ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)

Reply to Žižek

On Žižek and Animals

Paola Cavalieri
(Etica & Animali, Milan, Italy)


Peter Singer
(Center for Human Values, Princeton University, USA and Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, Australia)


I. Introduction

Acheronta movebis...?

In a book on violence Slavoj Žižek mentions Sigmund Freud’s famous quotation from Virgil, “Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo” [“If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will move the Infernal regions”] in order to stress that it must be the motto of any radical revolution, as it points to the necessity of disturbing the unexpressed, underground structure of our daily life (Žižek, 2008a:143).  Earlier in the same book he emphasizes that, among the different forms violence can take, one has catastrophic consequences: it is the “systemic” violence imposed by the fluid functioning of our economic and political systems (Ibid.:1-2). Both these aspects, we think, perfectly fit with the problem of our treatment of nonhuman sentient beings; and in both cases, it seems to us that Žižek fails to meet the standard he himself sets.

Žižek’s article (2008b) “The Prospects of Radical Politics Today” which appeared in Volume 5-1 of this publication, has a comprehensive set of targets. Amongst other things, he attacks “Cultural Studies chic”, the cultural relativism of the “right-to-narrate” orientation, Politically Correct zeal, postcolonial and queer studies, and, more generally, what he sees as the replacement of questions of universal truth with a multitude of perspectives. One of the sections is devoted to the issue of animal rights with respect to human rights, and in the course of the argument he attacks the background against which the revision of the moral status of nonhumans has developed, that is, the perspective of Singer, as well as the revision itself.1 

Since arguments in the Continental tradition are stated differently than in analytic moral philosophy, before replying to Žižek’s criticisms, we shall summarize the main steps in his discussion, in order to be able to develop some preliminary considerations and then to reply to them.


II. Žižek’s argument

Žižek’s argument can best be summarized by clustering it around some main points:
a) A Darwinian background. Working in the context of the “postmodern” era dominated by different narratives, Singer, as a defender of today’s global capitalism, provides a Darwinian background for Richard Rorty’s stress on the ability to suffer of human beings.

b) Levelling the animal/human divide. By stressing that the ultimate ethical criterion is not the dignity (rationality, soul) of man [sic], but the ability to experience pain which man [sic] shares with animals, Singer radicalizes Bentham’s view and levels the animal/human divide. He even suggests a first extension of aspects of equality – the right to life, the protection of individual liberties, the prohibition of torture –  to the nonhuman great apes.

c) Speciesism and... Underscoring that “speciesism” (privileging the human species) is no different from racism, Singer states that the lives of humans are not worth more than the lives of animals simply because they display more intelligence (if intelligence were a standard, we could perform experiments on the mentally retarded with moral impunity). All things being equal, experimentation on animals is immoral: if those who advocate such experiments claim that sacrificing twenty animals will save millions of humans, what about sacrificing twenty humans to save millions of animals? As Singer's critics point out, the horrifying extension of this principle is that the interests of twenty people outweigh the interests of one, which gives the green light to all sorts of human rights abuses.

d) Digression I:  The survivalist stance. The easiest way to detect ideological surplus-enjoyment in an ideological formation is to read it as a dream and analyze the displacement at work in it. The mechanism of displacement at work in Singer’s position points to the commonplace of sci-fi theory that the true point of focusing on global catastrophes resides in the sudden reassertion of social solidarity among the survivors. Global catastrophes are connected with the Worst-Case Scenarios of book and movies, dealing with problems (situations) most of us will never encounter
e) The protection of endangered human species: Singer’s scandalous “exaggerations” render visible the truth of the so-called postmodern ethic. Is not the ultimate horizon of postmodern “identity politics” effectively Darwinian – defending the right of some particular species of the human kind within the panoply of their proliferating multitude? The very opposition between “conservative” and “progressive” politics can be conceived of in Darwinian terms: conservatives defend the right of those with might, while progressives advocate the protection of those losing the struggle for survival.

f) Digression II: The homosexual libidinal economy. There is a long tradition of Leftist gay bashing. Does this mean that, when gays are persecuted, they deserve only a qualified support? No, but one should insist that the homosexual libidinal economy can be co-opted by different political orientations, and that it is here that one should avoid the “essentialist” mistake of dismissing the rightist “militaristic” homosexuality as the secondary distortion of the “authentic” subversive homosexuality.

g) The Spiritual Animal Kingdom. German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel speaks about das geistige Tierreich (the spiritual animal kingdom): the social world which lacks any spiritual substance, so that, in it, individuals effectively interact as “intelligent animals”, using reason, but only in order to assert their individual interests. Is not a world in which the highest rights are human rights precisely such a “spiritual animal kingdom”, a universe? There is, however, a price to be paid for such liberation – in such a universe, human rights ultimately function as animal rights. This is the ultimate truth of Singer: our universe of human rights is the universe of animal rights.

h) Appendix: What gets lost in Singer's geistige Tierreich is the Thing, something to which we are unconditionally attached irrespective of its positive qualities. In this universe, there is a place for mad cows, but no place for an Indian sacred cow. What gets lost here is simply the dimension of truth – not “objective truth” as the notion of reality from a point of view which floats above the multitude of narratives, but truth as the Singular Universal. Universal truth and partisanship are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its universal truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly partisan position – truth is by definition one-sided. This goes against the predominant doxa of finding a middle path among the multitude of conflicting interests.

i) Conclusion. The cultural relativism of the “right-to-narrate” orientation contains its own apparent opposite, the fixation on the Real of some trauma which resists its narrativization. This properly dialectical tension sustains today's academic “holocaust industry”. In a paradox worth noting, it is precisely the postmodern discursive constructionists who tend to elevate the holocaust into the supreme ineffable metaphysical Evil.


III. Some Misunderstandings

What are we to make of all this? As a preliminary, what should be noticed is that there are some important misunderstandings.

First, no particular Darwinian background is necessary to argue that sentient nonhuman animals can suffer – this is something everyone except for a few surviving neo-Cartesians admits – Žižek included (Žižek, 2008a:45). Moreover, and more relevantly, the defence of the criterion of the ability to experience pain takes place within ethical discourse, and is in no way related to Darwinism – Žižek himself mentions Bentham in this respect.

Even the critique of speciesism pertains only to the realm of ethics, hinging as it does on the one hand upon an ad hominem directed to contemporary intra-human egalitarianism via the parallel with racism and sexism, and on the other on the moral irrelevance of merely biological characteristics. Moreover, arguing that intelligence, or cognitive skills, are not “a standard”, is a different matter from rejecting speciesism, and, apart from the further ad hominem Žižek himself mentions – “if intelligence were a standard, we could perform experiments on the mentally retarded (sic) with moral impunity” – is based on a different argument – that is, that it would be arbitrary to let the more general nature of a being interfere with the impartial assessment of its actual interests.

As for animal experimentation, Žižek conflates two different questions. For it is one thing to argue that animal experimentation is unethical because it implies the unwarranted application of double standards – that is, arbitrarily treating humans and nonhumans differently; and quite another to evaluate the morality of sacrificing the interests of the few in order to benefit the many. There are ethical views which do not allow (exceptional cases aside) for these trade-offs; there are other ethical approaches that accept them. Utilitarianism is among the latter, and Singer is a utilitarian. Thus, those who criticize Singer by pointing out how “horrifying” the extension to human beings of such trade-offs can be, are at the same time missing the target – utilitarianism as a form of aggregative consequentialism does not flinch before trade-offs.  Nor does it flinch at showing the arbitrariness of those who reject such trade-offs between members of our own species, but gladly accept them when it comes to animals.

In the same light, we note that Singer’s assessment of moral dilemmas has nothing to do with Survivalist Stances, Worst-Case Scenarios and problems (situations) most of us will never encounter. Decisions about abortion and euthanasia are so common as to be the focus of an intense, ongoing debate in the field of bioethics; and animal experimentation is unfortunately a common and large-scale situation, encountered first-hand by many university students.  Might one guess that what looms here is a sort of a priori rejection of the application to humans of that utilitarian aggregative calculus which is seen as the norm in the case of animals? Or perhaps, what Žižek has in mind are the kinds of occasions which are called “life-boat situations”, that is, the particular situations in which one must necessarily decide who is to be saved and who is to be sacrificed. These can be rare occurrences, but they do exist, and though they are not the only concern of bioethics, they must be faced.

The final, and most important, misunderstanding, concerns the inclusion of Singer’s thought and, more generally, of animal liberation ethics in the sphere of “postmodern relativism”, or in that strain of thinking in which the absence of specified criteria leads to the acceptance of a multitude of perspectives. Singer, a utilitarian, starts from a strong Harean meta-ethical stance. He defends a version of preference-utilitarianism whose grounds are clearly defined and exclusive of other approaches; and, mutatis mutandis, the same can be said of all other authors in the field of animal ethics.  Indeed, the extent to which they use reason and argument to defend their positions strongly suggests that they believe they are arguing about what is objectively right and wrong, and not simply telling their “narratives” or putting forward one perspective which is neither better nor worse than any other perspective.


IV. Some Non-sequiturs

A non sequitur occurs when an inference is made that does not logically follow from the premises of the preceding argument; or, more informally, when an unwarranted conclusion appears in an argument. In addition to the already-discussed misunderstandings of Singer’s views, Žižek’s argument contains at least three significant non sequiturs.

First, Žižek suggests that rejecting speciesism and extending the principle of equality beyond Homo sapiens, is in some way related to, or parallel to, revealing the Darwinian character of a postmodern ethics which defends “the right of some particular species of the human kind within the panoply of their proliferating multitude”.  We fail to see the connection.  What has a philosophically grounded expansion of already existing moral principles to do with  the protection of “endangered human species”? And, for that matter, what has the principled defense of discriminated human groups, such as gays, to do with conceiving of politics “in Darwinian terms”?

The second non sequitur is strictly related. Quite apart from Žižek’s comments on the unfortunate “long tradition of Leftist gay bashing” which dominate a digression that has in itself little to do with the problem of the ethical treatment of nonhumans, it is difficult to see any possible relationship between granting equal respect to persecuted gays and the possible different political orientations by which “homosexual libidinal economy” can be co-opted.  If the basic moral protection of individuals had to be tied to idiosyncratic speculations about the destiny of their libidinal economies, it would be difficult to defend any form of equality. Notice, moreover, that no replacement of the notion of a “rightist militaristic homosexuality” with the notion of an “authentic subversive homosexuality” is necessary to treat homosexuals as equals – the only necessary and sufficient condition is to give their interests the same consideration as one gives to the similar interests of any other individual.

Finally, if we set aside the conclusion – an excursus which is hardly connected with animal liberation ethics –the last non sequitur directly concerns the core of Žižek’s attack, that is, the alleged, and regretted, collapsing of human rights into animal rights. The argument seems to be as follows:
a) a philosopher (G. W. F. Hegel) in one of his books (The Phenomenology of Spirit) speaks of a social world which lacks any spiritualsubstance, so that, in it, individuals effectively interact as “intelligent animals”, using reason only to assert their interests;

b) a world in which the highest rights are human rights is precisely such a geistige Tierreich (indeed, this is not asserted, but presented as a rhetorical question);

c) there is a price to be paid for this liberation: in such a universe, human rights ultimately function as animal rights.

Here, one doesn’t merely find an unwarranted conclusion; one is at loss to find any explanation of what is said or any connection between the claims. Why should the view of a single philosopher – even of such a prominent philosopher as Hegel – taken at its face value, and totally unargued for, offer us a dogmatic guide to any problem whatsoever? And, allowing for the sake of argument that this move is acceptable, on what ground should we decide that a world in which the highest rights are human rights is the specific world Hegel describes? True, elsewhere Žižek offers a reading of human rights – seeing them as centered on an opposition to fundamentalism, on the rights to freedom of choice and to the pursuit of pleasure, and on resistance against the “excess of power” (Žižek, 2005) – but, apart from the scant pertinence of even such an interpretation, no clarification which might create a connection with the first claim is offered in this context. Finally: how can all this show that “human rights ultimately function as animal rights” - especially in light of the fact that no description of animal rights is offered either? And why should the alleged conclusion that “human rights ultimately function as animal rights” be seen as a price to be paid?

At least for the last of these questions, an answer seems to be offered by the paragraph which immediately follows. Here, Žižek begins by complaining that in Singer’s geistige Tierreich “there is a place for mad cows, but no place for an Indian sacred cow”. This is a curious claim to start from. Nonhumans appear here not in themselves, but as mere furniture of the human world: what matters about the Indian sacred cows is not that they are sentient beings, but that they are sacred for some humans, namely, Indians; and what is seen as questionable in the existence of “mad cows” is not the fact that some exploited sentient beings become sick and are killed en masse, but apparently the fact that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is something to which we cannot be “unconditionally attached irrespective of its positive qualities”. After this complaint, moreover, Žižek claims that what gets lost in such a universe is “truth as the Singular Universal” – a notion that he makes clear by reference to Lenin’s idea that universal truth and partisanship (the gesture of taking sides) are not only not mutually exclusive, but “truth is by definition one-sided”, and that he contrasts with the predominant doxa of compromise and the danger of endorsing “ridiculous narratives”. But, far from dissolving perplexities, such a claim multiplies them. First, what has the notion of “Indian sacred cows” to do with “the gesture of taking sides”? Second, why should an idea by Lenin be introduced in such an unquestioned way? And third, what has what can properly be described as taking the side of discriminated individuals such as nonhuman animals to do with the predominant doxa of compromise or with ridiculous narratives?

All things considered, something has gone seriously wrong with this discussion of animal liberation ethics. Perhaps we should try to start afresh.


V. The Last Word

Since its beginning, philosophical ethics has been concerned with how we are to live. Possibly because it was interested in guiding conduct, for many centuries moral reflection mostly focused on the moral agent, that is, on the being whose behaviour can be subject to moral evaluation. In modern ethics, the emphasis on the question: “what are the existence conditions of morality?” led to the Kantian formulation of the agent-patient parity principle, according to which it is necessary to be a moral agent in order to receive direct moral consideration.  Recently, however, moral philosophy started to reckon with the moral status of (mere) moral patients, that is, of beings who, though not (fully) accountable for their actions, should be taken into account when deciding how to act – or, in other words, of beings who are morally considerable, and whose treatment may be subject to moral evaluation. In this context, it was stressed that to acknowledge that moral agents make morality possible does not imply that they are the only (or the most) morally relevant beings, and the traditional approach was charged with failing to distinguish between the what and the how of ethics – between the goal that is to be achieved by ethics and the way in which that goal is to be achieved. This was no small achievement, and the credit for paving the way to this shift goes to Jeremy Bentham, the founder of that Utilitarian philosophy that Žižek despises as the ethics of non-autonomy, whose dark side resides in its “totalitarian/social engineering aspect” (Žižek and Daly, 2004:132) .

And yet, the significance of being morally considerable – together with the idea that at the core of morality lies a system of constraints on conduct meant to counteract malevolence and selfishness in order to protect the interests of individuals other than the agent (Warnock: 1971:148) – is still not fully established.  An approach that, among other things, has allowed us to grant equal protection to the interests of non-paradigmatic humans – of those individuals, that is, who aren’t any longer, will never become again or will never be moral agents – meets with many difficulties, which have been thoroughly explored in Anglo-American philosophy, but not, as yet, in Continental philosophy, where the requirements of rigour and consistency are not always mandatory.  Slavoj Žižek is no exception to this. When he speaks of nonhuman animals, he is not really concerned with their moral status – with their exclusion from, or inclusion in, the category of beings that should have their interests protected, nor with the degree of such protection. His real interest, as repeatedly stated elsewhere, remains strictly focused on the human moral agent, on the domain of “radical autonomy”, on the problem of “human autonomy and freedom in the strict sense... of the ability to break the constraints of nature” (Žižek and Daly, 2004:131-32) – an ability for which French philosophers have coined the term arrachement (see for example Ferry, 1992:89). Such an attitude is not only explicitly avowed, but is also indirectly confirmed by Žižek‘s approach to the relationships between “altruism” and “egotism”. “Egotism, or the concern for one’s well-being,” he states for example, “is not opposed to the common good, since altruistic norms can easily be deduced from egotist concerns” (2008a:73-74). It is apparent that what such a claim evokes is a sort of contractarian scenario – a context in which moral norms are the norms with which rational and self-interested individuals would agree to comply on condition that others undertook to do so as well – which concerns only those who can enter into an agreement and abide by it, that is, moral agents.

 In a sense – in light of Žižek’s background – this was foreseeable. But in another sense – in light of Žižek’s interest in problems of imbalances in power, and particularly in the condition of the least among us – this is surprising. For the result of his version of the agent-patient parity principle is that some human beings – the less cognitively endowed who can neither understand nor undertake mutual obligations – are excluded from the “common good” and are wholly at the mercy of the powerful. What, then, about those mentally retarded whose possible use as tools for research Žižek considers with the utmost moral revulsion? Does he see them as radically autonomous? As free moral agents?  If not, it seems that he does not see either autonomy or freedom as morally relevant. And if it is not, what about nonhuman beings? What about the animals we kill for food or for scientific experimentation? What about the orangutan he so jestingly mentions (“Look an orangutan straight in the eye...”)?

Or perhaps what really matters to Žižek is not moral agency, but merely being a member of Homo sapiens? The suggestion is not inherently implausible – Žižek is a propounder of radical politics in the traditional leftist sense of being concerned with human reification and human exploitation. And clear confirmation comes, e.g., from his already mentioned article on human rights. Here Žižek introduces a notion that has met with great philosophical acclaim – that concept of Homo sacer which Giorgio Agamben coined to refer to the idea of a human being reduced to “bare life” – and then uses it to condemn the idea that there can be human beings who “have no rights, and are treated as inhuman”.  But what is it about being a member of the species Homo sapiens that makes it worse to be reduced to “bare life” than it is for a nonhuman animal at a similar mental level to be similarly reduced?  What is the notion of Homo sacer except a significant example of an expression of that “symbolic” violence which, according to Žižek, is attendant on systemic violence? (Agamben, 1998; Žižek, 2008a:1-2.

In the face of this tangle of difficulties, it would be even more urgent to straightforwardly confront the questions raised by the demand for animal enfranchisement. Yet, nowhere does Žižek directly challenge the main tenets underlying the argument: that drawing a moral line around our species is exactly the form of biologism we condemn in racism and sexism; that the morally relevant characteristic is not rationality or autonomy, but the capacity to be consciously affected by what happens to oneself; and that, whatever the intellectual endowment of an individual, it is arbitrary to give her/his interests less consideration than to the similar interests of any other individual.

Instead, Žižek, has recourse to forms of second-order reasoning. Sometimes he resorts to symptomatic reading – a reading that challenges the “unsaid” of an argument rather than its substance – as is the case with his exhortation to read the new ethical approach as a dream and to analyze the displacement at work in it, in order to detect its “ideological surplus-enjoyment.” Sometimes he attributes argumentative weight to something extraneous, as well as irrelevant, to what is in question, as is the case with trying to account for Singer’s alleged “intolerability” by suggesting that it “directly render[s] visible the truth of the so-called postmodern ethic.”  Sometimes he even engages in the “poisoning the wells” fallacy”, which implies attacking the proponent of an argument rather than its validity, as is the case with seeking to prejudice his readers against Singer’s perspective through the allegation that he is one of “the two philosophers of today’s global capitalism”.

Do any of these objections show in any way that the demand for “extending aspects of equality” to nonhumans is unsound? Clearly not. But the inadequacy of Žižek’s treatment of the nonhuman question seems to be only an aspect of a deeper problem with his approach. The use of second-order reasoning in ethics is in fact quite close to the very “postmodern logic of ‘everything is a discursive construction, there are no direct firm facts,’” or to the view that truth claims as such can be “dismissed as an expression of hidden... mechanisms” that Žižek condemns. For an approach based on second-order reasoning ultimately involves an attempt to get outside of the object language of practical reasons, good and bad, right and wrong, and that implies a rejection of reason itself. As Thomas Nagel has so clearly argued, if there is such a thing as reason, it must reflect objective principles whose validity is independent of our perspective.  Attempts to circumvent judgments, or to read them as expressions of a contingent or even distorted perspective, not only cannot replace the independent force of the first-order judgments, but worse still, divest reason of the authority it claims as a form or category of thought from which there is no appeal beyond itself (Nagel, 1997:103).

Žižek defines the theory of his master and intellectual source, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, as “perhaps the most radical contemporary version of the Enlightenment” (Zizek, 1989:7). And, in discussing reason and the leading motif of the Enlightenment, “free yourself of all prejudices, do not accept anything without questioning its rational foundations”, he stresses not only that Kant added to this the “disquieting supplement” that the reasoning subject, as a part of the social machine, must not question authority, but also that Descartes emphasized the need to accept, beyond any generalized practice of doubt, the customs of the country (Ibid.:80). In the face of his attitude – as well as of the attitude of most non-analytic authors – towards the argument for animal equality, one might also wonder whether in some strands of Continental philosophy social perspectives and prejudices, far from affecting (infecting?) only the sphere of Cartesian “provisional morality” for everyday existence, have not directly penetrated Enlightenment thinking, thus destroying, with respect to some issues, any form of radicality.


Giorgio Agamben (1998). Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford:  Stanford University Press.

Luc Ferry (1992). Le Nouvel Ordre écologique: l'arbre, l'animal, l'homme. Paris:  Grasset.

Thomas Nagel (1997). The Last Word. New York: Oxford University Press.

G. J. Warnock (1971). The Object of Morality. London: Mehtuen.

Slavoj Žižek (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

Slavoj Žižek and Glyn Daly (2004). Conversations with Žižek. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Slavoj Žižek (2005). “Against Human Rights”. New Left Review, Number 34, (July-August).

Slavoj Žižek (2008a). Violence. London: Profile Books.

Slavoj Žižek (2008b). “The Prospects For Radical Politics Today”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 5, Number 1 (January):

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What did the torturers of the inquisition want? ...confession restored a reassuring causality… Otherwise, the least heresy would have rendered all of divine creation suspect.  In the same way, when we use and abuse animals in laboratories, in rockets with experimental ferocity in the name of science, what confession are we seeking to extort from them, from beneath the scalpel and the electrodes? (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation [1981], 1994:129). [Quotation inserted by the Editor].

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1 If one can judge from his citation, Žižek may have read only abridged accounts of the positions he criticizes, in Peter Singer (2000). Writings on an Ethical Life, New York: Ecco (and he gets the title of that work wrong). For fuller presentations, see: Peter Singer Animal Liberation (first published 1975, 2nd edition, Harper, New York, 2001); Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer (1993) (Editors). The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. London: Fourth Estate; Paola Cavalieri (2001). The Animal Question: Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press; and Paola Cavalieri (forthcoming 2009). The Death of the Animal: A Dialogue. New York: Columbia University Press.

© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2008)

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