|Those of you who remember Scrubs will know that the|
person usually in charge of bioethical decisions in
practice rarely prioritizes purely moral motives.
The practice criticism is fairly simple: a hospital bioethicist has been trained in a philosophical context of dense arguments and to act as an emotional caregiver to families and friends of patients going through intense life or death issues, but the biggest pressure on their jobs is often handling situations such that the hospital avoids liability.
Wolfe’s essay on the subject, “Flesh and Finitude,” concentrates on the philosophical critique, being a philosopher. It’s a sprawl of an essay, and I think it suffers from that sprawl, setting up a problem in one context but never really returning to it by the end of its conceptual journey. It begins with the subject of bioethics and drifting away to consider how more fundamental aspects of human subjectivity impact how we think of our rights.
It can be difficult to critique the language of rights, practically speaking, because almost all civil, criminal, and international law is conceived in terms of rights. The entire institution of tort law, for example, depends on a person’s claim to standing against another to make an accusation for redress. So much of our moral thinking is about the nature and reach of our rights to make claims against each other.
Animals are often cut out of this, intuitively speaking, because they physiologically can’t speak to make claims upon their rights. Even Bruno Latour, a thinker who’s often considered a radical post-humanist and whose writings on science are nefarious in some circles for destabilizing public faith in the infallibility of scientific knowledge,* has written that there can only be a just relationship of humans and non-humans when scientific instruments have enabled non-humans to express their interests linguistically. This is the key idea behind his parliament of all species in The Politics of Nature.
* Latour himself now belongs in that camp. Over the last ten years, as he has engaged with the politics of climate change deniers, he has openly expressed regret that he carried out any of the anthropological studies of scientists and scientific institutions that defined his early career. Even though his research showed the humanity of science as an institution, he now wishes that he could convince people that scientists were infallible possessors of pure and perfect truths about the world again, because it would cut off the viral skepticism that drives the popular denial of climate change.
The language of rights in our culture has a powerful gravity. Even writers who have tried to theorize ways to conceive of animal ethics beyond the old-fashioned scope of civil rights and standing end up just creating more lists of demands and claims that basically are rights, but under a different name. One of Wolfe’s central examples of this is Martha Nussbaum’s list of animal capabilities: she pitches it as having moved beyond the rights-based approach of cataloguing standings and demands, but it practically amounts to a list of standings and demands that a wider range of organisms can claim.
The approach of creating lists of claims based on some clear criteria (rights, capabilities, or some other) is an approach to philosophy that sees its goal as crafting specific problems to deal with well-defined issues by producing definitive answers that ends the inquiry. I’ve never liked this approach to philosophy precisely because it tries to settle problems that motivate countless writers across the world and across centuries in neat little packages. It treats difficult questions as if they had easy answers.
Wolfe considers literature better suited to engaging with the core issues of what our attitudes should be to the animals on which we depend to live. Literature depicts difficult situations, undecidable moments, suspension in an existentially powerful tension. He refers to J. M. Coetzee, who has written about the existential terror of realizing that we must consume creatures with which we’re evolutionarily continuous.
By showing how the problems of rights and standing to make claims against those who harm them can apply to the situations of animals, Wolfe tries to problematize the bioethics of hospital practice. When not only humans, but many kinds of life, can provoke the ethical unsettling of an existentially problematic encounter, a lot of the core presumptions that ground our everyday moral practice are shaken along with ourselves.