Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Precarious Lives of Animals: Butler, Coetzee, and Animal Ethics

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Precarious Lives of Animals: Butler, Coetzee, and Animal Ethics

Article excerpt

There never was a human, there never was a life, and no murder has, therefore, ever taken place.

Judith Butler, Precarious Life, 147

In Precarious Life, Judith Butler explores a Levinasian ethics, or what she calls a Jewish ethics of non-violence.1 Arguing against Israeli violence to Palestinians, for instance, and against American military action in the Middle East-violence often justified by evocations of the sufferings of the Jews, on the one hand, and 9/11 on the other-Butler writes of an ethic which:

is wrought precisely from that experience of suffering, so that suffering itself might stop, so that something we might reasonably call the sanctity of life might be honored equitably and truly. The fact of enormous suffering does not warrant revenge or legitimate violence, but must be mobilized in the service of a politics that seeks to diminish suffering universally, that seeks to recognize the sanctity of life, of all lives. (103-04)

Following Levinas, Butler argues that moral authority derives from the other's face, which, Butler stresses, "is not exclusively a human face." Rather, the face is whatever says "thou shall not kill." As Butler emphasizes, this "thou shall not kill" need not be spoken in a human language: "So the face, strictly speaking, does not speak, but what the face means is nevertheless conveyed by the commandment, "Thou shall nol kill.' It conveys this commandment withoul precisely speaking it." (132) Instead of speaking, the face may be a "cry," a "sob," a "scream." It is "an utterance, that is not strictly speaking linguistic," "a scene of agonized vocalization" (133), "the wordless vocalization of suffering" ( 134). "The face," Buller continues, "if we are to put words to its meaning, will be that for which no words really work; the face seems to be a kind of sound, the sound of language evacuating its sense, the sonorous substratum of vocalization that precedes and limits the delivery of any semantic sense." (134) As Butler also goes on to argue, this cry may also be silent, evoked simply by the site of a suffering body, by a back or shoulder blades, or by a bent neck, as in an example of Levinas's. Of this ethical address, Butler writes:

Indeed, this conception of what is morally binding is not one that I give myself; it does not proceed from my autonomy or my reflexivity. It comes to me from elsewhere, unbidden, unexpected, and unplanned. In fact, it tends to ruin my plans, and if my plans are ruined, that may well be the sign that something is morally binding upon me. (130)

Although the question of animals in the ethical philosophy of Levinas is a matter of ongoing debate, Butler seems to present Levinasian ethical theory in the light which is most amenable for including non-human animals within the sphere of our ethical responsibility.2 Why else would Butler stress the sanctity of "all lives," or insist that the face need not be a human face, that the cry need not be made in a human language, and that the sheer site of a suffering body or a cry of pain is enough to address us? These qualifications are not necessary to argue against violence to Palestinians, Afghans, and Iraqis, given that these subjects have human faces and speak human languages. By arguing against an exclusively human interpretation of the "face" and the "ethical address," Butler seems to be setting the stage to be able to claim-or to allow others to claimthat the cries of animals in slaughterhouses, the sight of their struggling bodies as they are dragged to their deaths, of their silent, corporeally-expressed grief as they live out their brief lives in factory farms, fur farms, and laboratory cages, address us with the ethical command: "thou shalt not kill," and that we must respond to this command, even if it "ruins all our plans"-our plans for dinner, for profit, for research, for fashion, for entertainment, for sport.

In fact, however, such a claim is not among Butler's aims in Precarious Life. …

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