Humans have ability to choose right, wrong

Tibor Machan: Columnist

Some ideas have so little merit to them they shouldn’t ever see the light of day — not in intellectually respectable forums. It’s as if we gave Nazis a place at the table when discussing how societies should be organized.

Here, once again, I find a notable person, indeed, a Nobel Laureate in literature, voicing sentiments that look very much like denying the difference between humans and other animals. I am talking about J.M. Coetzee, who in his novel “Elizabeth Costello” has his protagonist articulate a view that appears to be his own. Costello says:

“To me, a philosopher who says that the distinction between human and non-human depends on whether you have a white or a black skin, and a philosopher who says that the distinction between human and non-human depends on whether or not you know the difference between a subject and a predicate, are more alike than they are unalike.”

Then Costello goes on with even more annoying nonsense:
“We are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing, which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, live-stock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.”

Oddly, these lines are reproduced in a review of another, more recent, novel by Coetzee, “Slow Man,” by John Lanchester.

Lanchester is a novelist and a frequent reviewer for such prestigious magazines as The London Review of Books and, as in the case of the present review, The New York Review of Books.

It is difficult to fathom why exactly Lanchester picked this passage to reproduce — maybe to indicate that Coetzee has gone off his rocker. (He wasn’t too impressed by “Slow Man.”) But these lines I have quoted appear to be put out there as something worthy of attention, even of respect, from a formidable author whose ideas, naturally, need to be heeded by the readers of The New York Review.

Now notice right away that no mention is made either by Coetzee or by Lanchester of any problems with Costello’s notions. Yet problems with it abound galore.

To start with, non-human animals do not read about how cruel they can be, eating their young, devouring their live and conscious prey, letting their offspring be taken by other animals that prey on them, etc. (Even in that stunning documentary, “The March of the Penguins,” one is struck by how abruptly the parents abandon their young, never looking back, never having them over for Thanksgiving dinner, etc. No difference my foot!)

Then there is that little matter of people needing to feed themselves, so taking the lives of non-human animals most often has an end very much beyond the purpose of the mere killing of them. Furthermore, from time immemorial animals have used other animals as nourishment, and human beings have not been different from the rest in this regard. It is too paradoxical that while so many animal rights and liberation advocates lament this — indeed, roundly morally condemn human beings for being like other animals — they at the same time deny that we are any different from them.

Well, if we aren’t different, then why not accept our cruelties just as the cruelties of the lion, the bear or the fish that devour their young are accepted? Why insist on the equality of non-human and human animals but also treat the human kind as if its life had a moral dimension missing from the lives of non-humans? Or if it isn’t missing, then why not also chide the non-human villains?

The answer is rather straightforward, and it is only baffling why the likes of Lanchester don’t bother to even mention it: Human beings are fundamentally very different from other animals. They can choose between right and wrong, can govern their own conduct, and are not prisoners of their hardwiring, instincts or drives.