BOOKS: The Moral Menagerie: Philosophy and Animal Rights

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2007:

The Moral Menagerie: Philosophy and Animal Rights
by Marc R. Fellenz
Univ. of Illinois Press
(1325 S. Oak St., Champaign, IL 61820), 2007.
301 pages, paperback. $25.00

Marc Fellenz, a philosophy teacher at
Suffolk County Community College in New York,
writes from a broader and deeper perspective than
is typical in debates over animal rights theory.
Reviewing the major animal rights theories,
Fellenz fails to find any that lack significant
shortcomings. He goes on to look for a better
intellectual basis on which to ground an ethical
theory on behalf of animals.
Fellenz rejects Peter Singer’s
utilitarianism because one cannot weigh the
benefits of most activities against the costs
with any precision.

Tom Regan’s deontological rights-based
theory is based upon sentience, Fellenz points
out, and since sentience exists along a
continuum, no one knows where the arbitrary
lines of exclusion should be drawn.
The Aristotelian ethic of emphasising the
moral virtue of the human, rather than the moral
effect of the activity, also fails to indicate
where the virtuous line in our dealings with
animals should be drawn.
The theory that society and ethics are
based upon a social contract, to avoid perpetual
warfare, is not easily applied to human/animal
relations, because humans usually have nothing
to gain by voluntarily refraining from exploiting
Fellenz terms all of these approaches
“extensionist” i.e. seeking to inappropriately
extend human constructs to the animal world.
An environmental ethic, Fellenz claims,
would “do more than establish a ground for our
moral obligations to nature; it would risk
making the natural world so sacrosanct that
humanity’s very presence in it cannot avoid being
morally objectionable.”
Fellenz compares the theoretical
constructs for animal rights to the theories
behind deep ecology and ecofeminism. Deep
ecology and ecofeminism each provide a logical
and compelling moral basis, Fellenz believes,
for undermining the narrow anthropocentrism which
contaminates traditional moral philosophy, and
allow us to deal realistically with non-human
Fellenz quotes John Berger’s apt
description of a zoo as an “epitaph–a monument
to the permanent marginization of animals and a
concession that authentic wildness is itself an
endangered species. As wilderness and our access
to it continue to shrink,” Berger continued,
“we may have little choice but to rely upon such
impoverished and self defeating devices as the
game farm and zoo to preserve the memory of the
very existence of the animals’ worldŠ’Wildlife
management’ is thus an oxymoron, for if it has
to be managed it is not truly wild.”
Some of Fellenz’s statements in regard to
hunting may raise a sceptical eyebrow. For
example, Fellenz writes, “it is telling that
while the humane animal advocate feels compassion
for the suffering animal it may be the hunter who
truly befriends the animal, and heeds its call.”
Some humans enjoy escaping the
stultifying self- domestication that we call
civilization through sport hunting, but to
suggest that by taking up predation a person can
actually “befriend” his victims is to make a
claim at odds with the reality that wild
predators usually do not kill and eat their
friends, and do not hang their heads on the wall.
Like most philosophers, Fellenz seems to
have little feeling for animals, and little
direct experience with them. Extending sympathy
and understanding to non-humans should not be
rejected as “extensionist’” when those who do
this know that it elicits the same responses from
many animals, including wildlife, as from
humans in need of care.
But such experience has little meaning to
moral philosophers. Instead, Fellenz provides a
fascinating summation of the philosophy of
hunting and other ritualized or institutionalized
forms of animal abuse, citing parallels with
sacrifice and totemism. There are disquieting
similarities between the ancient high priests,
with their knives and sacrificial altars, and
the hunters and vivisectors with their knives and
guns, likewise eager to sacrifice animals for
their gods, now named “conservation” or
Just as guilt about killing was in
ancient times expiated by collective rituals and
a professed totemic kinship with animals, so
contemporary hunters deceive themselves by
ritually reciting that they are “lovers of
nature’” who are “keeping down the numbers’” or
“removing problem animals’” or “investing money
in the Third World.”
Vivisectors have a parallel ritualistic
vocabulary. From their own perspective, what
they do is “sacrifice” individual animals for the
perceived greater good of society.
This book will not easily be understood
by readers who are not already familiar with
animal rights theory. But for those who can
endure the turgid prose, the dense text and the
multisyllabic philosophisms, the rewards are
great. There is wisdom on every page, even if
the book groans under the weight of it.
–Chris Mercer

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