The Human Animal

We as human animals have not extended love and concern for the other animals in our ecological communities as fully as we should. We are currently contributing to the sixth great extinction event in the history of our planets, and it is the only extinction event caused by one species – the human species. Also, just in the past fifty years, the earth has lost over two thirds of its wildlife. The earth I witnessed as a child, the earth I marveled at while watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and while seeing the research of Jane Goodall on PBS, is not the same earth we live on today. We as human animals have not been good to the rest of our animal community.

I use the words “human animal” on purpose because sometimes we human animals have a tendency to want to forget that we are in fact animals and like other animals we are connected to and dependent on our ecological community for our lives and well-being. Like other animals we need good air to breathe, clean water to drink, and nourishing food that only can come from the ecological community of which we are all members. Like other animals, we can feel pain and pleasure, and like many other animals we have emotions. Within the animal community, we are more advanced in our ability for conscious self-reflection, language, and the ability to work together to manipulate our environment through tools and the development of technology, and we are capable of developing complex cultures, expressing ourselves artistically, and possessing moral agency and moral responsibility for our lives and actions. It is these complex functions, capabilities, experiences, and expressions that tend to make us feel that we are somehow greater than being just an animal, but perhaps instead of thinking these make us greater than being an animal, we ought to see them as our special gifts from and contribution to the animal community of which are a part.

Embracing the fact that humans are animals in no way diminishes our value. Rather it helps us see that our value and well-being is deeply connected to the other members of our animal community and the larger ecological community. Rather than seeing our consciousness as something that gives us a right to rule over other animals, let us see our consciousness as a gift from our ecological community, a gift that comes with the responsibility to care for all life.

If we cultivate this attitude of being a part of the greater ecological community along side other animals rather than dominating over them, then we might understand that mistreating the earth is like violence against our parent that made our life possible, and violence against the animal community is abuse of our ecological siblings.

That is a beautiful vision or way of thinking about beloved ecological community, but the reality is that human beings more often than not seem to forget that we are animals and seem to think that other animals for the most part exist simply for our use. We have been much less than perfect in respecting the rights of all humans, and we have been horrifically imperfect in respecting the integrity and welfare of other animals.

When it comes to not respecting the rights of other humans, we are more ready to see this as a moral failure in comparison to our mistreatment of other animals. This is partly owing to the fact that we have seemed to convinced ourselves that only humans have intrinsic value or inherent worth – in other words, many of us tend see only humans has having value for their own sake. Everything else, including other animals are viewed as only having instrumental value – they are seen as only having value for their usefulness. I would suggest that this is a lie that we have collectively told ourselves in order to justify the way we use and treat our siblings in our animal community.

It is much easier for us to take other human beings personally because of the similarities of experiences that we share and our ability to communicate these experiences with each other. We know, or at least can imagine, what it feels like when other another human person suffers, and we know that we would not want to have that same experience. It pains us to see another human being suffer. We have a feeling of natural pity for others who are suffering that sparks a moral sentiment that leads us to disapprove of the suffering of others. I am suggesting that we ought also to have a similar response to the suffering of non-human animals, and not simply treat them as objects or things for our use.

Deep in our hearts and souls, we know that it is a lie that animals only have instrumental value and are not valuable for their own sake. Many of us are confronted by the reality that this is a lie through the personal relationships we have with our animal friends in our homes. We rightly see our animal friends in our homes as part of our family. We take them personally. We care for them and they care for us. I would suggest that we even see them as persons with value for their own sake, with inherent worth regardless of their usefulness. They are a part of our community.

The only reason we are able to treat other animals as objects, as things whose sole value comes from their usefulness to us, is that we have chosen to not take them personally. We have chosen to objectify them. We have chosen to treat them as if their only value is what we can get from them or what they can provide us. It has been a useful lie in some ways in that it has enabled human animals to use other animals for our purposes and make our lives more comfortable without feeling bad about it, but it is still a lie, and it is not an appropriate moral stance in relation to the other members of our animal community. It is an attitude from which we should repent, and we should turn towards a moral stance in which we as human animals seek to live in harmony and community with all other animals as much as it is possible to do so.

In other words, we should take other animals personally. We should realize that intrinsic value or inherent worth is related to experience, not only the conscious self-reflective awareness that humans and perhaps a few other species on earth possess. This realization might help lead to the cultivating of empathy for the other members of our animal community.

My religious tradition calls us to love God and to love our neighbor, and Jesus challenged us to expand our notion of who are neighbor is. Taking nature and the animal community personally, leads us to see that the members of our ecological community are also our neighbors. We are called to love them as well.

And if we love our animal siblings as our neighbors, what is it that we owe them? I would suggest that it entails at least the following – all of which would be an improvement over the current status quo:

  • As much as is possible, we ought to give other animals an opportunity to live for their own sake not just for our sake. This means giving animals an opportunity to live in natural habitats and ecosystems whenever possible.
  • Loving our animal neighbors means preserving a livable climate for them, and we as moral human animals ought to be doing all we can within our power to address the climate crisis that we have created through our choices and actions as a human community.
  • Loving our animal neighbors means dealing with the difficult question of when or if it is ever justifiable to kill them outside of self defense or times when sustenance or other necessity truly might require it.
  • Loving our animal neighbors means allowing them to live a life free from confinement and unnecessary suffering. It means giving them an opportunity to be what they have evolved to be within the beloved ecological community of which are all a part – yes all of us – even we human animals.
  • Loving our animal neighbors would lead us like the 20th Century Christian philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer to develop a reverence for life. Such a reverence for life would support seeing ourselves as human animals as members of the beloved community of all life, including our animal siblings.

I continue to have hope and faith that we human animals will be able to take nature and all other animals personally and that we will be able to make the changes necessary to bring healing to our planet. I have faith that the human spirit will find a way to cut through the greed, short-sightedness, and lack of awareness that woos us into complacency and inaction. I have hope that somehow the 21st Century will be the time that human beings will look back upon centuries from now as being the turning point in humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature and our animal community. I believe that we have the ability to find a way to love each other enough to find a way not to destroy each other and this magnificent ball of life that is our only home.

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