“Beso the Donkey”

Beso the Donkey,” Richard Jarrette, printed in the book of the same name (see Resource List)

Beso the Donkeybeso-the-donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.
He appears stoic in the rain
and stands still
beneath the merciless sun.
You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.
You would be more wrong
than the one who named him Beso
thinking that the kiss he gave
for a sliver of apple
was love.

Copyright 2010 Richard Jarrette. Reprinted with the permission of the poet. 

Background on Philosophical Issues

Animal Ethics (click to read more)

This brilliant collection of poems is written from the point of view of a speaker who observes a donkey named Beso living penned into a pasture over a long (unspecified) period of time, apparently ending with Beso’s passing away. The speaker gets to know Beso well as an individual and comes to care for and respect him deeply.

In this poem, the speaker notes that Beso, like any animal who is in captivity, is confined without any autonomy over his own life. Is this an acceptable way to treat another sentient being? Why or why not?

It seems Beso’s basic necessities of life (see “Rights“) are taken care of: He has “rock to eat, dust to drink,” and at some point is graced with “a sliver of apple.” However, he also endures “the merciless sun.” If you believe he is being wronged, is it only because of the questionable nature of his treatment? If we assume that he does have enough food, water, and shelter to be healthy, then is his human captors’ behaviour justified? Or is there something inherently wrong about keeping Beso locked up? As a nonhuman, self-aware being, is he entitled to a set of inalienable rights, a certain level of welfare, or neither? Why or why not?

Epistemology (click to read more)

This particular poem also deals with the issues of how we can know anything about “other minds,” trying to understand what others are thinking and feeling, and anthropomorphising – ascribing “human qualities” to nonhuman beings. There are some basic ways that we generally assume, by observation, that other humans have similar feelings, thoughts, and experiences to our own. When I hurt myself, I flinch or cry out. Therefore, when I observe the same behaviour in those around me, I assume they are experiencing similar pain. Can we make this same assumption when we see nonhuman beings exhibit the same behaviours that we do? Descartes thought that the screams a cat or dog makes when physically harmed were just automatic responses, and justified gruesome “experiments” like nailing cats to wooden boards. Throughout the history of the United States (and continuing today), animals raised for food and scientific experimentation have not been covered under standard animal protection laws; the law allows us to grind up chicks alive and toss living birds in boiling water without any repercussions. (This is considered “standard practice” in the egg and chicken meat industries.) The Cartesian idea of nonhuman animals as automata is often used to justify these practices.

Today, contemporary scientists have proven that all vertebrates have very similar nervous systems, which suggests that nonhumans feel physical pain in much the same way as humans do. Data and empirical evidence also shows us that most nonhuman animals likely dream and form memories and friendships in similar ways. But from a philosophical perspective, we always come back to the same question: How we can really tell what another being is experiencing if we cannot experience the same thing ourselves?

Sample Questions for Discussion on “Beso the Donkey”

Animal Ethics

“Beso the Donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.”

  • [questions for preliminary discussion] Why is Beso in the pasture? How long do you think he’s been there? Do you think he can get out if he wants to?
  • Why would someone want to keep Beso in one place?
  • Is there anything wrong with keeping someone in one place?
    • Would it make a difference if the pasture was bigger?
    • Would it make a difference if there was another donkey living with Beso?
  • Have you ever had a timeout? Is this similar or different to what has happened to Beso? In what ways?

“You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.”

  • If Beso has enough food and water to be healthy, is there anything wrong with keeping him locked up?
  • [preliminary question] How many people here live with companion animals (a.k.a. “pets”)? OR Has anyone here been to a zoo?
  • Do companion animals live with us because they want to or because we want them to?
  • Is there anything wrong with keeping a companion animal in your house and not letting him or her leave? Why or why not?tiger in a zoo
  • Do you think that animals in zoos seem happy? Why or why not? How about the animals who live with us? Why or why not?
  • Do nonhuman animals need us? Do we need them? Why or why not and in what ways?

Epistemology

“He appears stoic in the rain …”

  • [preliminary question] What does “stoic” mean?
  • Do nonhuman animals have the same feelings people do? How can we tell?
  • Can we ever know for sure what someone else is thinking? Why or why not?
  • Can we ever know for sure what someone else is feeling? Why or why not?

Animal Ethics Extension Activities

Epistemology Extension Activities

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8 thoughts on ““Beso the Donkey”

  1. Montaigne was a 16th century French philosopher whom I like very much. The other day, I was reading an excellent book titled “A Life of Montaigne” ( 20011 ) by Sarah Bakewell. I would like to share with you what I found on page 137 of this book :-

    All Montaigne’s skills at jumping between perspectives come to the fore when he writes about animals. We find it hard to understand them, he says, but they must find it just as hard to understand us. ‘This defect that hinders communication between them and us, why is it not just as much ours as theirs?’

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    • Thank you for your comment! I apologize for taking so long to reply. This is a great quote. As humans we tend to be quite egocentric beings, assuming our own perspective as default and perceiving any difficulties as a deficit on someone else’s part… What are some strategies we could use to try to support interspecies communication?

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  2. What is ego? Can a human or any sentient being be without ego? If some one is conscious, she sees every thing from a unique point of view, a unique stand point or perspective. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere. When you look you look from your eyes, you can not look from any other human’s or non human’s eyes. When you think you think from your brain, you can not think from any other brain. Of course you can think with empathy and try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view but still you will ultimately be thinking from your mind and all the limitations of your mind will apply.

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    • Sorry, my reply was not clear.

      I mean to say that ego, in the non perjorative sense, can perhaps be considered as another name for self. As all seeing, cognizing or thinking is from a stand point (point of view or perspective) and no seeing can be without a stand point, then perhaps this stand point is self. So, strictly speaking, perhaps there is no such thing as self less thinking or selfless action. So no animal, human or non human, can be without self or ego. Hence no selfless deeds are possible.

      Racism and speciesism are perhaps symptoms of an under developed self or ego. Perhaps people who are more self aware tend not to be racists or specists .

      There is some speculation on my part here. So, I would like to know what do you think.

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  3. Thank you for raising these questions! I agree that in reality, no selfless deed is really possible. We are all acting as influenced by our own experiences/our own realities, correct? And whenever I do something altruistic, even it involves making some sort of sacrifice, I am really doing it because it makes me feel like a better person to prioritize someone’s needs over my own non-essential wants.

    In what way do you think that a lack of self-awareness supports a racist and/or speciesist mentality? I’d like to explore that idea further. Thank you!

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  4. First I would like to say that your post “Beso the Donkey” is excellent and specially your ” Sample questions for discussions” show your empathy and fine nature.

    Perhaps racism, speciesism, tribalism and nationalism etc. are coming from the same world view. When a person tries to gain identity and spiritual meaning in his life by being part of a group, he creates a barrier between himself and cosmic consciousness. So his sense of self or awareness of self becomes distorted.

    At present I am not able to express what is partly unconscious in my mind. Please take this as my attempt at exploring the idea only and not as definite statement.
    Personally I do not think much about morality, my morality automatically comes from my worldview.

    Please do read my latest post “What exists and what is perceived to exist” on my site and let me know you like it.

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    • Thank you for your kind words! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. .
      Certainly, I agree that all -isms that prioritize one group over all others are flawed at the core in a similar way. I’m unclear that the act of “being part of a group” necessitates this, though. Is there a way we can acknowledge our differences without pretending that those differences are morally relevant?
      When you say your morality automatically comes from your worldview, how do you articulate your worldview? I’ve always seen worldview as including one’s morality, so this is an interesting idea to me. Thank you for your thoughtfulness!

      Have you ever discussed these ideas with young children? I’d be interested to hear of your experiences there.

      I enjoyed “What exists and what is perceived to exist” and will comment there.

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  5. Hello Madeleine,

    To answer your questions, I will start with “worldview”. First, my worldview is a work in progress and not a finished product, and I think that it is the case also with every body’s worldview whether they are aware of it or not. The worldview of a human being is partly conscious and partly unconscious, also it is self-contradictory to different degrees. The more evolved and aware a person is the more conscious and less self-contradictory his worldview becomes. We humans are experts in deceiving ourselves, lying to ourselves and fooling ourselves. Various religions and ideologies are of great help in fooling ourselves.

    Morality does not stand on it’s own, it is derived consciously or unconsciously from his real worldview, not the worldview he thinks he has. One’s morality is the values he lives by and not the values he professes to have. His subconscious mind will derive automatically the values he lives by from his real worldview. So the more honest and non self-contradictory one’s worldview is the more honest his morality will be.

    What I have written above is what at present I think, I am not sure if it is true or not.

    No, I have not discussed these ideas with young children. I do not know how to do that.

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