Ethics is customarily understood as being concerned with questions of responsibility for and in the face of an Other with whom we interact and exchange ideas or information. For traditional forms of moral philosophy, this "Other" is more often than not conceived of as another human being—another human subject who is essentially and necessarily like we assume ourselves to be. This deep-seated anthropocentric presumption necessarily excludes others, most notably the animal and the machine. In fact, it is through the systemic exclusion of these others that the human as human has come to be defined, delimited, and characterized. Although this systemic exclusivity is enacted and described throughout the history of western thought, it is perhaps most evident in the work of René Descartes. For Descartes, the human being is the sole creature that is capable of rational thought. In this view, animals not only lack reason but are nothing more than mindless automatons that, like a clockwork mechanism, follow predetermined instructions that are programmed in the disposition of their various parts or organs. Understood in this way, the animal and machine become virtually indistinguishable. "If any such machine," Descartes writes, "had the organs and outward shape of a monkey or of some other animal that lacks reason, we should have no means of knowing that they did not possess entirely the same nature as these animals." Consequently, the animal and machine share a common form of alterity that situates them as completely different from and distinctly other than human.
Because of this exclusion from the realm of rational thought, the animal has not traditionally been considered a legitimate moral subject. When Kant, for example, defined morality as involving the rational determination of the will, the animal, which does not by definition possess reason, is immediately and categorically excluded. The practical employment of reason does not concern the animal and, when Kant does make mention of animality (Tierheit), he only uses it as a foil by which to define the limits of humanity proper. It is because the human being possesses reason, that he (and the human being, in this case, was principally male) is raised above the brute instinctual behavior of mere animality and able to act according to the principles of pure practical reason. The same ethical redlining is effected in the analytic tradition. According to Tom Regan, this is immediately apparent in the seminal work of analytical ethics. "It was in 1903 when analytic philosophy's patron saint, George Edward Moore, published his classic, Principia Ethica. You can read every word in it. You can read between every line of it. Look where you will, you will not find the slightest hint of attention to 'the animal question.' Natural and nonnatural properties, yes. Definitions and analyses, yes. The open-question argument and the method of isolation, yes. But so much as a word about non-human animals? No. Serious moral philosophy, of the analytic variety, back then did not traffic with such ideas." This exclusive anthropocentrism is also at work in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, the most notable ethicist in the continental tradition and the darling of recent work in the field of communication ethics. Unlike a lot of what goes by the name of "moral philosophy," Levinasian ethics does not rely on metaphysical generalizations, abstract formulas, or simple pieties. His philosophy is concerned with the response to and responsibility for the absolutely Other who is confronted in an irreducible face-to-face encounter. Whatever the import of this unique contribution, this other is always and unapologetically human. Although he is not the first to identify this problem, Jeffrey Nealon provides what is perhaps the most succinct description of this problem in Alterity Politics: "In thematizing response solely in terms of the human face and voice, it would seem that Levinas leaves untouched the oldest and perhaps most sinister unexamined privilege of the same: anthropos and only anthropos, has logos; and as such, anthropos responds not to the barbarous or the inanimate, but only to those who qualify for the privilege of 'humanity,' only those deemed to possess a face, only to those recognized to be living in the logos." For Levinas, as for those modes of ethical thinking that follow in the wake of his influence, the other is always operationalized as another human subject. If, as Levinas argues, ethics precedes ontology, then in Levinas' own work anthropology and a certain brand of humanism precedes ethics.
It is only recently that the discipline of philosophy has begun to approach the animal as a legitimate subject of ethics. Regan identifies the turning point in a single work: "In 1971, three Oxford philosophers—Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch, and John Harris—published Animals, Men and Morals. The volume marked the first time philosophers had collaborated to craft a book that dealt with the moral status of nonhuman animals." According to Regan, this book is not only credited with introducing what is now called the "animal question," but launched an entire subdiscipline of moral philosophy where the animal is considered to be a legitimate subject of ethical inquiry. Currently, philosophers of both the analytic and continental varieties find reason to be concerned with animals, and there is a growing body of research addressing issues like the ethical treatment of animals, animal rights, and environmental ethics. According to Cary Wolfe, there are two factors that have made this remarkable reversal of the tradition possible. On the one hand, there is the crisis of humanism, "brought on, in no small part, first by structuralism and then poststructuralism and its interrogation of the figure of the human as the constitutive (rather than technically, materially, and discursively constituted) stuff of history and the social." Since at least Nietzsche, philosophers, anthropologists, and social scientists have been increasingly suspicious of the privileged position human beings have given themselves in the great chain of being, and this suspicion becomes an explicit object of inquiry within the so called "human sciences." On the other hand, the boundary between the animal and the human has, as Donna Haraway remarks, become increasingly untenable. Everything that had divided us from them is now up for grabs: language, tool use, and even reason. Recent discoveries in various branches of the biological sciences have had the effect of slowly dismantling the wall that Descartes and others had erected between the human and the animal. According to Wolfe, "a veritable explosion of work in areas such as cognitive ethology and field ecology has called into question our ability to use the old saws of anthropocentrism (language, tool use, the inheritance of cultural behaviors, and so on) to separate ourselves once and for all from the animals, as experiments in language and cognition with great apes and marine mammals, and field studies of extremely complex social and cultural behaviors in wild animals such as apes, wolves, and elephants, have more or less permanently eroded the tidy divisions between human and nonhuman." The revolutionary effect of this transformation can be seen, somewhat ironically, in the backlash of what Evan Ratliff calls "creationism 2.0," a well-organized "crusade against evolution" that attempts to reinstate a clear and undisputed division between human beings and the rest of creation based on a strict interpretation of the Judeo-Christian creation myth.
What is curious is that at a time when this other form of otherness is increasingly recognized as a legitimate subject of moral philosophy, its other, the machine, remains conspicuously absent. Despite all the talk of the animal question, animal others, animal rights, and the reconsideration of what Wolfe calls the "repressed Other of the subject, identity, logos," virtually nothing is said about the machine. One could, in fact, redeploy Regan's critique of G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica and apply it, with a high degree of accuracy, to any work purporting to address the animal question: "You can read every word in it. You can read between every line of it. Look where you will, you will not find the slightest hint of attention to 'the machine question.'" Even though the fate of the machine, from Descartes on, was intimately coupled with that of the animal, only one of the pair has qualified for ethical consideration. This exclusion is not just curious; it is illogical and indefensible. In fact, it seems as if the machine, even before the animal, should have challenged the anthropocentric prejudice that is the operating system of western ethics. Unlike the animal, the machine, especially the information processing machine that comprises so much of contemporary technology, appears to possess something like intelligence, reason, or logos. Not only can the machine engage the complexities of mathematics, which for Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, and others constituted the epitome of rational thought and the proper model of philosophy, but simple chatter-bots like ELIZA can apparently engage in intelligent dialogue, arranging words in such a way as to provide logical and meaningful answers to questions. Despite this, it is only the animal that has qualified for ethical consideration. Despite all the ink spilled on the subject of the animal question, almost nothing has been written about the machine. And despite all the talk about an ethics of radical otherness, we have said little or nothing about a machinic other. We have, in the words of Hall, "never considered ourselves to have moral responsibilities to our machines." How can we continue to justify this exclusion? If we admit animals, do we not also have to admit the machine? Can an ethics that is oriented toward the other get away with including one and not the other? Can such an ethics persist without being exposed as inconsistent, capricious, and, in a word, unethical? The choice is clear, but each option seems difficult and problematic. Either we own up to the exclusive strategy of ethics, continue to redline the machine, and install new mechanisms to dispel the hypocrisy that will inevitably threaten such a maneuver at every turn. Or we open the flood gates and admit that it now makes sense, perhaps had always made sense, to entertain the machine question and consider the rights of machines. Either way, ethics will never be the same.