Last night the distinguished (and remarkably cheerful) legal philosopher Martha Nussbaum spoke in New York at the William Alanson White Institute to a crowd of graying analysts and a handful of rambunctious kids in the back from Brown’s class of ’06. Guess which I was. The title of the talk was “Compassion: Human and Animal.” With it, she joined an ever-growing field of thinkers who are noticing the hidden roles that animals play in systems of human ethics. Particularly as ecological crises overtake us, I am coming to believe that this will be among the most fruitful areas of reflection in the humanities in years to come.
Forgive me if one way or another I misread her paper—hearing a talk one time through without having the printed text makes it difficult to catch the details, which in this case, are very rich. I will invite Professor Nussbaum to read this and correct my memory as she likes.
Nussabaum’s starting point comes from the dean of popular ethology today, the author of several fascinating books on ape behavior, Frans de Waal. Among humans, he has proposed the concept of “anthropodenial” thusly: “a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves.” Nussbaum’s paper reflects on the consequences of such anthropodenial in human societies. She speaks of the ways in which the desire to purify the humanity in ourselves results in casting other people as animals. Certain habits of masculinity, for instance, perfect themselves by trying to transfer all the animality they sense in themselves onto women. In the process of striving to be fully and solely human, men make women into vessels of their vestigial animal, in particular through sexuality. The same strategies, she argues, apply to racial categories as well. Animalizing others makes it possible to abandon compassion for them. To make this point, Nussbaum skillfully analyzes some rather macabre examples from literature and recent genocidal history.
Her answer, then, is that to repair the brokenness of human compassion, which allows us to be unmoved by the suffering of others, we must embrace the animality in ourselves. When we abandon the project of purifying our own humanness at the expense of all resemblance to animal others, we cannot hide from compassion so easily. (Nussbaum didn’t address at all the work of Giorgio Agamben on human/animal distinctions or his concept of “bare life,” though the similarities were at times striking to me.)
Nussbaum’s point is a powerful one, and it raises challenging questions for the most well-meaning humanitarian ethics, not to mention the most ruthless tribalisms. But throughout, the paper continually appeared not quite able to follow its own call. While she explicitly rejects the traditional “ladder of nature” with animal at the bottom and human at the top, for instance, she cannot quite do away with it herself. In her discussion of what we share with animal emotions, she speaks of apes and mice as essentially less-developed versions of humans. Who can blame her? Whether you choose to adopt the hierarchical model explicitly or not, such comparisons will inevitably have hierarchical subtext, since, for humans, humanness will always be the paramount point of reference. Then, at the very end, Nussbaum describes her entire project in terms of “restraint”—the purpose is to restrain ourselves from doing evil. Yet, earlier, she implied that restraint would be an act unique to humans (since only we “have a robust conception of fault and no-fault” that would make restraint a possibility in the first place). Therefore, her conclusion appeared (at some level at least) to contradict the entire thrust of her talk: calling us to compassionate restraint amounts to a call to perfect our humanity at the expense of animality, the very thing that permits us lapses in compassion.
I do not point to this as an error in her reasoning so much as the arrival at an honest impossibility. We can no more welcome our animality fully than we can purify our humanity. Being human means inhabiting a circumstance that is different from other animals, just as being a bat would be also. One might even imagine, if humans are in fact fully animals, what better way to be an animal than to carry one’s humanness to its most uniquely human extremes?
I would, therefore, want to carry Nussbaum’s important point a bit further. Rejecting crass anthropodenial is only the first step of an ongoing habit. There are times, in fact, when a certain anthropodenial is just what we need. Compassion (which she rightly points out is related to but not exclusively bound to empathy), I argue, depends on an ongoing practice of dexterity with one’s own identity. There are a whole sequence of identities I can claim—carnally-born, animal, human, American, male, Catholic, Jewish, atheist, right-handed, leftist, Virginian, New Yorker, and so on. Living compassionately means wading among them all, arriving at none finally but all of them resolutely. Thankfully, each can represent a resource for compassion, for seeing others as bound up in myself. But each should also, at some level, be a brake on compassion, a place to draw the line where a degree of self-concern can be allowed to prevail.