We are pleased to present our Q&A session with David E. Cooper, author of the recently published Animals and Misanthropy. David is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, UK. He has been a Visiting Professor at universities in several countries, including the USA and Sri Lanka. His many books include The Measure of Things: Humanism, Humility and Mystery, A Philosophy of Gardens, Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective, and Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life.
1.Congratulations on the publication of your book Animals and Misanthropy. What do you want your audience to take away from the book?
I couldn’t improve on the last line of David Benatar’s generous endorsement of my book: ‘You do not have to be respectful of animals or misanthropic to start reading this book, but don’t be surprised if you are both after you have finished it’. I would, that is, like readers to come away with a better and, to human beings, less flattering understanding of how we compare with animals, and with a more vivid sense of the human failings and vices that our dreadful treatment of animals manifests.
2.What inspired you to write this book?
As I’ve grown older, my fondness and admiration for many animals has also matured and I’ve wanted to, as it were, ‘say it for the animals’. At the same time, I found mainstream approaches to animal ethics – utilitarian, rights-based and so on – repetitive and, more importantly, tangential to the appreciation that what is fundamentally wrong in our treatment of animals is us. To identify what’s wrong with, say, recreational hunting is to recognise the callousness, mindlessness and hubris that it typically displays. I wanted, as well, to restore the currently unfashionable exercise of making a moral comparison between humankind and animals. As Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Hume saw, a good way to appraise humankind is through a comparison with animals – a way, sadly, that confirms a misanthropic verdict on our species.
3. What audience did you have in mind whilst writing your book?
I wanted to write a short, clear and fairly provocative book that students and professional philosophers engaged with animal ethics and philosophical anthropology would find helpful and stimulating. But I wanted even more to write a book that would address each reader personally – inviting him or her to reflect on their relationship to animals and on how, in their own lives, they might manifest ways of being with animals that register appreciation both of animal life and the failings entrenched in human forms of life.
4. What did you enjoy about writing the book?
Three things at least. First, the challenge of keeping the book down to a comfortably manageable 140 pages without, I hope, sacrificing lucidity. Second, acquainting or reacquainting myself with older writings, like those of Plutarch, Montaigne and Rousseau, whose reflections on humankind and animals were not constrained by modern-day obsessions with autonomy, discrimination, rights and related concepts that have come to dominate ethical discussion. Finally, a sense that I was doing something that, however modestly, might help some people to think about and cultivate an authentic relationship to animals.
5. What is your academic background?
A fairly standard one for a professional philosopher. I read PPE at Oxford, in the heyday of ‘Oxford philosophy’, went on to do a B.Phil, and then took up a College Lectureship. Without ever having made a conscious decision to ‘be a philosopher’, I found that that’s what I’d become. Important to my philosophical education was taking off, after perhaps too many years at Oxford, to teach in the USA. The University of Miami widened all my horizons, academic ones included.
6. Do you have plans for future books? What’s next in the pipeline for you?
Too many plans, in fact, and I’m trying to decide which of several projects to do next. One possibility is to stay with animals, elaborating and deepening the theme of ‘being with animals’ – of their place in a person’s life - that my last two books have touched on. Another is to revive an abandoned plan for a book on Buddhism and beauty. Can reflections on the meaning of beauty and on Buddhist enlightenment illuminate one another? Finally, for the first time since adolescence, I recently wrote a novel. Its hero is a street dog in Sri Lanka, a country I know well because of my role in the charity Project Sri Lanka. I’m hoping to write a sequel fairly soon.
7. Who was/is your role model who inspired you to become a philosopher?
The first two philosophers I encountered – during the same summer at my boarding school – were Plato and Sartre. What attracted me to them both, poles apart as they were, was their conviction that the question of how to live required understanding of the world and one’s place in (or out of) it. Neither Platonism nor Sartrean existentialism any longer holds much appeal for me. But I continue to admire those thinkers – from Zhuangzi and the Buddha to Schopenhauer and Heidegger – for whom wisdom and virtue are finally inseparable. For whom, that is, the good life is one led in harmony with an enlightened understanding of the way of things.
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"In this lucid and elegant book Cooper draws effortlessly on literature and world philosophy to gather evidence for a bleakly compelling verdict on the morally barbarous condition of humanity through a consideration of how we compare with and treat animals, particularly those at our mercy, refreshing the meaning of misanthropy." - Michael McGhee, University of Liverpool, UK
"In this short, powerful book, David E. Cooper argues that honest reflection on the awful situation of animals justifies a charge of misanthropy - a negative moral judgment on human life at large. Surveying practices and institutions such as animal agriculture, we find a variety of human vices and failings - cruelty, insensitivity, hubris - so entrenched and extensive that they warrant critical judgment on nothing less than our way of life itself. By contrast, lucid appreciation of the lives of animals shows them to be characterised by spontaneity and other virtues, alongside a fundamental vulnerability ruthlessly exploited by human beings. By drawing upon the writings of Western and Asian philosophers and others engaged personally and professionally with animals, Cooper advances a charge of misanthropy that corrects vainglorious moral optimism and points to other, better ways to live with animals." - Ian James Kidd, University of Nottingham, UK
"David E. Cooper’s Animals and Misanthropy is a meditation on animals and humans. It is also an argument for a negative view of humankind. Humanity’s vices, Professor Cooper argues, are in full display in its treatment of animals – beings that are themselves innocent. He writes with sensitivity about animals and without rancour about humans, thus defending a gentle but uncompromising misanthropy. You do not have to be respectful of animals or misanthropic to start reading this book, but don’t be surprised if you are both after you have finished it." - David Benatar, University of Cape Town, South Africa
"Animals and Misanthropy explores our dark side as human beings by contrasting it with the innocence of the animals we so often mistreat. It is an important and strikingly original contribution to the field of animal ethics, and essential reading, surely, for anyone concerned with our moral relations to the more-than-human world." - Simon P. James, Durham University, UK