The Lives of Animals

by J. M. Coetzee

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What are 3-5 discussion questions you would ask students about the first part of The Lives of Animals, "The Philosophers and the Animals"?

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In preparing a discussion of "The Philosophers and the Animals," one approach would be to start with broad questions that encourage students to begin thinking about animal rights: Are you a vegetarian, and why or why not? Is there any sustainable way to eat animal products? Most people would say...

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they are against cosmetic testing on animals, but what about medical testing on animals? Is it moral to test potential life-saving drugs for humans on animals? Any of these questions would get students thinking about animal rights before discussing the text of "The Philosophers and the Animals."

In this section of the book, Elizabeth begins her lecture with an analogy comparing the exploitation of animals to the Holocaust. This is the most controversial thing Elizabeth says during her visit, causing strife with faculty members. One question to pose to students would be whether they agree with Elizabeth's analogy or not, but this may prove upsetting. Instead, consider asking a question that addresses this topic in a different way, perhaps by encouraging students to think of another analogy that Elizabeth could have posed. Abraham Stern responds to Elizabeth's remarks, pointing out a failing in her logic and words:

You misunderstand the nature of likenesses; I would even say you misunderstand willfully, to the point of blasphemy. Man is made in the likeness of God but God does not have the likeness of man. If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews.

It might be interesting to ask students to find fallacies within Elizabeth's lecture. Just because she uses a fallacy, however, does not necessarily mean that her overall point is wrong. Therefore, I would ask students to either explain why Elizabeth is wrong or to revise Elizabeth's argument so it is free of fallacies.

Elizabeth also talks about Wolfgang Kohler's 1920s experiment on Sultan the ape. While Sultan was not harmed, Elizabeth brings up the emotional turmoil he might have gone through. Therefore, I would ask: Is ethical experimentation on animals possible, or is it all exploitative?

Elizabeth brings up Tom Nagel's argument that humans can't know "what it is to be a bat." Elizabeth disagrees and says that we can. I would ask students this exact question: What is it like to be a bat? What would it be like to be another animal? For fun, you could even ask students what animals they would like to be and why.

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