Human Exceptionalism and the Limitations of Animals: a review of Raimond Gaita’s ‘The Philosopher’s Dog’

by Val Plumwood

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Arguably, the distinguishing feature of western culture, and perhaps also the chief mark of its ecological failure, is the idea that humankind is radically different and apart from the rest of nature and from other animals. This idea, sometimes called Human Exceptionalism, has allowed us to exploit nature and people more ruthlessly (some would say more efficiently) than other cultures, and our high-powered, destructive forms of life dominate the planet. Exceptionalism seeks unlimited power over nature, but sometimes having power is not good for you, especially if you do not really know what is going on or what keeps it all together.

Many people mistakenly believe that Human Exceptionalism has been laid to rest with the widespread scientific acceptance of human evolution. Darwin ‘s discovery of continuity of life forms affronted older Christian forms of exceptionalism, which saw humans as apart in both body and mind. Creationists, of course, continue to reject bodily continuity with animal ancestors, but otherwise, even the Pope accepts bodily evolution as providing the ground of human/animal continuity, not the human mind or soul, which is separate, God-created and unique to humans. By and large, modern exceptionalism has just shifted the ground, from body to mind. The radical break or discontinuity that characterizes exceptionalist thinking has not been abandoned with modernity, but has been located elsewhere – in the human mind.

Human exceptionalism remains an important force in our culture, providing ideological background conditions for inferiorising animals and for markets and property in animals, and is often behind resistance to sustainability thinking, (as I argued in Environmental culture). Modern exceptionalism has crude forms (Creationism) more like the older forms, but also many more subtle forms, and retains important strongholds in contemporary philosophy and science. Here one of its main symptoms is an obdurate reductionism that resists recognising mind-like qualities in animals, or human-animal continuity in the sphere of mind — which I will call mind discontinuity. Of course mind discontinuity is easily positioned as commonsense, the favoured starting point for onus of proof arguments, because it resonates through thousands of years of exceptionalism in western culture.1

Raimond Gaita’s book The Philosopher’s Dog defends a strong mind discontinuity thesis based on the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the champion of the 3C’s, ‘convention, commonsense and context’. For Gaita, an advocate of ‘the examined life’, reflectiveness is the chief mark and characteristic of human beings, and explains their higher moral status. A nimals lack reflectiveness and are moral inferiors; we should be kind to animals, but it is wrong to accord them any significant moral status, not only because they are unreflective but because they lack our fine-grained forms of individuality. They are replaceable, unlike human beings, who are unique and irreplaceable, ‘precious as nothing else we know in nature’ (p. 199). So attenuated is their individuality, Gaita asserts astonishingly, that no biography of an animal could ever be written! A very strong discontinuity thesis of human apartness and animal replaceability is asserted here.

For Gaita, humans are reflective and animals are not, as a matter of meaning conventions. Wittgenstein’s conventionalist methodology has been used by many conservatives to discredit the moral claims of animals, allowing them to treat dominant forms of life as limiting what is thinkable, on pain of breaking their meaning conventions, assumed to be absolute. We are never invited to consider why some conventions are selected over others, or consider how we might set up our concepts or associated forms of life differently.2 Nor are the links from ideas to forms of life and power structures examined too closely. If doctrines of human exceptionalism and animal replaceability are seen to underlie the commodification of animals, for example, this would detract from their commonsense status, by pointing up their links to clearly changeable institutions.

Armed with Wittgenstein’s commonsense and meaning conventions, Gaita is untroubled about generalising about all animals everywhere from a very limited context and a tiny personal observational basis, mainly of two pet dogs. On this basis, he is happy to endorse the old adage that animals do not understand death. Perhaps we can concede that some dogs, like some humans, don’t understand death, at least not in their domestic context, but can we fairly make this same universal claim about elephants, with their death customs, about geese, who mate for life and mourn unto death, or about crows, the unpaid undertakers of our roads and fields? Gaita makes no attempt to acknowledge or engage with the many scientific studies showing animal diversity and ability, especially in birds, that contradicts his claims. His own method is basically anecdotal, (a narrative of personal, commonsense observations), but he invokes science against opponents like Linden and Masson whose anecdotes point in a direction contrary to his own, thus making the commonsense exceptionalist identification of scientific observation with reductive description.

Limiting or delegitimating certain descriptions of animals over others is often the key issue at stake in imposing a reductive framework of mind discontinuity on observational claims. But many people, including it seems Gaita, do not recognise the implications of ‘commonsense’ descriptions of animal behaviour. Gaita’s leading claim, that animals lack individuality and reflective capacities, is roundly refuted by his own anecdotes of Jack the White Cockatoo, which sketch interactions with a nonhuman being that is clearly both self-critical and reflective:

Occasionally we would catch him trying to whistle a tune he had heard on the wireless. He would whistle a little of it, forget how to go on, and would then screech, raise his crest and dance around on the chicken wire fence in frustration. When he calmed down, he would usually get a little further until he would again forget how to go on. He did this often, but would stop if he noticed us observing him. Only when he believed no one could see him did he practice whistling tunes he had heard. (pp. 9-10).

These descriptions of Jack imply a sensitive being with considerable musical grasp, a powerful sense of self and individuality, of project and expectation, a practice of self-criticism and self-correction, and a clear and responsive grasp of the consciousness of other subjects. If this isn’t reflectiveness, what is it? If we set the reflectiveness hurdle any higher, we will also, to be consistent, have to fail many humans.

Given Gaita’s extreme valorisation of human reflectiveness, we can surely expect an exemplary standard of self-critical reflection from Gaita himself on possible human biases. Reflective ideals investigate possibilities for ‘thinking differently’, and involve self-criticism and interrogating power relations, such as those in the companion animal context. Gaita’s discussion neglects the way assumptions of human superiority and mind discontinuity structure our concepts and limit our perceptions of animal behaviour. The human-centred biases and knowledge limitations implicit in his domestic context of observation, extended in his homogenisation of animals to all contexts, are never considered. Homogenisation is a notable feature of racism, which similarly perceives a replaceable and attenuated individuality in ‘the others’, who are assumed to ‘drown in an anonymous collectivity’.3 Gaita discusses homogenisation and racism, but never goes on to ask whether his own perception of animals as attenuated and replaceable individuals might not result from speciesist mechanisms of self-deception akin to racist ones. Reflectiveness seems as lacking as observational richness here.

Wittgenstein of course had much useful thinking on the other minds problem, which Gaita extends to the animal context. He is right to note that the claim for animal minds is not, or not primarily, an argument from probability, and that we learn these meanings in application to animals as well as humans. But Wittgensteinian thought gives us another reason why the recognition of others as mindful and communicative beings is never purely an empirical or observational matter, but is always already an action of exchange or refusal of exchange, a matter of stance and performativity (in the sense of Wittgenstein and Austin), a matter of listening and invitation.4Gaita misses the performative politics of animal mind scepticism, ignoring the political function of doubt about others’ minds or souls – exemplified so vividly by all the colonisers who justified their slaughter and enslavement of indigenous peoples by scepticism about their souls. The performative politics is crucial to understanding the context of the ethical issues, as much for animals as it is for humans.

As this demonstrates, Wittgensteinian methodology can be mobilised against mind discontinuity as well as in support of it. His emphasis on considering and filling out the context of an ethical argument was a major contribution to understanding why we make the ethical judgements we do. Key ethical features are often implicit in the context, since context can alter the moral character of an action in important ways, or supply crucial and relevant moral detail that is otherwise omitted. Gaita’s personal narrative of companion animal relationships attractively supplies this contextual detail, but he fails to consider the limitations of the companion context, an obligation created by his universalisations about animals. If experience of animals is confined to relationships with dependent domestic pets such as dogs, who are disembedded from their own kind and the contexts for which their skills have evolved and given a very limited and servant-like role in a human family, then experience is limited in ways that are ethically relevant.

Considering context shows up several other problems in Gaita’s interesting arguments about animal individuality and replaceability. Gaita concludes from his inability to interact in various fine-grained ways with other species in his domestic context that animals lack our sensitive individuality and thinking. The argument is that we do not interact with animals in as highly individualised and fine-grained a way as we do with other humans. In the first place, we cannot conclude that the poverty of our communication or interactions with animals shows something about them ; it may show something about us and our inhibiting prejudices, or about the nature of species difference and context as a barrier to knowledge and communication. Second, we certainly cannot conclude from Gaita’s examples, as he does, that other species are incapable of fine-grained, sensitive interactions amongst themselves, perhaps in sensory areas quite other than ours. We humans may not elicit or appreciate their individuality, but that does nothing to contradict the wealth of evidence that, to varying degrees in accordance with their own particular species life, they do distinguish and value one another as individuals.

There is a lack of humility and generosity in Gaita’s methodology here. Instead of concluding we often cannot know animals well enough to exchange with them in fine-grained ways, Gaita draws the conclusion that animals don’t have these sorts of possibilities — as a matter of their limitation as a species. In the human domestic contexts Gaita assumes for his examples, all animals are in interaction with the human, isolated, disembedded, and held by, in and for the human gaze. Gaita never considers nonhumans in communities, interacting amongst themselves in their own habitats and forms of life, with their own species-specific ways of communicating and realising individuality.

Gaita’s trump argument, that mind discontinuity licenses moral discontinuity, and that we cannot really take animal killing seriously, founders on the same rock of neglecting the limitations of context. Gaita claims: ‘I cannot, and I know of no one else who can, respond to the killing of animals as though it were mass murder’ (p. 210) while further on: ‘we do not and cannot respond to what happens in an abattoir as we respond to mass murder [of humans]’ (p. 211) and so on. But when we fill out the context, we can see that the apparent incomparability between the human and non-human cases Gaita assumes here depends on a trick. The trick involves comparing the killing of animals for food with the mass murder of humans, in a context which is not specified but which is implicitly that of the Holocaust, where human life is taken, not for the necessity of food, but out of contempt, because it is ‘life unworthy of life’.

But these two contexts are not at all comparable in ethical seriousness or culpability, so the lack of comparability Gaita appeals to may be due not to the nature of the beings involved, but rather that of their respective contexts. One of the strongest extenuating reasons for killing another being is that it is necessary for food, since living beings other than plants must survive by eating other life forms – a condition of life on earth. (The claim of necessity can be abused as a reason of course, as it is by many meat-eaters motivated to exaggerate its necessity, and invites contest). We do not normally kill other humans for food, but survival is such a good reason that it can even sometimes extenuate those forced to eat other humans, dead or alive, to survive. Therefore the comparison between a human ‘mass murder’ event and an abattoir is that of a context where animals are killed for food with another context in which humans are killed not for food, but for another set of reasons that are universally condemned. In other words, Gaita is comparing the most defensible kinds of reasons for killing nonhuman animals with the least defensible kinds of reasons for killing humans. This is not at all a fair test of moral equivalence.

Suppose we change the moral discontinuity story so that we are comparing the killing of humans and animals in contexts of comparable ethical seriousness and culpability. Let us look at the ethical character of badger-baiting, for example. Animal advocates can convincingly say that badger-baiting (involving capturing a wild badger in order to watch it fight to the death with and ultimately be torn apart by a pack of dogs, dying only after suffering horrifying injuries) is an act of comparable seriousness to capturing a human being from a foreign tribe in order to see them torn apart by a wolves or lions in, say, the Colosseum. It feels to me as if these actions have a very similar moral tone and character. To someone who says ‘Well, we don’t take badger-baiting all that seriously around here because badgers are not human beings’, our advocate could surely say ‘Well, you should take it much more seriously, and try with equal seriousness to stamp it out’. And they could justly go on to say : ‘Your reason is just the same kind the Romans gave in the case of the Colosseum games, (that those sacrificed are ‘others’, are not Romans), and it is an especially horrific relative of racism’.

Gaita now transfers the basis of discontinuity to feelings. ‘I cannot, and I know of no one else who can feel the same about animal killing as about human killing’. The implication is that people who say they do are self-deceivers or somehow ethically dubious. I have to say that I personally feel the same outrage at the mass murder and machine gunning of seal colonies and dolphin pods as I do about similar mass killings of humans. Gaita seemingly appeals to feelings as the acid test here, but dismisses as ‘sentimentality’ feelings like mine that do not conform to his exceptionalist prescriptions On all these levels, the observational, scientific, social, moral and experiential, the exceptionalist paradigm saves mind discontinuity at the price of closing itself off from wider experiential and self-critical encounters. That this is required is a sign of its intellectual weakness rather than of its strength.


Val Plumwood
Fenner School of Environment and Society
Australian National University

Raimond Gaita The Philosopher’s Dog was published in Melbourne by Text Publishing, in 2002, 2005 (224pp, ISBN: 1 877008 99 0, $23.95).


Foucault, Michel The Use of Pleasure (Vol 2 of The History of Sexuality) (New York: Vintage Books, 1986)

Memmi, Albert The Coloniser and the Colonised (New York: Orion Press, 1965)

Plumwood, Val Environmental culture: the ecological crisis of reason, (New York : Routledge, 2001)

Weston, A. ‘Multi-Centrism: a Manifesto’ Environmental Ethics, 26(1), 2004, pp. 25-40


1.It chimes in too with the reversal strategy of modern reductive materialism, as a truncated form of mind/body dualism that has very incompletely rethought the original concepts and terms.

2.An alternative approach to the task of philosophy is summed up nicely in Michel Foucault’s words, to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known’. (1986, pp. 8-9)

3. Albert Memmi, The Coloniser and the Colonised, p. 25.

4. On invitation see A. Weston, ‘Multi-Centrism: a Manifesto’.

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