More-than-Human Life Well-Lived?
2 December 2015
By Robert McKay
By Robert McKay
originally presented to the ‘A Life Well Lived?’ roundtable event as part of Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities.
Let me begin with a story. When I was aged four I went on holiday with my parents to a cottage on an arable farm at the Kyles of Tongue on the north coast of Scotland. One day, I disappeared. Desperately searching for me in the farm grounds my mother finally found me. I had gone out of the back door, climbed under the fence into the paddock, and walked up to a horse named Tarragon, and then gone right underneath him. I was found with my arms extended as best I could around his girth, all the while kissing him ecstatically on his belly.
I wonder: was my life being lived well in that moment? My freedom of agency and the emotional ecstasy it allowed me to achieve seem to me to be pretty good indicators. But I suppose we can also consider the question of whether doing something dangerous in pursuit of pleasure while entirely and blissfully unaware of the risks is a reasonable way of living well.
Was my mother’s? Well: she tells me it was very frightening at the time, but in a strange way too it was an edifying exercise in and evidence of trust (of her in the horse, of the horse in me); she has certainly dined well (as they say) on this story, as mothers do, for the best part of forty years; it also confirms a belief she is very wedded to about the (at least potentially) innate connections between horses and humans.
Was Tarragon’s? Well, I know nothing now of the living conditions that framed his presence in that paddock in the first place, and perhaps most likely he was simply indifferent to my presence; but a more-or-less idealistic part of me likes to think it wasn’t the worst part of his day.
Now, as I understand it, in philosophy there are classically three broad ways of theorising ethical questions (of course, there are others):
approaches which focus on the consequences of actions;
approaches which focus on the extent to which actions conform to abstract ethical commands or duties;
and approaches that focus on the question of virtuous character traits – the ways that ethical behaviours are embodied in a person’s character.
Certainly, as soon as you start thinking about specific situations discussion blurs any boundaries between these three, however it’s the last of these, the focus on virtue that is conventionally the preserve of discussion of ‘the good life’ or ‘the life well lived’.
As I understand virtue-based theories of the good life, the crucial element that comes in to play resides in the fact that to achieve a depth and significance that takes them beyond the fulfilment of basic material needs, the pursuit of pleasures and the avoidance of harms — what philosophers call ‘hedonism’ —must be brought into the orbit of rational thought (whether in the form of plan-making, reflection on one’s desires to develop and refine them, or whatever). And it is at this juncture—the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain via the workings of rationality—that we encounter questions of morality: the ability to hold our pleasures to account against standards beyond ourselves, or the ability to rationally (or perhaps, and the difference is important, emotionally) empathise with others’ experience of pleasure and pain and so develop our own in response to theirs.
As someone interested in how humans’ live well or badly with animals, and how well or badly animals live (and die), I see here what I would call a fundamental ‘humanism’ within the theory of virtue. A claim is being made that there is a certain kind of good life that only humans can have, and (more than this) that humans can only have a truly good life to the extent that they develop those aspects of themselves that are supposed to distinguish them from brute animals, or the natural kingdom more broadly.
A question I find myself posing here—as I reflect back on my friendship with Tarragon—is this: can we comfortably say that a human life well-lived is so radically separate from a nonhuman-animal life well lived?
For so many people of the world, flourishing at the level of their own animal life is some way off—as is, might I say, achieving the level of living standards afforded to many domestic animals in the west. We might too, in reflecting on this, think about the negative environmental effects of industrial meat production, such as deforestation and human- and animal-habitat loss and the epic-scale waste of grain resources (and concomitant hunger of many) that is required for the mass-production of meat protein.
On the other side of this equation, there have been huge advances in knowledge about animals’ experience of their lived environments, such that it really is no longer valid to say that animals’ experience of a happiness is limited to purely physical conditions, rather encompassing cognitive, affective and social ones.
Finally, human societies have developed a vast range of ways in which humans’ and animals’ lives are lived in and through each other both potentially well and potentially badly: whether we think of pet-keeping and animal abandonment; of service animals and animals used violently in war; or of animals whose labour provides leisure and spectacle but also addictive stimulus.
For me, these kinds of complexities of experience with animals suggest that we live in a more-than-human society, rather than human society emerging in distinction to the animal world. And so: to the extent that a life lived well is dependent on others, we need to recognise that dependency spans the species barrier.
At this point I want to finish by returning to my story and highlighting something specific in it and that is the element of pleasure.
In the intervening 35 years, the boy who sought that encounter with a horse has come to live (I hope well) as a vegan. Veganism is, I think, widely feared and ridiculed precisely because it is seen to apply moral restrictions to an area of living well, eating—bon vivant as the French would say—that delivers pleasure in the expression of basic human desires, and so must stay off virtue’s radar. Recently, that great 21st Century bastion of the right to indulgent pleasures, Nigella Lawson, introduced the ‘latest addition to her chocolate cake Hall of Fame’ by saying, somewhat shamefacedly ‘Don’t faint but it’s vegan’.
Conventionally, veganism is thought of as eschewing, as much as is humanly possible, the consumption and more broadly the use of animals for human pleasure and need. Here, we have a very good example of the notion I mentioned earlier that a life is to be lived well by ensuring that morality keeps in check the principle of selfish pleasures.
I suppose my reflection on this is simply to suggest that such conventional ways of thinking about the life lived well with animals—which I think are often held by vegans and non-vegans alike—can perhaps miss something by insisting on the idea of virtue controlling hedonistic carnivorous behaviour. I think they too quickly concede the principle of pleasure to the act of eating animals and the exquisitely painful principle of virtue to abstemiousness. I want to remind us instead, of the pleasure to be found in not eating animals but in living well with them.
As a final twist, I would like to suggest that we might imagine the animals in our societies as analogous to the books, art, music and other arts and humanities that this festival is celebrating. We often say that we ‘consume’ art, but we don’t really: it is the burning or forgetting of books that truly consumes them, and the privatisation of artworks as commodities that consumes them. Instead we live our life well by appreciating artworks over and over again: we need libraries and museums, galleries and universities to house them, discover them, celebrate them, analyse them, learn from them. I wonder if we might live better as humans by thus appreciating rather than consuming animals too.