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  • Affect Attunement in the Caregiver-Infant Relationship and Across SpeciesExpanding the Ethical Scope of Eros
  • Cynthia Willett

Compelling glimpses into the ethical capacities of our animal kin reveal new possibilities for ethical relationships encompassing humans with other animal species. Consider the remarkable report of a female bonobo in a British zoo who assists a bird found in her cage by retrieving the fallen bird, and spreading its wings so that this fellow creature might fly away to its freedom. Or the report of a cat in a nursing home who curls up around dying elderly patients, and remains steadily by their side as they, unbeknownst to the medical personnel, pass away.1 Or of a sacred moment of silence by a stream for baboons in East Africa.2 Or of the ethics that spontaneously emerges among wolves at play.3 On the basis of extensive studies, biologist Frans de Waal argues that such anecdotes are far from rare, and that some core elements of moral understanding and compassion occur among a significant range of nonhuman as well as the human animal species. Apes, monkeys, and perhaps all nonhuman animals fail to display a distinctly human capacity for abstract moral reasoning. As de Waal (2006) remarks, it is difficult to tell (173–75). But our furry and feathery kin do without a doubt demonstrate rich elements of ethical response, and they often enough extend their moral concern to creatures beyond their own species. Of course, they will also bite each other’s heads off or eat their own young as well. But this is just to say that animals are neither natural [End Page 111] innocents nor savage brutes. Like us, they belong to what post-Nietzschean philosophers might frame, somewhat ironically, as a postlapsarian world of good and evil.

What kind of philosophical approach could account for these postlapsarian genealogies of ethics? Biologists, primatologists, and anthropologists are drawing upon investigations of prosocial behavior to remap the boundaries of ethics, as for example in Isabelle Stengers’s call for cosmopolitical ecologies of relationships (2010, 33). Such a cosmopolitics aims to encompass our kin and kind from diverse species within the ethical boundaries of common worlds. Donna Haraway discovers an opening for Stengers’s ecology of relationships in the intimate encounters among co-evolving species, especially those she calls companion species (2008, 83). She argues, following Derrida, that the abstract reasoning processes of Stoic and Kantian cosmopolitan ethics remain closed to the participation of nonhuman animals as anything more than dependents, failing to observe the ways in which they act as companions, if not moral subjects. But then, what normative force might bind together an ethically attuned biosocial sphere that we as humans co-inhabit with other animal species?

To explore this question, this essay takes its cues from well-established research on the responsive, preverbal connection of the human infant and adult caregiver (Bateson 1979; Trevarthen 1984; Stern 1985, 2010; Gibbs 2001, 2010; Hansen 2004; Anderson 2006; Papoulias and Callard 2010; Willett 1995, 2001). To this research we can add new animal studies (Smuts 1999, 2001; Fudge 2002; de Waal 2006, 2009; Bekoff 2007; Molnar 2008; Haraway 2008). These animal studies provide a basis for extending an “ethics of eros” with roots in Luce Irigaray, Michel Foucault, Enrique Dussel, Africana feminism, Freudo-Marxist critical theory, and Plato (for discussions of this tradition, see Bergoffen 1997; Huffer 2009; Willett 2001)—but reconfigured in terms of social bonds across multiple animal species. In this tradition of ethics, the lack of a cognitive-based moral subjectivity that can translate into human terms does not consign nonhuman species to a mute moral status. On the contrary, some more primordial basis for relationship and meaning may weave thin but substantial threads of a postmoral ethics across regions of the biosphere.

Given the diverse modes of subjectivity among animal species, and even the lack of what we call a moral subject altogether in many species, neither ordinary modes of empathy nor of moral understanding go very far in forging multispecies social bonds. For this reason, we turn to research on “the attunement of affects” in the infant-caregiver relationship (Stern 1985). As we shall see, this...


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