Friday, September 28, 2007

Do Animals Have Souls?

I find Sherry's posts advancing her views on the rights of animals provocative and valuable. Her latest post is no exception. Like some of the commenters to her post, I do wonder about her statement that it is self-evidently true that, in the words of Justice Rivlin, "wild creatures, like pets, have emotions. They were endowed with a soul that experiences the emotions of joy and sorrow, happiness and grief, affection and fear." The sticking point for me is not the question of whether animals have emotions, on which I take no strong view, and which may have been the aspect of the quote to which Sherry responded most fervently. Rather, it's the statement that animals have souls. I don't see how this is self-evident. While I believe human beings may have souls, it is not self-evident to me that they do, and it is still less self-evident to me that the same thing can be said about animals.

I suppose one could reason, in some natural law-like way, to this position. But however compelling that logic might be, everything would depend on one's starting premises. Once having started down this path, moreover, I fail to see how some other set of conclusions derived from similar natural-law reasoning would be any less persuasive: say, that homosexuality is an inherently disordered moral state, or that women are inherently suited toward the domestic sphere. I don't share these views, but I don't see how they are any less self-evident than the view that animals have souls.

More interesting, perhaps, are the following sets of questions: If it is self-evident that animals have souls, what are the minimal qualities of capacity for emotion that constitute ensoulment? Moreover, why should anything follow as a moral matter from the possibility that animals have souls or that they have some minimal capacity for emotion? Is the notion here that it is immoral to take the life of another being, one endowed with a soul and the capacity to experience the richness of life, without an extraordinarily compelling reason?

And, following from these questions: What is the status in such a moral universe of the human fetus? If I am morally obligated, on the basis of the ensoulment or capacity for experiencing life and emotion, to oppose the unncessary killing of animals, should I not be equally obligated to oppose abortion in all circumstances save, perhaps, those necessary to genuinely preserve the life and health of the mother? To the extent that Justice Rivlin's legal conclusions followed from her belief concerning the souls of animals, was it appropriate for her to base any conclusions on those views? And is a judge equally entitled in considering the abortion question to import his or her view of the souls of fetuses?

Again, Sherry may have been focusing more on the capacity for emotion aspect of Justice Rivlin's argument than on the ensoulment argument. At least some of these questions, though, would be pertinent even in those circumstances.

-- Paul Horwitz


Michael C. Dorf said...

Isn't it fairly clear that Sherry meant that non-human animals have "souls" in the sense of "sentience?" And isn't it equally clear---from what must be thousands of books and articles in the feminist literature---that one can think, as I do and as I believe Sherry does, that at some point in pregnancy, the deliberate killing of a human fetus is at least as morally fraught an act as the deliberate killing of, say, an adult pig, but that the stakes on the other side are different? To deny someone the pleasure of eating pork imposes on him a much lesser burden than the burden imposed (uniquely) on women who are denied abortions. So yes, for an individual woman facing the choice whether to have an abortion after the point of fetal sentience, the issue presents at least as serious a question as the question whether it is permissible to kill non-human animals for food. But that does not mean that the question is the same from the standpoint of others. And I say that as one who does not even favor prohibitions on meat eating; I believe the decision to do so is almost always morally wrong but that the law could not possibly be effective in stamping out the practice so long as the vast majority of my fellow citizens see nothing wrong with meat eating, and indeed regard vegans like myself as weirdos.

Matt said...

If what was meant by saying that animals have souls was that they were sentient then the statement was pretty redundent, wasn't it? That's certainly not how the term is usually used and didn't seem to fit well with the text. But even if that was all that was meant, that's not yet even the begining of an argument against eating meat.

(The vast majority of abortions are done at a time when it's not completely clear that a fetus should be called sentient, as well, since the nerve connections in the brain are not yet such as to allow what could properly be called sensation, or so I understand.)

Paul said...

While I agree with you that it is not "self-evident" that humans have souls, I cannot possibly comprehend how you can suggest that "it is still less self-evident" certain for animals. If you have a soul detector, let us know. All I know about them makes their existence as provable (in human animals and non-human animals alike) as unicorns and leprechauns.

Ori H. said...

One should probably not take “soul talk” literally. I suspect it was used in a figurative way to denote that animals have in some sense an internal world or that they are vlauers or sentient or something of that nature. In addition, in Hebrew, the language from which the quote originates, the word for soul has less theological undertones than it does in English and is often used figuratively. Philosophically speaking, whether something is “made out of” a soul, as opposed to be made out of matter, does not denote in and of itself any moral significance. Moreover, the idea of a soul has been largely discarded in current philosophy; today, I think, most realists tend to be materialists.

Paul Horwitz said...

Mike, I appreciate the clarification, which I think is important precisely because it affects the balancing of interests. By way of clarification of my own, I certainly don't mean to presume any views on anyone's part about abortion and its moral gravity. I do find the link between particular arguments for animal rights and arguments about abortion interesting and worth pushing on, although I certainly don't assume that a consistent position on both requires the same outcome in both cases.

Paul (not me -- the other Paul), you're quite right: I should not make assumptions about who or what possesses a soul.

Paul Horwitz said...

I should also say, thank you, Ori, for adding a linguistic point that seems quite relevant to an understanding of the justice's remark.

egarber said...

To Mike's point about laws against meat eating not being feasible:

Take an existing law or convention -- say rules making it illegal to harm or kill humans. In that case, nobody would question giving law enforcement the power to say, prevent a wild animal from harming a human.

But suppose we had laws making it illegal to eat meat, presumably because it's worth protecting the inherent sentient value of animals. Would anybody seriously consider ALSO enforcing these rules in the wild -- where Lions wouldn't be allowed to hunt herding animals anymore, because of the need to protect the latter?

Of course, that doesn't automatically defeat the argument for making meat illegal; after all, animals are often "cruel" to each other, yet we have cruelty laws on the books. Still, it *might* be an informative exercise on some level. For every moral argument against eating meat, there is a natural "food chain" counterpoint, I think.

Tam said...

I guess traditional western philosophy posits the existence of some substance that is said to be the thing that experiences. If this is the "soul," then its existence is irrelevant to the arguments being advanced by Prof. Colb. All that matters is that animal farming practices create extreme pain experiences and frustrate desires about the future, and I believe it is this part that is salient to the argument and that is self-evident.

Carl said...

For every moral argument against eating meat, there is a natural "food chain" counterpoint, I think.

I'm not sure I follow. Take the simplest argument against eating meat: it causes gratuitous pain and suffering. How does any claim we make about the food chain change this fact?

Perhaps your argument is that we cannot have overriding moral reasons not to eat meat without simultaneously having equally as strong reasons to prevent meat from being eaten, be it by human animals or otherwise.

This claim, too, is dubious. But even if we do have reason to create legal barriers to the consumption of meat among humans, it does not follow that we have similar reasons to prevent the consumption of meat among all animals. After all, this would likely entail the systematic slaughter of all non-human carnivores, which surely you can acknowledge would raise moral issues that simply do not arise when considering a ban on the consumption of meat among humans.

egarber said...


I hear you.

What I was getting at is that there are probably good biological / evolutionary arguments in favor of humans eating meat (or at least reasonable ones). Meaning that although we should be humane, pushing for all of society to avoid meat might not even make sense morally.

(As a constitutional / policy matter, I think a ban would definitely go too far. To me, food choice on some level is part of our sphere of privacy rights. IMO, the government should bear a strict scrutiny burden when it tries to remove a particular food source from society altogether. I'm not willing to say that animal sentience meets the burden.)

Personally, I only eat fish -- not other meats -- if that matters at all for this discussion.

Carl said...

What I was getting at is that there are probably good biological / evolutionary arguments in favor of humans eating meat (or at least reasonable ones). Meaning that although we should be humane, pushing for all of society to avoid meat might not even make sense morally.

I see. This makes sense to me, but people who know a lot more about nutrition and biology than I do seem to believe we can do without animal meat. It would be interesting to consider how strong the argument against eating meat would be even if doing so would require sacrificing a not insignificant degree of health. Perhaps we humans a a morally unviable species.

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