Jefferson Almanac
10:53 am
Thu August 1, 2013

Pets In A College Town

I love living in a college town. Ever since Socrates first got away with it, educators have learned they can ask questions for a living. It must be an intellectual version of keeping up with the Joneses, but before you know it, everyone is asking questions just for the fun of it.

Last month, I had a short meeting with a friend we’ll call Laura, since that’s her name. Laura and I both had missed a committee meeting the day before. I was out of town. Laura was assisting her sister, whose cat had gone missing. The cat was no longer lost, but we found ourselves contemplating all the same, because we’re in a college town.

A missing feline might be reason for Laura’s sister to miss a meeting, but was it reason enough for Laura? It wasn’t Laura’s connection to the cat that registered as an emergency; it was her connection to her sister, triggered by her sister’s connection to the cat.

This was not a corporate conversation about responsibility and accountability. The question was being asked for its own sake. The very next day, I learned about somebody who asks questions like this one with rigor and regularity.

My hometown newspaper ran a feature story about local PhD students who had recently competed in a three-minute thesis competition. These students accepted the challenge to explain their scholarship in the time it takes to hear an American pop song.

The competition’s designers assume that AM radio has accurately divined the average American’s attention span. We can bemoan that reality, or we can learn to work with it.

The reporter profiled several of the students and their work, including a sidebar that listed a philosophy scholar who gave his three-minute presentation on re-imagining Immanuel Kant’s groundbreaking ideas about human/animal relations.

Bingo.

Without leaving my couch, I did a google search: “David Craig University of Oregon philosophy three minute thesis” — the second hit was a university press release about the event. One more quick search and I had Craig’s email address.

I wrote him a brief email and days later we were meeting at one of Eugene’s new downtown eateries, sharing a beer. I might have mentioned that I write for a living, but I doubt that contributed to his eager reply. All the philosophers I know — in my experience, most academics at all levels — prefer an audience of one.

Nobody pursues a career in philosophy because they love the limelight. It’s more likely they enter the field because they want to understand how limes and lights ever got connected in the first place.

Craig and I had a 40-minute conversation about Kant’s seminal work and the recent boom in this subset of philosophical discourse. Only recently have we shifted from viewing animals as being exclusively objects of use to now also becoming objects of reflection. As Craig put it, “It’s a lens we can use to better understand ourselves.”

We chatted about anti-anthropomorphism and speciesism. We explored the concepts of empathy, wonder, reflection, and indirect duty. I learned about the deep and widening gulf between activists fighting for animal rights and those advocating for animal welfare.

We discussed how Darwin turned the animal/human relationship frame on its pointy or floppy ears. Before Darwin, we projected onto animals some aspect of our own consciousness, insisting that our cats know us or that our dogs care for us. Since Darwin, more rigorous work has been in reverse, recognizing our animal selves expressed in our companion species.

As humans and domesticated animals have co-evolved, is there a point in time when “pet” becomes unduly objectifying and “companion species” is the more appropriate term? Have we passed that point already?

Maybe, but was Laura doing the right thing by skipping a meeting to help her pet-distressed sister? That was the question that brought us together, but so many other questions followed from that one. The questions became more interesting than the answer.

That’s how it goes sometimes in a college town.