J. M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, a book of essays compiled by Anton Leist and Peter Singer, presents itself as a general overview of philosophical themes — morality, semiotics — in the work of the great South African novelist J. M. Coetzee.
There is plenty of substance to this collection, though anyone familiar with the work of philosopher Peter Singer will detect a false note in the book’s pretense to disinterested objectivity. Peter Singer has devoted his career in academic philosophy to animal rights — his Animal Liberation was published in 1975, and he has championed the cause passionately since then. Human/animal relations is also a persistent theme in the fiction of J. M. Coetzee, and it’s clear that Singer initiated this project as the latest step in his lifelong mission.
Singer’s extensive introductory chapter zooms right into the issue, laying out the position that Coetzee never advocates directly, though his sympathetic characters like David Lurie and Elizabeth Costello do. The treatment of animals in civilized society, these Coetzee characters argue, is a moral disgrace, an evil on par with slavery and genocide.
I’ve heard a wide variety of opinions on animal treatment and vegetarianism. I’m sympathetic towards anirmal rights issues and was once a vegetarian for two solid years (but that was a long time ago, and it ended with a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese at a sleazy McDonalds). Like most people I know, I don’t have a very good personal record of upholding animal rights, though I cringe at YouTube videos of live chickens getting their beaks sliced off at KFC factories, and try to support the “locavore” (local foods) movement, which seems like a positive step forward towards reducing the horrors of vast industrial
murder machines slaughterhouses.
But, then, does a cow really benefit by being slaughtered by a “locavore” with an organic knife? Wouldn’t the cow prefer to not be slaughtered at all? These questions are very difficult to answer. Sometimes they’re even difficult to ask.
For me, the question of animal rights is an opening to a moral chasm. I’m uncharacteristically unsure what to say about it. Ever since my crash landing with that Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese many years ago, I’ve avoided returning to vegetarianism. The most ethical position I can claim with a straight face is that I would sincerely pledge to pay more for food if I could be assured it was produced as humanely as possible.
For ethicists like Peter Singer, this is not enough, nowhere near it. There may be a growing movement in the slow wake of Singer’s 1975 manifesto. J. M. Coetzee has allowed himself to become identified with animal rights (though, again, he only speaks through his characters, a luxury that only fiction writers can enjoy). Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent Eating Animals offers another endorsement of the sympathetic position, and this author claims to live according to his beliefs.
The call for animal rights is often seen as shrill, comical, an affront to biological reality. I don’t agree with these criticisms, but I also haven’t found a way to integrate my concern for animal rights into my everyday life. I guess this gives me a helpful constant reminder — a three meals a day reminder — that for all my ethical posturing and philosophical self-pride, I’m basically a hypocrite. Or am I just doing what animals do?