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John Williams

Interesting blog and interesting post. The Zhuangzi 莊子 text likewise never assumes a rigid distinction between human and non-human animals. It has a unique argumentative strategy that you might find interesting.

First, the text makes the following type of claim: "When people sleep in a damp place, they wakeup deathly ill and sore about the waist -- but what about eels? If people live in trees, they tremble with fear and worry -- but how about monkeys? Of these three, which 'knows' what is he right [zheng 正] place to live? People eat the flesh of their livestock, deer eat grass, snakes eat centipedes, hawks and eagles eat mice. Of these four, which 'knows' the right thing to eat? Monkeys take she-monkeys for mates, bucks mount does, male fish frolic with female fish, while humans regard Mao Qiang and Lady Li as great beauties -- but when fish see them they dart to the depths, when birds see them they soar into the skies, when deer see them they bolt away without looking back. Which of these four 'knows' what is rightly alluring" (Zhuangzi, Ziporyn trans, p.18).

The idea here is that we obviously wouldn't expect these species to live in the same ways (dao 道) as one another, nor would we expect them to make the same right/wrong (shi/fei 是/非) distinctions (bian 辯) for navigating the world.

This seems trivial, until you acknowledge that the text isn't assuming a rigid distinction between human and non-human animals. If the line between human and non-human animals isn't rigid, then one might naturally ask: What about various ways (dao 道) of engaging the world displayed within a species? If it's obvious we shouldn't coerce different animals into adhering to one way of life, then it shouldn't be obvious why we should coerce all beings within one species to adhere to one way of life.

But this is precisely what we try to do. Humans display a plurality of ways of life. Word use leads to disputation (bian 辯) (affirm or deny this proposition, and it is confirmed). Each disputant in a dispute is trying to assert his way (dao 道)of life over another's as the universal (chang 常) way (dao 道) with its own given virtue(s) (de 德). But isn't trying to straighten out (zheng 正) one way at the expense of all others as absurd as coercing one species into conformity with the way of life of another species?

This is precisely what the Zhuangzi text concludes: "From where I see it, the transitions of Humanity and Responsibility and the trails of right and wrong are hopelessly tangled and confused. How could I know how to distinguish which is right among them?" (Ibid.) (Note: this argument only begins to be compelling if you don't assume a rigid line of demarcation distinguishing human and non-human animals.)

Elisa Freschi

Thank you, John, for this insightful and rich comment. I cannot help but thinking of Plato's discussion of beauty (Hippias Major 289), which is so different, since it says that the ones monkeys deem to be the most beautiful female-monkeys look horrible according to men, and in the same way the ones whom men deem to be the most beautiful women look horrible in the eyes of gods. The argument is relativistic, like the one you present, but in Plato it is clear that there is a hierarchy: Female-monkeys are (objectively) less beautiful than women and women are (objectively) less beautiful than goddesses. Your text seems to presuppose a horizontal organization, in which each class of beings start with the same set of issues (finding a home, reproducing, eating…) and solves them in different ways. By contrast, in Plato the hierarchy has gods at its vertex, but human beings come next. One might wonder whether (Judeo-Christian) monotheism leads to an even less animal-friendly attitude, since God is made into something transcendent and different from His creatures, so that not even a hierarchy is stricto sensu possible.

John Williams

Elisa, I think your "horizontal organization" and "vertical hierarchy" distinction is very useful. I also agree that the vertical hierarchies have various unfortunate consequences regarding humans' attitudes toward (and treatment of) non-human animals.

If you're interested, this "Outer Chapter" from the Zhuangzi text makes the same move as the previous passage (and Burton Watson beautifully captures the Chinese in English):"Haven’t you heard this story? Once a sea bird alighted in the suburbs of the Lu capital. The marquis of Lu escorted it to the ancestral temple, where he entertained it, performing the Nine Shao music for it to listen to and presenting it with the meat of the Tailao sacrifice to feast on. But the bird only looked dazed and forlorn, refusing to eat a single slice of meat or drink a cup of wine, and in three days it was dead. This is to try to nourish a bird with what would nourish you instead of what would nourish a bird. If you want to nourish a bird with what nourishes a bird, then you should let it roost in the deep forest, play among the banks and islands, float on the rivers and lakes, eat mudfish and minnows, follow the rest of the flock in flight and rest, and live any way it chooses. A bird hates to hear even the sound of human voices, much less all that hubbub and to-do. Try performing the Xianchi and Nine Shao music in the wilds around Lake Dongting—when the birds hear it they will fly off, when the animals hear it they will run away, when the fish hear it they will dive to the bottom. Only the people who hear it will gather around to listen. Fish live in water and thrive, but if men tried to live in water they would die. Creatures differ because they have different likes and dislikes. Therefore the former sages never required the same ability from all creatures or made them all do the same thing."

Elisa Freschi

Thank you, John, very nice. It makes me think that it would be nice to organise a panel on humans and animals from the points of view of various philosophical schools.

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