The moral status of animals


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Jampa Dorje, Guest Columnist

I was walking along a path deep in conversation with a friend. We were talking about “tigles,” tiny rainbow spheres that can appear during open-eye meditation, when I saw a flash of light shooting down the path, and a young chipmunk ran under the sole of my boot. With its spine crushed, blood running from its mouth, and with it writhing in the dust, I told my friend to walk on ahead, as she’d not want to watch what I was going to do. I’ve lived on farms. It’s considered reasonable to put down a suffering animal.

 A blow to the head with a rock, and the creature was still.  I dug a small hole, put in a few leaves to make a cushion, and laid the body of the chipmunk in the grave.  I said a mantra, and then I covered the chipmunk with earth and placed a cobble on top.

During a Dharma talk, the subject of killing came up, the difference between accidental and intentional acts of killing, so I told about my encounter with the chipmunk, and Adzom Rinpoche, my lama, said that the first act was accidental and didn’t involve me in the animal’s karma in a negative way, but that my decision to put it out of its misery was more serious in its repercussions, that I should have left it ‘to burn out its karma” without interfering in the process.  Such is the vast difference in views between East and West.

 Not long ago, I attended a talk by Dr. Matthew Altman, one of my professors in the CWU Philosophy and Religious Studies Department, entitled: “Evolving Ethics About Animals: Is ‘Man’ Still the Measure of Everything?” The concept of man being the measure of all things comes from Plato’s “Theaetetus” and is attributed to Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not” (152a). The idea inherent in this statement is that humans hold the most value in the hierarchy of life.

In “Genesis” 1:26, God installs humans as the rulers over the other animals. Altman pointed out the anthropocentric position of the human animal began to shift after Copernicus formulated a new model of the universe in his “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” (1543) that demonstrated that our Earth revolved around the Sun. Although Earth was demoted in stature, humans remained the highest of God’s creatures. In his “Treatise on Man” (1647), Descartes portrayed animals as automatons, but humans were special because of their souls. With the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1859), humans were shown to be a species of animal having evolved over time from a common set of ape ancestors. Anthropomorphism is no longer tenable.

The question arises: If I am an animal and claim to have inalienable rights, shouldn’t other animals have similar rights? As philosopher Mary Ann Warren defines moral considerability, the following criteria are necessary: Sentience (feel pain and pleasure); Reasoning (have complex memory); Self-motivation (control); Communication with others (e.g., Sign language—Fouts’ research was mentioned); and Self-consciousness (awareness of place). These criteria cannot be extended to all animals, but the higher functions are present in many large mammals and provoke our moral concern around the eating of animals and the use and abuse of animals in research and industry. Altman said that Warren’s criteria are “a continuum, and the more of these you have the clearer it is that you’re a person. You can be a person without all of them, but if you have none of them, you’re probably not a person.”

Altman next discussed the works of Peter Singer and Stephen M. Wise. Singer, author of “Animal Liberation” (1975), is an animal welfare theorist and argues for the utilitarian concept that “the greatest good of the greatest number” is the only measure of practical ethical behavior, and he applies this principle to other animals than humans. The welfare approach to animal rights is less concerned about the element of personhood and focuses on pain and suffering. Wise, a lawyer and author of “Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals” (2000), defends animals’ legal rights because he thinks many of them, especially those with higher cognitive functions, should be considered persons and research on the higher primates is punitive. The debate about the moral status of animals ranges from the relative positions of Singer and Wise to an absolutist position that all sentient beings have the right to live.

Near the end of Altman’s talk, an audience member asked if there were approaches from Eastern philosophers, but Altman said he wasn’t comfortable speaking from that perspective. Later, I emailed him and wrote: “My Buddhist take on the subject would be that the view on animal rights is anthropocentric and teleological because of the set goal to liberate all sentient beings from samsara and the concept of humans (among the six classes of beings) as having the shortest route through reincarnation. I allow myself an aesthetic approach to many ethical matters, and here I might suggest that regarding eating meat, it might be considered the height of bad manners to be butchering, serving up, and consuming one’s ancestors. There are strange Tibetan rituals, where meat is an essential ingredient; there are rationalizations that a highly evolved meditator can elevate the mindstream of a less evolved animal; there is a calculus that it is better to eat a cow than a shrimp because it is only one sentient being consumed in many hamburgers against a lot of “sea bugs” in a shrimp cocktail; and there are radical theories about emptiness and the “unborn unborn” that sound to us in the West like Nietzschean madness. Our cowboy culture has led us down a precarious path, and those of us that eat meat would be wise to eat less. And all of us should be thankful for all the sentient life that has perished in the process of becoming something that we eat. Do No Harm is a basic tenet of Buddhism, and Compassion is the means to this end.

Returning to my earlier story about taking on the karma of another sentient being, I guess I have a good likelihood of being reincarnated as a chipmunk.