The Status of
Animals: Philosophical and Ethical Aspects
to Western philosophical tradition, the concept of animality plays an important
role in defining humanity itself. In actual fact, the concept of animality is
aimed more at constructing the counter-model or negative of humans than at describing
the essence of animals. In other words, dignity is derived from the fact of not
being an animal. Animality is characterised by the absence of many features, such
as the lack of a soul, the lack of reason, the lack of freedom (in the sense of
self-determination), the lack of language, etc. This negative concept of animality
is predominant in Western philosophy.
And yet this tradition has had its opponents
as far back as Antiquity, when it split into two different lines of thinking.
To put it briefly, on the one hand, there were those who felt that only humans
had rights since they were endowed with the faculty of reason, and on the other,
those who believed it was not reason that gave rights but a capacity to feel pleasure
and suffering (sensitivity). The German philosopher Schopenhauer (1788-1860) considered
pity (or compassion) to have played a founding role in morals. Consequently, in
his view, any living creature capable of suffering had natural rights. He used
Indian religions as an example to counteract the Western tradition that looked
upon the animal world as resources placed at the disposal of humans. In the 18th
century, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), to whom Schopenhauer
made reference, had already put forward the idea that "if I am obliged not
to cause any harm to my fellow creature, it is not so much because he is a reasonable
being but because he is sensitive; and since this quality is common to both beast
and man, it must at the very least give the former the right not to be ill treated
needlessly by the latter" (Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality
Among Men, 1755).
Animals in biblical tradition
The protection of animals
in an institutionalised form, through the creation of associations, for example,
is a fairly recent phenomenon of society. It appeared in Europe in the middle
of the 19th century when the first animal protection laws were passed, the English
having been the pioneers in 1824. However, this concern has its roots in extremely
old cultural traditions. It is therefore erroneous to believe that this preoccupation
is a recent attitude, the prerogative of affluent civilisations or of an urban
sensitivity with no knowledge of animal life.
The protection of animals is,
in fact, a notion of our culture that is both complex and old. The Old Testament
makes reference to it in diverse ways. Leviticus emphasises the gravity of undermining
the life of an animal in the following terms: "And he that killeth any man
shall surely be put to death. And he that killeth a beast shall make it good;
beast for beast." (24, 17-18). The Book of the Ecclesiastes also underlines
equality between the human and the animal condition: "For that which befalleth
the sons of men, befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth,
so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; [
] Who knoweth the spirit
of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the
earth?" (3, 19 and 21).
The Bible contains numerous references to the
treatment of animals and their place in the creation of the world. Genesisevokes
the alliance established by God with all living creatures. It is also interesting
to reflect upon the meaning of the phrase uttered by Christ when sacrificing himself
instead of the Paschal Lamb: "I am the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins
of the world." A concern for protecting animals can also be found inExodus,
which recommends lightening the burdens of animals that are too heavy and ensuring
their rest during the Sabbath. Just as the different animal species devour each
other, the permission for men to eat the flesh of animals came after the Fall
and is presented as a consequence of Original Sin, since God had given "every
green herb for meat" (Genesis, 1, 30) to all living creatures. The relationship
between man and beast thus changed from harmony to subjection. According to the
Scriptures, the resurrection of Christ should restore original peace, as described
by the prophet Isaiah (11, 6-9) and St. Paul in hisEpistle to the Romans (8, 21).
It should be remembered that legal and religious aspects merged to such an extent
that it is possible to pinpoint in religious precepts the seeds of legislation
relating to animal protection.
Animals in Ancient Western philosophy
Ancient Greece, the first known analyses dealing with the moral status of animals
goes back to Orphism, a religious movement of the 6th century B.C. which, like
Pÿthagorism, condemned animal sacrifices. The question of the moral justification
of killing animals was clearly posed, even if a belief in the transmigration of
souls played an important role in this condemnation. Although neither Plato (around
427-348 B.C) nor Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) had broached the subject of the ethical
treatment animals, they did not look upon man and beast as a clear-cut opposition.
For Plato, as a matter of fact, the soul of an animal could be reincarnated in
the body of a man. As for Aristotle, he was the first to establish a systematic
classification of the species, in which he included man, the most perfect animal.
and Epicureanism (3rd century B.C.) moved away from the idea of the proximity
between humans and animals, while Theophrastus (2nd century B.C.), loyal to the
thinking of Aristotle, revived the question of the relationship between living
creatures and the duty to be just towards animals. In his opinion, only cases
of legitimate defence could justify killing an animal. In his treatise, the Neo-Platonist
Porphyry wrote a long critique on sacrifices and advocated vegetarianism. Plutarch
(1st century B.C.), demonstrating that animals are capable of using reason and
of suffering, strongly condemned their murder, particularly in his treatise entitled
On Flesh Eating.
Christianity put an end to animal sacrifice (Christ having
taken the place of the Paschal Lamb), and slaughtering subsequently became a profane
practice. The New Testament refers to animals in a negative way. The Apocalypse
and Satan, for example, take on the forms of a dragon, horse or serpent. The teachings
of the Church Fathers, on the other hand, present Christianity as a religion of
love towards all living creatures. And the memory of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
lingers on as the symbol of fraternity with animals.
Closer in time, Montaigne
(16th century) devoted a number of lengthy analyses to the close ties between
humans and animals, and concluded that kindness towards animals is a legitimate
duty. At this point, attention should be turned to the thoughts of Jean-Jacques
Rousseau and Arthur Schopenhauer.
Sensitivity as the foundation of animal rights
mentioned in the Introduction, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau explicitly
criticised the predominant tradition that considers the faculty of reason as the
condition for being entitled to rights. In his view, it is sensitivity (the capacity
to experience pleasure and suffering) that generates rights.
The question raised
by Rousseau is whether animals have natural rights. To define a natural right,
he based his analysis on the fiction of a state of nature (pre-social). According
to him, two principles - self-preservation and pity - should govern the behaviour
of both natural humans and animals. The former ensures the interest of everyone
in preserving their life, while the latter derives from a "natural repulsion
to see any sensitive creature perish or suffer" (Discourse on the Origin
and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, op.cit). The foundations of natural rights
common to humans and animals were built on this new basis, that is to say, this
right does not derive from a capacity to reason but from sensitivity. Since animals
are sensitive creatures, they have a natural right not to be ill treated. Only
self-preservation (when a human is threatened) can justify violence towards a
sensitive being. According to Rousseau, our reaction of repulsion at the spectacle
of suffering is spontaneous, and in consequence, it is only when pushed by extreme
necessity that committing an act of violence can be justified. A feeling of compassion
for all any living creature that suffers lies at the heart of natural rights.
The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-
follows in the footsteps of Rousseau when he formulates his critique of humanism
based on a split between humans and other living beings. As Claude Lévi-Strauss
wrote (Structural Anthropology, 1973), "In the face of a Western tradition
that has believed, since Antiquity, that one could [...] cheat with the evidence
that man is a living being who suffers, similar to all other creatures, before
being distinguished from them by subordinate criteria, who, with the exception
of Rousseau, has dispensed [this teaching] to us?".
Schopenhauer is the
heir of the assertion that it is indeed compassion for any suffering creature
that is at the foundation of morals (The Basis of Morality, 1841). Pity (or compassion)
is inseparable from sensitivity because there must first be a capacity to see
suffering before this profound feeling of identification can grow in the person
witnessing it. What makes this strange fusion possible is that the sense of identity
comes before all the differences, including that of the species. In other words,
when confronted by the suffering of an animal, the compassion felt by man first
places him in relation to the particular quality that unites him with this animal
(the capacity to suffer) rather than those aspects that distinguish him from it
(belonging to different species, being endowed with cognitive aptitudes that do
not have the same level of complexity, having a different appearance, etc). Placing
compassion at the heart of morals therefore broadens the circle of individuals
with recognised rights, and animals are included in this category.
the notion of animal liberation, rather than animal rights, was put forward by
the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation, published
in 1975. The only real criteria that should taken into account in determining
our behaviour towards sensitive beings is their capacity to feel pleasure and
pain (sensitivity) and not intellectual qualities or physical differences. Discrimination
based on belonging to a species (or specism) is what underlies the exploitation
of animals by humans. "Extending the fundamental principle of equal consideration
to members of other species" (Animal Liberation) is the ethical prescription
for animal liberation. Equal consideration implies moral equality and not a similarity
of rights and interests that can, in fact, be specific. For instance, the right
to abort concerns women and not men, the right to vote concerns humans and not
animals, etc. The most important handicap to animal liberation, according to P.
Singer, is the fact that the exploited group (in this case, animals) cannot rise
up, in an organised manner, against the treatment inflicted on them. Another obstacle
is due to the daily, ancestral and multiform nature of the use of animals. What
is more, old habits stand in the way of a reflection on the meaning of what we
are participating in, indirectly but nonetheless actively.
The duty to
be non-violent towards animals (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism)
In searching for
the antithesis of Judeo-Christian ethics regarding the treatment of animals, Schopenhauer
turned to India. In the World as Will and Idea (1818), and later in The Basis
of Morality (op.cit.), he makes numerous references to Brahmanism and Buddhism.
Let us therefore examine this specific feature of Indian religions, the doctrine
of non-violence. The notion of non-violence (ahimsâ) appeared for the first
time in the Upanisad, a late Vedic text, probably written between 700 and 300
B.C. Its contribution to the way in which humans should behave towards animals
is central to several religions in India.
Buddhism was born in India in the
second half of the 6th century B.C. The injunction not to destroy any life is
part of the eight precepts that Buddhists must observe. The moral implications
concerning the relations of humans towards animals emerged in religious practice
through the condemnation of bloody sacrifices and a parallel movement encouraging
vegetarianism. According to the teachings of the Buddha, sacrifices involving
the killing of animals must cease. It should be noted, however, that animal sacrifice
was a dominant feature of the Vedic religion, even though it was on the decline
during the time of the Buddha. Since consumption of meat and fish was considered
to be a key factor in violence towards animals, humans were urged to refrain from
Over and above religious teaching, it is interesting to note
the efforts made to introduce this interdiction to kill animals into daily life.
Asoka, a Brahmanist who converted to Buddhism after repenting his war-mongering
cruelties, ruled over most of India, from about 269 to 232 B.C. He disseminated
his legislation by ordering inscriptions to be engraved on rocks and pillars.
Several of them refer to the duty of non-violence towards animals. One example
is: "Here, it is forbidden to sacrifice by killing any living creature whatsoever
]" (the first edict on a rock). Another example is "[
everywhere the king, friend of amicable gods, has instituted the two kinds of
medical succour, succour for men, aid succour for animals [
]. Along the
roads, wells have been dug and trees planted for the use of men and animals"
(second edict on a rock).
Hinduism does not have a unique or permanent message
as to the way to treat animals because animal sacrifices were widely practised
at the beginning. And this practice has not yet disappeared. Gandhi himself tried,
in vain, to put an end to animal sacrifices dedicated to Khâli, the goddess
of death. Although animal sacrifices played an important role in the Vedic religion
(all the beliefs and practices described in the Veda, the sacred Sanskrit writings
drawn up between 1800 and 800 B.C.), in its later phase, known as Brahmanism and
then Hinduism, this practice declined as a result of an internalisation of religious
sentiments. Sacrifices were no longer a means of receiving divine grace, and the
misdeeds were no longer of a ritual nature. It was the good behaviour adopted
by the sovereign that would protect the world and not its offerings of victims.
Thanks to the theories of ahimsâ and the replacement of animal sacrifices
by vegetal offerings, the practice of vegetarianism became widespread.
no religion has attached such importance to non-violence as Jainism. Its first
prophets, Parsvhanatha and Mahavira lived in the 8th and 6th centuries B.C. respectively.
Although he was a contemporary of the Buddha, Mahavira reformed the doctrine of
his predecessor, and his teaching is in no way a ramification of Buddhism, as
it was believed in the West. They are two independent movements. Mahavira placed
emphasis on the moral aspects of the initial Jainism by introducing five vows
that all Jainists undertake to observe, including that of not causing harm to
living creatures. The insistence on non-violence (ahimsâ) lies at the core
of Jainist ethics. The burden of transmigration, which has invaded Indian thinking,
is not absent in Jainism; Karma, the series of volitions and actions, weighs heavily
over the cycle of reincarnations. As in Buddhism, observing non-violence, in action
as well as in thought, is the most important liberating element.
As in the
case of Buddhism during the reign of Asoka, there was an attempt to set up a Jainist
state. Between the 6th and 8thcenturies A.D., the Valabhi dynasty granted protection
to the Jainist community through donations and the construction of temples. But
it was in the second half of the 12th century, during the reign of the King of
Gujarat, Kumarapala, that Jainism reached its peak. Converted by the very learned
Hemacandra, the King tried to turn his kingdom into a Jainist state built on a
foundation of compassion and non-violence. He banned slaughter and animal combats,
and at the same time tried to ensure that strict vegetarianism was widely practised.
Vegetarianism is still very widely practised in Gujarat , even now. Born in India,
this religion did not travel beyond its borders. Hosever, Jainism exerts influence
in various parts of the world through teaching centres in England and the United
States in particular, and also through the Federation of Jain Organisations (JAFNA,
the Jain Academic Foundation of North America, set up in 1995). The role of this
federation is to promote non-violence, peace and vegetarianism throughout the
world. Gandhi, of whom Jainism is one of the spiritual heirs, gave a key place
to non-violence. Throughout his life, he sought to implement his principles of
non-violence towards animals, especially by creating a national programme to reform
animal breeding that would be both economically viable and non-violent (through
the prohibition of slaughter).
Dr. Florence Burgat (Philosophy)
This paper has been translated from french by Mrs. Nieves Claxton