make us a remarkable species, but this does not entail that we are superior to other animals.

Sharpe delineates four different views that each deny that moral concern should be restricted only to humans, but she challenges the objectivity of these views. Her charges against the various attempts to compare the value of animal lives to the value of human life are twofold. First, such comparisons make sense only if we know what makes life valuable. Second, these comparisons render the value of life instrumental rather than intrinsic. Sharpe's criticism is that the various theories that purport to assess the value of animal life raise nothing more than the question 'what can we do to these animals?' instead of asking 'what can we do for them?'

In Chapter 2, "Friends and Neighbours," Sharpe's primary target is Peter Singer, who seemingly dismisses the views of those who have close relationships with their companion animals. In championing for the 'principle of equal consideration of interests,' Singer views giving moral status to personal relationships, not to mention relationships with partner animals, as mere 'soggy sentimentalism'. Sharpe points out that although Singer is right in advocating impartiality in ethics, this cannot be applied categorically, especially when it comes to relationships between individuals. Given how humans are social creatures, and how personal relationships play a crucial part in our lives, Sharpe argues that their moral significance cannot be dismissed as mere sentimentalism.

Chapter 3, "Nearest and Dearest" targets Peter Singer once again, now concerning his argument that the great apes should be included among the moral community with humans, given that the great apes are in many ways 'nearest to us.' Sharpe argues that the different ways in which this claim could be understood (in terms of genetic similarity, or in terms of similarities in capacities and ways of living) are not morally significant. More problematically for Singer, if these features were morally significant, then so would be features such as race and sex, and this would allow one to argue for racism or sexism, which Singer strongly condemns. Instead of trying to find 'objective' features on which to ground the moral considerations for animals, Sharpe suggests that those 'nearest to us' are the companion animals with whom we have the closest relationships, and it is to them that we have special moral obligations. In short, Sharpe's considerations are based on the fact that the relationships are between individuals, even if the individuals are of different species.

Chapter 4, "Beyond the Pale" is a criticism of philosophers who aim to preserve the status quo of affording no moral concern to animals. The philosophical theories criticized include one on which only language-users can be said to have interests (Frey); one on which only persons can be viewed as ends in themselves (Kant); and one on which only conscious mental states are morally significant (Carruthers). Sharpe's criticism is twofold. First, such theories amount to nothing more than blatant speciesism, and second, the theories are inconsistent in many ways. One of Sharpe's targets, Raymond Frey, advocates a view on which only language users can be said to have interests; the view not only excludes animals from having interests, but as Sharpe points out, it excludes human infants as well. Yet Frey is 'happy to grant interests not only to human beings who are permanently comatose, but to fetuses and "future beings" not yet conceived' (118); moreover, Frey waives the language requirement 'for any creature which can be "identified as a human being"' (119), thus substituting his inconsistency with blatant anthropocentrism.

Through the first four chapters, Sharpe's own positive account of the proper moral concern for animals emerges interspersed amongst the objections she raises against the various theories that denigrate the moral status of animals. The fifth chapter, "Creatures Like Us" finally provides an answer to the claim she raises at the outset of the book. If we are to judge our obligations to animals by inquiring how they are like us, it is paramount that we know what we are like. Sharpe turns to consider the richness of behavior both in humans and non-human animals, and argues that any model that relies on paradigms falls short of capturing the full extent and the subtleties of behavior, human or non-human. Any useful model for prediction needs to take the context into account, and what is even more crucial for understanding animal behavior is knowledge of the individual animal. Sharpe draws most of her support from personal experiences with companion animals, and one could try to criticize her approach for relying on overly emotional attachments. However, Sharpe points out that the proper way to understand the multifarious human relationships with companion animals is to gauge them in this context.

In conclusion, Sharpe brings together her considerations from the first four chapters to show that the question 'are the animals like us?' is useful, but only when its purpose is known. What is more, the considerations she raises show that this question, if it is to be truly objective, should be: in what sense are we like the animals? To refuse to consider the fact that humans have significant relationships with their companion animals is to show prejudice in favor of the theoretical.

Sharpe's arguments do a great service not only to animal rights but to our understanding of the human condition as well. The point that humans are social beings is often treated as an uninteresting side note not only in ethics but also in the metaphysics of personhood. Sharpe imputes many of the contemporary moral philosophers for remaining under 'the long shadow of Descartes' (191) despite the fact that they explicitly reject other Cartesian theories. Although Sharpe does not pursue the metaphysical aspects of this claim in her book, her discussion serves as a useful springboard for a better understanding of the social nature of personhood, which is, unfortunately, neglected by many writers.

Sharpe's views will no doubt face opposition from those committed to specific views on personhood, but those opposing her conclusion that animals should be accorded moral consideration will face a formidable task in refuting her arguments, lest they contend with inconsistent or blatantly anthropocentric moral theories. Creatures Like Us? is written with great lucidity, and the opposing arguments are subjected to close scrutiny. The book is valuable not only to those interested in animal rights, but also to those who are sympathetic to the social conception of moral status and personhood.

 

2005 Tuomas W Manninen

 

Tuomas Manninen is a Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa, currently working on his dissertation entitled "The ontological foundations for personhood over time". He will complete his degree in December 2006. His research interests include contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and history of early analytic philosophy.


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