Morality and our lives with animals

Our relationship with non-human animals must be understood as a question of morality. Patrick Bouquet/Flickr

The traditional point of view in western intellectual thought – and one which is reflected in our own day-to–day views – is that of human exceptionalism, or anthropocentrism: the belief that humans are the central and most important beings on the planet.

We see this belief time and again throughout our intellectual heritage. From early thinkers such as Protagoras, who argued “man is the measure of all things”, through to contemporary expressions of the “heart-breaking specialness” of the human, anthropocentric views abound and are largely uncontested.

That we take them for granted is their power. The hierarchical thinking that places humans above animals can be traced back to our intellectual roots in Ancient Greece (at least in so far as the West is concerned) and in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The more influential paradigm to emerge from ancient Greece found itself manifest in the thoughts of Aristotle (384BC–322BC). He argued that nature consisted of a hierarchy with “man” at the top of this Scala Natura. Those with the least reasoning ability existed for the sake of those with the most in order to ensure survival; so plants exist for the sake of animals, animals for the sake of humans, and so on.

The endurance of this belief held the door wide open for the likes of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and his construction of non-human animals as behaviouristic machines. The idea that animals are “other” to humans, that they do not share any of our fundamental cognitive abilities and that they merely react to stimuli outside them through habit, like machines, are all direct consequences of this line of thought.

In turn this led to the argument that considerations of animal mentation and consciousness were irrelevant, and following the Aristotelian line of thought we, as superior beings, have the right to do with inferior beings whatever we choose.

Descartes’ denial of the existence of animal consciousness set the tone for debates about the moral status of animals and animal rights. Whether animals are conscious has remained the central issue when we discuss whether animals deserve rights or not.

As critics have pointed out, though, this debate often tells us more about how we perceive humans. It underlines our belief in human exceptionalism. Tied irrevocably to our beliefs in our own civility, versus the barbarity of nature, this view sets us apart from and above other life on the planet.

We believe ourselves to have certain unique traits (the capacity for language or culture, say) that distinguish us from other species. Part and parcel of this belief is the view that we can control nature and therefore have a right to use it to meet our own needs. This often includes other animals. And so anthropocentric viewpoints legitimate such practices as meat eating, factory farming, the uses of animals for entertainment and clothing and so on.

Most attempts from moral philosophy to challenge this weighty intellectual tradition are mired in their own anthropocentric worldview. Key figures such as Peter Singer, the author of the “bible of the animal rights movement” (Animal Liberation, 1975), Ryder (Victims of Science, 1975) and Midgley (Animals and Why They Matter, 1984) become bogged down in attempts to prove that animals have enough similarity to humans to warrant their inclusion in our moral frameworks.

This relegates animals to an inferior status by implication: unless they are similar enough to us in their abilities they do not deserve equal moral worth.

Throughout history there have been those who contested this view.

From the 1970s onwards there has been an animal “liberation” movement which aims to secure rights for nonhuman animals.

More recently, though, the location of this ideology – in liberal humanism – has been questioned: should we be aiming to secure rights for nonhuman animals based on their similarity to us, or should aim to understand and respect their differences along with their right to live on this planet alongside us?

The result is a re-thinking, or re-framing, of human-animal relations as we move to recognise the intrinsic value of other creatures with whom we share this planet.

Traditional views are slowly being eroded and with this comes a certain freedom. Biologists are finding themselves able to legitimately investigate topics such as the emotional and moral lives of animals without being summarily dismissed for their erroneous anthropomorphism. From the Greek anthropos and morphe meaning human and form respectively, this is the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman “objects” which includes other animals.

From 17th century philosophic objections from the likes of Francis Bacon and Baruch Spinoza, and finally finding its pinnacle of expression in the radical behaviourism of the mid-20th century, anthropomorphism has come to be synonymous with un-scientific practices. It attributes emotions and mental states to animals that cannot be proven by scientific standards. (Note that the lack of emotions and perceived impoverished mental lives of nonhuman animals was and still is used to justify their ill treatment and inferior moral status.)

Even so anthropomorphism remains a consistent and persistent part of human practices with other animals. (Do you talk to your dog and believe s/he is guilty when found destroying the contents of the rubbish bin? You are not alone.)

Anthropomorphism is also a deeply ingrained part of modern human cultures and can be seen in folklore and cultural representations (think Skippy or Lassie, among others). In this way anthropomorphism is one of the ways in which we disrupt previously assumed clear delineations between human and nonhuman, between human and animal.

And by doing so, at a practical level we call into question the superiority of humans. Anthropomorphic practices allow nonhuman animals agency and in turn move them from being perceived as object to subject.

Not only does this blur the carefully erected and maintained boundaries between humans and other animals, but it leads to tricky questions: if animals do feel in similar ways to humans then how do we justify current (ab)uses of them?

The age-old justifications based on difference – that they do not feel pain and so on – no longer apply and we find ourselves with a set of social practices such as eating meat, the morality of which is no longer clear-cut.


This is part of a series on public morality in 21st century Australia. We’ll be publishing regular articles on morality on The Conversation in the coming weeks.