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