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Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion
Decent Conduct toward Animals:
a Traditional Approach
Stephen R. L. CLARK
Go on to part C: Sharing the Same World
So what ‘doctrinal foundation of love and respect for life existing on the earth’ could prove theologically, philosophically or politically acceptable? Mainstream moralists have urged, since the Axial Era, that it is human life that most demands love and respect. We realize and perfect our own humanity by recognizing humanity in every other, of whatever creed or race. For that very reason decent moralists insisted that ‘neither the Pongo [probably the chimpanzee] nor the Longimanus [the gibbon] is your brother; but truly the American [that is, the Native American!] and the Negro are’. In the Salamanca debates an imperial power took the unusual step of allowing its policies towards its conquered peoples to be interrogated. Although no formal resolution was achieved, the implicit conclusion was that Native Americans were truly human, and to be given appropriate respect. UNESCO’s declaration after the Second World War that ‘all men [sic] belong to the same species’ was a necessary political commitment, in the face of those – including many self-styled Darwinists - who had sought to divide the species against itself. But ‘being of the same species’ does not demand, in modern biological theory, that we share a common nature. As it happens, humankind does seem to be a remarkably homogeneous species – perhaps because we are all quite recently descended from a small ancestral population. But there might have been, and yet may be, many hominid species whose members had a nature much like ours. And there might be human beings (human by descent) who seemed to lack most of the characters and talents that we most respect. Respect for every member of our species, so it seems, must either rest upon the actual characters we share with all, or else upon the mere fact of our close relatedness. If it rests on the former it is difficult to identify any such shared character that is not also shared by other animals. If it rests on the latter it is difficult to see why an overriding devotion to one’s ethnic group, on the one hand, or to one’s biological order (Hominoidea, for example) on the other, might not have as sound a claim as ‘humanism’ does.
‘Personists’ choose to respect those creatures that are persons, whatever their descent, and usually equate ‘being persons’ with being able, here and now, to converse, bargain and accept responsibility. By those standards many human beings aren’t persons, and perhaps a few of the other great apes are. The chimpanzee is our brother, and the imbecile or the infant isn’t. Mainstream moralists, especially those with Catholic roots, insist that any human being, even if we cannot now, or ever, bargain with her, has a claim on us. Sometimes this rests in turn upon the conviction that all human beings, whatever they seem to be, are really immortal persons, unable to express themselves here-now because of bodily failings, but deserving just the same attention. I shall not address that thesis here – except to say that, if it is true, it is also possible that the same condition afflicts non-human creatures. Before the Fall, tradition says, the animals spoke to us, and may again: that is, we may recover the language that they spoke. But whether or not there are real identities, or souls, distinct from the bodily beings we experience, moralists rarely believe that there are such souls in any but a human creature. Because they are human, the imbecile and infant must have souls and be deserving of the same respect as rational adults. John Paul, also in Evangelium Vitae, makes the point, in rebuking
the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection.
We must respect them because we can see that they are sentient, feeling creatures – but we can see exactly the same to be true of many non-human creatures. In which case, it is strange that John Paul is so confident that ‘the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others’. Is it really so clear that dogs, cats, horses, cattle and so on cannot ‘communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection’? Alternatively, we must respect our conspecifics (and so believe, if we can manage it, that they are rational) precisely because they are our conspecifics. ‘We are of one blood, you and I’. We certainly share ancestors, and might share descendants. Humanism, in that account, is species-loyalty.
If we catch sharks for food, let them be killed most mercifully; let anyone who likes love the sharks, and pet the sharks, and tie ribbons round their necks and give them sugar and teach them to dance. But if once a man suggests that a shark is to be valued against a sailor, or that the poor shark might be permitted to bite off a Negro’s leg occasionally; then I would court-martial the man—he is a traitor to the ship.
Chesterton went on to declare his opposition to vivisection, and similarly heartless treatment of the non-human. But here and elsewhere he maintains his conviction that there is something so special about being ‘one of us’ that it must always be wrong to erode the difference. Historically, we have always constructed divisions and castes within humanity. Historically, the upper classes have often shown more concern for non-human animals than for the human poor. The animals, after all, are unlikely to replace them, and do not seem to notice what symbolical significance the rich impose. The human poor, by contrast, might revolt even against ‘humane’ oppression (the kind displayed in schemes to regulate their lives for them). So efforts to extend our sympathies beyond our species have often been associated with equivalently powerful schemes to restrict our sympathies to our own ethnic group. National Parks and Game Reserves may help non-human animals – but often at the expense of ‘natives’ and the human poor, and for the sake of tastes that only the globetrotting rich enjoy. Species solidarity is, so far, the strongest antidote to ethnic chauvinism and class hatred. Perhaps that is to be expected. Some biologists, at any rate, have argued that there are definite ‘taxonomic’ limits to compassion, and that the only biological goal of ethical impulse is the survival of the species (that is to say, the biological lineage).
That biological claim is one that Chesterton could easily have refuted. It is plainly and empirically possible for many people to be seriously moved by affection and compassion for non-human animals. Even if our emotions and behaviour are determined by ‘our genes’ there is no problem in explaining how those genes – which, after all, we share with many other species – should render us compassionate to other carriers. Nor is there any difficulty in supposing that compassion cannot be exactly focused upon human forms: any such limitation would create delays while we determined whether the suffering object was exactly right. And there is good reason to suspect as well that those who felt for the beasts they farmed or hunted were far better hunters and farmers than were those who thought them merely meat. Biologically speaking it is not obvious that humanism or species-loyalty is the only outcome. On the contrary, it is our conspecifics who are usually our chief rivals, and the objects of our dislike. A species will do better, over evolutionary time, if it divides into many new species, each with a distinctive niche. In the cichlids of the East African Rift lakes, for example, ‘the two sets of jaws, fine-tuned according to food habits, allow each species to occupy its own very specific ecological niche. In this manner, hundreds of species can co-exist without directly competing. If instead these cichlids had tried to exploit the same resources, most would have been driven to extinction’.
Paradoxically, we might conclude that it would be better for our species if it speciated – if, that is, we ceased to regard each other as equally available as mates, and having similar needs. Once we were not competing with each other we could allow ourselves to appreciate each other’s peculiar beauties. Correspondingly, it may be easier to love those not of our own species than our conspecific competitors. We do not readily acknowledge the identity of human nature in all human beings even if we believe in it. We create new dialects precisely to divide ourselves from foreigners, and conclude from their incomprehension that they are not human. ‘The diversity of tongues divides human beings from each other. ... Thanks to that diversity of tongues alone, their similar natures have so little power to make them friends, that someone may enjoy the company of his dog more than of a foreigner’.
So species-loyalty is not a biological datum. We could as easily expect species disloyalty, or at least a willingness to divide ourselves from others. Maybe there were once many hominid species – both palaeontology and tradition make that likely – as there are many hominoid species still. That there is now only a single human species may be, geologically, a passing phase. That we cannot or will not experience any profound sharing of affection with creatures ‘not of our species’ (that is, not now a member of the set of interbreeding populations that constitutes our species) is, historically, a passing phase.
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