Draft: appeared as ‘Two Ethics: Killing Animals in the Past and the Present’ in



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Draft: appeared as ‘Two Ethics: Killing Animals in the Past and the Present’ in Killing Animals, The Animal Studies Group ed. (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago), pp.99-119.

Two Ethics: Killing Animals in the Past and the Present
Erica Fudge
In Man and the Natural World Keith Thomas stated that “In the case of animals what was normally displayed in the early modern period was the cruelty of indifference. For most persons beasts were outside the terms of moral reference. ... It was a world in which much of what would later be regarded as ‘cruelty’ had not yet been defined as such.” As evidence Thomas cites the popularity of baiting, hunting, cock-fighting, hawking, the fairground contest of biting the heads off live chickens or sparrows, and bull-running. As well as these ‘sports’ Thomas lists as his evidence schoolboy games that included flaying live frogs, stoning dogs and throwing chickens into pike-infested ponds.1 What emerges from just these few pages of a lengthy book is a vision of a world of savagery and, as he notes, grotesque indifference to animal suffering.

In this essay I will argue, however, that to state as Thomas does that animals were “outside the terms of moral reference” is to fail to fully examine the nature of the ethical context of the early modern period, and, as such, is to write off those events listed as evidence of a lack of a concept of cruelty to animals as mere barbarity rather than as important indicators of a complex attitude to animals. And, it is worth noting, a claim for the savagery of the period, which is implied in Thomas’ statement, would also remove those elements of early modern culture that we do not regard as savage--Shakespeare’s plays, the poetry of John Donne, and so on--from one aspect of their historical context. In this essay I will argue that in early modern England the ethical context of human relationships with animals--and in particular, the killing of animals--was much more complex that Thomas allows for. I will also argue that recognizing this complexity might allow us to re-evaluate not only the early modern period, but also modern human/animal relations. I begin with what is the central mode of ethics in the period, I will then shift my focus, as numerous early modern thinkers did, to trace another ethic that undercuts Thomas’ assertion and offers another way of thinking about the past.


Self-Serving Kindnesses
Philip P. Hallie proposes a useful title for what is the most orthodox ethical framework in the early modern period: “Inward Government” theory. This theory--emerging from the classical as well as the Christian tradition--proposes that “a good person is one whose passions are under control of his reason. To be good one’s soul must be a harmonious, smoothly running state with reason at its head. To be good is to be self-controlled, or rather reason-controlled.”2 Such a theory was based upon a belief in a struggle between the body and the soul, the flesh and the spirit in every human, and it was the passions--the appetites of the body rather than the mind--that must be controlled. These passions, in the words of Nicholas Coeffeteau, “reside onely in the sensitive appetite, and ... they are not fashioned but in the irrationall part of the soule.”3 To live through direction only of one’s passions (which include such things as love, hatred, desire, pleasure and fear) without using one’s mind was, in this theory, to descend to the level of the beast, and this descent was literal, not merely metaphorical. The key division in “Inward Government” theory was between human and animal and was based upon an analogous binary: the possession or lack of reason. Animals, so the tradition argues, lack reason, and therefore lack self-awareness and self-control. Humans possess reason, and should therefore exercise it in self-awareness and self-control. It is the role--perhaps a better word would be duty--of the human to ensure that they are self-controlled; that they govern their urges and live reasonably.

Within this theoretical framework, animals are the absolute other; despite the prospect of the human becoming a beast, animals are perceived to have no community with humans. They are the things against which humans position themselves (there is, as I discuss later, a difference between being a human being beastly and being an animal). But the theory uses this opposition of human and animal to reiterate the centrality of not merely humanity, but the individual human; the self. The focus is not upon the community as a whole--the government of others--as much as it is about the government of one’s own being (although the former can emerge out of the latter--a tyrant rules through passion rather than reason).4 In discussions of cruelty, for example, writers do not deal with the moral patient--the individual suffering--but instead focus on the moral agent--the individual being cruel--and as such self-control, not suffering, is key. This is something that can be traced in a text that had a massive influence on Renaissance thinking: Seneca’s De Clementia.5

Seneca’s work was translated into English by Thomas Lodge in 1614 as A Discourse of Clemencie. In it Seneca writes: “Crueltie is humane evill, it is unworthy so milde a minde: this is a beast-like rage to rejoice in bloud and wounds, and laying by the habite of a man, to translate himselfe to a wilde beast.”6 No mention is made here of the individual suffering the infliction of cruelty: the effect of cruelty is discussed only in relation to its impact upon the moral agent, the person being cruel. The cruel man becomes, for Seneca, a “wilde beast”; this is not mere exaggeration or imagery, but the transformation is logical: because he has ceased to use his reason, has become unreasonable, the distinction between human and animal that underpins Seneca’s (and so many others’) work has broken down, and the cruel self therefore is--logically--translated into the beast.

Such an “egocentric theory” (Hallie’s phrase) is central to numerous writings in early modern England, and it finds a clear illustration in texts that look at the human relationship with animals. Many of these take as their source not only classical ideas but also the work of the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, in which classical and Christian thought were brought together. Aquinas took from Plato and Aristotle a belief that within God’s creation there is a chain of being which organizes that world. Arthur O. Lovejoy, quoting from Aristotle, has defined such a “conception of the universe” as one in which there was


an immense, or ... an infinite, number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents, which barely escape non-existence, through `every possible’ grade up to the ens perfectissimum--or, in a somewhat more orthodox version, to the highest possible kind of creature, between which and the Absolute Being the disparity was assumed to be infinite--every one of them differing from that immediately above and that immediately below it by the ‘least possible’ degree of difference.7
Human superiority to animal is, as in “Inward Government” theory, based on possession of reason, while animal superiority to plant is based on the capacities for movement and perception (these are the degrees of difference). Both of these forms of superiority are presented as natural, and are evidenced in use: Aquinas states “It is, therefore, legitimate for animals to kill plants and for men to kill animals for their respective benefit.” In fact, that legitimacy is regarded as a natural duty: as Dorothy Yamamoto succinctly presents it, for humans in Aquinas’ theory “there is no sin in killing animals. In fact, to refuse to eat meat is to spurn the careful provisions which God has made to sustain human life on earth.”8 But this is not the end of the uses of animals given to humans on the basis of their superiority, and in a passage only a couple of pages after the above quotation from Aquinas, it seems that so superior is the human, the distinction between animal and plant appears to disappear. Aquinas writes: “He who kills another’s ox does indeed commit a sin, only it is not the killing of the ox but the inflicting of proprietary loss on another that is the sin. Such an action is, therefore, included not under the sin of homicide but under that of theft or robbery.”9 Killing an ox, it would seem, is little different from, say, stealing a cart.

However, even as he appears to present animals as mere objects, there is, in Aquinas’ theory, the possibility of kindness, but this kindness, once again, does not represent a vision in which animals are humans’ moral equals, far from it. Animals, Aquinas writes, can be “loved from charity as good things we wish others to have, in that by charity we cherish this for God’s honour and man’s service.”10 That is, animals should be cared for, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of their owners, or of God. This perception of animals is taken up in England in the early modern period, and a summary is offered that is clear, to the point, and wholly in keeping with “Inward Government” theory: in his 1612 sermon Mercy to a Beast John Rawlinson wrote “Save a beast’s life and save a mans.”11

Taking, like Rawlinson, their lead from Aquinas and from Proverbs 12:10--“a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast”--numerous other early modern theologians were led into discussions of the moral responsibility of humans towards animals, but their discussions remain strangely--although logically--egocentric, self-interested. Writing in 1589 Thomas Wilcox stated: “hee is mercifull, if to beastes, much more to men.”12 Likewise in 1592 Peter Muffett wrote, “if he be so pitifull to his beast, much more is he mercifull to his servants, his children, and his wife.”13 Here, we have a glimpse of the natural world in microcosm, of a domestic chain of being: animals are at the bottom, with the master/father/husband at the top. However, even in this inferior position animals are still perceived to be within the moral compass of humanity, but for a particular reason: becoming inured to viciousness to animals, so the Thomist argument goes, makes one more likely to be vicious to humans, something that would endanger not only other humans (a concern, but not the most important one here) but also one’s own immortal soul (the greatest concern of all).

Keith Thomas has labeled this early modern perception of animals as beings within the moral compass of humanity as a “new attitude,” and argues that it is paradoxical that such a vision should come from “the old anthropocentric tradition.”14 What he fails to take full notice of is that, not only do the “new” ideas merely repeat what can be found in the much older Thomist model, but that they remain absolute in their anthropocentrism. Kindness to animals is asserted, not because animals deserve to be treated with kindness, but because it is self-serving: as Joseph Hall wrote, “The mercifull man rewardeth his owne soule; for Hee that followeth righteousnesse and mercy, shall find righteousnesse, and life, and glory; and therefore, is blessed for ever.15

But, there is something that can be labeled as “new” in early modern English ethics, something that Thomas doesn’t fully take notice of. In fact, he seems, initially, to dismiss out of hand the importance of the work of those thinkers--Montaigne and his followers--who can be traced as a source of this new ethic in England in the early seventeenth century: “most contemporary readers”, Thomas writes, “would have thought them extravagant nonsense.”16 This dismissal of the influence of ideas voiced by Montaigne comes in part, I think, because Thomas regards what he terms the “new sensibility”--what might actually be called the ‘generous anthropocentrism’ of Thomism--as a positive enough response. But the other proposal about animals that gets such short shrift from Thomas comes from another way of looking at the world. This is not a focus upon inward government, rather the gaze is outside of the self, and onto the other, and that other, it turns out, can be an animal.
The Community of the Self
Montaigne’s essay “Of Cruelty” was first published in 1580 and expanded as Montaigne returned to his essays between 1580 and 1588. It is, so Hallie argues, “one of the most powerful essays on ethics ever written. ... In a few pages it manages to explore and explode one of the main traditions in the history of man’s thought about good and evil, and then--again with remarkable brevity--it makes a statement about ethics that illuminates and gives vitality to the usually heartless abstractions of Western ethics.”17 What Montaigne does that is so remarkable at that date is turn away from the self that is central to inward government theory and look instead at the other, at the individual on whom cruelty is inflicted. But as if this turn in itself was not noteworthy enough Montaigne goes further, and makes the crucial distinction in his worldview not reason but sentience; not the ability to rationalize the world but the capacity to feel in it. He argues “Savages do not shock me as much by roasting and eating the bodies of the dead as do those who torment them and persecute them living.”18 The reason for this statement is clear: at least the bodies that are cannibalized are already dead, while those that are tortured still live, and are therefore able to feel. He cannot even look, he writes, “on the executions of the law, however reasonable they may be ... with a steady gaze.” Punishment should be, instead, upon the bodies of dead criminals not live ones, “against the shell, not the living core.”19

This emphasis on sentience rather than reason, on the capacity to feel rather than the capacity to rationalize, inevitably leads Montaigne to a discussion of animals. “I have not even been able without distress to see,” he writes, “pursued and killed an innocent animal which is defenseless and which does us no harm.” His distress is not sentimental, however--that is, it is not emotional or anthropomorphic--it is based on this new logic. He writes of animals: “There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.”20 The fact of the relationship leads, for him, logically to a sense of obligation; animals, unlike the dead bodies of humans, are sentient, and can, if only by basic means, communicate their suffering. There is, on this basis, recognition, and from that recognition should come society, fellow-feeling. Montaigne writes that when, in the hunt, “the stag, feeling himself out of breath and strength, having no other remedy left, throws itself back and surrenders to ourselves who are pursuing him, asking for our mercy by his tears ... that has always seemed to me a very unpleasant spectacle.”21 The spectacle is unpleasant because the stag can communicate its suffering, or rather, because Montaigne is willing to believe that what is being communicated in the tears in the eyes of the stag can--and must--be interpreted as suffering. Where in inward government theory the focus was on the beast within--the unreasonable part of that reasonable creature, the human--for Montaigne, the focus is upon the creature outside of us.22

While in Montaigne’s work there is a turning away from assertions of human superiority and the significance of the rule of reason that is rare in this period, his inclusion of animals within the human moral framework can be found in other writers. Strangely, in relation to his earlier dismissal of the influence of Montaigne on English ethical thinking, Thomas seems to change his mind when he notes not only that Montaigne’s Essais were translated into English twice during the seventeenth century, but also that “Many shared the view expressed by Montaigne” in “Of cruelty.”23 Thomas’ ambivalence towards the power and influence of Montaigne’s attitude to animals is not unusual. Numerous critics of Montaigne have also refused to take his views in and of themselves wholly seriously. In his study of the ethical and political themes in Montaigne’s Essais, for example, David Quint writes: “The essayist will advocate kindness toward animals less because of sentimental notions of creaturely kinship, than because ‘humanity’ separates us from the cruelty of an animal world of predators and victims--which the hunt too closely resembled. Our capacity for humanity counters our bestial instinct to inhumanity.”24 Quint here seems to be reading Montaigne as an inward government theorist, and is ignoring the fact that in the longest of his Essais, “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne writes, “We recognize easily enough, in most of their works, how much superiority the animals have over us, and how feeble is our skill to imitate them.”25 Such a statement as this (and there are numerous other similar ones) goes against the interpretation of animals as images of predation and violence that Quint proposes. And, because he ignores this aspect of Montaigne’s work, Quint has nothing further to say about Montaigne’s attitude towards animals.

Another refusal to take Montaigne’s vision of animals wholly seriously can also be traced in The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century, George Boas’ study of Montaigne and his followers. Boas regards Montaigne’s “theriophily” (love of animals) as an exercise within the popular “genre of the Paradoxes,” in which writing was “for literary effect and not for demonstrating truth.”26 Animals are, it would seem, merely part of a literary game that Montaigne is playing, they are never real animals. It is as if, so often, critics are unwilling to contemplate the possibility that a key thinker of the early modern period might have something radical (still radical) to say about nonhuman beings. It is as if it is not quite possible to reconcile the centrality of Montaigne with the perceived marginality of thinking about animals. This is not a view that was shared in Montaigne’s own time. Sir William Cornwallis, for example, wrote in 1610 of Montaigne’s “womanish” discussion of the “death of birdes and beasts”; “alas this gentlenesse of Nature is a plaine weakenesse.”27 There is nothing to suggest in this dismissal that Cornwallis didn’t take Montaigne at his word, that he didn’t read Montaigne’s views about animals as serious. It’s just that he didn’t agree with them.



However, I also want to argue that Montaigne’s views about animals are worth taking seriously, and that to dismiss them is to undermine the coherence of his wider ethical statements. As well as this I want, as a historian, to take Montaigne’s views seriously because there is evidence that his ideas were taken up by a number of writers in England, and that while it is difficult to attribute them at origin directly to Montaigne, these writers do reiterate arguments that are present in the Essais. What perhaps links Montaigne to these English writers is not nationality or religion--the works that follow are by English Protestants while Montaigne was a French Catholic--but the sense in which it is the everyday rather than the abstract that is the focus. Where Seneca detailed cruelty as an abstract concept, Montaigne wrote not only about the concept, but about actual events, often events that he was directly involved with. Likewise, the English writers I will look at are writing manuals to direct everyday living, are giving sermons to address ordinary concerns. They come from a background in theology, certainly, but for them the Bible is the source of ethics, and ethics, for Joseph Hall, one of the most renowned sermonizers of the age, is “a Doctrine of wisedom and knowledge to live wel. ... the end wherof is to see and attaine that chiefe goodness of the children of men”.28 We are dealing with what might be termed good lives, not just with the inward government theory’s focus on good selves. Although the two--good lives and good selves--are inseparable, in Montaigne’s new ethics a good life must take note of the world in which it is lived, it must include in its contemplation not only its own actions, but also the impact of those actions on other beings in that world. This is very different from attempting to attain a good self. But, as well as emphasizing the importance of Montaigne’s attitude to animals, it is also possible to see how another context made the notion of the community of all creatures more acceptable than might be expected in early modern England.
The Other Ethics
During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries natural philosophy, the study of the natural world, was a very different practice from modern zoological or ethological investigations. On one level the natural world was studied, not because it was of interest in itself, but because it offered a further understanding of the creator. In his Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, for example, Edward Topsell, a cleric, proposed that animals were created in order “that a man might gaine out of them much devine knowledge, such as is imprinted in them by nature, as a tipe or spark of that great wisedome whereby things were created.”29 What follows in this lengthy text is an attempt to outline the workings of God through an analysis of animals, and the implication of that intention was, as Peter Harrison has written, that “the literary context of the living creature was more important than its physical environment. Animals had a ‘story’, they were allocated meanings, they were emblems of important moral and theological truths.” As well as this, another early modern conception added to the meaning of the natural world. This conception emphasized animals’ connection with humans: as Harrison notes, the human was perceived as “an epitome of all the animals. Birds and beasts could thus symbolise distinct passions, virtues and vices.”30 The cunning of a fox, the loyalty of a dog, the timidity of a hare, all of these apparently pre-determined animal behaviors were used to explain more generally the concepts of cunning, loyalty and timidity in humans.

In these terms, animals were represented as meaningful and recognizable to humans. To offer just one example, Topsell begins his chapter “Of the Elephant” with the following statement: “There is no creature among al the Beasts of the world which hath so great and ample demonstration of the power and wisedome of almighty God as the Elephant: both for proportion of body and disposition of spirit.” The spirit of this animal includes, in Topsell’s analysis, its generosity: “They are so loving to their fellowes, that they will not eat their meat alone, but having found a prey, they go and invite the residue to their feastes and cheere, more like to reasonable civill men, then unreasonable brute beasts.”31 Here, a mere animal is presented as being capable of the “civill” behavior that humans so frequently fail to display. As such, the elephant offers to Topsell’s readers a vision of how a good human might behave. God has sent this sign, and the natural philosopher’s argument is that humans should learn to interpret it correctly, and from that interpretation become better--more Godly--people.

The outcome of this understanding of the study of animals is, then, that animals are often anthropomorphized. The male bear, to offer another example, has the decency to leave the female bear alone when she is pregnant, and the clear meaning of this zoological ‘fact’ is that male humans should act in the same way towards pregnant women.32 What this anthropomorphism does is reduce the distance between humans and animals. Animals remain lesser beings--their virtuous behavior is not willed, it comes from natural instinct rather than a process of moral decision making, also known as reason--but the naturalness of an animal’s virtue reinforces the need for humans themselves to be virtuous. “For yf,” as the translation of one French text of 1585 presented this argument, “the beastes do better their office accordyng to their nature, then men doe theirs, they deserve more to be called reasonable, then men.”33


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