Self and Society Extended Piece: Arthur Carlyle on Animalism and Society


Arthur Carlyle

Ph.D. Candidate

School of Philosophy, Religion, and History of Science

University of Leeds

In debates about personal identity, animalism is the view that human persons are human animals. That is, what it means for a human person to be an individual is to be a human animal—an organism of the species Homo sapiens. More specifically, animalism is the view that we are essentially human animals. This view is often seen to be opposed to neo-Lockean views of our identity which suggest that our being “persons” of some sort, rather than human animals, is what is essential. I am an animalist.

Understandably, questions and conversations regarding animalism have mostly been limited to those in metaphysics, but I want to investigate what animalism could have to say about our relationship to society. That is if we assume that animalism is true (that is, if we assume that our being human animals is what is essential to our being an individual) then what is the relationship between a human animal and the society to which it belongs? In what follows I want to address at least two interesting conversations that could be had on this topic.

Perhaps, one could suggest, the boundary between a human individual and their society isn’t one that is easily defined. The boundary itself is blurred such that one cannot easily distinguish where one begins and the other ends. One could be inspired by the Extended Self-hypothesis which suggests that the boundary of the self is not skin-deep, but may extend beyond the self into the external world via machinery (such as a computer), other people (a close relationship with a partner, perhaps), or even a whole society. If this is the case, then the distinction between our individuality and that of our society is one that cannot easily be made. Human animals and their society, on this view, is similar to that of an ant and an ant colony.  

Eric Olson (2011) has argued that this extended view is not compatible with animalism on the basis that animals don’t extend beyond their skin. The human individual (like any biological individual), to Olson, has more or less easily definable boundaries: anything that is maintained within the same “life” counts as part of that individual (usually, Olson states, these biochemical processes go roughly as far as an individual’s skin). Although Olson doesn’t go as far as to say an individual cannot extend to their society, it seems to reason that his view would apply here: since machinery, other organisms, and societies are not caught up in our individual life-cycle then we cannot possibly extend to them. Our relationship to society may be a very close and complex one, Olson might say, but we can be individuated from it.

In Carlyle (2016), I’ve argued against Olson’s skin-deep conception of organismality on the basis that any organism (including H. sapiens) have very vague boundaries. We rely on our gut flora to survive, for instance. Does that mean our gut flora are a part of us? The human individual as a sum of human-plus-gut flora? Could the same principle be applied such that a human individual is a sum of human-plus-society? I’m not sure (although, I’m inclined to say that this view of individuality may be overly extended), but the relationship is one that I think deserves further discussion, especially amongst animalists.

Someday I will die. All human animals will die. Whether or not the resulting corpse is still numerically identical to me is disputed amongst animalists. The consensus seems to be that it is not, given that organisms require a life to persist over time. I and some others disagree and suggest that a human animal persists after its life functions cease and that we call this now dead animal a corpse. Let us assume for a moment that the corpse is me and that all of our corpses continue to be us when we die. Under this assumption, it could be argued that our relationship with society continues after death! But what does this even mean? It’s not as strange as it may initially sound. Not only does society utilize the dead for medical research, but we also tend to believe that society has certain obligations to the dead: to do our best to identify deceased individuals in cases of natural disasters, to do their best to give the deceased a proper burial, to fulfill the wishes of a dead individual that were made before their death, etc.

Someday I will die. All human animals will die. Whether or not the resulting corpse is still numerically identical to me is disputed amongst animalists. The consensus seems to be that it is not, given that organisms require a life to persist over time. I and some others disagree and suggest that a human animal persists after its life functions cease and that we call this now dead animal a corpse.

Why do we feel we have these obligations to the dead? If we continue to exist as corpses after death, then it may be said that our relationship with society continues to exist as well. Under this view, we owe the dead certain rights because the dead are still members of society. My family and I owed my grandmother a proper burial not because her body “housed” her soul, or once had the property of “person,” but because the thing we buried was my grandmother.  

This view that the individual that is “me” persisting after death doesn’t seem at odds with many of our societal attitudes and practices. Similarly, the view that the individual extends to some degree to the society in which they belong doesn’t seem to be at odds with our attitudes and practices (consider those that feel personally attacked when their society is attacked in some way.) Of course, I could be wrong about all of this, but hopefully, the possibility of my being wrong generates further discussion amongst animalists.

Works cited:

Carlyle, Arthur G. 2016. "Organisms and the extended self: a re-evaluation."MA, University of Kansas.

Olson, Eric T. 2011. "The Extended Self." Minds & Machines 21: 481-495.

A Response by Dr. Luke Murray

Thank you, Arthur, for this interesting blog post. The relationship between the human person/animal and society is indeed a pressing topic today in our polarized and increasingly violent world. I have just a few comments.

First, you state that you are an animalist and then admit that you will assume it is true for the sake of drawing potential insights into the person/society relationship. However, for those who are not animalists, can you provide an abridged argument for why one should jettison the classical understanding of persons as “individual substances of a rational nature?”

Aristotle, of course, held that our animal nature was essential to understanding who were, but that it was not everything, because he thought we were obviously different from other animals, primarily in regards to our intellect.  It is not surprising that this aspect of our nature would be jettisoned after the enlightenment’s confusion about reason, but I for one, have not seen any better philosophical explanation of the day-to-day data of ordinary experience. For If we jettison Aristotle and classical Christianity’s understanding of matter and form, person and nature, then, as you point out, how do you distinguish between your gut-flora, or any body part for that matter, with you as the individual whose part they are.

It seems to me that the success of the Baconian scientific project in studying and manipulating parts (cells/atoms/matter etc.) has led philosophy to neglect the principle by which these parts have any unity at all. Why do we not grant rights to dismembered fingers or other matter with human DNA? If we jettison talk of an individual substance of a rational nature”, then it appears that any human animal part becomes a “person” since it is also an “individual” human animal substance.

The ancient caveman argument is helpful here I believe. What is the difference between a dead cow and a living cow? Or to be more personal, between Arthur alive and dead ‘Arthur.” Surely, they are different. To deny that there is a real difference between the two and call it “me” but also call it a “dead corpse” seems contradictory, and I would argue flies in the face of common sense. People mourn their loved one’s corpse precisely because it is NOT their mother anymore. I don’t believe you really think this, but perhaps you do, or perhaps I am misunderstanding your view. In any case, this brings me to my next point regarding what an animalist understanding of human person would mean for society.

It seems unhelpful at best, and dangerous at worst, to view society merely in terms of individual animals. Even if we put our head in the sand and deny any real difference between human beings and other animals, do we really want to look to nature ‘red-in-tooth-and-claw' for guidance on how to live? I know you disagree with this view, but what is the purpose of saying we are all like an ant-colony, if not to provide an “uber-ant” the justification to destroy other ants for any arbitrary reason, or “for the survival of the fittest”? Perhaps I am mistaken, but I cannot help but see Nietzsche here (and any other attempt at moral naturalism) and fear the destruction of human rights by denying, or at least denigrating, the rational aspect of our nature and emphasizing the animal aspects of what we are. In any case, thank you for raising this important topic; it is so needed. Any attempt at dialogue is better than resorting to violence and threats, and I am grateful for your work.

A Response by Arthur Carlyle

Thank you for your response, Dr. Murray, and asking useful clarificatory questions for what, I recognize, is a minority view in the topic of personal identity. I found three main topics/concerns that you have expressed in your response and hope to do them as much justice as possible.

To answer your first question: I find it best to jettison neo-Lockean accounts of individuality because I don’t know how to make sense of our identity, morality, and biology according to such accounts. Animalism has the benefit of making sense of some of our common sense (as well as scientific) ideas of individuality that neo-Lockean views don’t seem to be able to. For example, animalism seems to be able to better formulate an account of our persistence through time when we are not “persons,” such as when we are fetuses and if someone was unfortunately put into a persistent vegetative state. Neo-Lockean views would have to explain, I think, how we could have ever been, or could ever be, such things given that they do not have any property we refer to as “person.” Animalists, on the other hand, argue that we are essentially biological organisms (specifically, members of the species Homo sapiens), and that “person” is a phase that certain animals go through. Because of this, an animalist can commit to the view that we were once a fetus with no higher-brain function, then at some point, a fetus gains what we would refer to as a “person”, and then someday that person comes to an end as organisms carry on during a persistent vegetative state.

How we understand the unity of parts of an animal is a great question, in part because “organism” is a difficult concept to define (in philosophy as well as the sciences). I’m currently developing my thoughts on this issue in my thesis where I argue for some version of Ontic Structural Realism regarding organisms. That is, I don’t believe organisms, as objects exist at all, but that there are structural relations that can be identified and heuristically referred to as “organisms” (how exactly this works out I’m still working on). So, a finger isn’t an animal, I would argue because it doesn’t have the correct structural relations that we attribute to organisms. This view is still very new (again, I’m currently working on the finer details and arguments), but I expect much disagreement with animalists on it. Many animalists currently suggest that a finger (or any other part of an animal) isn’t an animal because it does not partake in the same life as the individual when it is not attached to it. That is, many animalists argue for some version of Locke’s “same life” view of the persistence of animals.

This leads me into your second comment: I do, in fact, believe that when I die I will continue to exist as a corpse (although, most animalists and philosophers, in general, disagree with me). I believe this is because it’s the only way to make sense of much of how society acts, as well as a great deal of our medical knowledge. You state that people mourn their loved one’s corpse precisely because it is not their loved one anymore. But, why mourn their corpse? Why not the casket (or urn), a random bee flying by, a tree near the funeral, or anything at all? What relationship (if any) does the corpse have to the loved one? One may argue that the corpse once was their relative (when they were alive), but that could only make sense if their dead relative was 1) once an animal (which you deny) and 2) that said animal continued to exist as a corpse (which you deny). I can make sense of these social acts in virtue of my belief that a corpse is an individual (albeit, a non-functioning individual).

What about the medical research that uses cadavers? How is it that we have learned about the health of human persons by using human cadavers if we are not human animals and human cadavers are not also human animals (albeit, non-functioning ones)? There seems to be an explanatory gap here that needs to be explained: how do we use something that is not a human animal (i.e. a cadaver) to explain things that are human animals? I’m not sure how one could do this except by saying that human cadavers are human animals (albeit, non-functioning human animals), or that there is some causal link between the human animal and cadaver (both of which one seems to deny if they say that we are essentially persons rather than animals).

Regarding your last worry, of moral naturalism, I confess that, intuitively, I am a moral naturalist. However, I am not as knowledgeable in this area as I would like to be. I can, however, recommend the Lawrence Talks! article written by Kevin Watson (titled, “Naturalism and Morality”) on this topic as I found it very helpful. I would also suggest that that moral naturalism doesn’t have to be a negative thing or lead to negative consequences (there isn’t anything in principle that suggests it has to.)

Final Response from Dr. Murray

Thank you for another clear and well written response. I greatly appreciate and agree with you that the “neo-Lockean” account of personhood which emphasizes one’s rational capacity as the defining element of personhood (and therefore the requirement for obtaining human rights), is deficient if not very problematic. Just how ‘rational’ does a human being have to be to qualify as a person? For example, our (western) culture has decided that because fetuses lack such rational capacity, they do not have the right to life (a position I disagree with). Does this mean that adult mentally handicapped persons lack the right to life as well? Is it a matter of degree of brain activity? If so, who decides how much activity? Does this not trivialize or endanger human rights, or put it on a slippery slope? I greatly appreciate animalism’s approach to personhood in this matter and think it has the potential to offer a much needed correction to our current understanding of personhood and rights.

I look forward to reading your attempt at explaining what an ‘organism’ is according to animalism. Granted, I think organisms do exist as objects and have a causal role to play in organizing or maintaining the unity of its many (material) parts. It seems we will have to agree to disagree regarding the difference between a corpse being ‘me’ after I die. I am not denying that we are animals and that our animal nature (bones, blood vessels, organs) endure (until it decays) after our death, I only meant that relatives mourn loved-ones deaths because the reality of ‘mom’ or ‘Luke’ - the being who loved and laughed and cried - is no longer present in the corpse. Of course I believe our study of such matter after our death can help others understand how our animal nature influences our personhood while we are alive. I only think that common sense shows we are more than mere matter; more than our animal nature or matter. In classic terms (which I still find the most adequate explanation of our experience), the ‘soul’ or “principle of life” that animated the matter/corpse has departed, and so even though all the matter remains, it is no longer living, it is no longer the person of my mother. Perhaps an a priori decision for materialism is at the root of our differences here.

Thank you again for your very interesting work. I look forward to reading your dissertation upon its completion.