Reflections On The Human-Animal Relationship, Part I

Full disclosure: I began writing this blog well over a year ago and have sat on it all this time. Why? A couple of reasons: First, it is a very sensitive and controversial issue for many, in particular for some that I love and cherish dearly, while having no desire to offend these loved one as I deeply respect their values. Secondly, my thoughts on this issue have been in such a constant state of flux and change over the past year that I wanted to have some level of cognitive consonance on the issue before I posit any opinion -even if it is only a tentative position in my evolving thought process.

I also decided that this blog post needed desperately to be divided into two separate entries as I have so many thoughts on this issue.

In summary, I have, in recent years, reopened my personal inquiry into the nature of the human-animal relationship. I was brought up with the belief that animals were, well, just lowly animals, and humans were a superior breed of species. We always had pets as I was growing up, treated them well, yet, to be sure, our dogs or cats never deserved the types of amenities reserved for humans -and I was fairly “dog”matic on these ideas (sorry).

Yet how we were brought up, while most certainly having an effect on our initial orientation towards any given matter, should have absolutely no bearing on making rational, autonomous decisions as an adult. Overcoming “the way I was raised” argument may be difficult yet certainly attainable.

Consider that many people may have been brought up terribly wrong, perhaps myself included. Blindly following customs simply because they were your customs can be “cat”astrophic (ugh, I can’t help myself). I would now like to offer my thoughts as a free thinking adult.

So allow me to first address the idea of human and animal equality; a sense of equality that a growing amount of people are starting to adopt. Of course this is not a new idea. Many years ago Leonardo Da Vinci is quoted to have said, “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.

If that is not argument for human and animal equality I can think of no other.

To begin, please allow me to tell you what I am NOT saying: If one makes the claim that humans are in some ways superior to other species, it does NOT infer a reckless abandonment of a code of morality toward all other species. In fact, as I will argue in part II of this series, it implies an even greater sense of responsibility and benevolence towards outgroup species. I encourage you to read to the end of this blog to gain a clear sense of my position.

With this understanding, let’s begin.

Self-Preservation, The Animal Kingdom and Survival of The Fittest

At some very rudimentary level, I believe in the human as the more advanced species as evidenced by our reaching the top of the food chain. I believe in this human “superiority” for reasons to be explained in this blog: First, the instinctual act of species self-preservation; second, the realities of the animal kingdom; and, finally, the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest and our accompanying moral conscience.

First, the bottom line is if I or a loved one were starving to death, I would have no qualms about killing an animal in order to survive, as I am quite certain said animal would eat my ass if it were dying as well. I am also quite certain most of us would pull a person out of a burning building over the building rats or cockroaches. There is something intuitive about preserving one’s own species -seemingly much more pronounced in the human species- at the expense of others. This is a necessary component in the propagation of a species. If a species is naturally inclined to protect its own, this would infer inequality as each species judges it as more valuable than the others.

I am reluctant to use the word “superior” to describe the human orientation towards animals as this is far too general a term and it is not meant in the universal sense. Many animals have superior skill sets to humans –many run faster, have superior audio/visual skills, can fly all on their own, perhaps even possess far more advanced interspecies communication systems; yet, when it comes to possessing the overall skill set to sit atop the food chain and essentially control the animal kingdom, humans are clearly the unanimous winner through following this self-preservation instinct.

Second, in contemporary society, it would seem many of us have been sequestered and sheltered from the harsh realities of the animal kingdom. Death for the purpose of nourishment is as basic to the narrative of both animal/human existence as breathing –and one species eating another certainly infers a harsh lack of equality as the eaten creature is inferior to the eating creature -in terms of its survival capabilities. The animal kingdom, of which we are very much a part of, is absolutely no theater of morality when it comes to issues of killing and death. Perhaps perceptions that have contributed to the notion of equality have been greatly influenced by the Disney-induced anthropomorphic deification of animals -but I digress.

Take for example in a grassland ecosystem, a grasshopper might eat grass, a producer. The grasshopper might get eaten by a rat, which in turn is consumed by a snake. Finally, a hawk—an apex predator—swoops down and snatches up the snake. We then can either kill the hawk and eat it, or, as the lead proprietors of the animal kingdom, go to great lengths and protect it, which we failed to do for the grasshopper, rat and poor snake -thus pointing to the routinely accepted act of imposing hierarchies of importance toward certain animal species…which goes largely unnoticed and is an accepted practice for many (hence the irony of dog on your dinner plate); yet perhaps this horrid inconsistency is a different blog for a different day. I do believe it does point to a hierarchy in nature that cannot be dismissed: Nature operates most efficiently with a chain of command as the idea of equality in the animal kingdom simply does not exist.

Thirdly, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, it is still very much a dog eat dog world at its core. The animal kingdom already imposes this aforementioned hierarchy of superiority -we are simply following suit. Many animal species even eat their own young pointing to the common practice of death as nourishment in the evolutionary sweepstakes.

Now I have heard it argued that just because a species can or cannot do something, this in no way implies superiority nor gives a species the right to impose its will on another species.  Then why can the rat, snake and hawk impose its will -yet the human cannot? What gives us the right to think we are above these other species and that we have to abide by an altogether different moral code? Ironically, such a position proves the moral superiority of the human being as we quite “humancentrically” project our values onto other species, assuming because they are superior values.

If we claim humans do possess a moral conscience most other species do not possess, there most certainly is no equality. If you are claiming we do not, then it is clearly natural and fine to eat other species.

I contend that in the evolutionary stakes, human beings are the clear winner and have managed to rest atop the food chain rung. In the Darwinian sense, humankind is “superior” (again, I use the term loosely) because it managed to prove being the fittest in the game of survival. I believe if any other species managed to pull this off -be it cows, gorillas, fish, whales, alligators or lions, they would have gladly assumed the top position and I might be an appetizer on some animals prepared dish. Yet, as an Irish-Hungarian, and with any luck, I might be found on some weird European protected species list.

That said, our evolution in contemporary western society has negated the need to enslave animals and use them as our only form of sustenance. One can survive and thrive on a plant-based diet in 2017. Therefore to use the argument that humankind needs to eat animals in order to survive is just not true. Might that change? Of course it could…yet, for now, it is not necessary. Yet, keep in mind the aforementioned rat, snake and hawk, like most animals, have no such conscience. Such consciousness and a distinct moral compass, which at least questions and examines ethics even if they are not universally agreed upon, are other critical factors in separating humans from other species.

Next up: My thoughts on “Speciesism,” factory farming, and my slow transition toward vegan principles.

And I hope my loved ones still love me 🙂

 

 

jimmysintension

8 Comments

  1. A few thoughts:
    How many things are created, according to Biblical doctrines, in the image of God? Only the Human. If the reality of creation is as stated in the Bible, then we have at least one reason why Humanity is superior.

    Next, our minds are almost conclusively superior to all others species’. I say almost because I have no proof that the mind of another lifeform is not superior, and perhaps they are unable to achieve the “greatness” humanity has because they are limited by their physical form; most likely though, Humanity’s many scientific, cultural, technological, intellectual, emotional, achievements — verily our mere sentience — are evidence of our superiority over, and elevation out of mere animality.

    This power we have — logic, reason, invention, cooperation, perhaps even the soul — pose quite a burden upon us to care for the planet and it’s inhabitants responsibly.

    Regarding the food chain: if people believed the grasshopper was endangered or sacred, we would protect it like we do the hawk. We don’t care much to protect the grasshopper or rat or even snake because they are likely to repopulate just fine, and are “gross.” The hawk is considered beautiful and junk.

    Naw Meen?

    Great post! Love the article!

  2. “…Leonardo Da Vinci is quoted to have said, ‘The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.’

    If that is not argument for human and animal equality I can think of no other.”

    First of all, that is not an argument, that is a declaration.

    Second of all, murder is typically defined as the unjust killing of something. Some people think killing animals for food is always morally acceptable, and that would not be murder.

    Third of all, the reason why Da Vinci would think that “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” would be the argument. The reason why is very important here, otherwise it is just an empty declaration.

    Finally, quotes are frequently attributed to the most famous of figures, this is to imply greater meaning then they actually have, and is often a type of emotional argument. We deify historical figures to a point that is not rational, just look at any history course or documentary. I don’t know if Da Vinci actually said that, but that does not change my mind. It is an empty statement until properly supported.

  3. What a mind bender! Wow, ok I want to comment on one of your questions: “What gives us the right to think we are above these other species and that we have to abide by an altogether different moral code?” I seem to jump back into Scripture (Sorry!) But it might actually support your sentiments… so WHEN did we start to eat meat and WHY?
    If you believes in the Story of Creation, it is understood that Man had no need to consume meat at all and were actually not allowed to kill an animal for its food. Yes, animals were sacrificed but to exhault them as a holy sacrifice in the Creator’s service and yes if an animal was found dead by another cause, Man could eat that meat but with certain limitations. There was great care made in order to show respect for the meat making sure that the soul “Blood” of the animal was not consumed. This seems to point to the possibility that the animal kingdom was seen as a precious creation to the Creator as well. Man lived to 1000 years and this created more grandiosity above the rest (including the animals). And if you believe in the great Deluge of Noah’s time, then you would recall the animals that were specifically called by God for Noah to collect. Many set aside for sacrifice but many for repopulation. Scripture also says that man’s years were shortened after the Flood, probably leading to rapid decline in the physical stamina of mankind. Can you imagine going from a life expectancy of 1000 years to now a measly 120 ?? “Where’s the Beef ?!!!!!!”

  4. For an unknown number of years, “man” (whether one believes in evolution or not) survived on fruits and berries and other plant offerings alone. These were available originally without any effort from man and man flourished. Man then discovered how to cultivate said vegetation and, again, continued to flourish. When men decided to seek further sustenance is lost in history (I believe), but it was probably fish which were the first to fall prey to man’s growing “hunger” for something new. Why man decided such fare as pigs and chickens were “food” boggles the mind. Apparently it was because he, without any hint of conscience at the time, could. Only after hundreds of thousands of year of existence has some segment of humanity decided animals are not fair game. This decision is a moral judgement and has no foundation in the overall scheme of things. An observation, as you have pointed out, shows that one species of animal will feed on another as it’s prime source of sustenance BUT will not kill for pleasure or other, non-essential reasons. Because of this, for man to kill for other than sustenance, presents a moral decision which needs to be evaluated .For example, is killing to thin out a herd so that they will not starve due to lack of available food justified. Or, is trophy hunting to satisfy one’s ego justified. Or, is killing an elephant for it’s ivory to help pay for one’s family’s survival justified.
    The question of morality when it comes to treatment of animals is dictated, at the present time, by the society in which one lives. As examples, in China there is a holiday where dogs are eaten as a celebration once a year ; in the Middle East dogs are considered “evil” and the torture and killing of one is acceptable, In India the Brahma bovine is considered sacred .
    Bottom line to all of the above is that, at no time in recorded history has man considered animals (except in a few cases and specific breeds) equal to or superior to man and were thus “fair game”. As more and more species become close to extinction, many have begun to reevaluate their attitude, but mostly only toward those particular species and not because they consider them equal to man.

    • Hello Don…I always love (and appreciate) your take on things. Thank you. I take special note of what you said here: “An observation, as you have pointed out, shows that one species of animal will feed on another as it’s prime source of sustenance BUT will not kill for pleasure or other, non-essential reasons. Because of this, for man to kill for other than sustenance, presents a moral decision which needs to be evaluated.” I would have tended to agree with this observation. Yet, yesterday, our typically docile and quite passive cat (Reggie), raided a birds next and killed a baby bird for no other reason than to drop it off on our front porch. It was so small there was nothing to snack on and this would seem quite a non-essential killing, even if for the purpose of pleasing its owners. I am no cat psychologist, or any other animal for that matter, though it would seem that some animals, in some contexts, just may kill for a type of sport. If I were to apply human ethics towards our cat, she is evil. OR she is simply an animal that does not share human-like values. AS a human species that generally frowns upon ethnocentrism towards other cultures, why do we feel it necessary to practice “humancentrism” towards other species? This is absolutely not a rhetorical question, I am genuinely so curious. Thank you again Don….as usual, you have me thinking. I really do appreciate the contribution of the idea of particular social “norming” as there exists no universal consensus on the issue of human-animal relations. Sometime in the west we begin to think that everyone processes like we do….not.

      • In the wild, cat mothers teach their young how to eat their food by bringing home dead or injured prey. Domestic cats are no different. But in this modern age of spayed domestic cats, many female felines have no young to whom they need to pass on their hunting wisdom.
        TAKEN FROM LIFESCIENCE:
        By leaving a dead animal on the back porch, your cat is acting out its natural role as mother and teacher. You, her loving owner, represent her surrogate family. And frankly, she knows you would never have been able to catch that delicious mouse on your own. (AWWW!
        See it was a gift to you!)
        On a side note, I do believe that Ancient Egyptians held many different animals in extremely high regards as sacred and I’m sure “it’s a part of recorded history!”

        • Hi Leticia! Thank you so much for both responses to my blog entry. After reflecting on both your response and Joe’s (below), I thought I might address the whole idea of using faith-based documents to back up a “secular” argument. And by secular I refer to an argument not specifically about faith or the issues contained therein. Before I respond to this, in regards to animals bringing their victims to their owners, it still points out the strongly different ethic of animals and humans. This might be a display of “love” on the animals behalf, yet it would be a felony with life imprisonment for a human being. As I point out, a totally different ethic and orientation toward life and death in the human vs. animal kingdom.

          As an instructor of critical thinking and debate, I frequently receive the question of whether or not the bible (the preferred faith-based work in the west…I am sure if I taught in Tehran it would be the Koran) is a suitable source to back up an argument. I realize you might take a guess at my answer, yet perhaps it is seasoned a bit different that you might think. Faith based books (Koran, Bible, Bhagavad Gita, etc…) I believe have a great value in society as millions upon millions of people base their lives on these books. I find these books to provide inspiration and hope for so many people that to discount them out of hand would be unreasonable. Therefore, I doubt their general use in argument…though not out of hand! When used to reflect the sentiments of a particular religious sect, they are fine. I believe these books to possess some historical and artistic merit. Yet, when attempting to persuade another who does not adopt the faith of the book, this would be like trying to convert a Muslim cause the Bible says so or a Christian cause the Koran says so. My hunch is that you would completely dismiss anyone who used the Koran or Bhagavad Gita, to attempt to persuade you, so why would you use the bible to attempt to persuade them? And if the bible or any other other holy book is true, objective science should back that up, yes?

          Yes, millions look to holy books for inspiration…and millions to do not. I personally believe (I do have a Master’s of Theology degree so I have deeply studied religious texts) such books were never designed to be used as proof in arguments as they are all about faith, and that is a beautiful thing! Why cheapen a beautiful work by using it in a way it was never intended to be used? It would be difficult to convince me that the original authors of the bible wrote in such a fashion as to serve as an apologetic to serve in arguments for future generations. And even if so, convincing people is all about knowing your audience…and when most of your audience does not subscribe to the basic tenets of the book, such as argument will fall on deaf ears.

          I have taught at private, religious universities where the majority do subscribe to these religious tenets and using a holy book is fine. Yet with a diverse audience, it is a bit like pissing into the wind (could not help but have one crass analogy!!)

          Thank you Leticia….you and your family are just gems and I am so thankful we can maintain our friendship!

          • Thanks Professor U and I see your point !! I love the future challenge of not using The Great Book as “a back up for argument”…

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