Ways of thinking about animal issues

after Matthew Calarco

I. Introducing the main approaches

The separation between humans and animals, once held so firmly by Western thought, is slowly collapsing (Calarco, 2015, p. 6). This observation at the beginning of Matthew Calarco's book, "Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction" points toward a particular moment in which we find ourselves (Calarco, 2015). Although many philosophers, throughout time, have strongly argued for a clear distinction between humans and animals, such a project is no longer defensible. Our prejudices about how "special" humans are, fade away as more and more empirical studies, supported by ontological and normative standpoints, offer a contrary view. Countless scientific evidence and anecdotal examples are appearing in academic articles and even in popular media showing that non-human animals possess, to different degrees, many of the capacities commonly believed to be characteristic of human beings (p. 6). In light of this, Calarco points out that by presupposing a sharp human/animal distinction, Western philosophy has, more often than not, failed to live up to its ideals, deeply neglecting animal issues (p. 11).

Does a clear-cut distinction between two homogenous groups still make sense today? Or are there other ways to approach this issue?

Matthew Calarco provides his readers with an essential introduction to some of the different philosophical approaches that one could take to reflect upon the human/animal distinction and other animal issues. According to him, we can primarily identify and speak of three main paths: identity, difference, and indistinction. In the following sections, we'll examine those in more detail, and in the end, we'll explore where Calarco's favorite approach could lead us.

[Image Description: In white lines over a black background, books are flying all over the illustration. Left corner, a fox is jumping, trying to grab one. Upper right corner, a blue-brown pigeon has pages in their beak. Down right corner, a yellow cat is sleeping on a pile of books.]

II. Identity

The identity approach stresses a fundamental aspect of our human and animal lives. Influenced in part by evolutionary biology, the philosophers within this paradigm argue that there's no solid and clear break between humans and animals, as generally found in Western thought (p. 11). Thus, the first aspect of this approach is the assertion of a deep continuity between human and animal capacities and traits. This continuity is based on Charles Darwin's insights that there are no differences of kind between species, only differences in degree (pp. 11-12).

The second aspect of the identity approach is the principle of "equal consideration of interests" (p. 13). This principle signifies that if an animal has interests, we ought to consider them and that no further justifications are necessary to treat sentient beings ethically (p. 13). Thus, "beings who are identical or fundamentally similar in ethically relevant ways deserve identical or fundamentally similar consideration" (p. 14). 

Within the identity approach, the act of suppressing animal interests on the ground that they are not part of the dominant species is considered an unjustified prejudice (p. 14). Following this reasoning, the identity approach seeks to challenge speciesism, which is generally seen, within this approach, as a form of irrational discrimination (p. 14). The primary focus is often placed on individual consumption habits, but there are cases when attention is directed toward structural issues (p. 21). Some of the well-known thinkers operating within the identity approach are Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Paola Cavalieri. They all argue that evolutionary similarities require us to consider more egalitarian ethics. 

This method of looking at animal issues has laid the ground for many legal initiatives, as well as animal rights and welfare organizations (p. 21). For example, the Great Ape Project seeks to extend some of the basic negative rights humans have, such as the right not to be killed, held captive, or tortured, to great apes. The identity approach contributed in many ways to the larger political discourse surrounding animal issues, but it's not without limitations. 

[Image Description: From left to right, five portraits of homini are drawn in white lines over a black background. The first one is the chimpanzee, Pan genus, followed by Homo naledi, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis and lastly, Homo sapiens, who is dressed in a yellow shirt. A fading orange line is drawn across their eyes, signaling a common feature between them.]

Following feminist theorists, Calarco believes that the excessive attention given to reason, logic, and argumentation over any kind of emotion and affective state is one such limitation (pp. 23-24). This often leads identity theorists to claim that irrational beliefs are at the core of animal slaughter, exploitation, and human cruelty, instead of different power relations, economic forces, and a long history of institutional, intersubjective, and epistemic violence (Calarco, 2015, pp. 24-25; Wadiwel, 2015). 

Another limitation is the fixation on certain particularities considered to be characteristically human, constructing an ideal subject around which the moral circle is being drawn (p. 26). This fixation can only mean that the identity approach is deeply anthropocentric (p. 26). Expanding ethics only to those whose qualities are similar to the presumed characteristics of the dominant group, who has the power to self-proclaim one's qualities as worthy, seems wrong in a very profound way. It doesn't matter if we're speaking of reason, spoken language, sentience, the capability to walk with your back straight, or the competence to write complex sentences, as Matthew Calarco underlines, "[t]he fate of other animals, humans, and non-humans who are not sufficiently like "us" would remain, within the identity framework, as precarious as ever" (p. 27).

II. Difference

Contrary to the identity approach, the difference approach aims to elaborate a pro-animal philosophy not based on notions of continuity and similarity but on valuing our differences and our singularity as individuals (p. 28). Among some of the philosophers working with this approach, we can mention Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and Cary Wolfe. According to Matthew Calarco, there are two essential aspects characterizing them: a critical attitude towards humanism and an ethic of otherness (p. 29). The first leads to a relational ontology, the second to the view that ethics appears from facing the singularity of other beings (p. 33).

The difference approach begins with a critical attitude toward appropriating non-human animals to an all-too-human model of personhood for inclusion. Thus, humanism is questioned thoroughly (p. 29). Ideas about human nature and identity are all under the radar, forcing us to think critically about the social, historical, economic, and cultural networks in which we find ourselves, which have profoundly shaped humans and our notions about who we are (p. 30). Following Calarco, we can say that, within this approach, humans are seen as relational and historical beings instead of having a fixed essence (p. 31). 

Consequently, the individual is reconfigured as a unique but also fluctuating existence into a vast ocean of relations (p. 31). Every being is depicted as a particular and singular Other (p. 31). Calarco argues that this singularity of the individual paves the way for a different animal ethic that is not based on similarities but rather on an encounter with utterly different Others. This encounter is at the heart of the ethics of difference. When we confront the strangeness of others, there's a possibility that such an experience will stay with us, shaping us to see ourselves and our actions from a totally different angle (pp. 31-32). Calarco refers to this encounter as a "call of the Other" instigated by the fact that we're thrown among other beings (p. 32).

The human/animal distinction seen through the lens of continuity in the identity approach takes a different route within the difference approach. Instead of insisting on the continuity between animals and humans, it is sustained that the beings assigned to these categories cannot be lumped into two homogeneous groups (p. 37). This is because the implied category of The Animal and that of The Human contains a rich and enormous diversity of beings embodying all kinds of particularities (pp. 37-38). Animal and human life is, in this view, intrinsically diverse, containing all sorts of subtle distinctions that should be seen, acknowledged, and allowed to flourish (p. 38; p. 41). Thus, the category of The Animal cannot be assigned to an inferior state, essentialized through a narrow and selective comparison with specific human capacities (p. 37). 

[Image Description: Eight portraits of various creatures are drawn in yellow, blue or white lines over a black background. From left to right: top left, an elder asian man, below him a white umbrella cockatoo bird, middle top, a mix-breed dog, below him a secretary bird, right next to the dog a hummingbird, under her a Black young woman, another dog to the right up corner, a buldog and below him another bird, a snowy egret.]

Theorists that operate within this paradigm emphasize that there are more relevant differences between species and individuals, which are overlooked by the human/animal binary, stressing that there isn't one single line dividing humans from animals (p. 38). Such a dividing line composing two homogeneous categories is reductive and deceptive, establishing a vicious hierarchy caught up in power relations (p. 35). Its objective is not an accurate description of the existing differences and similarities, showing everyone's distinction and specificity, but rather establishing The Human as "unique." However, emphasizing the multifold differences between individuals only blurs and complicates the human/animal distinction, it does not collapse it (p. 39). For the theorists working in this paradigm, breaking the distinction entirely would only flatten the differences, so such a project is not usually endorsed (p. 39; p. 47). 

We cannot deny the contributions of this approach which has raised important questions and critiques concerning humanism, liberalism, and animal rights projects based on identity, such as the Great Ape Project (pp. 43-46). However, the difference approach is not without limitations. 

The solely theoretical framework, its absence from legal initiatives and political debates, as well as the lack of alternatives in terms of practical initiatives, can be seen as a drawback, even if we find its political commitments admirable (pp. 45-46). But, perhaps, the biggest problem of this approach, as pointed out by Calarco, is maintaining "the anthropological difference, or what, if anything, separates human beings from animals" (p. 46). Abandoning this separation might not automatically blend humans and animals into one homogenous group as this approach implies. On the contrary, it can have the opposite effect, opening up the space for other differences and identities to emerge (p. 47).

III. Indistinction

The indistinction approach aims to get rid of the implied "exceptionality" assigned to humans. It has no interest in keeping the anthropological difference. Instead, it explores how humans are similar to other animals - not the other way around. Drawing its inspiration from ecofeminism, queer and critical disability studies, radical animal activism, and diverse thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, Val Plumwood, Giorgio Agamben, Donna Haraway, and Rosi Braidotti, the discourse surrounding indistinction is still ongoing (p. 48). However, its ideas and sensibilities are shared by many and are not necessarily new (p. 48). The abandonment of the human/animal distinction and human exceptionalism is not a solitary path taken by indistinction. On the contrary, similar views are endorsed by poststructuralist and posthumanist thought, by various studies on cognition, culture, and communication in biology and ethology, as well as by many ontological and normative standpoints (Calarco, 2020; Meijer, 2016; Marchesini, 2017). 

Drawing inspiration from the two approaches we have just explored, indistinction does not deny the similarities between humans and animals, stressed by the identity approach (p. 49). However, it does question the direction of continuity implied and the centering of one identity from which ethical treatment is to be expanded to others (p. 50). In this way, indistinction seeks to avoid falling into various exclusions that result from valuing specific capacities more because they belong to a particular identity (p. 50). Similarly, the indistinction approach does not negate the richness of human and animal lives and the singularity of individuals. Yet, it does question the strategy of endlessly multiplying and complicating the human/animal distinction belonging to the difference approach (pp. 50-51). So, what does it mean to go beyond the anthropological difference and share a common space with other animals?

[Image Description: The portrait of Matthew Calarco, a short-haired white man with strong eyebrows, drawn in white lines over a black background, centered.]

To inhabit a zone of indistinction, as defined by Matthew Calarco, means to "find oneself in a surprising and profound relation with animals," acknowledging a "zone of exposed embodiment" (p. 58). One such example can be found in Val Plumwood's text, Being Prey, in which she discusses her terrifying experience of becoming a crocodile's prey (Plumwood, 2000). Such an encounter shows something strange about our factual existence, revealing that even a human being can become someone else's meal. In such an encounter, the traditional differences between the fundamentally inedible human and the edible animal, one seen as a subject and the other as an object to be consumed, have been swiped away (p. 60). A zone of indistinction hidden by our dominant ways of relating to other animals becomes visible (p. 61). For Matthew Calarco, to inhabit this zone of indistinction is to obtain "a fuller sense of what it means for animals to exist in an economic and political order that seeks to reduce them to nothing but meat to be consumed" (p. 59).

Within the indistinction approach, the clear-cut separation of human life from animal life is viewed as a result of a "performative apparatus" enacting a specific kind of reality (p. 54). Searching for what is "proper" to the human is not so much a neutral and objective endeavor. Rather than understanding what is particular to every animal-being (human or non), the effort is usually placed to delimit what is "uniquely" human. The anthropological difference becomes performative, a mechanism with socio-political implications resulting from the idealization of anthropocentric norms, values, capacities, and identities.

Once we give up searching for what is "uniquely" human and are driven by a pleasure to connect human and animal lives in a meaningful way, we can see that new identities and differences can be found and maintained (Calarco, 2015, p. 52). By allowing for new groupings and distinctions to emerge and by refusing the anthropocentric logic of an ethical center, indistinction turns us away from determining the boundaries of ethical life, arguing that the path forward should also be animated by a practice of seeing-with others (Calarco, 2020). It's not enough to change our views about other animals, we need to think with them (Meijer, 2016). As difficult as this might sound, such a project becomes possible as soon as we go beyond the anthropological difference and live, learn and explore our lives together with other animals.

Val Plumwood's experience of becoming a crocodile's prey, of being reduced from "a complex human being to a mere piece of meat [emphasis added]" marks a profound realization that all of us, human and non-human, are always already more than just food, as Plumwood herself states: "[w]e are edible, but we are also much more than edible" (Plumwood, 2000). For Roberto Marchesini, human evolution is not "the result of emancipation from a generic animal condition" but an adaptive specialization, where human subjectivity is "the very expression of a specific animal condition" (Marchesini, 2017, p. 131). Thus, non-human animals are not total strangers to us (p. 97). We, who fly, crawl, swim, who struggle for our lives, seeking pleasures and avoiding pains while always moving and striving towards something, we are united by our animal-being. As odd as we may appear to each other, we live in very close proximity (p. 97).

[Image Description: Over the portrait of a man, the portrait of a crocodile is drawn, with pointing teeth and yellow eyes.]

Instead of assuming a teleological or theological distinction between human and animal lives, we should ask ourselves what will happen if we acknowledge the existence of multiple zones of indistinction? Can animality be freed from its wretched status if "[w]e become animal so that the animal also becomes something else" as Deleuze and Guattari wrote (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p. 109)? Can other animals escape being reduced to cultural symbols within human languages or to some kind of alien nature that is forever distinct from us? Can our particularities replace the language of exceptionality if we give up the anthropological difference? Can indistinction truly lead us in a different direction? We think it already does, but as Matthew Calarco pointed out: the challenge remains to see how new and emerging relations and identities will be refashioned to maintain different power structures that perpetuate violence toward those at the margins (p. 68).

Since our bodies share so much history and so many of our common pressures overlap, both socially and environmentally, being potentially edible is not the only politically relevant zone of indistinction. Being thrown into various conditions of vulnerability with others (human or non) can create valuable bonds. Not only are all animals ecological, historical, social, and creative beings, but they occupy complex categories and identities; they can be workers, mothers, urban dwellers, family members, and political actors, among many things. It does not matter how identical our subjective experiences are - addressing systemic injustices requires accepting that they don't need to be entirely similar to be relevant. New alliances are born from shared vulnerabilities, and with new alliances, meaningful political identities take form.

Indistinction is not inherently liberatory, yet it places us on a path of transformation that seeks changes beyond individual consumption and institutional reforms (Calarco, 2020, p. 38). It directs our attention towards finding alternative ways of being among non-human animals. Our ethical task extends to learning how to inhabit other worlds and ways of living that can decenter our all-too-human standpoints (pp. 35-36). Indistinction instills a sense of wonder in us, a sense that other, entirely new, relations are possible (p. 34). So, if we start to carefully and respectfully immerse ourselves in the life worlds of other animals, we might, one day, better grasp what kind of vital and existential transformations will we need to go through so that human and non-human animals can live well side by side (p. 38).

[Image Description: Over the portrait of a man, the portrait of a cat-like creature is drawn, with chimpanzee ears, little horns and a furry tail. In the background, there is a city with apartment blocks, that is somewhat underwater]


Written, Directed, Edited & Narrated by Aron Nor

Illustrated & Artistic Direction by Mina Mimosa

Script Editing & Narrated by M. Martelli

Music composed by Adrian Feener


Calarco, M. (2020). Beyond the Anthropological Difference. Cambridge University Press.

Calarco, M. (2015). Thinking through animals: Identity, difference, indistinction. Stanford University Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1994). What is philosophy?. Columbia University Press.

Marchesini, R. (2017). Over the Human: Post-humanism and the Concept of Animal Epiphany (Vol. 4). Springer.

Meijer, E. (2016). Speaking with Animals: Philosophical Interspecies Investigations. In M. Tønnessen, K. A. Oma, & S. Rattasepp, Thinking about Animals in the Age of the Anthropocene (pp. 73–88). Lexington Books.

Plumwood, V. (2000). Being Prey. https://valplumwood.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/being-prey.doc

Wadiwel, D. J. (2015). The War against Animals. In Critical Animal Studies (Vol. 3). Brill.