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.