Kelly Oliver on Rorotoko

Kelly Oliver

Kelly Oliver author of Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human recently discussed her book on Rorotoko.

Oliver stresses the importance of animals in Western philosophy “to make the case that humans are special.” Oliver begins:

Philosophers have argued that humans are so unique that they have transcended their animality and become something entirely other. In this book, I show how the animals “bite back” and betray the very service into which they have been corralled in the name of humanity. Our concepts of the human, of kinship, of language, and even of human rights are borne on the backs of animals, whose importance to philosophy goes unacknowledged. Philosophers unthinkingly use animals to develop their theories of the human subject and human nature.

Later Oliver discusses how her book expands upon and moves beyond conventional discussions of animal rights and welfare:

I move away from the framework of animal rights because the history of this discourse and the notion of rights are bought at the expense of animals. We need to do more than merely expand our concept of rights to include some animals. Rather, we need to rethink what it means to be animal and what it means to be human. We need to acknowledge how our conception of ourselves as superior to animals is dependent upon those very animals that we disavow.

The importance of changing our views about animals has a direct relation to human relationships:

I argue that only when we give up these ideas of animals as objects, or brutes, or our servants, or property, can we begin to treat other humans with dignity rather than relegate them to the subhuman category animal. In other words, our inhumanity to man is both physically and conceptually a direct result of our abuse of animals.

Oliver concludes writing:

I have called on philosophy’s animals to bear witness to the ways in which the various animal examples, animal metaphors, and animal studies that populate the history of Western philosophy have been harnessed in order to instruct and support the conceptions of man, human, and kinship central to that thought. Hopefully, doing so not only tears down fences but also reveals how and why those fences were constructed. Can we imagine a “free-range” ethics that breaks out of the self-centered, exclusionary, and domineering notions of individuality, identity, and sovereignty? Considering animals necessarily transforms how we consider ourselves.

In this era of species extinction and shrinking biodiversity, military occupation and expanded torture, record wealth for the few and poverty for the rest, gated-communities and record incarceration, we need a sustainable ethics more than ever. A sustainable ethics is an ethics of limits, an ethics of conservation. Rather than assert our dominion over the earth and its creatures, this ethics obliges us to acknowledge our dependence upon them. It requires us to attend to our response-ability by virtue of that dependence. It is an ethics of the responsibility to enable responses from others, not as it has been defined—as the exclusive property of man (man responds, animals react)—but rather as it exits all around us. All living creatures are responsive.

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