Cynthia Willett: Interspecies Ethics (2014)

What can we learn from the story about the last surviving elephants in Uganda? According to Cynthia Willett, professor of philosophy, the important ethical implications of biosemiotics are revealed in such stories.

In Interspecies Ethics (2014), she stresses that the anthropocentrism within the field of ethics needs to be explored from posthuman and ecological perspectives.

Willett’s reasoning opens with an anecdote about elephants and elephant poaching in Uganda. The widespread poaching kills elephants, causing the rest of the surviving elephant tribes to fight one another in downward spirals of destruction. The poaching tears apart the elephants´ communal structure, as is evident in Elephants on the edge, a book by psychologist Gay Bradshaw (2009) that tells the elephant story. It is a paradox, Willett argues, that modern humans are relearning the importance of communal ties in our ancient species through the destruction of these relationships in other species.

The seminal idea of Interspecies Ethics is a rejection of prominent ideas and assumptions in Western ethics. Willett challenges traditions in the philosophical canon of ethics: the character virtue in classical virtue ethics (Aristotle), the rationale principle in deontological moral theory (Immanuel Kant), and the focus on individual preferences in utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill). According to Willett, all of these rely on the assumption of human exceptionalism, that human beings are inherently superior because they possess rationality and language skills, with logos representing superiority. Willett goes on to claim that modern philosophers have described autonomous individuals and abstract principles as the exclusive basis for moral life. The moral theory consigns practical ethical life to the personal or religious sphere, where ethics becomes primarily a question of how to deal with human vulnerability.

Willett is aware of, and discusses, the response ethics tradition (from Emanuel Levinas to Jacques Derrida and Maurice Merleau-Ponty), a tradition also known as alterity ethics. This tradition offers an important reaction to the rationalist bias in modern moral theory, although Willett argues that it fails to cross the species barrier. Levinas, for instance, dismissed our animal others as lacking sufficient otherness for ethical status. Willett argues that the challenge is to change the prevailing attitude of sublime verticality of compassionate responses towards the other, to a horizontal reciprocity that requires vigilance, social attunement and resonance in a biosocial society.

The way in which Willett sets up an interspecies ethics is radical, and it has several implications. It forces us to move from an ethics of logos to an ethics of eros. It changes focus from the vulnerable other to ”the agonistic politics of the rough-and-tumble social field of interspecies life” (12), building on the main idea of a society as a communitarian biosocial network in which all species live together in interaction. Communication is not only about verbal language, it is not least about humour, laughter, solidarity, compassion, capacity for agency, social intelligence and community life; about interaction with all living entities, including animals and plants. Willett develops arguments regarding animal’s laughter, ethics’ evolution from play, affect attunement and other topics that make the reader aware of our human prejudice against animal life, concluding in the final chapter with a model and a vision of ethical life.

Interspecies ethics is of particular interest to the NaChiLit research group. It challenges our innermost anthropocentric beliefs, especially related to how the discourse of goodness and the human love for animals, nature and the other prove dysfunctional in an ecological perspective. However, the book is a challenging read as it builds on a wide variety of texts from the philosophy of ethics, phenomenological studies, biology, neuroscience and psychology, including child development theory. Perspectives from research are elaborated with anecdotes that often make it hard to follow the argumentation. Nevertheless, Interspecies ethics includes thorough notes, making it possible to use the text as a further guide to this field.

Aslaug Nyrnes 15.10.2016