BOOKS: The Philosopher’s Dog
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2004:
The Philosopher’s Dog by Raimond Gaita
Random House (1745 Broadway MD 18-2, New York, NY 10019), 2004.
220 pages, paperback. $23.95.
The Philosopher’s Dog is a collection of philosophical
arguments loosely drawn together by events that involve author
Raymond Gaita’s pets. Many non-animal subjects are covered, and
there is more philosophy than dog in the book.
Gaita specifically declines to philosophize about
vegetarianism, other than to assert that the slogan ‘meat is murder’
does not bear close analysis. He steadfastly distinguishes between
morality applied to humans and morality applied to animals. Allowing
comparisons between the Holocaust and factory farming, he points out
that seeking to equate the two would not find general acceptance, and
would rather indicate “a sentimentality that is wicked and offensive.”
Gaita believes it is foolish to talk about animal rights, he
says, adding that this “is partly because I think it is mistaken to
talk of rights in the case of human beings. To say that an action is
unjust because it violates someone’s rights adds nothing, I believe,
to saying that it is unjust.”
Gaita argues that attempting to bestow dignity upon the
powerless by creating the impression that rights are a moral force
field is to seek to create an illusion, unless the appeal to rights
has force to back it up. Gaita agrees there is a need to set limits
to human arrogance, but does not think that a concept of rights is
the way to go.
Rather, Gaita says, what is needed is an evolution in human
attitudes towards animals, based upon love and respect. This
conclusion is reached almost by a process of elimination. It begs
the question of why he is a meat-eater.
We are not convinced that Gaita’s understanding of animal
rights is conceptually correct.
“Animal rights” may be an illusion if one defines the term
narrowly to mean legal rights, or a kind of moral force-field, as
he puts it, but even at that, some animals in some places are
already protected to some extent by the cultural perception that they
should not be harmed.
Household pets, endangered species, and “game,” for
example, tend to have at least the shadow of “rights” not possessed
by livestock and other wildlife. Though “game” species may be hunted
in season, with a permit, the requirement of such special
conditions creates a widely recognized implied right to otherwise
live free from human intervention.
Further, the concept of animal rights as pursued by Tom
Regan in Empty Cages appears to be exactly what Gaita wants to see,
namely an attitudinal change on the part of humans toward the
treatment of all animals, based upon recognition of the ability of
sentient beings to suffer much as we do. (Only at the end of his
book does Regan list concrete proposals to better the lives of
Andrew Rowan in The Animal Research Controversy Report (1995)
described at least six different concepts of “animal rights” that
surface in common use of the phrase. The uses differ in scope of
meaning, but have in common that they imply awareness of cruelty
toward animals and recognition of a duty to prevent it and avoid
participating in it, even indirectly.
Adopting any concept of animal rights requires making real
changes in lifestyle. If enough people embrace any version of
“animal rights,” society will be profoundly changed.
That this is not illusory is evident from the recent frantic
efforts of agribusiness to win consumer approval with “good
husbandry” labeling while new lines of vegetarian prepared foods fill
shelves in most major supermarkets.
Gaita praises J.M. Coetzee’s book The Lives of Animals and
quotes extensively from it. But Gaita is critical of recent books by
Jeffrey Masson and Eugene Linden, which he describes as piling
anecdote upon anecdote “with unrelenting polemic intent” to show that
animals are capable of cognitive thought. Gaita sympathizes with
Linden and Masson for seeking to escape from “scientistic
skepticism,” with its neurotic fear of anthropomorphising. However,
Gaita feels that Linden and Masson confuse the realm of fact with the
realm of meaning, which depends upon interpretation, and thereby
make the same mistake as the “scientistic skeptics” whom they
criticise, except that their standards of evidence are less
This is not a book for the general reader. Gaita had us
reaching for the dictionary and rereading some passages several
times. However, The Philosopher’s Dog is intellectually
stimulating, and has deepened our conceptual approach to animal
rights and the relationship between humans and animals.
–Chris Mercer & Beverly Pervan