Humans as animals

Humans are not animals according to Descartes’ distinction of res cogitans and res extensa. They are also not animals according to many Christian theologians (Jesus came to save humans, not animals). Perhaps humans are not (only) animals also according to the Aristotelian definition of human beings as “rational animals”, which attributes to humans alone a distinctive character. Humans are also quite different than animals when it comes to their respective rights. But here starts a moot point:

  1. If, in fact, humans have more rights than animals because they are the dominant group, then this resembles very much racism or any other dominion of one group over the other.
  2. If, by contrast, humans have more rights than animals because they are different than animals, then what does this difference consist of? If it amounts to rationality, should psychically empaired human beings have no rights?

Since after the end of the Nazi experiments a (more or less) general consensus has been achieved about the fact that psychically empaired human beings deserve the same rights, one is led back either to No. 1 or to a different basis of the human claim for rights. This could be Peter Singer’s claim that one’s moral stand should be calculated not on the basis of one’s ability to reach a soteriological goal or one’s rational value but on the basis of one’s ability of experiencing pain (Singer 1975). This includes psychically empaired human beings. But it also includes at least many animals (one might argue about the fact that many invertebrates with no nerve ganglia cannot literally speaking experience pain).

The discussion about the inclusion of animals within the realm of beings to whom human rights can be ascribed, thus, seems to hit a nerve in Western thought. It seems that no straight line can be legitimately drawn to separate animals and humans and that there is more a net of family resemblances than a straight opposition between the two groups (a dolphin or a gorilla, just to take an obvious example, seem to me to resemble a human being much more than they resemble an amoeba, although all three can be used for the sake of medical research or kept in zoo-like institutions).

The situation is slighly different in other traditions of thought. In Classical Chinese Confucian philosophy, for instance, the idea that we have stronger obligations towards the members of our extended family and towards further “proximate” people is a viable option and one could easily extend this model to animals, so that it would be legitimate to attribute rights first to the members of our families, then to members of our communities, then to further human beings, then to pet-animals, then to further animals with whom we are somehow connected and only at last to further animals. However, this option clashes with the Western ambition of building a universal ethical system, does not it?

I wrote about Indian reflections on this topic in a forthcoming article (a preliminary draft of which is available here), where I basically argue that most Indian thinkers seem to see non-human and human animals along a hierarchical sequence with no brisk interruption.
Daya Krishna connects this with the utilitaristic approach to knowledge which characterises most Indian explicit reflections about it:

The usual Indian analysis is centered around the hedonistic view of human nature which sees it as naturally seeking pleasure and avoding pain and has a pragmatic view of knowledge which sees the `truth’ of knowledge in terms of its ability to avoid pain and afford pleasure to the humanking. But on this view no distinction is possible between the human and the animal world as the latter also is supposed to seek pleasure or avoid pain and `sees’ the `truth’ of its knowledge in terms of the `success’ achieved by it in this enterprise. In fact, the whole learning theory in modern psychology and the training of animals is based on this premiss (2004, p. 237)

Let me just add that Daya Krishna is thinking of the first aphorism in the foundational text of the Nyāya school (NS 1.1.1), where knowledge is linked to the achievement of one’s summum bonum. In another philosophical school, the Mīmāṃsā, animals are also considered on the same level as humans when it comes to the fact of desiring happiness (PMS chapter 6).

For a critical discussion of the concept of “rights”, see Amod Lele’s discussion here (and in the previous posts). On why I am citing Daya Krishna, see this post. Within Chinese philosophy, on Confucius vs. Mozi regarding the universality of rights see this post by Eric Schwitzgebel.
(cross-posted, with minor modifications, on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

14 thoughts on “Humans as animals

  1. Should anyone be exploring the relations between human and non-human animals in-depth, I would recommend at least the following by way of seeing what is distinctive about human animals vis-à-vis non-human animals. These works may not be well-known in many circles (and they are not of Indian philosophical provenance nor treat topics as discussed in Indian worldviews) but they deserve recognition for addressing this subject with (by my lights) startling insight, philosophical depth, and argumentative clarity.

    • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics (Imprint Academic, 2008).
    • Gillett, Grant. The Mind and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press, second ed., 2009).
    • P.M.S. Hacker. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework (Blackwell, 2007).
    • P.M.S. Hacker. The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature (Wiley Blackwell, 2013).
    • Smith, Christian. What is a Person? (Chicago University Press, 2010).
    • Tallis, Raymond. The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being (Edinburgh University Press, 2003).
    • Tallis, Raymond. The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth. (Edinburgh University Press, 2004).
    • Tallis, Raymond. I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being (Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

  2. Thanks for the post, Elisa. I enjoyed it – and it is timely. I have been asked (for my sins) to discuss the concept of non-human animals in the Indian philosophical tradition – and have so far come up only with explanations for why it is not thematized in the same way in India as in Europe. Does anyone know of any good (fun, sharp, odd, intriguing) discussions of non-human animals as such in the Sanskrit philosophical literature?

    • Hi Amber, if Chris Framarin or Shyam Ranganathan are paying attention, they may have something to say to this. I’m familiar with a handful of very interesting claims here and there, like early Nyaya passages that say all living beings, including animals, avail themselves of knowledge-sources and things like that, which have some interesting connections to whether animals can have cognition loosely akin to human cognition. But they aren’t sustained discussions of the status or capacities of non-human animals.

      And while I wouldn’t tie it to Singer it does seem that (i) the fact that consciousness is central to selfhood (for Hindus) and not rationality, and (ii) there is the idea that reincarnation can occur from human to animal and back (Shankara says this explicitly, and of course it’s there in the dharmashastras), make for less of a hard division between the human and animal domains.

      • Hi Amber

        I would add that if you don’t draw a moral distinction between non human animals and human animals, the discussion of animals will generally be invisible and continuous with discussions of humans or persons. I read lots of Indian philosophy this way. The Yoga Sutra strikes me as an example of this kind of approach.

        But there are some comments that stand out in my mind. I can’t remember the exact reference but Ramanuja in the Vedarthasamgraha talks about how the proper perspective on yourself is to understand yourself as essentially the same as other agents, whether they are an outcaste or a dog. I always found this a powerful criticism of casteism and speciesism. Yet, in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra, he defends the practice of Vedic animal sacrifices.

        He claims that this practice does animals a favour of sending them up to a higher next birth. Shankara defends the practice at the same point in his commentary: III.i.25

        Kumarila Bhatta similarly defends the practice in his defense of a deontology based on Vedic injunction. He further criticizes the idea that hedonism, teleology and suffering can be a criterion of moral action. (Slokavartika II.242-47)

        What I find interesting in these Brahmanical accounts is that they do not deny the personhood of animals, so much as take up the challenge of justifying treating them differently than we would humans. Indeed, the apologetics only makes sense if we assume some type of background equality of animals. Otherwise, if animals were not persons, and lacked standing, we could do whatever we want with them, without having to justify our actions. That’s largely our way these days (clearly for the worse).

  3. One might look at the references in the following literature, in English, most of which I found browsing through my bibliography:

    • Chapple, Christopher. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.
    • Dalal, Neil and Chlöe Taylor, eds. Asian Perspectives on Animal Ethics: Rethinking the Nonhuman. New York: Routledge, 2014.
    • Jacobsen, Knut A. ‘The Institutionalization of the Ethics of “Non-Injury” toward All “Beings” in Ancient India,’ Environmental Ethics 16: 287-301, 1994.
    • Kemmerer, Lisa. Animals and World Religions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
    • Kemmerer, Lisa and Anthony J. Nocella II. Call to Compassion: Religious Perspectives on Animal Advocacy from a Range of Religious Perspectives. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books, 2011.
    • Perret, Roy. W. ‘Moral Vegetarianism and the Indian Tradition,’ in Ninian Smart and Shivesh Thakur, eds. Ethical and Political Dilemmas of Modern India. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993.
    • Schmidt-Raghavan, Maithili. ‘Animal Liberation and Ahimsa,’ in Ninian Smart and Shivesh Thakur, eds. Ethical and Political Dilemmas of Modern India. Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1993.

  4. Hi Amber,

    My recent book Hinduism and Environmental Ethics: Law, Literature, and Philosophy (Routledge) sums up many of the dominant arguments in the literature regarding the moral standing of animals (and plants and other entities) – such as arguments that animals have direct moral standing because they are interconnected with the rest of nature, because they are part of God, because they have an ātman, and so on. I evaluate these arguments and offer some new ones, drawing from the Yogaśāstra, Mahābhārata, and Manusmṛti. There I discuss the burning of the Khaṇḍava Forest in the Mahābhārata, Yudhiṣṭhira’s discussion with Bhīṣma about meat eating, and others.
    Hope this might be of some help,

  5. In case you ever check back in on this, Amber, I just noticed a that Arindam Chakrabarti’s chapter “Rationality in Indian Philosophy” (in A Companion to World Philosophies ed. Eliot Deutsch, Blackwell), has a section “How are Humans Special?” that will be of relevance to your question. It has some quotations that may be worth following up on, too.

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