J. M. Coetzee: The Lives of Animals

Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals is a philosophical meditation on death. The novel is not necessarily of human death, but it does focus much attention to the matter of death and suffering. The frame narrative of the story sets up this death theme by informing the reader that John Bernard “does not want to hear his mother talking about death; Furthermore, he has a strong sense that her [Costello’s] audience—which consist, after all, mainly of young people—wants death-talk even less” (Coetzee 19). However, death talk is, as death is in life, inevitable. The entire argument of animal rights comes down to death, and this idea is what Peter Singer aptly explores in his narrative in response to Coetzee’s narrative.

I argue that the narrative presented here and that the argument of animal rights comes down to death because all the other questions asked about the animal—does it have langue, is it conscious, does it understand, does it suffer, does it have a soul, etc.—comes down to the answers that try to justify the death of an animal. As Singer points out, “Pain is pain, no matter what the species of the being that feels it” (87). Singer goes on to make some very valid arguments and does a fine job (possibly much better than Coetzee does) in showing the two sides of animal rights; however, his best point comes in pointing out that “The value that is lost when something is emptied depends on what was there when it was full, and there is more to human existence that there is to bat existence” (90). This idea recalls a Heideggerian concept of existence; Dasein is a human beings special way of being. Daseins are future directed, always thrown ahead of themselves in their possibilities in a way that an animal is not. While I would like to say that the loss of a human being is worse than the loss of an animal, I wonder if I think that because of the horizon from which I have the rational thought to make such a judgment.

Because of this impossibility of steeping outside of rational thought (a topic much explored in Costello’s dialogue), there must be another mode of questioning the death of the animal. Even though rational thought must be put aside, Costello’s argument about human’s capacity for empathy is too weak, and Singer points out some obvious weaknesses to this argument; I would like to add that empathy is not that strong. Again, this goes back to Heidegger’s conception of death. Heidegger states that we can empathize with someone who is dying, and on some level we can experience that other person’s death, but we can never know it. Dasein can get a sense of death—a sense of someone else’s life—an idea of what it must be like to die, but we can never experience death until it happens. It is this very real sense of not being able to share death that Heidegger makes the argument for Dasein having a “mineness.” Even each individual Dasein is uniquely mine in this sense and only this sense because everything else about how one experiences the world is bound up with that very world.

Because one can never really imagine what it is like to be a bat—just like one can never imagine what it is like to be another person, not really—the question of animal rights goes back to Benthem’s question: does the animal suffer? I am in agreement with Singer when he discuss an ideal world where a pig lives a long and happy life and is killed with no pain and with no foreknowledge of its death, but the problem is that the world Singer abstractly explores does not exist.

I want to come back to these thoughts– there is more here that is important to explore.