The Covenant with All Living Creatures - Bargains within the Covenant
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Stephen R. L. Clark

Bargains within the Covenant

But is this possible? Is the argument against any attempt to `immanentize the eschaton' simply that it is quite beyond our power, and therefore that the rules we live by must indeed be different? Is it (as hosts of moralists have held) impossible to reach an agreement with non-humans of a kind that give a sense to talk of `justice between man and beast'?

he real oddity of the Stoic (Augustinian, Thomist, Cartesian and modern) claim that we can make no bargains with the animals, and that they therefore (?) lie beyond the sphere of justice, is that we have been making bargains with them for millenia. If human beings are, specifically, talking animals, it is worth noting that we have also talked to animals, and understood their answers. By this I mean nothing fabulous, or sentimental. We communicate with non-humans (and with humans) at a non-verbal level, understanding each others' moods and intentions. Most of our alliances have been exploitative - either of the non-humans we persuade into our keeping, or of those we prey on in the wild. Domestication is a process employed on humans as well as non-humans, and as open to manipulation, on both sides. Dogs manipulate their humans, thereby displaying their grasp of their own and their humans' status in the pack. Domestic animals, human and non-human, are bred and reared to know their limits: philosophers and political theorists, meditating on those limits, construct imaginary compacts to explain, and to constrain, what happened `naturally'. It is even possible - although the great age of innovative domestication was the Neolithic - for human beings to come to tacit agreements with wild creatures: Jane Goodall lived amongst the Gombe chimpanzees more equably than Colin Turnbull did amongst the human Ik. Understanding our limits, and what motivates creatures of different kinds in social situations, is vital to the construction of enduring communities.

There are indeed limits to our understanding, and to the possibilities for friendly association, though they are not necessarily the ones we commonly imagine. Language does not always unite us, but divides. Even Augustine acknowledged that it was easier for dumb animals of different species to get on together than two humans who did not know each other's language, and easier to get on with one's dog than with a foreigner! Our ethical relationship to creatures that we can be friends with, will be different from that to those we can't: but it doesn't follow that we should think of the latter only as unfriends, or enemies, or mere material.

Amongst the loyalties we actually and historically form are ones toward domestic or working animals. A child's affection for a cat or dog or horse is not much different from her affection for her human friends and family. She values its company and reciprocal affection, demands that others care for it, and could easily resent occasional bids for solitude or independence. Those who work with `animals' are usually, and naturally, attached to them even when they have put `childish things' away. They come to see, more or less knowledgeably, with the others' eyes, and allow them more or less of liberty to go their own way when it suits them. Dogs, cats and horses are the commonest non-human creatures to elicit, and partly reciprocate, affection, in the settled West. But cows, pigs, hawks, snakes, spiders all have their admirers, here and elsewhere. It seems indeed to be a species characteristic that we readily adopt small (smallish) creatures and rear them in our midst, expecting them to learn enough of our ways to be called `tame'. It is no contradiction to add that we frequently betray what trust they have in us.

So the claim that we can't make bargains with non-human animals is simply false. How detailed the bargains that we make can be, and what motivates us all (human and non-human) to keep them, will vary. Many such bargains will be marginal to the central interests of each of the bargaining tribes; others will be so significant as to change the natures of those who enter them, or are brought up in them. Most, as I remarked, are exploitative: even the bargain with dogs, which was once almost of equals, has long since been rewritten to allow `us' civilized humans liberty to do very much as we please with them - while at the same time reserving the right to sneer at other human tribes who have a different use for them, as food. That the bargain was, or is, exploitative does not mark it off as any different from the social compacts that political theorists more usually debate. The sort-of-contracts that lie, in historical reality, behind the modern State are just as forced. Some of the peoples that the people of Israel encountered when they invaded Palestine chose to bind themselves and their descendants to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, rather than be destroyed. A similar choice, or something like a choice, was made, back in the Neolithic Age, by several species (and, perhaps significantly, by hardly any since). Dogs, horses, cattle, sheep and camels `chose' to be domestic, and have paid a savage price since then. Creatures that `chose' freedom (including people who turned their back on `civilized' society) risk extinction in a world controlled by `civilized' people.

The original sort-of-compact that was made guarantees their species' survival, and better medical care than they would have as wild things: the price is that they are available for use, as food, amusement or laboratory material. That there were literal, individual, informed choices, way back then, is not required - any more than such actual choices are required by social contract theorists. It is, some say, quite reasonable to agree to give up natural, risky liberties, for the state's care and protection: maybe our ancestors did not do this of their own volition (and we have had no choice), but state authority is thereby justified, because we could have consented. So could domestic animals - though we may surely have some doubts that they would, that anyone would, consent to the conditions under which they live at present. Might there not be a better, fairer bargain? Isn't it already obvious that whatever contract of care and protection we, perhaps, proposed, has long been broken?

That the bargain is broken when, for example, we ship living cattle over many miles and hours to be slaughtered amongst strangers for meat that no-one needs, has seemed obvious to many who had not previously worried about the plight of cattle, and who might still think nothing wrong, as such, in killing `animals' for food. Similar incidents during the slave-trade began to awaken a suspicion that it was not the passing incidents, but the trade itself, that should be banned - despite the obvious truth that every civilized society till then had licensed slavery. Breeding, rearing, mutilating, imprisoning, torturing and killing non-human animals are all questionable practices, even if those animals are not themselves in any position to rebel (any more than serfs have been for most of human history). The growing perception that serfs and slaves and foreigners are human, and the corresponding thought that there are other social forms which could accommodate our friendship, has changed our moral consciousness: we can no longer comfort ourselves with the thought that people who are poor, casteless, `primitive' (or Irish) are so unlike `us' that we need not fear that we are doing them wrong. A similarly changing perception of non-human animals makes it impossible, in good faith, to think that an impartial judge would vindicate our conduct towards them.

The thought at which some humane commentators stop (as I already hinted) is that it is wrong to hurt non-humans, but not wrong to kill them. Ending their lives does them no harm, because they have - it's said - no general plan of life, nor any expectation of their ends. That much the same can be said of many human animals is either accepted (and the ban on killing infants, imbeciles, the ordinarily feckless, or the elderly, judged less significant than the ban on `real murder') or hurriedly disguised. Killing such human `marginals' is judged wrong because of its effect on general morale, or as an offence of the same order as demeaning even unconscious human bodies. It might as well be argued that killing non-humans is also a desecration: an open declaration that their lives aren't valued. If the principle on which liberal zoophiles depend (that hurting is wrong, but not killing) were as obvious as some suppose, we would not disapprove of people who have their pets `put down' for trivial reasons. Instead, we think such `pet-lovers' have betrayed their trust, and shown most clearly that they did not love at all. Even utilitarians, who place the value of an entity in its utility, may reasonably say that a living animal has more utility, more value, than a dead one: the value its flesh adds to the lives of others is rarely as great as the value it adds to its own. Non-utilitarians, who reckon that an entity may be valued `in itself' and irrespective of the quality of life dependent on it, will have more reason to think that killing things requires a defence.

One argument against allowing murder is, of course, simply the self-interested one, that I am likely to live more safely amongst people who condemn homicide, and even defend each other against offenders. `Animals', it is said, will not be affected either way by our forebearance, and may therefore be safely killed. The claim is dubious, since a non-aggressive lifestyle is as effective in avoiding most aggression in the case of animals as well as humans. But it is even more doubtful that the ethical argument against killing really depends on bargains of that sort. Those who are bound only by the laws of brigandage are not generally well-regarded. Even liberals will think it wrong to kill off Amazonian tribes to get their land, even if there is no slightest risk that the tribesmen could kill us instead (and if there is, the sooner - I suppose - that they are killed the better). The same good reason not to kill non-human tribes is just that they have lives of their own to live, that we have no God-given privilege to take away what God has given them. What is astonishing is that good liberals, at this point in the argument, so often fall back on ideologies that are otherwise associated with paradeigmatic enemies of liberal values. Non-aggression is all very well, they say: but we are living in the jungle, and at war with every other kind of creature. Radical zoophiles, so it seems, are traitors.

Like other patriots, humanists assume far too easily that all good people agree, but it is not quite out of place to emphasize the arrangements that `we' and our ancestors have actually made. There is a difference between creatures bred and reared to be a part of `our' community, and those outside. The rights that radical zoophiles demand for domestic and other `cultured' animals need not be ones that every wild thing has, or can be assumed to have. It is for this reason, amongst others, that the suggestion that such zoophiles don't `really' believe that animals have rights, or they would be out defending blackbirds against foxes, and worms against blackbirds, as well as foxes against hunters, is misplaced. The truth is that we do not feel ourselves obliged to defend even all human beings against assault. In most cases it is enough that we do not ourselves assault them, and defend and nurture only our own dependents. Domesticated creatures (including us) have been, hamfistedly and hypocritically, creating a community that sometimes serves as a model for a larger, global order - but that is an order that we cannot ourselves create. They will not hurt or destroy on all God's holy mountain - but the best that we can manage here and now is to care for our own, and not attack the others.

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