Humans and
Other Animals

Jan 11 - Mar 22




75 min

class length

40-60 min

weekly videos




Non-human animals are everywhere in our lives: they’re food, they’re pets, they’re pests, they’re sources of clothing and other products, they’re experimental subjects, they’re the mascots of sports teams and the heroes of children’s stories. Depending on their role, we treat them with affection, indifference, cruelty, or sentimentality. They’re different from us, but also a lot like us in many ways. Thinking about how we regard animals will inevitably involve thinking about how we regard ourselves.


This course considers some of the ethical questions that inevitably arise when we think about animals: what duties do we have to them, and how do those duties differ from the duties we have to our fellow human beings? But we will also ask broader questions about human nature and animal nature. What kind of life do we share with other animals, and what do our attitudes toward animals reveal about our attitude toward our own embodied existence?


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Course Overview

Week 0 (Jan 11): Organizational meeting

We get to know one another a little and go over various organizational matters so that we can hit the ground running the following week.

Week 1 (Jan 18): John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”

An essay that explores the ways in which animals have receded from our lives in the modern world. Humans used to live closely with animals but now we see them mostly as pets or through the bars of a zoo.

Week 2 (Jan 25): Peter Singer, “All Animals Are Equal”

Singer’s book, Animal Liberation (1975), is often credited with launching the modern animal liberation movement. He argues that it is “speciesist” to care more about the welfare of human beings than of other animals solely on the basis of species membership.

Week 3 (Feb 1): Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, “Universal Basic Rights for Animals”

Singer works within a utilitarian framework that’s based on maximizing well-being and minimizing suffering. Donaldson and Kymlicka articulate a contrasting defense of animals based on inalienable and universal rights.

Week 4 (Feb 8): Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People”

Diamond thinks that arguments about animal welfare and animal rights are deeply misguided. If we’re going to make arguments in defense of animals, she says, we need to start from a sense of kinship that goes deeper than the language of welfare and rights.

Week 5 (Feb 15): Yi-Fu Tuan, “Animal Pets: Cruelty and Affection”

Tuan looks at our relationship with pets and argues that it is based not just on affection but also on a will to domination.

Week 6 (Feb 22): Carol J. Adams, “The Rape of Animals, the Butchering of Women”

In her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, Adams argues that there are close metaphorical links between the exploitation of animals for food and the sexual oppression of women.

Week 7 (Mar 1): Mary Midgley, “The Concept of Beastliness”

The folk image of animals as wild and unruly beasts doesn’t line up with biological reality. But this folk image has also informed a lot of thinking about human nature, argues Midgley. Thinking differently about animals entails thinking differently about ourselves.

Week 8 (Mar 8): Franz Kafka, “Report to an Academy”

In this short story by Kafka, a chimpanzee addresses a gathering of European scholars, telling the story of how he was captured in Africa and then trained “to reach the cultural level of an average European.” He also hints at what he had to sacrifice along the way.

Week 9 (Mar 15): J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, “The Philosophers and the Animals”

Coetzee’s novella recounts a visit made by a fictional novelist to a fictional American college where, instead of delivering a lecture about literature, she speaks about human cruelty to animals. In this first part, she claims that philosophers lack the tools for thinking empathetically about animal suffering.

Week 10 (Mar 22): J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, “The Poets and the Animals”

The second part of Coetzee’s novella, where we’ll also consider a brief response from Peter Singer. This part considers poetic attempts to think about animals and brings to a head the central character’s feelings of alienation from a society in which eating animals is taken for granted.

david's writings on animals

This topic has special resonance for me, and it’s one I’ve thought and written about quite a bit. If you’re interested in my own thoughts on some of these issues, I invite you take a look at some of the following pieces online:
  • For The Point, I ask why children’s stories are so heavily populated by talking animals, and what that reveals about our sense of kinship with other animals.
  • For The New Statesman, I examine the tension between concern for the welfare of individual animals and concern for the ecosystems they live in.
  • For Psyche, I look at the frequent invocation of animals in derogatory language and reflect on the attitudes it reveals toward different kinds of animals.
  • For The Hedgehog Review, I wrote a piece during the pandemic that reflected on our surprisingly close kinship with starfish—which included parallel disasters concerning a runaway virus.
  • At my blog, I provide an explainer on the difference between arguments based on animal welfare and on animal rights.

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