Working towards a more compassionate world through education and advocacy

Increasing our Compassionate Footprint

September 2015

Cover Page   |   Table of Contents   |   Editorial    |    1     |     2     |    3     |    4    |    5    |    6    |    7     |    8    |    9    |    10    |    11     12   |   13   |   14

continued: ...   Will Theology rescue non-human animals from Human Oppression?

Animals and African Ethics, published by Palgrave MacMillan is a fascinating insight into African ethical systems, combining the moral state and rights of animals together with African philosophy and indigenous knowledge systems. 


This is a synopsis of Professor Kai Horsthemke presentation:

     The purpose of this presentation is not to give graphic images of the evils, cruelty and inhumanities meted out to animals but to begin a conversation that will lead to a better existence with our non-human cousins.


For a very long time it was assumed that there is a difference in kind between human beings and all other creatures ... that we, as humans have a uniqueness that no other beings could possibly share and on this basis we assumed a superiority –  that allowed us to do with the rest of creation  what we liked. We thought that language, self-awareness, autonomy and moral agency set us apart and warranted not only differential but also unequal treatment and consideration of all other creatures.


However, we know now, through science, that animals and humans are on the same continuum and that the difference between us and them is one of degree only – and not one of kind. Humans are superior in some ways. They are inferior in others. When it comes to social organisation and functionality, we are way behind bees, ants and termites, for example.


  • Human language might be unique. But other forms of communication are just as rich. The honey dance of bees, for instance, is an extremely complex form of communication, as is ‘whalesong’.


  • Chimps, orang-utans and gorillas are proficient at (human) sign language. A journalist who interviewed a chimp through sign language is on record as saying the hairs on his back stood up when he realised that this yielded insight into another species’ subjective consciousness.


  • Dogs are said to be better at reading our expressions than other humans are. There is the story of the Jack Russell who kept his care-giver (who had suffered a stroke) alive for three days (that is, until he was discovered) by dipping a cloth into the toilet bowl and bringing it to him. This was not something he had been taught.



There are so many of these stories, and they blow the idea of a radical difference in kind between humans and non humans right out of the water. 


Our understanding now - that we exist on a biological and psychological continuum with animals  - has profound implications for the way we treat them and warrants our serious consideration of how our so-called uniqueness has been used to justify the gulf between us and them and make it possible for us to use and abuse them.


There are two basic moral arguments for liberation of non-human animals from human oppression. 


In 2014 in a forthright foreword to the Global Guide to Animal Protection published by the University of Illinois,  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said ...


"We must fight injustice to animals as we do injustice to blacks, women and gays"


“I have spent my life fighting discrimination and injustice, whether the victims are blacks, women, or gays and lesbians. No human being should be the target of prejudice or the object of vilification or be denied his or her basic rights.


But there are other issues of justice – not only for human beings but also for the world’s other sentient creatures. The matter of the abuse and cruelty we inflict on other animals has to fight for our attention in what sometimes seems an already overfull moral agenda. It is vital, however, that these instances of injustice not be overlooked.


I have seen firsthand how injustice gets overlooked when the victims are powerless or vulnerable, when they have no one to speak up for them and no means of representing themselves to a higher authority. Animals are in precisely that position. Unless we are mindful of their interests and speak out loudly on their behalf, abuse and cruelty go unchallenged.


It is a kind of theological folly to suppose that God has made the entire world just for human beings, or to suppose that God is interested in only one of the millions of species that inhabit God’s good earth,”


See more of what Archbishop Tutu says in his preface to

The Global Guide to Animal Protection. The Global Guide to Animal Protection is published in both the UK and USA - priced USD95 (cloth) and  USD27 (paper).


1. The first is the so-called ‘argument from marginal cases’, also known as ‘the argument from species overlap’. It states that any human excellence or criterion of uniqueness or superiority that is usually cited to distinguish between humans and non-humans will also fail to apply to some human beings, like the very young and the mentally incapacitated. Yet, these human beings clearly matter morally – and this inability does not entitle us to treat them in whatever way we like. If humans beings on the ‘margins’ of humanity matter – like the mentally incapacitated, the senile and the very young - then we must also grant equal (albeit not necessarily the same) moral status to non-humans who do not share these excellences.


Some philosophers have tried to torpedo this argument on the grounds of the consideration that there is a characteristic that distinguishes all humans from all non-humans, namely the fact of their common humanity. It is because we are human that we are special.


2.  The response to this has become known as ‘the argument from speciesism’. This argument states that just as it is morally inexcusable to leave someone out of our moral concern because of their sex, and just as it is morally inexcusable to treat any person as inferior because of their race or ethnicity, so too is it morally inexcusable to exclude on the basis of species. If sexism is wrong and racism is wrong, then speciesism must be wrong and is an irrational prejudice just like racism and sexism.


So how do we begin to secure a place for non-human animals?


People commonly appeal to considerations of kindness and compassion. The problem with such appeals, however, is that being kind or compassionate does not guarantee that one will actually end up doing the right thing. Furthermore, the moral status of a human or non-human does not depend on our psychological states regarding these creatures, or whether or not we sympathise with them. Others also appeal to what might be called ‘sentientism’, that the moral weighty fact is whether or not a creature can suffer and experience pain. The problem with this approach is that it does not really accord any kind of moral harm or disvalue to death. If it only matters whether or not an individual experiences pain, then there can be no objection to killing him or her, as long as this is done painlessly, i.e. without involving suffering.

"And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.’ "


– Matthew 25:40


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