An Argument against Speciesism based on Husserls Transcendental Intersubjectivity

Introduction

In this essay, I attempt to create the outlines of an argument against speciesism based on Husserls concept of transcendental intersubjectivity.

Structurally, I start by providing a charitable interpretation of transcendental intersubjectivity as laid out by Husserl in the Cartesian Meditations with an additional lens towards the mentioning of non-human animals, as well as towards aspects which might be useful for grounding an ethical argument in. On this foundation, I then attempt to outline possible starting points and potentially fertile ways to go about building an argument against speciesism based on transcendental intersubjectivity.

Speciesism

Speciesism is a term mostly used within the area of animal ethics. It was first coined by (Ryder, 1970) and describes the moral discrimination of beings based on nothing but their belonging to a certain species. The concept was used and further developed by the great moral philosopher Peter Singer (Singer, 1995:1-25) and by many others in the field, making it an established term in contemporary ethics. Arguments against speciesism are often oriented along similar, or dissimilar abilities and capabilities of different species. In this essay, I start, in a way, at a much higher level of abstraction, attempting to ground an argument against speciesism in Husserls concept of transcendental intersubjectivity, embedded in his project of transcendental phenomenology.

Transcendental intersubjectivity

For Husserl, the problem of the Other is fundamental, as it lies on the path toward objectivity. As (Ricoeur, 2005:318) puts it, “[I]t grounds every truth and reality which goes beyond the simple reflection of the subject on itself.”

In the following, I describe Husserls concept of transcendental intersubjectivity based on the Cartesian Meditations. Since the goal of this essay is to explore whether an argument against speciesism can meaningfully be grounded in Husserls transcendental intersubjectivity, the interpretation of said concept is a charitable one. The reason for this is, that establishing a foundation for this, or any argument, has to work, first and foremost, on the most solid footing. If it does convince based on a charitable interpretation, there is still the possibility to explore further and to see, if the ground remains as fertile, when widely shared criticisms against aspects of Husserls account are entered into the mix.

In terms of criticisms, while this work has a different focus, for completeness sake, I am subsequently referencing some of the more widely shared points of critique in the literature when it comes to Husserls concept of transcendental intersubjectivity, or empathy. This is, of course, in no way exhaustive, but hopefully enough to point the reader in the right direction when it comes to the weaker points in Husserls theory.

First, the ambiguity when it comes to the sphere of ownness and the primordial sphere, as well as the problematic room of interpretation presented by Husserls mentioning of a “split” between the noetic and the noematic on the border of said spheres, are covered in (Bernet et al., 1996:147f.) (Smith, 2003:218f.). Further, (Smith, 2003:235-239) analyzes the problem of the missing genesis when it comes to empathy in the context of the Cartesian Meditations. Finally, (Flatscher, 2013:203f.) describes Emmanuel Levinas’ critique regarding Husserls concept of empathy, or rather his complete rejection of it, as it does not live up the complexity of the alterity, or otherness, of the Other.

With these criticisms mentioned, for the purpose of this essay, I accept Husserls claim of having escaped the accusation of solipsism and accept the establishment of objectivity through transcendental intersubjectivity. In order to achieve the goal of outlining an argument against speciesism on this basis later on, I also note the parts where Husserl explicitly mentions non-human animals, or otherwise provides openings for latching on an ethical argument.

Start at the ego

For Husserl, the question is not whether the Other exists, but rather how another ego can be constituted and recognized as a subject, as an ego. (Flatscher, 2013:187) However, while there are others, it’s also clear that I can never experience what they experience as I experience myself. So the question becomes, how an Other is even thinkable, if all sense and meaning comes from my own ego.

This however, Husserl argues in (Hua I:123), is a clue pointing us towards the transcendental ego. Since, even if the question is about experiences outside my ego, such as the Other, or the world, I nonetheless have to start at the point where all of it becomes meaningful - within my own intentional life, within the ego itself.

In (Hua I:124) Husserl argues that in order to get to a transcendental theory of experience of others, which he also calls empathy, the first step is to start at the transcendental ego and to bracket out everything alien, everything outside the ego, to pinpoint the processes necessary to experience others.

Sphere of ownness

The first step is a methodical one for Husserl. In (Hua I:124-129), he describes a special type of epoché, bracketing out everything that is alien, with the only things remaining being mine-own. My own experience, myself as a psychophysical object with my own animate organism, as a subject. What remains is a sphere of ownness. Through this reduction, Husserl argues in (Hua I:129), we’re able to notice that while anything alien is bracketed out, the constitutive processes necessary to experience an Other as other intentionally still remain in the sphere of ownness. The possibility to experience the Other is not affected by bracketing out that which is alien.

This is a remarkable insight, as it means that from this sphere of ownness, where the body of an Other is only perceived as physical, we can, through constitutive processes such as passive synthesis, recognize the Other as an ego, as a self and hence as a psychophysical animate organism. This is possible, because the intentionality to the outside still remains active, due to the constitutive processes of the ego.

This fundamental insight, that it is possible to experience another ego as an ego, even when everything alien is bracketed out, leads to the question of how this can be achieved.

Apperception of the Other

When an animate organism of an Other is perceived, I can see similarities to myself, but I don’t have access to their experience - original experience is only ever possible for my own consciousness. (Flatscher, 2013:187-188) I recognize it as a body that’s different from my own, but there is a chasm between, because I can’t see inside. In (Hua I:139-141), Husserl argues that through the analogies between my own and the Others body, leading to intentional overreach - projecting properties of myself onto the other and vice versa - due to the similarities and the vast amount of excess possibilities I see in the Other, I can apperceive the Other as an animate organism, as a consciousness different from myself.

Here, we find the first clue towards the underlying goal of this essay of building up an argument against speciesism. As (Smith, 2003:220) mentions, “Husserl regards it as obvious that to ‘apperceive’ an object as a person, or indeed as a non-human animal (at least of the higher sort), is to apperceive it as a centre of consciousness distinct from mine.”. Essentially, apperceiving an other as an ego - human, or not - as an other “I”, implies that it has a consciousness, albeit a different one from my own and one that I can’t ever experience through myself.

Pairing

The above mentioned analogizing apperception always happens in pairs - my own animate organism and the animate organism of the other are always given together. Husserl describes in (Hua I:142-143), that the underlying constitutive process responsible for the analogizing apperception is a special, primal form of passive synthesis called association. This process of transcendental association, Husserl argues, is what enables this sort of apperceptive transfer, that leads us to recognize the Other as an animate organism. Associative transcendental pairing is a continuous analogizing apperception in the form of passive synthesis that confirms the Other as another ego, different from my own ego. As an intentional modification of myself.

The process of continuous confirmation is depicted well by (Bernet et al., 1996:151) in the form of an example, where an Other is walking towards a trench and I, apperceiving them as an Other, would expect them to stop, walk around, or jump over the trench - a display of psychophysical government similar to my own - and such behaviour would continuously confirm the Other as a consciousness similar to my own. The alien body confirms itself as an animate organism through its behaviour.

An interesting aspect, as Husserl argues in (Hua I:144), is that the other ego is an intentional modification of my own ego. This, coupled with the previous insight, that this is the case for human and non-human animals alike, might prove itself to be relevant in terms of ethical boundaries.

In (Hua I:147-148), Husserl concludes his argument of how transcendental associative pairing and hence continuously recognizing the Other as an animate organism works. Together with the apperception of the other in different ways, with my own ego being here, and the Others there, I can apperceive myself as being there and consequently, empathize in more, and psychically higher ways.

Monadic community

The last step towards transcendental intersubjectivity is the insight, that through the Other, or rather through a community of others - of subjects - the same world, the objective world, is constituted. Husserl argues in (Hua I:149-159), that first of all, we notice that the Other, being an animate organism in my primordial nature, hence shares my nature. However, there is still a chasm - I can still never have originary experience of the Others consciousness. How then can we speak of a community that constitutes the same world, if each ego has their own sphere of ownness?

According to Husserl, the solution lies in changing perspectives. Any appresentation implies presentation. For example, when perceiving a building, one can only ever see one side of it at once. But moving around it - by changing the perspective - we can experience more of the potential presentations. The same is true for any evidence and Husserl argues, the same principle can be applied to the apperception of the Other. By changing our perspective to that of the Other by using empathy, we can expand the appresented modes of appearance. For example, we can emphatically pretend we would stand where the Other is standing, seeing what they see. In this way, we recognize, that we share the same, objective world.

(Smith, 2003:232) brings this to the point, stating that “The other ejects me from ‘my’ world”. This process, gone through with the first Other, opens up the possibility for endless others, an endless, open community of, as Husserl calls them, monads, who in a harmonious monadic community continuously constitute the objective world. There is an important difference between Husserls monads and the Leibnizean monad however, in that for Husserl, monads have windows, which enable them to interact with each other.

This interaction, a possibility to reach into another monad, another ego, is, as Husserl mentions in (Hua I:157) irreal. Monads themselves are inherently separated from each other, but there is a possibility of intentionally reaching other monads and hence interacting with them. Husserl describes this in (Hua I:157) as “Something that exists is in intentional communion with something else that exists.”. The community of monads is constituted in each monad. This equal community of monads opens up perspectives to the world in the form of communal experience and a reciprocity of experience between subjects can take place. At this point, Husserl also states, that this community of monads is not limited to humans, but rather that

“On the contrary (and this carries over to the sociality of brute animals [my emphasis]), in the sense of a community of men and in that of man - who, even as solitary, has the sense: member of a community - there is implicit a mutual being for one another, which entails an Objectivating equalization of my existence with that of all others - consequently: I or anyone else, as a man among other men.” (Hua I:157-158)

This suggests an equality of members, human and non-human, within the monadic community, which might be good point to latch on an argument against speciesism. Further, Husserl states in (Hua I:158), that “[A] Nature that includes an open plurality of men (conceived more generally: animalia [my emphasis]), distributed one knows not how in infinite space, as subjects of possible intercommunion.”

So, according to Husserl, the members of the monadic community are not only equalized at this level, but also, regardless of their species, are subjects that can possibly communicate and form communities in the objective world. This potential for emphatic reciprocity, which consequently enable collective acts is, according to (Zahavi, 2019:99-100), a fundamental precondition for Husserl when it comes to building community and hence culture.

Preconditions for empathy

While human and non-human animals are, according to Husserl, in the same monadic community and can intercommune, it’s also clear that Husserls description of empathy based on similarities poses some problems when it comes to encounters of beings who are just not quite as similar to each other as two humans might be. In (Hua I:154), Husserl touches on this subject and argues that even with very different perceptual systems - he uses the example of blind, or deaf people - empathy is still possible, albeit not as straightforward as between beings of very similar perceptual systems. He terms this difference as abnormality, which is a questionable choice when it comes to terminology, as it opens him up to misinterpretation, but the idea is that the normal is essentially the null-point - myself. I only know how I experience things and as such, this is the only candidate for a baseline, or normalcy and anything that differs from it in any way is inherently abnormal in this sense.

In regards to non-human animals, Husserl states in (Hua I:154), that “Brutes [non-human animals] are essentially constituted for me as abnormal ‘variants’ of humanness, even though among them in turn normality and abnormality may be differentiated”. This indicates again, as suggested above, that Husserl does not evoke a hard boundary between different species in terms of empathy, but rather a higher barrier to overcome through I-acts, which doesn’t exclude, but explicitly opens up the possibility for empathy and intercommunion.

Finally, in (Hua I:182) Husserl emphasizes the importance of transcendental intersubjectivity, arguing that it is “The intrinsically first being, the being that precedes and bears every worldly Objectivity”, which might open up the possibility for us to ground an ethical argument in it, being the strong, all-encompassing foundation that Husserl suggests it is.

An argument against speciesism

In the following, I attempt to roughly outline how one could go about building up an argument against speciesism based on Husserls conception of transcendental intersubjectivity. The first step is to ground ethics in the realm of intersubjectivity and then, to explore a potential starting point and a route of argumentation that might provide a solid ground to build upon.

Grounding ethics in intersubjectivity

As mentioned above, intersubjectivity is a fundamental concept for Husserl and one can interpret him in a way, where intersubjectivity precedes subjectivity, which is also the view of Emmanuel Levinas. This means, that the Other, in a way, is the source of meaning and awareness. The objective world is only constituted by intersubjectivity, as is all culture. Through change of perspective and empathy, we recognize that we are to the others, as they are to us. This, in turn, should make us act ethically towards them.

Levinas, of course, went way further than this. Rejecting Husserls concept of empathy as too limited (Flatscher, 2013:203-204) and attempting to establish ethics as first philosophy. In any case, Levinas argued that ethics necessarily needs to be grounded in intersubjectivity:

“As Levinas argues, when ethics goes in search of its existential ground, before any consideration of utility, virtue, or duty, it discovers the intersubjective enactment of responsibility, which resists being integrated into accounts in which the other is a universal other to whom it is my duty, for example, to act ethically or in the hope of increasing the happiness of the collectivity.” (Bergo, 2019)

While Levinas seems to be concerned first and foremost with human intersubjectivity, his arguments regarding the grounding of ethics in intersubjectivity do not seem to exclude the possibility of non-human animals to be part of the intersubjective collective, as they are for Husserl.

Transcendental speciesism

With the established foundation of Husserls transcendental intersubjectivity as a plausible building ground for an ethical argument, even in regards to non-human animals, we can now explore, how we might meaningfully proceed towards an argument against speciesism on this basis.

Since different perceptual systems and different ways of experiencing phenomena, do not prevent transcendental associative pairing and hence empathy and intercommunion, even with abnormal egos, which non-human animals are in Husserls conception, we can establish the following in regards to non-human animals:

And while we can’t directly experience the consciousness of non-human animals, we can do neither with our other fellow humans. Why then, should we apply different moral standards towards them? If we assume an ethics grounded in transcendental intersubjectivity, where each member of this community is an ethically relevant, equal subject, it seems plausible that ethical behaviour towards these subjects should not be dependent on species-boundaries.

Of course, one might object and argue, that the vast differences in perception and ways of experience justify different treatment. However, when it comes to abilities and capabilities, we might be able to apply similar arguments as the above mentioned (Singer, 1995:1-25), in that this difference in treatment would then also have to be applied to many humans, which suffer mental, or physical disabilities and where - as hinted at by Husserl - vast differences in perceptual systems exist as well. This traditional line of argument seems to plausibly be applicable in the transcendental realm as well.

Conclusion

After charitably laying out Husserls concept of transcendental intersubjectivity with a particular focus on the parts where he addresses non-human animals and grounding ethics in intersubjectivity with the help of Levinas, we arrived at a point where we could plausibly ground an argument against speciesism in said concept of transcendental intersubjectivity.

By leaning on previous, non-phenomenological arguments against speciesism and attempting to convert them to the realm of Husserls transcendental phenomenology, it was possible to derive a starting point from which a phenomenological argument against speciesism might be established.

For further exploration, using the humble beginnings of this essay as a springboard, especially the work of Emmanuel Levinas and other phenomenologists who did work in the area of ethics should provide a promising guideline towards formulating a strong phenomenological argument against speciesism.

Bibliography