Decent Conduct toward Animals: a Traditional Approach - Reason, Honour and the Opened Eye
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Stephen R. L. CLARK

D: Reason, Honour and the Opened Eye

Mainstream moral philosophers, in the secular and Protestant as well as the Catholic traditions, have chosen to emphasise reason. Reason is what brings us closest to Reality. Reason demands consistency of belief and practice. Reason identifies the only final goals as those that anyone (or anyone rational) would at once acknowledge. The Honour ethic, by contrast, acknowledges goals and rules peculiar to particular genders, classes, ranks and nations. Rational ethicists will usually acknowledge that pain is itself an evil, whether in itself or as a sign of bodily collapse, but may disregard the claims of individuals in the name of some imagined future. Honour ethicists may be more conscious of themselves and others as the individuals they are, but may also reckon it a point, exactly, of honour to endure or inflict pain. John Paul’s emphasis on a ‘profound sharing of affection’ that may transcend any merely ‘rational’ communication, and Chesterton’s homage to ‘humane feeling’, both point towards a different mind-set. Chesterton also uses the language of the ‘honour ethic’ to exalt the merely, ordinarily human – and this too points toward a different focus of attention.

‘Perhaps only through love is it possible to recognize the person of the soul.’ In love, we attend to things as being beautiful. Willing their good, we come to know what ‘good’ is in their case. False love imposes burdens, fantasizes, and grows angry when the ‘beloved’ is not as we wish. True love puts aside concupiscence.

It may be that vice, depravity and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at. … If [Eve] caused humanity to be lost by eating the fruit, the opposite attitude, looking at the fruit without eating it, should be what is required to save it.

Looking, in the sense that Weil intends, is loving. Love is the recognition, the realization, of a creature chosen from eternity by God, who ‘hates nothing that He has made (why else would He have made it?)’ As Cardenal has put it: ‘the mere fact that we exist proves his infinite and eternal love, for from all eternity he chose us from among an infinite number of possible beings.’ What God has chosen is not only what is, literally, human: every thing is a message of love, which we misread or miss entirely as long as we suppose that we are ourselves the only centre of the universe. In opening our hearts to all the other centres, we may become aware of the single divine centre. Humanists have urged us all to recognize ‘the same thing’ in every member of our species. But we can do better: we may recognize the same thing in every creature – namely, its being an echo of the divine, and an opening eye. What Cardenal himself concludes about the proper treatment of other animals remains obscure: like many mystics, he seems inclined to reckon that creatures’ eating each other – appreciatively, no doubt - is only another way of loving. Perhaps it is, but fantasy too easily obscures the stark reality of life in farms and abattoirs, circuses, zoos and medical laboratories. To love someone is to wish that they exist, and to take delight in their existence as the things they are, not merely for the bodily pleasures they bring to us.

Without such love, we have, in the end, no honour. What pride could we take in our ‘humanity’ if it is at the cost of inhumanity? Without such love, we have, in the end, no reason. How could we be reasonable beings if we do not recognize that every thing is real? But neither honour nor reason, as they are commonly conceived, identifies the proper way to be. Luzuriaga’s reference to St.Francis – and to other saints - was apt. We can only treat animals well if we can recognize what’s good for them, and what’s good in them. We can only acknowledge those goods through ourselves living as we should, as saints. What sort of life is it that saints and animals live together? What counts as a shared sanctity? The answer of the prophets seems unequivocal. We enjoy the land, and our ‘dominion’, only on condition that we respect the Sabbath, and the real being of the creatures with whom we live. ‘The righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.’ In Northrop Frye’s summary of the Bible’s message: ‘[Man] will never really gain [the lost world of Eden] until he knows thoroughly what hell is, and realizes that the pleasure gained by dominating and exploiting, whether of his fellow man or of nature itself, is a part of that hell-world’.

Mainstream moralists, when they have thought to consider our treatment of animals, have usually insisted that it is for the sake of humans that we should not be cruel to animals. We shall be better human beings if we take no pleasure in the misery of others. That animals actually had any status of their own, and that their misery is itself an evil, even if we did not enjoy it, has usually been a step too far. Like other radical zoophiles I have elsewhere argued that non-human animals themselves deserve respect, just as the creatures that they are, and irrespective of our feelings in the matter. If it is wrong of us to enjoy their misery, it should also be wrong of us to ignore or gladly tolerate it. But it is worth exploring the alternative, and older, option. What matters for environmentalists is that the whole complex of terrestrial life continue, even though individual creatures perish in their time. What matters to traditional humanists is that human life continue, even if individuals must also perish. Not all human deaths are untimely, and a proper humanity will face up to that. It follows at once that ‘keeping people alive at any cost’ is not a proper goal. Nor is it right to spare ourselves all suffering (or seek to do so) at the expense of living ‘humanly’ (humanely). Traditionalists have emphasized that cruelty is a sin. So also is neglect. So also is the willed, unimaginative indifference that Philo of Alexandria castigated.

The person who boils the flesh of lambs or kids or any other young animal in their mother’s milk, shows himself cruelly brutal in character and gelded of compassion, that most vital of emotions and most nearly akin to the rational mind.

Clearly, it makes no difference to the creatures concerned how they are cooked, once dead. But no one, so Philo intimates, could happily engage in such a ritual disparagement of natural ties, who was not already lacking in compassion. There are ways of treating and thinking about others that amount to killing them in our hearts even if we do them no immediate outward harm.

‘Don’t you see that that dreadful dry light shed on things must at last wither up the moral mysteries as illusions, respect for age, respect for property, and that the sanctity of life will be a superstition? The men in the street are only organisms, with their organs more or less displayed. For such a one there is no longer any terror in the touch of human flesh, nor does he see God watching him out of the eyes of a man’.

Even of a fish it is blasphemous to say that it is only a fish. We do not know what fish are meant to be, nor what, in the restoration, they will be - except that God will reckon they are ‘good’. We can go further: Chesterton’s jokey recognition that turkeys are more occult and awful than archangels can be given a deeper significance.

Picasso was right when he said that we do not know what a tree or a window is. All things are very mysterious and strange and we only overlook their strangeness and their mystery because we are so used to them. We only understand things very obscurely. But what are things? Things are God’s love become things.

Other, rationalist, philosophers have denigrated pity (as being, in Spinoza’s words, ‘womanish’): ‘the man who lives by the dictates of reason endeavours, as far as he can, not to be touched by pity’. Philo chose to consider compassion and imaginative appreciation as a guide to what ‘reason’ really is, as the proper recognition of a mystery. That Reason which is, in us, an image of the divine is best perceived in one who delighted in wild flowers, ravens, sparrows, sheep and even dogs. Luzuriaga’s plea that we should respect all forms of life on earth demands more than aesthetic appreciation, more even than environmentalist concern. The God that hates nothing that He has made requires no less of us.

But there is one final moral to be drawn. As long as we live, as human beings, in hierarchical, class and caste-divided societies, we must expect us to be cruel. ‘Farm animals’, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘were a sort of inferior class, reassuring the humblest rural worker that he was not at the absolute bottom of the social scale.’ One evil of tyranny is that it breeds little tyrants. A genuinely humane endeavour on behalf of the non-human cannot be separated from a similarly humane endeavour on behalf of humans.

It is only by the spread of the same democratic spirit that animals can enjoy the ‘rights’ for which even men have for so long struggled in vain. The emancipation of men from cruelty and injustice will bring with it in due course the emancipation of animals also. The two reforms are inseparably connected, and neither can be fully realized alone

Chesterton was right to distrust some reformers, who thought of ‘savages’ or the poor as less than properly human, while demanding decent treatment for the entirely non-human, who will not answer back. To suppose that the rich or civilized are more humane than ‘savages’ or the poor grotesquely misreads history. A genuine humanity can only arise in freedom. In this Chesterton and Salt agreed. We shall treat animals decently when we live as human animals should, and escape the hell-world when we have stopped ‘the self-destructive activity that prevents [us] from seeing what kind of world [we are] really in’.

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