Animal Behaviors, Human Sins

Today, if you will indulge me in a quirk, I want to talk about why we aren’t animals.

It is a question that I don’t know would have ever really occurred to me if I wasn’t teaching an ethics course. My wife is a vegetarian but I am not and the plight of animals in the world has never been a subject of great interest to me. Indeed, once I came to the following conclusions regarding animals, I don’t believe that I have continued to dwell much on their lives. Perhaps I should…

It seems to me that the great difference between humanity and animals is the ability to sin. While a dog may be good or bad, it cannot be evil. If a shark bites a human, a fish, a whale, or even another shark, it is not morally inferior; it is still just a shark.

It is hard to imagine immoral behavior amongst the animals. When we learn of the mating habits of meerkats or chimps, do we shower them with our disapproval and worry about their influence on our children or do we shrug at the natural world? I have yet to hear of a morality campaign against Animal Planet.

Philosophy doesn’t really have a good reason for the assumption of animal amorality amongst humans. While it might be gratifying to consider humanity morally superior to that of animals, this kind of self-aggrandizement is beneath us. Certainly, you can reason with a human in a manner that you cannot reason with a rat. However, it is possible to reason with a gorilla. If gorillas can operate at the reasoning level of a small child, why should we consider them morally inferior to those children? Even if we don’t see the moral knowledge or moral reason in another species, we have no reason to assume it isn’t there when a certain level of cognition appears to be present (and perhaps even when it doesn’t).

Theologically, I don’t have this problem. The Mormon notion of agency as a gift that can be given or taken away provides a way for considering the difference between animals and humanity. I suggest that we look to animals to understand the position we would be in if Satan’s plan was put into place. These are creatures who fulfill the measure of their creation, no matter what. The slug, the shark, and the swan all operate on instinctual auto-pilot, being fruitful and multiplying without our prompting or guidance. I believe that we would also be in that position if Lucifer’s plan had been chosen, going through the motion’s of accomplishing God’s will, without ever understanding what is was that we were up to.

If animals are a legitimate model of creatures without agency, then it would appear that that which makes us godlike is our ability to sin. In contradicting God’s will, we ourselves assert divine power and human hubris. That which separates us from the dust is that the dust does what God asks of it and we, mostly, don’t. If animals exhibit certain behaviors, it’s because God made them that way; but we insist on being self-made, no divinity required. Perhaps this desire for self-creation is our divine nature gone amok, pushing us to rework the world around us to meet our own perception of our needs. In this, I am not suggesting that we sin. I see no purpose in opposing God’s will as a habit. However, when we do sin, and we will, perhaps it is better understood as a learning opportunity than as an occasion for self-loathing.

So, in terms of our relationship to the animals, I don’t believe that there is a sin inherent in killing animals. An animal, as I understand it, always dies a good death; there are no other options. No animal looks back, on its death bed, and regrets choices it could have made. No animal are going to be cut off from God in their death. Their death, in the eyes of God, is as inconsequential as the deaths of the Anti-Nephi Lehis were. Neither involves taking someone before their time, as a further probationary period is not necessary. The humans had been tried and tested; the animals simply don’t require it.

That said, I don’t believe that killing animals is necessarily without sin. If we understand animals as being innocent or without guilt, then our treatment of them is comparable to our treatment of other innocents. I don’t think it is directly comparable to our treatment of human innocents (who will not long remain in that state), but it is an opportunity to reveal our own divine nature again. I mention this because our treatment of animals, for the time being, strikes me as remarkably similar to God’s treatment of us; not because I believe deer will become human in the next life, but rather because I believe that we won’t become Gods in this one. If I am right in this, our behavior toward animals is a reflection of our own becoming and therefore worthy of moral consideration.

Comments

  1. A colleague has pointed me to the following video, which is both highly appropriate and inappropriate. Consider yourself warned:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygkvjUw5ZEk

  2. So, is this a prelude to you getting a cat? =)

    They are wonderful creatures, with a nice mix of both Heaven and Hell in them. (Mostly heaven, in our case.)

    I’m not sure if these are directly related to your post or not – what are your thoughts on the resurrection of animals? Will there be a distinction between pets and non-pets? Are some animals more equal than other animals? Will we all be forced to become herbivores (or perhaps no need to eat, with only flesh and bone)

    I’ve heard that all dogs go to heaven…

  3. FHL,

    I present to you the following definitive proof that there will be no dogs in Zion:

    “be gathered unto me a righteous people, without spot”
    D&C 38:31

  4. Thomas Parkin says:

    Great stuff, John C.

    I’m not too sure about animals always dying a good death, though. Or not being cut off from the presence of God. I’ve got two exhibits.

    First is the fig tree that Jesus curses. This suggests that even a plant my fail to fill its measure. Also, in order for the plant to be morally culpable it must have had some measure of choice.

    *cough*

    Second, if there are no animals separated from the presence of God, does that mean there will be no animals in the Telestial Kingdom?

    *turns Mormon speculation machine up to eleven*

    ~

  5. Thomas, I’m fairly certain that Jesus wasn’t cursing the tree for the trees sake. As to the redemption of animals, see here.

    I’m very sympathetic to the idea that succumbing animalism is sinful. Unfortunately, most of human history seems to be animated by it.

  6. John C,

    I’ve re-read your post twice expecting to find something that I must have missed. Perhaps you can help me connect the dots…

    You begin with the stated premise that animals are incapable of moral agency, and so nothing they do comprises sin.

    You then assert that it’s even hard to imagine immoral behavior among animals, which sounds like a re-framing and re-articulation of your initial premise: you don’t believe animals have moral agency and so cannot sin.

    But then you assert that gorillas can reason, at some level that can be compared with a young child’s stage of human development. Do you equate even rudimentary moral agency with such reasoning? I thought that was the direction you were headed, but then you return to your “slug, shark, swan” trinity to conclude that they’re just non-conscious meat of various varieties.

    What happened to the reasoning of gorillas? Are they a silent fourth to your triad of meats? Are they different?

    The basic core of your post, so far as I have been able to parse it, is the assumption that animals are different in kind (not in degree) from humans, so there is no moral consequence to killing them, though you allow that there may be moral consequence to mistreating them. In the end, isn’t that conclusion simply a restatement of your assumed premises? If so, are there ways that you might choose to investigate the validity of your premises? Would it be immoral not to do so?

    Please help me understand what I’ve missed.

  7. What a brilliant and astute colleague you have. These are great thoughts, John C. I especially like this line, I’d never thought about this exactly this way:

    I suggest that we look to animals to understand the position we would be in if Satan’s plan was put into place.

  8. I took a course on Medivael depictions of animals recently that turned out to be utterly fascinating. The image that is painted in nearly all medivael bestiaries (books that depict the physical and mental traits of various kinds of animals, real and fantastic, to be found in the world)is that of Adam naming the beasts in Eden. The commentary makes the point that man is to God as animals are to man – our use of language and agency separtates us from animals just as we are separated from God by his higher powers, though like him in that we possess langauge that can call life into being.

    (Musings not directly addressing the post): I am fascinated by how we are often comfortable drawing distinctions between animals and humans based on assumptions that humans have reason and animals don’t – until it comes to charasmatic animals and pets. Pets, creatures that we often treat like children and accord degrees of reason, emotion, and language to, seem to represent a liminal space between humans and other animals. We don’t accord special moral status to animals in general, but we do elevate particular animals, treat them like humans, and, according to many testimonies I have heard, expect them to be part of our eternal families. Why? Are we only capable of including animals in our ethical systems when we think of them in human terms?

    Although I am fascinated by how we demarcate humans and animals, I find this separation both compelling and troubling. Sometimes, when I notice that animals do have capacities like the ability to listen, to communicate, and to feel emotion, I am not always so sure that we are that different – maybe just different in degrees. Even conceding that humans are clearly on a different intellectual plane and that animals are in important ways not like us, I don’t necessarily want to make those differences so morally important that creatures who are seen to lack a trait like agency are not included within a system of ethics that affords them certain protections. To take this point to an extreme, in God’s eyes, we might just look like eager puppies without a sophisticated language or that much agency – and I certainly don’t want God to kill me.

  9. Delicious food for thought John.

  10. I mention this because our treatment of animals, for the time being, strikes me as remarkably similar to God’s treatment of us; not because I believe deer will become human in the next life, but rather because I believe that we won’t become Gods in this one. If I am right in this, our behavior toward animals is a reflection of our own becoming and therefore worthy of moral consideration.

    I read an article about this recently on the HSUS website. (In a perfect world, I would be able to find the article.) In short, the author was trying to theorize why we love animals. He argued that we love them because in doing so we become as God-like as we can on this earth. Our relationships to our pets is similar to the relationship God has with us–unconditional love, complete dependence for everything, greater understanding of the larger picture, etc. I was profoundly touched by this because, for me, I have felt instinctively like my calling in life has been to work with animals. I have learned a great deal about patience and love and the abilty to be Christ-like through the adoption of my dog, Lexi.

    Of course, not everyone who has pets feels this way. But I think that many do, and I think it is an important relationship to explore.

    On a differnt note, I am not sure I agree that animals are without agency. Sure, most of the “feel-good” stories we hear about pets are simply their maternal instincts in overdrive. But is loyalty an instinct? I am not sure…

  11. This seems to hearken back to Descartes’ view that animals are merely machines. I’m not sure I buy that. When we look at moral reasoning in animals, especially higher birds and mammals we see them using the same brain areas that we use for our reasoning (although we have vastly expanded areas for such reasoning). We also suspect that consciousness itself is present in these animals in significant ways. At least there is no reason to think we are special in that regard. In social animals morality comes down to obeying social codes. When they are breached, animals do seem to experience guilt, hiding, remorse (I even see this in my dog). Chimps are known to tell lies. This is not an argument that they sin, but rather that moral behaviour and moral contexts are found in many animals.

    I would argue that the assumption that they are machines, acting in all things as autonomous is not right, at least not from the empirical evidence gathered by animal behaviourists, who see human moral systems as just extensions of animal systems. More a matter of degree than kind as # 8 says.

    That said there is something unique spiritually about us. That a spirit child of god in our body has to be the most important factor. This is what allows us to sin. But I have no where to put sin in animal behaviour because it is a theological concept not a purely ethical concept. When Fifi kills another chimp’s child to allow her own child to ascend up the troop hierarchy, that would be sin in human terms. There are elements in that act observed by Jane Goodall of guilt, revenge, cunning, rage, remorse and all sorts of things that could and would be interpreted as sin in humans. But it’s not. Or is it? How do we know. Christ’s atonement was universal. Right? How do we know it’s just that animal sins are covered by it as well? How do we know that when my dog sins (as it often does on the rug) that it is protected by the universality of the atonement, like children before the age of accountability, rather than it is incapable of sin?

    Mixing categories like sin, which is a theological concept, with ethics which is more a moral concept (and I’m not going to carve this up, its just an intuition), may confuse things more than we have knowledge about from or revelatory sources.

    AS for killing animals. I believe context matters. It’s not their status as moral agents or not that makes it right or wrong, it’s the context of respect due to other conscious beings. I believe killing is justified if done with respect for the life given. If it is done humanly and in a context where it is justified (I have a whole essay on this over at my site called Death and Ecology). But it’s not their status as machines that decides the ethics, morality of killing. It’s respecting them as fellow intelligences on a journey with us.

  12. But people ARE animals biologically. Just because we are also animals, does not mean we are not also human, or are the same as other animals. We are just a higher type of animal than the rest, and our duty has been given to take care of the other animals and life on this planet, as God takes care of us.

  13. You said that well Melissa! That’s what I was trying to clumsily get across too.

  14. Differences between humans and animals that people have cited in the past:
    Animals don’t use tools.
    Animals don’t make tools.
    Animals don’t use weapons.
    Animals don’t make weapons.
    Animals don’t mourn for their dead.
    All of these above are wrong. The more we find out about animals, the more we find we are like them.
    I’m not sure how the idea of sin would fit into this, but my family had a dog that definitely knew when it was sinning. Of course, his sin was against our commandments.

  15. greenfrog, et al.,

    The status of animals demonstrating higher cognitive abilities (as far as we can tell) would be similar, in my mind, to the status of children before the age of eight. However, as I stated, I think that there is a moral difference between killing a child and killing an ape. Part of the issue is that I am looking for the reason to behind the difference (I don’t think species loyalty is sufficient).

    While I accept that some primates and cetaceans may have rudimentary moral reasoning, I believe it is arrested. That is why we don’t blame them for what they do. It would be like blaming a two-year old for being selfish. The child and the chimp are not in control, not in any sense that we understand. They can still feel remorse and guilt in the social group, but internally it doesn’t appear to have the same effects (I think the observations of the Goodall’s of the world back me up on this, but I am woefully underread). If some animals are capable of sin, I would agree that they are like children who are covered by the atonement. I just don’t believe that they ever leave that state.

    As to dogs, they are bred to be dependent on humans and their behavior, in my experience, is reactionary. They are a thing to be acted upon, I think. I don’t find any moral value in their ability to be guilty after having done something wrong, just survival instinct.

  16. StillConfused says:

    Re: Comments 1 and 3:

    I love you John C.

  17. Because the other living things on earth are literally our cousins, it’s my belief that many animals are actually deserving of far higher respect and consideration that we currently give them. I think it’s perhaps humanity’s greatest sin that we treat them as industrial machinery in so many cases, in other words, that we treat them as though they have no feelings and no selves, when we’re reasonably sure they do have feelings and a sense of themselves. They definitely feel things like desires, terror, agony, peace and comfort, happiness, contentment, and pain. They remember kindnesses.

    I think it’s telling that when we associate closely with a species, for instance dogs, cats, or horses, we lose our appetite for eating them. They become “people” to us. Some people dismiss our feelings for our companion species, saying we’re merely anthropomorphizing them. However, we don’t HAVE to anthropomorphize them because they’re already anthropomorphic. They’re our relatives. We share many similar features in anatomy and wiring. There are obviously some differences, but the reason it works so well for us to be companions across species boundaries is that we actually are very much alike in many ways. Again, we’re relatives. They’re family.

    Our domestic species look to humans as though we’re their parents or gods. So I feel we’ll be held accountable at the judgment for what kind of gods or parents we are to them. I know I haven’t lived up to the light that’s within me on this score. I know I haven’t acted as I should.

    I don’t know what’s the right thing for an individual in our society to do in this case. I do believe the word of wisdom that humans may eat meat, but should do it sparingly, and only when needed. I have myself been vegetarian at some times, and have eaten meat at others. Right now I’m eating meat in my diet.

    Even when I was completely vegetarian, it was difficult not to consume any product that harmed animals in some way or other. I don’t think there’s a way to live as part of our society and be completely free of this that I feel is actually a terrible sin. I think I need to try harder to do better, though. I don’t think me throwing up my hands and saying “What can I do?” is really helping.

    Maybe this is one of those things where we learn line by line and precept by precept. At one point humans from other cultures were treated as we now treat domestic animals, by many cultures including ours. It’s still true in some places worldwide. Women were treated as domestic property, and still are in some places. Is there any doubt that those who afford full rights to women, or to people of other ethnicities, religions, etc. are more advanced and enlightened than those cultures who don’t? I look forward to the day when our culture becomes more enlightened in our treatment of animals. I want to do what I can personally to hasten that day.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    “literally our cousins”

    hunh?

  19. I think it’s telling that when we associate closely with a species, for instance dogs, cats, or horses, we lose our appetite for eating them. They become “people” to us. Some people dismiss our feelings for our companion species, saying we’re merely anthropomorphizing them.

    I hear what you’re saying, but at the same time I think that judging personhood by the metric of whether or not the thing evokes feelings of attachment and anthropomorphization in us is not a good way to go. We are extremely susceptible to these feelings, even when they are objectively totally unwarranted.

    This is a problem that often comes up in Artificial Intelligence research–if we are able to come up with a superadvanced AI that seems to have human behaviors, is it morally wrong to unplug it? We might become attached to these AI companions and feel the answer is yes. But again, I think our attachment is a very weak metric.

    Ikea does a nice job of illustrating this. Try not to become attached to this lamp in the all of 30 seconds you are acquainted with it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I07xDdFMdgw

  20. Steve, all living things on earth are literal descendants of some archaeobacterium, a photosynthetic bacterium that was the only living thing on earth some 3.5 billion years ago. We’re all cousins. Mammals branched out from shrewlike things some 65 million years ago. Just as humanity is all one family, so too is life on earth, albeit more distantly related. The reason we find it so easy to form attachments with cats, dogs, horses, monkeys, is that we share so many features due to common ancestry. They are our cousins.

    Cynthia, I understand that we do tend to form attachments with nonliving things as well, such as stuffed animals or our cars, or computer programs named Eliza. =) All these things that we form “false” attachments to have in common that they were created by humans specifically to evoke the feelings involved. It’s true of the Ikea lamp commercial too. That’s what makes the difference to me. I don’t think feelings of attachment can be dismissed just because they can also be evoked deliberately by clever animation, or by plush toys, or fictional characters or good programming.

  21. I am going to second, Cynthia. Our ability to feel compassion for some thing is a poor standard for judging its moral capacity. Some people really love their cars and everyone anthropomorphizes their computers.

    Also, I think I was unclear on something. I think that our special status in the world IS justified by God granting us special status. In other words, I believe that we are different in kind as well as in degree. No Gorilla has within it the potential ability to become an Einstein or a Mother Teresa. All children do.

  22. It’s true that people can feel attachments for things like blankets or stuffed animals or fictional characters, and that doesn’t make the blanket a moral agent. Though I don’t want to get off onto a tangent, there’s a sense in which these attachments do warrant our respect. There are deep mysteries involved in the love of a child for a doll or stuffed animal, as countless tales illustrate (Pinocchio, The Velveteen Rabbit, Pygmalion, etc.) I think that’s a topic for another post.

    But is there any doubt that in the history of our culture, the mainstream has dismissed as unrealistic silly sentiment the idea that slaves should be treated as real people, or that women should be allowed to vote and own property, the idea that people from other cultures should be respected and heard, and so on? In every case hasn’t the unrealistic silly sentiment won out as we grew in knowledge and in power? Isn’t it true that encouraging and developing tender feelings like kindness and love is a major theme in our moral development? I’m not sure we should dismiss such feelings without a lot of prayer and soul-searching.

    If we should happen to meet an extra-terrestrial species more intelligent and more advanced than humanity, should they treat us the way we treat gorillas?

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I think it’s very important for us to keep searching for it, and leave ourselves open to the thought that we can advance morally and intellectually to become much much more than we are now. Part of that advancement seems to me to be recognizing the oneness we share with other living things.

  23. Steve Evans says:

    “If we should happen to meet an extra-terrestrial species more intelligent and more advanced than humanity, should they treat us the way we treat gorillas?”

    Yes. I, for one, welcome our new overlords.

  24. Larry the cable guy says:

    “Of all of God’s creations, man is the one that least fulfills the measure of it’s creation.”
    — a now forgotten MTC devotional speaker (c’mon, there’s one every three days)

    All living things have the privilege of calling themselves a creation of God. As a human race, we have the additional privilege of being children of God, cast in his image and imbued with the spiritual DNA of deity.

    If you follow 2 Nephi 2 from about verse 13 through 26 you see a wonderful explanation of how man’s creation differed from that of the rest of the earth, concluding that we were designed “to act for (our)selves and not to be acted upon.”

  25. Steve Evans says:

    see, e.g., here.

  26. The difference between ourselves and animals is our encounter with the monolith sometime ago.

  27. Two links, here and here, that speak volumes to what is being discussed here.

  28. Trevor FTW.

    The original

    The followup, possibly superior, is in Zoolander (not available)

  29. Tatiana that was beautifully expressed (#22). Understanding the deep linkages between us and our fellow creatures forms connections that we need to be proper stewards of the Earth. And by that I don’t mean caretakers in a gardner sense, I mean like the Lord has over the Earth. Deep care for its inherent value and beauty.

    I think also being aware of the conscious qualities of our fellow travelers here on earth is vital. I honestly think that to the lord animals are more than mere accoutrement to our mortal experience. They are fellow travelers. Obviously there are complexities here because life takes life to continue, but as Tatiana said, even if we don’t know the answer we should keep searching.

  30. re: 23
    But what if they treat us the way we treat, say, cows?

    Speaking of, I’m sure hungry for a nice burger.

  31. haha Mike. Yes, for those of us in southern CA, In-N-Out makes it extremely challenging to be a vegetarian.

  32. Steve Evans says:

    Stop tormenting us northerners with In-N-Out.

    Although: Seattle now has a very good burger place called Lunchbox Laboratory. Here’s a write-up. It is epically delicious, featuring some of our tastier cousins.

  33. Reincarnation is a fascinating subject for Mormon theology if it is expanded to include “intelligences” and doesn’t include recycling human spirits back into the animal kingdom. Has anyone else wondered about the difference between an intelligence and a spirit – what in the creation process separates them?

    I contemplate this occasionally when a topic like this appears. Is it accurate to describe animals as having a degree of intelligence but no spirituality? I don’t know (have no idea, really), but it’s interesting to consider.

  34. I think that our proper relationship with animals is nicely summed up in Section 49 say 18-22 or so.

    I am a big fan of Crown Burger. esp. the onion rings and fry sauce on the side of the burger

  35. Hmmm, I’m thinking “double-double animal style”, but I’m also stuck in Seattle. I have found a couple of great burgers in of all places, Fall City, though, that beg for risking a bypass or two.

    Interesting to me is that often one of the most frequent questions that non-members seem to ask our teenagers about the Mormon faith is what we believe happens to our pets in the afterlife. Deep thoughts, John C, et al.

  36. For those of you who are not In-n-Out fans, double double animal style refers to this.

  37. John C, thanks for the further thoughts. I think I understand your perspective more clearly — you’re accepting as a given the doctrinally-based conclusion that animals are different, and you’re thinking how they might be so, within that doctrinal concept.

    My disagreement is not with doctrine so much as it is with the given you start with. What confused me a bit at the outset was that some of what you said seemed to be looking for data to support your assumed premise. As a practical matter, I don’t think that when the data is fairly considered, it does support your assumption, but that may not be what you want to discuss here.

    You have re-asserted your premise twice more in a way that, I think, assumes the conclusion you draw. (#21 — you believe we are different not because of differences you perceive between us and non-humans, but because you believe that God made us different; and #15 — you assert that the child and the chimp are not in control, but any parent of a seven year old has seen plenty of instances in which s/he is quite clearly in control. We teach potty training a lot earlier than that. Control is not binary at 7 years 364 days and 8 years even.)

    I agree that if human consciousness is different in kind, and not in degree, than that of animals, then the soundness of your conclusion is strengthened. However, I don’t think you’ve begun to demonstrate that premise. I disagree with your assertion that any human child can become Mother Teresa or Albert Einstein. That Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein are such noteworthy and stand-out figures alone seems to suggest the probabilities are against your assertion being accurate. More generally, every human who has striven to attain something only to discover that s/he lacks the specifics required for the task has had an experience that undermines your assertion, as well. Even within Homo sapiens sapiens there is wide variation in development and potential to develop in intellectal, emotional, kinesthetic, and (dare I suggest) spiritual intelligence. Regarding the variability of potential, I think the available data are against the contrary position, whatever the doctrinal conclusions might be that one could draw from such data.

    And as to our confidence about the limits of non-human intellectual, emotional, and social cognition, until we have some inkling of what is actually going on inside those creatures’ minds, I don’t think we have any way of concluding that they’re not engaged in reason and communication and reflection. Heaven knows I’ve encountered humans for whom I had no such evidence, either, even though I speak the same language as they.

  38. Oliver James says:

    “Hmmm, I’m thinking “double-double animal style,” but I’m also stuck in Seattle.”

    Red Mill in Phinney Ridge is worth braving the crowds for.

  39. Oliver, try Lunchbox on 15th some time.

  40. Spuds for Fish and Chips.

    Either Ballard or Alki Beach.

  41. greenfrog,
    I am obviously begging the question here, though I don’t believe that I am doing it alone. Both sides are, to a great degree, reading what they want into the data. I can argue that the scriptures place a special emphasis on choice and rationality in defining our special status in the eyes of god and opponents can certainly argue that the absence of information on animal consciousness does not necessarily reflect a notion of there not being any animal consciousness to begin with.

    That said, I have two practical questions for those who hold that the difference between humanity and animals is one of kind not type:

    1. Why does a just, caring God insist upon the sacrifice of some of his morally culpable children in order to propitiate the sins of some of the others?
    2. Why doesn’t God ever equate the killing of animals with sins leading to millstones and necks?

  42. 1. Why does a just, caring God insist upon the sacrifice of some of his morally culpable children in order to propitiate the sins of some of the others?
    2. Why doesn’t God ever equate the killing of animals with sins leading to millstones and necks?

    I know I’m late to the game here, but I did want to chime in, at least briefly. Any essentialistic answer to the question of how human beings are different from other animals (e.g., rational animals, featherless bipeds, etc.) is bound to fail. I have much more to say about this, and will hopefully add it later (for a helpful read check out Midgley’s Beast and Man , it’s 30 years old but I think gives a good outline of the debate), but for now I just wanted to respond to where the discussion seems to be renewing itself.

    I’m not sure I understand the first question completely, but it seems that that is precisely what he is doing with Jesus, isn’t it?

    As for question #2, if you’re looking for a scriptural reference I don’t see why one would be found given that this kind of question doesn’t seem to be one that comes up in the context of passages that could possibly provide an answer. Other the other hand, I assume that we would agree that A) Killing animals without a good reason is wrong. And B) Killing human beings without a good reason is wrong. It would seem that what needs to be explored is the relationship between “good reasons” in each case. Why, for instance, does it seem that there are fewer “good reasons” not to kill animals?

  43. Regarding question #1,
    I disagree that this is what he is doing with Jesus. I don’t see the parallel unless you are arguing that cattle, sheep, and other such had the moral capability to willingly sacrifice themselves for our spiritual purification. Outside of that, Christ, while potentially sinful, by definition was not sinful, so morally culpable cattle are just bad parallels.

    Regarding question #2,
    I submit that God encourages the deaths of animals throughout the Bible and the Book of Mormon in the creation of a proactive sacrificial system. He simultaneously discourages human death by prohibiting murder. He certainly doesn’t promote human sacrifice and he specifically cites the sacrifice of children to Moloch as one of the great sins of Solomon and the kingdom of Judah.

    I agree that an exploration of “good reasons” is likely to be a fruitful discussion, but I don’t think it is directly relevant to the distinction I am arguing for. I am trying to argue that humanity and animalia do appear to be treated differently in the Standard Works and that humanity is considered morally culpable for its actions in a manner that animals are not. This appears self-evident to me; however, I hope that the examples provided above provide some rationale for the assumption.

  44. I disagree that this is what he is doing with Jesus. I don’t see the parallel unless you are arguing that cattle, sheep, and other such had the moral capability to willingly sacrifice themselves for our spiritual purification. Outside of that, Christ, while potentially sinful, by definition was not sinful, so morally culpable cattle are just bad parallels.

    If I’m following you clearly here you’re saying that the difference between Jesus’ sacrifice and animal sacrifice is that Jesus chose to sacrifice himself, whereas the animals did not (i.e., animals don’t have the faculties to make such a choice).

    For the sake of argument I’ll concede that this very well may be the position portrayed in the scriptures; although your response doesn’t necessarily reflect the question you’ve posed. It seems that God “insists” on both accounts, and the sacrifice of animals does share a similitude of the sacrifice of his son (perhaps this ties into the comments made about our treatment of animals paralleling God’s treatment of us).

    I submit that God encourages the deaths of animals throughout the Bible and the Book of Mormon in the creation of a proactive sacrificial system. He simultaneously discourages human death by prohibiting murder. He certainly doesn’t promote human sacrifice and he specifically cites the sacrifice of children to Moloch as one of the great sins of Solomon and the kingdom of Judah.

    Although he certainly encourages human death in many other instances (although not through the same sacrificial system), and in some cases even seems to treat human life as an “object” to be used in ways similar to animals.

    I also wanted to clarify here that making the argument for “differing by degree” doesn’t necessarily mean that the degree is insignificant, nor that it naturally leads us to equal treatment of humans and other animals.

    I am trying to argue that humanity and animalia do appear to be treated differently in the Standard Works and that humanity is considered morally culpable for its actions in a manner that animals are not.

    There’s no question that humans are treated differently than animals in the scriptures. And to be clear, I’m certainly not saying that they should be treated the same. Speaking within the texts, the portrayal of animals vs. humans is that humans have some kind of relationship with God that animals don’t. Animals are clearly inferior, and provide a supportive role (i.e., they are to be used by human beings) in the fulfilling of the role given to humankind. I’m not so sure much more than this can be said. Speaking outside the text I’m not sure we should rely on the scriptures to provide a more complete answer to this kind of question. I imagine we would agree that animals have some rights, and these rights are theirs not because the violation of them leads to creating bad people (although they certainly do), but that life itself is sacred and worthy of protection. I don’t see the standard works as a good source to fill this position out any more than in vague terms.

    I guess I see these as two different projects–what do the texts say about the relationship between humans and animals? vs. How should we understand the relationship between humans and other animals?

    Answering the latter may involve answering and evaluating the former. Taking your explanation as an appropriate portrayal (although I’m not sure you’ve proven it so) of what’s going on in the scriptures, I’m not sure we’re prepared to evaluate it. Are we saying that animals do not choose? Or if they do, they simply don’t choose between good and evil? And if an animal appears to be evil (a mad dog, for instance), is it just because we’ve socialized it into appearing evil (a bad owner who beats his dog, for instance), or that it’s instinct gone wrong (the dog has contracted rabies, for instance), and not that it’s chosen such a path? I imagine your answer to the last question is, “yes”, but I’m not sure that such can be proven; and it seems that animals that more closely resemble human beings may even hint that the opposite is the more accurate case.

    SmallAxe

  45. That said, I have two practical questions for those who hold that the difference between humanity and animals is one of kind not type:

    1. Why does a just, caring God insist upon the sacrifice of some of his morally culpable children in order to propitiate the sins of some of the others?

    I don’t believe He does, though I think He calls all of us to sacrifice our lives for the welfare of others. I think that the scriptures suggest a number of different models of atonement, and some of those various models are (IMO) profoundly incompatible with others. But they are represented in scripture, and I understand them to be various writers’ metaphorical approximations to something that is not, itself, a function of words. LDS doctrines and practices that entail us taking on ourselves the name and role of Christ come the closest to making sense of atonement, for me. In the context of communal salvation that transcends the individual, the sacrifice is not of One for Another, because we are not separate, but rather we are One.

    I recognize that that particular view of atonement does not necessarily represent an orthodox view, let alone a majority view, but then I find what I understand to be the majority view (require the death of a perfect individual as compensation for the wrongs committed by others) most difficult to accept.

    2. Why doesn’t God ever equate the killing of animals with sins leading to millstones and necks?

    A guess, then a few loosely-connected thoughts.

    The guess, along the lines of Jared Diamond’s thought process regarding food sources and Ken Wilber’s thought process regarding cultural/technological development:

    It’s not always been easy to get “complete” proteins from plant sources — the only sources I know of are soybeans, hempseed, quinoa, amaranth, avocados, and wild rice. If you didn’t happen to live in an area where such plants were available, then reasonably fit physical development wasn’t generally possible without animal proteins. None of those complete vegetable protein sources was native to the Middle East, or even (SFAIK) available there until the last century or so. Since during OT and NT times, physical prowess was a requirement for defending against aggressors and therefore counted for more than just Olympic gold medals, any society that tried to live on vegetable protein alone isn’t likely to have survived those who were willing to consume (and justify the consumption of) animal flesh and conquer the ones who weren’t. That’s the Jared Diamond-style point.

    The Ken Wilber-style point: until an agricultural society develops to a sufficiently industrial technological level, it has to depend on the lives of animals (supplemented by human slaves in every major civilization that we know of) to enable agriculture. (I forget the source, but I ran across an estimate recently that the basic lifestyle in the US requires approximately 51-person-lives of industrial output. Fossil fuels and technology have enabled us to do that without dependence on animals and slaves.) Until the 18th-19th centuries, the needed technology didn’t exist to make agricultural society work without support, so both animals and slaves were relatively common and used.

    Those ideas seem useful to me in evaluating the cultural contexts in which most of the texts we use for scripture arose.

    If one, like me, concludes that the difference between animals and humans is one of degree, rather than of kind, it makes sense even in such a world to prefer the interests of humans over the interests of animals. And in such a world, it isn’t hugely surprising to think that even those who in today’s world are willing to live as vegetarians would not even have asked themselves the question in a society two hundred years ago. Instead, they’d develop ideas about animals that would help them deal with the spiritual harm that they experienced as they killed and ate those to whom they had become attached to one degree or another. Perhaps those ideas would include one that “God meant it this way” because there was no other way for them to live. Perhaps they would develop sacred rituals associated with those killings, as well.

    But we (at least we in the US) are in a different world, both technologically and nutritionally. It doesn’t seem to me that we need to read the scriptural endorsement of animal consumption 100 or 200 or 2000 or 4000 years ago to be an injunction requiring that we do so today. And for the reasons I’ve outlined above, I’m not at all sure that the very substantially changed circumstances between our lives in 21st century US and those of scripture-writers shouldn’t lead us to very different approaches to the questions.

    From an LDS perspective, it’s a commonplace that the answers we get from God depend upon the questions we ask. In doing a quick google search to try to avoid reinventing the wheel when it came to LDS discussions of animals, I ran across this, which provides some of what I was remembering.

    For those interested, I blogged about animal consciousness about a year and a half ago, here.

    For a religion that teaches ongoing revelation, this seems like one of those things that might be interesting to watch over the next century or so.

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