Beyond the human

Beyond the human

 Office of the Dean February 26, 2020

New UCI professor's research blends religion, philosophy and animal ethics

How are industry, religion and social power related to how we think about and treat animals? This question is at the heart of Brianne Donaldson’s research. Donaldson, who joined the University of California, Irvine School of Humanities in the fall, is the Shri Parshvanath Presidential Chair in Jain Studies, housed in both the Program in Religious Studies and Department of Philosophy.

Donaldson’s research examines underexplored assumptions in scientific, secular and religious worldviews that marginalize plants, animals and certain people, and often justify violence. Specific to this work is her research on Asian religious and philosophic traditions, with an emphasis on Jainism, alongside bioethics and critical animal studies. She is the author of Creaturely Cosmologies: Why Metaphysics Matters for Animal and Planetary Liberation (2015) and co-author of the forthcoming Insistent Life: Principles for Bioethics in Jainism (University of California Press, 2020). Donaldson is also editor of Beyond the Bifurcation of Nature: A Common World for Animals and the Environment (2014) and co-editor of both The Future of Meat Without Animals (2016) and Feeling Animal Death: Being Host to Ghosts (2019).

Here, Donaldson discusses Jainism, her research and what she hopes to accomplish at UCI. 

For those who are unfamiliar with it, please tell us a bit about Jainism. 

Jainism is one of the ancient traditions rooted in India, with active modern populations of monks and nuns in India, as well as lay people in India and abroad. There are over 100,000 Jains currently living across the United States, in over 70 distinct community regions. Many Jains first came to the U.S. through the 1960s-70s immigration reforms that opened the U.S. to South Asian citizens trained in STEM fields. 

Early Jain texts—written in vernacular languages called Prākrits and Sanskrit—provide detailed accounts of all existing living beings and provide a comprehensive ethical path of knowledge and restraint to minimize injury to oneself and other beings. The Jain worldview includes a unique account of karmic causality, nonviolence (ahiṃsā), non-one-sided viewpoints (anekāntavāda), and non-attachment (aparigraha) to material goods and damaging psychological states.  

As Shri Parshvanath Presidential Chair in Jain Studies in UCI’s Department of Philosophy and Program in Religious Studies, what do you hope to accomplish?

The chair of Jain studies offers a special opportunity to enrich Asian studies within the Program in Religious Studies and to develop South Asian philosophies in the Department of Philosophy, known internationally for its emphasis in western philosophy. I will also be looking for multidisciplinary spaces in which to bring the rich textual history, metaphysical insights and ethical commitments of Asian philosophies, such as Jainism, into conceptual partnerships. This could include medical humanities, ecology and sustainability, animal ethics, anthropology, philosophy of mind, among others. For example, the central Jain vow of nonviolence, or ahiṃsā, toward all living beings, emerges logically from the systematic Jain view of diverse life forms within entangled relationships of causality. Though this ancient concept is unfamiliar to most, a rigorous engagement with its development and content is remarkably relevant for theoretical, practical and clinical problems we face today. To that end, I also hope to cultivate collaborative experiences between UCI and the broader Jain community of Southern California, who have made this chair possible.

While at Rice University, you served as a faculty leader for the first-year medical ethics course at Baylor College of Medicine. How will your experience and scholarship inform the work being done at UCI’s Center for Medical Humanities?

My courses at Rice were located in the Asian studies major and medical humanities minor, and were often filled by STEM-oriented students. Students thrive in this collaboration between the humanities and technical/clinical fields, often examining their own ethical beliefs for the first time, and thinking rigorously about intractable dilemmas that must be acted upon. For instance, my course “Bioethics and Indian Traditions” explored western normative ethical theories from Kant to feminist ethics of care alongside Indian philosophical-religious frameworks applied to contemporary bioethical issues. Over the course of the semester, students completed three-part research projects. For instance, one student examined the contemporary refusal to vaccinate alongside western normative theories and Buddhist ethics; another examined aid-in-dying for patients with a disability in light of U.S. policy, western theory and Jain ethics. Another course, “India, Consciousness, and Science,” examined western philosophy of mind alongside theories of self, world, epistemology and ethics in Indian thought.

These courses led to my being invited to Baylor College of Medicine to serve as a faculty leader for the first-year ethics course. In this program, philosophical concepts were explored in “ethical work-ups” in which medical students weighed distinct ethical appeals in their ultimate decision-making. I hope to bring the philosophical, research and clinical components of these experiences to my courses at UCI, which include medical ethics, animal ethics, and introduction to philosophy and religion. I see a number of opportunities for interface with the medical school, student-faculty research and working with clinical ethics consultations within and beyond the university. 

Your co-edited book Feeling Animal Death: Being Host to Ghosts, published last August. What was the impetus for this book?

The premise of Feeling Animal Death is that feeling is the often unnamed foundation of philosophy. The impetus for the project was my realization that many academics, artists and advocates, whose professional work includes animals—in philosophy, science, ethics, queer and race theory, theology, literature, among many other fields—had formative encounters with animals' lives and deaths that were never spoken of but kept in the private background. My co-editor, Ashley King, and I wanted contributors to excavate these experiences in order to bring them to the fore. These narratives move beyond an animal rights-based paradigm to show how emotional connections to animals' lives and deaths can change individuals, shape public discourse, inform institutional practices, and alter our conceptions of reality and community. In this book we wanted to take emotion and feeling as a foundation for ethics and not merely as a supplement to ethical reasoning.  

Tell us about your book Insistent Life: Principles for Bioethics in Jainism, which was recently accepted for publication by the University of California Press. 

After teaching bioethics over several semesters, I could not find any single text addressing Jainism and contemporary bioethics. This gap in the field was significant since Jainism is possibly more concerned with the ethics of birth, life and death than any other existing religious or philosophical tradition. 

Insistent Life is a co-authored book that has far exceeded our initial vision, now in two parts: part one examines the textual and historical foundational principles within Jainism relevant to modern bioethics, including new translations of ancient Prākrit texts and two heretofore untranslated medical treatises. Part two looks at principles of application within bioethics drawn from the views of contemporary Jain lay people and mendicants and a survey we conducted with Jain medical professionals from the U.S., U.K. and India, among other countries. We are securing open-access publication with the University of California Press so that this first-of-its-kind book will be freely available for future scholars.

What inspired you to pursue critical animal studies as your field of research?

I spent much of my upbringing in rural Michigan surrounded by the unspoken and unquestioned foundation accepting animal use so prevalent in rural, farming communities. In such a setting, one can see the marriage of unexamined human-centered beliefs and technology toward nearly unfathomable destruction.

Later, my first university teaching job was in a Midwest pork slaughterhouse town where I conducted three years of research about the animals, communities, farms and forces that shape global food production. In the U.S., America’s food “heartland” is increasingly technology-rich, foreign-owned, powered by the global trade in grains and oilseeds, staffed by immigrants and refugees, and driving international policy. This work informed my book The Future of Meat Without Animals (2016), which examines the rise of plant-based and cell-cultured meat, milk and eggs.

These two significant experiences motivate my primary intellectual task to explore the foundations of socially-sanctioned violence in any secular, scientific or religious context. I ask several questions: Who can be violated in this view? Who can violate? Whose life and death matter? Not all world visions are equal in this respect. I have found conceptual companionship in Asian, and especially Jain, philosophy and metaphysics, Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy, threads of continental theory, and many poets, advocates and artists who challenge the normative lines of who is in and out of our communities of concern, and how those lines can change. In my teaching, I attempt to provide students with tools to excavate these latent beliefs and commitments in any worldview they encounter, whether secular, scientific or religious.