On “Not Doing” Animals

30th October 2008

The other day, an overseas Fellow made a welcome visit to the Centre and told me her story of work in the field of animal ethics. Inter alia, she explained how one university refused (at first) to accept her doctoral subject on the ground that “we don’t do animals”.

It would be nice to think that the “not doing” animals meant simply that they had no adequate specialists in the field; that they were, like so many others, simply professionally unacquainted with the subject. But, sadly, of course it was not so. “Not doing animals” has become a dismissive line (one of many) within academia for not regarding the subject as worthy of rigorous enquiry.

In one sense it is understandable of course. Not so long ago, the idea of “business ethics” was deemed to be novel, even in my day I recall people frowning at the (now established) term “bioethics”. And while we can understand that some, unfamiliar with academia, might question the term, it does seem especially inexcusable that academics who are supposed to be professionally open-minded should be so closed to new areas of enquiry. It is also particularly regrettable because – for more than 40 years at least – there has been a quite dramatic increase in scholarly publications, courses, and journals that explore this very topic. Only the myopic could have failed to see the emergence of a new academic discipline in their midst.

Frankly, we must challenge blindness, even and especially when it comes from fellow academics. I am reminded of that trenchant line from George MacLeod who once defined an academic as “someone who can hold a vital issue at arm’s length for a lifetime”. Dispassionate enquiry and scepticism have their rightful place (especially, one might add, in relation to the putative intellectual justifications for animal abuse). But those who dismiss animal ethics with one of the various one-liners should be challenged to provide a rationally coherent justification.

Subsequently, I met with another academic who explained to me that he “wasn’t an animal person”. Well, again, in one sense that is fair enough; I’m not a “business ethics person” either – in the sense of being fully acquainted with the field. But not being professionally acquainted with a field, and not grasping the importance of the issue, are two different matters. “You mean you don’t think the issue of how we treat the millions of other species on the planet is worthy of ethical enquiry?” I questioned. He was struck dumb for a few seconds, and then reluctantly replied: “Oh, yes, yes, but I don’t quite see it as you do”. We ought, I suppose, to be thankful for any intellectual movement, however minuscule. But academics who want to dismiss animal ethics are going to have to work much harder in the future. Some of us are making sure of that.

Andrew Linzey