BMCR 1994.10.02

1994.10.02, Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals

, Animal minds and human morals : the origins of the Western debate. Cornell studies in classical philology ; v. 54. The Townsend lectures. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. 267 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780801429484. $39.95.

Richard Sorabji’s previous books in Greek philosophy include several important studies of Aristotelian and post-Aristotelian philosophy of science and metaphysics. His work combines solid and wide-ranging scholarship with clear philosophical argument, and he has always been interested in connections between scientific theory and ethical theory, particularly in his justly praised Necessity, Cause, and Blame: Perspectives on Aristotle’s Theory (1980). These virtues are on display in the present volume as well, but there is an additional element that gives the book a special interest, and makes it worth reading for those who are not specialists in ancient philosophy. As Sorabji describes his project in the final chapter, “I began my reading with only an historical interest in the large, and largely uncharted, ancient debate on human and animal psychology. But I was led to appreciate that there was a real live moral problem by the badness of the arguments for a major difference between animals and man” (p. 216). For the specialist, Sorabji gives a comprehensive and detailed map of philosophical views from Pythagoras and Empedocles through Maimonides and Aquinas concerning similarities and differences between human and (nonhuman) animal perception and cognition, and of the implications of these views for how we humans should think about and act toward beasts. Beyond this much-needed mapping, however, Sorabji makes a persuasive case that present-day practical worries about our relationship to animals—in questions ranging from vegetarianism to the justice of animal experimentation to the costs and benefits of species conservation—are poorly served by present-day moral philosophy. He suggests that a consideration of the ancient and medieval debates concerning where and how to draw the line between humans and animals can open new and badly needed lines of theoretical reflection. Sorabji’s last words on the subject are mild but serious, and well-earned by his textual and philosophic analysis. Concluding that our thinking about the treatment of animals would be considerably improved by a consideration of the ancient debates, he says that “the implication of this is that, although we ought to make major changes in our treatment of animals in the more prosperous countries, many considerations, including our own serious needs, have to be taken into account. There is no simple criterion for condemning what we presently do. On the other hand, I suspect that a more complex consideration will still find a very great deal that is unjustifiable” (p. 219).

Much territory is covered in this short book, which is divided into two parts, each a concise and careful sifting and classification of philosophical views on the relationship between sensation, belief, desire, and reason, with particular attention to comparisons drawn between humans and other animals (Part 1), and to ethical questions involving treatment of animals (Part 2). Sorabji’s account is rich in detail and interpretation of texts, but the outline of his narrative is strikingly clear. Plato’s central innovation in philosophical psychology, on Sorabji’s reading, is to go beyond the traditional distinction between soul and body by maintaining that the soul itself has parts which sometimes conflict. Within this vision of the complex soul, Plato seeks to emphasize the importance of reason at the expense of sensation or perception. His magnification of the role of reason might seem to increase the gap between humans and other animals, but Plato’s frequent reference to the migration of souls across species lines reduces the psychic space between man and beast. Aristotle famously claims in the Politics that humans are the only animal capable of logos 1 (though he elsewhere attributes forms of reason and intelligence to animals, for example in the first chapter of the Metaphysics), but his psychological theory as a whole is marked by a narrowing of the scope of reason relative to Plato, and a corresponding increase in the cognitive content of the power of perception ( aisthesis), a capacity possessed by all animals. For Aristotle, many animals possess true memory (though not the human power to remind ourselves deliberately of previous perceptions), can learn, and perceive not only immediate sensations but connections, relationships, and rudimentary universals and action-orienting propositions: “Whether or not Aristotle’s lion perceives the ox as an ox, it certainly perceives it as a meal” (p. 62). In addition to the power of intentional perception, Aristotle’s animals are capable of both passion and voluntary motion, and so are not simply driven about by impulses beyond their control.

On Sorabji’s account, the idea so familiar to us today that animals are little more than inanimate machines, responding mindlessly by innate impulse to environmental cues enters philosophy with the Stoics. Their simplified picture of animal life serves to increase the distance between us and other animals, and to make laughable claims that we owe animals justice or any moral consideration at all. This Stoic position, taken over into Christian theorizing by Augustine, has dominated our thinking ever since: “By and large, despite some opposing tendencies, my impression is that the emphasis of Western Christianity was on one half, the anti-animal half, of a much more wide-ranging and vigorous ancient Greek debate. And I think this helps to explain why until very recently we, or at least I myself, have been rather complacent about the treatment of animals” (pp. 204-205).

For Sorabji, the pro-animal side of the ancient debate, the side arguing that the gap between human and animal psychology is not so large, is best represented by various Aristotelians (especially Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor as leader of the Peripatos) and Platonists (especially Plutarch and Porphyry). A key figure in Sorabji’s history of the fading away of this alternative is Iamblichus, who turned Neoplatonism away from its earlier assertions of a significant kinship between humans and other animals, and so sets the stage for the nearly complete triumph of the anti-animal view. Sorabji recognizes that the very same Stoic and Christian position that so severely downgrades animals insists on the desirability of the community of all human beings, a community that rejects any distinction between masters and slaves, a subject on which Plato and Aristotle are decidedly equivocal. He thus raises but does not sufficiently consider the question of whether the Stoic denigration of animals was in some sense a necessary price to pay for the concept of a universal human community.

In his final chapter, Sorabji turns his attention to the two most prominent philosophic critiques of our modern practices toward animals, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and Tom Regan’s The Case For Animal Rights. While sympathetic to their good intentions, he is scathingly critical of both, arguing that each reduces complex issues to a single one-dimensional decision rule, either utilitarianism for Singer or a notion of the intrinsic rights of all “higher” animals for Regan, a context-ignoring reduction that yields bizarre judgments about how to act in particular situations. (He is more favorably disposed to recent treatments of the subject which are less rule-oriented and more influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly Mary Midgley’s “admirable”Animals and Why They Matter.) Sorabji argues quite convincingly that Regan and Singer, like the ancient Stoics, are too much driven by the desire to eliminate all confusion and complexity and by the hope that a properly constructed philosophy can solve all our problems for us: “Moral theories may seek to make things manageable by reducing all considerations to one. Insofar as they do, this is so much the worse for them” (p. 215).

There are three reservations worth mentioning. Sorabji’s readings of Aristotle are always sharp and nuanced, but his comments on Plato are marred by an unwillingness to consider that dialogues may convey meaning differently from treatises: any sentence spoken by Plato’s Socrates seems to count for Sorabji as a Platonic belief, and clashes between such statements of belief are explained by chronology. Second, the wisdom of considering only texts traditionally classified as “philosophic” is questionable. Finally, it may be that Sorabji has unjustly neglected the “pro-animal” elements within Christian philosophizing. But the virtues of this reader-friendly work far outweigh any complaints. Sorabji is very good about flagging places where his own text interpretations are controversial; he supplies an excellent index locorum; and there is an extremely helpful bibliography organized by topic. In the process of supplying a fascinating historical narrative of an ancient debate, Sorabji makes a compelling case against two powerful but poorly supported dogmas of modern moral philosophy: the belief that nonhuman animals have no mental life, and the belief that the job of ethical theory is to supply simple and precise answers to complex practical problems. Aristotle would be pleased.

  • [1] Sorabji sees this claim as the distant ancestor of the view associated with Noam Chomsky but first enunciated by the Stoics that, while other animals can carry out rudimentary communication, humans are the only syntax-using animal. This gives rise to his favorite example of an invalid practical inference drawn from a plausible scientific proposition: “Under pressure, the Stoics retreated to the position that at least they don’t have syntax. The moral conclusion was meant to be ‘They don’t have syntax, so we can eat them.’ … It has become crucial whether animals have syntax. This, of course, is a question of great scientific interest, but of no moral relevance whatsoever” (p. 2).