Elizabeth Costello’s Position on Non-Human Animals

In order to explore the issue of animal treatment and human-animal interaction in all its complexity, a celebrated novelist and Nobel prize winner John Maxwell Coetzee, more known as simply J. M. Coetzee, creates a fictional character Elizabeth Costello who is a renowned novelist too. J. M. Coetzee makes his story very realistic and non-fiction in a sense that the character of Costello comes to Appleton College to deliver several lectures on animals, and her views are refuted or supported later in the book in the essays written by other writers. Thus, Elizabeth Costello can be named J. M. Coetzee’s alter ego who also advocates for animal rights and is vegetarian. However, the peculiarity of Costello’s or Coetzee’s views is their non-coercive nature. Costello does not seem to need any weighty arguments or very convincing manner. On the contrary, as a speaker, Costello is not very convincing, and her son John Bernard thinks that she “lacks animation” and “does not have a good delivery” (18).

Probably, taking into account the shock of the comparison with Jews in the concentration camps, believing that everyone should find what to have faith in without any additional effects, Coetzee uses Costello’s views on animals as a good starting point to initiate a discussion. In fact, some may disagree completely, some may support partially, but everyone must be sure that the issue relating to animals should be tackled in the nearest future. Thereafter, the right of animals and the way people treat them should be revised similar to how the rights of women and ethnical minorities were revisited and reconsidered. Elizabeth Costello’s argument is grounded on the fact that animals are different species and people should not approach them demanding the same abilities, for example speech and reason, as people have. Nevertheless, one should remember that this argument can be applied to higher animals, whereas poultry and other farm animals can demonstrate less social activity and people can continue to consume them.

Costello’s first argument is that animals are treated cruelly; thus, to enhance the impact of that message, she draws a parallel between the animals in the abattoirs and Jews in the concentration camps. Costello’s comparison extends to the Poles who were not aware or pretended to be unaware of atrocities in the vicinity of Treblinka the same way as people reject the knowledge of cruelty to animals because it involves difficult decisions regarding people’s everyday life. Costello argues that even if personally the Treblinka Poles did not participate in the Holocaust, they were responsible for remaining silent and doing nothing. Furthermore, the fact that Nazis killed Jews and Poles did not oppose them, thereby reducing from their human state to beasts. Thus, treating others like animals transformed the abusers and passive observers into animals. In the next chapter, Coetzee tries to counterbalance the pathos of this rhetoric device, and Mrs. Costello gets a handwritten letter from Abraham Stern who had not attended the lecture but is familiar with the emotionally impactful comparison between the murdered Jews and cruelly treated animals. Stern discerns Costello’s intentional exaggeration and calls it “on the point of blasphemy” because an educated individual with several books under the belt cannot but see that it is a logical fallacy performed with a purpose in mind. Stern argues that “If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews” (Coetzee 50). On the one hand, the author puts such radical words into Costello’s mouth to create the emotional impact and draw the audience into a deeply-felt topic. On the other hand, as it will be later seen in the paper, Costello in fact treats animals as people so that this comparison is natural and legitimate for her because that is what she feels.

The idea of treating animals like people brings the audience to the central argument of Elizabeth Costello; however, for the audience, it is difficult because people cannot equate animals with humans. The general idea is that if animals are different from people, they can be treated differently. Many arguments are focused on reason and intellectual activity. Costello cites philosophers and thinkers who argued that reason links people to God, and this same reason differentiates people from animals. From Saint Thomas’ argument, it can be implied that due to the fact that animals are not made after God, they cannot be treated the same way people treat other individuals. Plato, Descartes, and Kant believe that the ability to reason makes people God-like and animals cannot boast it. With regard to this, Costello objects that “reason may be not the being of the universe but on the contrary merely the being of the human brain” (Coetzee 23). People often demonstrate the irrationality of their actions, and the first half of the twentieth century clearly demonstrated it leading to two World Wars. Costello reticently remarks that her experience prompts her to believe that reason is not associated either with the universe or with God. Furthermore, if one insists on the argument of reason, than mentally disabled people and infants also become members of the category of non-human beings. Thereafter, those who cannot exercise their rationality cannot expect to be treated respectfully. However, this idea is abhorrent for people, so it cannot be the argument against cruel treatment of animals.

Another point why animals are denied rationality is a lack of speech. It is believed that the ability to speak is the primary reason that differentiates man from beast. Animals keep silent, and people tend to believe that they lack reason. To emphasize this idea, Red Peter says in his “Report to an Academy,” “I called out ‘Hello,’ breaking into human speech, leaping into the human community by means of that outcry, and feeling its echo, “Listen, he’s talking,” like a kiss all over my sweat-soaked body” (Kafka 87). In “Reflections,” the scholar Wendy Doniger repeats the thought of Wittgenstein, saying that “if a lion could talk we would not understand him” (qtd. in Coetzee 103). Similarly, to different ethnicities and nations conversing in their own languages, animals would have their own languages. In fact, they have it but speak in gestures, gazes, and in a non-verbal way. Therefore, it is an error to believe that animals are unable to speak. A language is a means of communication, and all animals are good at communicating among themselves; moreover, they can even communicate with people if people are smart enough to understand them. The primitivist Barbara Smuts gives a compelling account of how well baboons and dogs can communicate on the basis of her own experience. Smuts tells how her unbiased approach to a group of baboons revealed to her that it is easy to communicate with intelligent, non-verbal animals if one approaches them with open mind. She was able to teach her dog Safi to understand English and learnt how to negotiate a decision, thereby reaching agreement. Doniger summarizes it by saying, “they speak, and we refuse to grant them the dignity of listening to them” (Coetzee 105).

Basically, the reason why people treat animals differently than humans is that they are different, and they are felt as the Other. Seeing that animals are not as rational as people are and communicate in different languages that need an effort to understand, people failed to see that they discriminated against animals. Taking into account this desire to see the Other as oneself, Costello forms her next argument. People have had attempts to understand animals and to put themselves in animals’ place. Costello remembers about Thomas Nagel’s essay “What is it like to be a bat,” and Doniger recalls the Greek philosopher Xenophanes saying about horses drawing horse-like gods, should they have hands. In a similar vein, there is the “if I were a horse” argument. Evidently, all these examples focus on the idea that people consider the viewpoint of an animal from their anthropocentric position. Costello argues that so far it is impossible for people to be completely sure how animals feel like and what it is like to be an animal. People can use their imagination to do that, but they cannot be one hundred percent confident that they succeeded and what they know now is what animals truly are and feel. In this regard, Costello recollects Montaigne’s witty observation, “We think we are playing with the cat, but how do we know that the cat isn’t playing with us?” (qtd. in Coetzee 36). Thereafter, even when people try to interpret animal behavior, they do it from the anthropological viewpoint. Costello analyzes the experiment with the chimpanzee Sultan when its trainer Wolfgang Koehler tried to see how far in intellectual endeavors can the ape be pushed to make it reach the bananas. Costello emphasizes that the chimpanzee can do something simply because it is aware that the master wants it. Similarly, Franz Kafka’s Red Peter says, “I didn’t imitate human beings because they appealed to me; I imitated because I was looking for a way out, for no other reason” (Kafka 87). However, it is impossible either to prove that people can understand animals no disprove it. Naturally, when someone treats an animal with love and tries to do their best to behave well toward the animal, it is probable they will succeed, but no one can assert that they fully comprehend animals.

Even though animals do not write books and compose sonnets, no one refutes the intelligence of higher animals. Elephants, dolphins, horses, cats, dogs, and other animals can make people understand what they want and how they feel, may reveal their cunning traits, and can demonstrate agency. In the article “Animals, Agency and Resistance,” Bob Carter and Nickie Charles argue that animals are able to act on their own agenda and actually negotiate better conditions for themselves. The authors give three examples of how animals could tell the right from the wrong in their regard and attempt to change the situation to favor them. In the first case, two Tamworth pigs escaped the slaughter house during the transportation and, thus, saved themselves by hiding. The authors argue that it is a vivid example of conscious resistance and animal agency. In the second example, the laboratory rats under study ducked under the hands of the laboratory worker trying to avoid being caught. The laboratory worker had to cajole them to approach her hand and let her lift them. Even though in this example the laboratory rats were restricted in their exercise of agency, it is still an example of one within their capacities. In the last example, a Welsh Terrier would bark at the couple who owned her when they started to quarrel. It was the way the dog exercised her agency, demanding her owners to create a comfortable atmosphere for the dog and preventing their verbal aggression at each other (Carter & Charles 326). All these examples prove that Costello’s point that even if animals are different from people, it does not mean that they are allowed to be treated differently from humans.
Costello refuses to think of animals lower than of men only on the basis of a lack of reason and grounds her argument not on reason but on the experience of living, namely on the body. Having the body and feeling it means being alive so that it is enough to demand respect and rights. Rejecting Descartes’ statement “Cogito, ergo sum,” Costello focuses on feelings and on self-awareness. For Costello, Descartes’ reliance on rationality is too void and too dry to be perceived as true of human existence. She says that it gives her “an empty feel” like “the feel of a pea rattling around in a shell” (Coetzee 33). Costello questions the tendency of Western thought to think that confinement to prison is the most humane way of punishing in comparison with beating or torturing, whereas for beings who experience spatial freedom and the feelings in their bodies, confinement is a torture. After an animal is deprived of its freedom, it does not matter in what way it happened, namely at the zoo, a circus, or a laboratory. Costello’s idea of the bodily feeling being central to sentient beings is confirmed in Smuts’ recollection of how she had spent time with baboons and how she witnessed their pleasure from being content and well-fed, thereby feeling satisfied (Coetzee 110).

Eventually, Costello suggests sympathy arguing that even if animals feel differently and speak non-verbally, people can still relate and sympathize with them. Overall, it is difficult to imagine oneself in the place of another human or non-human being simply because people are limited in their understanding of the other. No one can gauge or fully comprehend what the other thinks or feels. In fact, people can only judge form their own experience. Therefore, any understanding of someone’s experience is restricted. It leads to people misunderstanding other individuals. For instance, it took long for women and human rights movements to have their ideas heard by those who are in charge. In many cases, the ruling white males were unmoved by the experience of the oppressed because they could not relate. Evidently, it concerns animals to a much greater extent. Human experience and animal experience are too different to be understood by people. Those who are talented with rich imagination can attempt to picture what it is like to be a horse, a bat, or a cow; however, in general, it would what people think they should think of animals.

The requirement to treat animals like people can be confusing because animals do not necessarily need what is necessary for people. In this regard, in the article “Moral Individualism, Moral Relationalism, and Obligations to Non-human Animals,” Todd May suggests to discern between moral individualism and moral relationalism. Salient capacities are perceived as moral individualism, while relationships with humans are addressed as moral relationalism (May 155). May explains that he finds it difficult to choose between the two and that these positions are applied in different cases. For instance, treating animals well does not imply that animals should become part of human moral community. Overall, not all animals need relationships with people even if people wish them well and are able to provide respectful treatment. Wild animals need no involvement from people, apart from the cases of extreme fatal injuries when people can provide real help. For example, dolphins in captivity eagerly and seemingly willingly cooperate with their trainers, but they do it only because they have to and because they have no one else with whom they could communicate. Importantly, higher animals need to communicate with the likes. Red Peter stresses that his ‘intelligent’ behavior was simply “this human way out,” namely it was a human way to do things, which does not mean that animals, intelligent not less than humans, should have the same way (Kafka 88). They are different species, and they developed their own ways of communicating with each other and the environment. Therefore, treating animals like people does not actually imply the literal ‘treatment like people’ because each species should be treated the way they choose and exercise agency as higher beings.

Overall, treating animals the right way is a complex issue, and Coetzee tries to analyze it considerately. That is the reason why Costello may sound vague and unconvincing. In fact, she does not try to convince. The essays in the Reflection part of the book complement and supplement Costello’s argument, making it better argued and distinct. Ultimately, a correction of people’s way of animal treatment can be exhibited in different and sometimes very radical ways. In fact, both Coetzee and Costello are vegetarians as vegetarianism is the most obvious way to demonstrate one’s animal-friendly ways. However, killing animals and eating animals are not necessarily related to one person. For example, those who eat chicken and mutton do not butcher hens and sheep. Smuts mentions that she believes that Costello’s argument feels too detached and lacks personal experience. The reader may remember that Costello’s son plays with the cats she keeps, and Smuts thinks that it could have been used in the argument to prove the rationality of animals at least. In her turn, Smuts supplements the gap and talks about her experience with her dog. Meanwhile, some people may feel the cruelty of animal treatment so acutely that they refuse to keep pets at all. Doniger recalls an animal rights activist who believed that keeping pets in the city is cruel treatment because they are deprived of their freedom, and “the ultimate right of all animals – in his view – was never to be born” (qtd. in Coetzee 106). As not everyone sees the point in such radical decisions, Coetzee leaves it for the reader to draw conclusions and act with regard to them.

That is the reason why Coetzee does not make his protagonist very convincing and advocating for a certain position. Coetzee’s desire was not to impose his viewpoint but rather to let people form their own understanding of the problem. His protagonists starts the lecture with words, “I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats” (Coetzee 22). Inviting the reader to the dialogue, Coetzee suggests different angles of the issue, giving space to the reader to devise their own solution. It can be a traditional religious scheme of admitting the blame and accepting the forgiveness, an Indian belief in reincarnation and reluctance to eat someone who used to be a human in the previous life, or a radical idea that even “carrot screams” and basically people have nothing left to survive (Coetzee 97). Thus, the decision has to be made by the reader.

Superficially, Costello’s argument can seem confusing because she wants animals to be treated like humans, at the same time arguing that it is impossible because, first, people do not know what it means to be animals, and second, animals have other needs not necessarily connected to people. However, the general message of J.M. Coetzee is that people need to expand their understanding of the other and should not be confident that they know better what others need. As soon as people see animals as subjects rather than objects, many animal-related problems will be solved. Smuts supplements Costello’s argument adding her personal experience of keeping a dog and saying that treating animals like humans is not equal to requesting them to have human characteristics. Animals do not speak as humans, but they can communicate their feelings and desires, they are able to exercise agency within their abilities and the given situation, and they definitely have self-awareness. Ultimately, all the authors who contributed to the discussion agree that through more meaningful interaction with animals, people can enrich their lives with diversity.