Selfish Brutes

Many have expressed reasons to envy animals; my cats, for one, seem to sleep while I work all day. 

“The life of the brute has commonly one immense compensation in its favour,” that is, “the perfection of the individual existence is so rarely sacrificed to the prosperity of the race.” In his Chapters on Animals, Philip G. Hamerton (Boston, 1877) seems to focus on the notion that one animal’s benefit need not hinge on another’s “enduring misery”: “There is much slaughter…but…little slavery,” and the killing is practically a mercy that spares the animal’s descent into sad “infirmity and age.”

It doesn’t take a lot of Discovery Channel to know that Hamerton was wrong in so many ways, but I’m particularly interested in his premise that animals are somehow deeply independent, outside of the cycles of nature, alienated even from members of their own species. In this, he suggests a more profound reason for envying the animal: their alleged selfishness. The uber-individualist animal that Hamerton proposes might not exist, but the fact that he envies this figment of his imagination is pretty telling.

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