Animalia Commonalis: Truth, Suffering and Ethics

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. (Galileo Galilei)

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. (Buddha)

The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. (James A. Garfield)

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Why do we want so desperately to know whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe when we treat so much human and non-human life on this planet with such disdain?

blue turtles on brown sand
Photo by Jolo Diaz on Pexels.com

I’ve written briefly here about what makes homo sapiens special.

We know that species other than ours exhibit some of these qualities:

  • Problem solving
  • Sophisticated memory
  • Ability to plan
  • Tool use
  • Culture
  • Ability to act contrary to instinctive behaviour
  • Belief in gods of one sort or another

As far as we know, the last item on the list is unique to us. This could mean either that there are gods of some kind or that we have a tendency to mistake certain types of patterns for gods.

What of the second to last? We are not purely instinctive creatures. Without that, we would never have developed Science, mathematics, technology.

But there exist humans with a severe mental handicap who cannot participate in anything approaching the “lofty intellectual heights”. Neither can young children.

For children, this is only transient you say. Rightly so. Children mature.

Not so for someone with a severe mental handicap.

Perhaps questions like “what makes us special?” or “what sets us apart from other animals?” are less than useful.

Perhaps it would be better to ask instead: What do we have in common?

Animalia Commonalis popped into my head when I was writing this post. By this latin-sounding (but not real) phrase, I was trying to capture this idea: The Commonality of Animals.

Of course, there’s a continuum of complexity of animal life starting from self-replicating molecules (RNA, DNA), to viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals like us.

Just limiting ourselves to mammals, all have:

  • A common body plan. Animals as diverse as whales and bats share the same basic skeletal structure and organs.
  • An apparent desire, or at least a strong instinct, to care for their young.
  • The ability to feel pain, to suffer.

The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? (Jeremy Bentham 1789, in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

Bentham said this more than 200 years ago!

Where on this continuum from viruses to us does the ability to suffer begin? Dogs don’t pass the mirror test whereas pigs do, but few would say that a dog cannot suffer.

Do bees feel pain or is the avoidance of harmful stimuli purely mechanical with no pain response? It seems that no-one really knows the answer yet.

I’ll be honest and say that right now I’m more concerned about dealing with the more obvious and well-documented suffering of mammals, birds, and fish by our hand. The “low hanging fruit”. Even choosing not to consume one of these groups is a big win at this point. The jury is still out for me regarding insects.

Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight. (Albert Schweitzer)

Whether starting from the idea that not consuming animal products may be healthier for us, from worrying about the environment and sustainability, or from a concern for the welfare of animals other than ourselves, one can eventually be led to the realisation that what we once did only to people taken out of Africa to America and to other “civilised” countries, we are now doing to other species, but worse.

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. (Leonardo da Vinci)

Speciesism is just a generalisation of racism beyond the borders of homo sapiens.

In my view, along with Climate Change, Speciesism is the defining issue of our time, and we will be judged by future generations on how we responded to both.

If Climate Change is an existential crisis, Speciesism can be thought of as a battle for the collective “soul” of homo sapiens.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. (Mahatma Ghandi)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: