Man, Beast and Enlightenment: The Special Place of Humans in Nature

It is said that Pythagoras could recognize, by means of certain signs, when the soul of a friend had been reincarnated in an animal. Belief in the transmigration of souls was common in antiquity; even Plato toyed with the notion in the myth of Er. But the Pythagoreans used it to support vegetarianism and even an early form of animal liberation. Here’s a cautionary tale from a likeminded contemporary. A farmer’s son dies and is reincarnated as an animal. The farmer chooses this animal for a sacrifice. The killing makes the farmer a filicide even as he desecrates his offering and angers the gods. Then, in the Greek way, the farmer burns the fat and organs and he and his remaining family eat the meat. Now they are all cannibals. So put down that hamburger, you never know who might be in there.

What interests me about this argument is how it is framed. Ancient philosophers took for granted that men are superior to animals. The discovery that the animal was a friend or relative makes it an exception to that general rule. But the exception comes at the cost of incoherence. It isn’t clear what it means to say that the dead friend and the living animal are the same person, since they share no memories, dispositions or abilities. That’s why it’s so easy to generate absurd counterexamples. If the farmer’s son dies before I repay him the $10 I borrowed, do I owe $10 to the animal? I am persuaded, contra Pythagoras, that a person is his mind (sometimes called his soul) and his body, so if both are different, replaced with those of an animal, there is nothing of the person left over.

If ancient animal liberationists tried to lift a few animals up to the level of human beings, nowadays animal liberationists press for the full admittance of animals to the moral community. The reason for this change in tactics is that between the ancient and the modern world falls the long shadow of the period that named itself “the Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment’s understanding of community is still with us today: a community is a group of equals. A nation-state made up of citizens is such a community of equals, for nobody is more of a citizen than anybody else. Enlightenment ethics mirror Enlightenment politics. The moral community is like a nation state, with each member possessing moral citizenship. What makes one a moral citizen? The Enlightenment and its heirs supplied many answers, from the experience of pleasure and pain (Bentham, Mill) to being an end in oneself (Kant) to having rights (Paine) to having ‘dignity’ (I am sorry to say that the Church is to blame for this last one). That there really is a slippery slope that leads from Enlightenment ethics to animal liberation was never clearer than when Thomas Paine wrote his Rights of Man. The book was followed almost immediately by Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and then by the anonymous Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. Although the last was satire, all three made the same point: if rights alone make you a ‘citizen’ of the moral community, then we can’t exclude anyone, including animals.

One of the crucial differences between conservatives and reactionaries is that conservatives embrace the Enlightenment picture of the moral and political community of equals. That’s why conservatives invariably lose arguments to animal liberationists. To win, conservatives would need to find a way to exclude animals from moral citizenship. They can only do this if they find a morally significant criterion which makes all humans moral citizens but which not even a single animal possesses. Animal liberationists only need one counterexample to blow the whole thing up.

Every five years or so, some conservative will charge into the argument about the place of animals, confidently waving a new or rediscovered criterion of the moral uniqueness of human beings, and then the game of finding a counterexample begins. Aristotle said that men have reason and animals don’t. Could the criterion be reason? But lots of research shows that some animal species have quite sophisticated reasoning ability. For example, New  Caledonia  crows  are  able  to  develop  a  causal rule that enables them to solve novel problems and learn from watching other birds use tools (here, p. 45).

Could the criterion be that only human beings are signatories of the social contract? Now of course, none of us have literally signed a contract, and if the contract is something behavioral, like don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you, our house-pets seem to have it figured out. Is the criterion perhaps possessing an immortal soul? I think I have an immortal soul, for reasons philosophical and religious. But I know of no evidence in Christian doctrine or philosophical argument to show that animals do not have immortal souls. Is man perhaps divided from the beasts by the capacity to think abstract and complex thoughts? Ah, but this capacity isn’t present, as John Locke pointed out, in “children and idiots.” Could it be humour, self-awareness, tool using, walking upright, being conscious, recognizing oneself in a mirror, having thumbs… the reader can easily generate counterexamples for himself. In the end, the animal liberationist always wins, though as Hume said of Berkeley, he compels assent but produces no conviction. The conservative slinks off and sulkily continues eating hamburgers, until, five years later, someone comes up with a new argument and again invades this logical Afghanistan.

Of course it is obvious what human beings have that animals lack. You are reading this article through the fruits of man’s intelligence and ingenuity (I don’t mean my own). We have enacted Descartes’ wish to make ourselves like masters and possessors of nature. Western literature, music and art is likely to be remembered so long as men can breathe or eyes can see. Mega cities now dot the globe, connected by near instant communication and fueled by the technological discoveries of the last century. But far too many of today’s conservatives, infected as they are by egalitarian ideas on race and IQ, cannot appeal to this obvious accomplishment because, unlike citizenship, not all human beings have an equal share in it. Non-Europeans have added very little. For our overly principled conservatives, this will not do: the bar has to be low enough to admit children, idiots, cripples, coma patients, and primitives. But the bar has to be high enough not to admit a single animal. That argument can’t be won.

Can the reactionary right do better? I think so, because we reactionaries do not share the Enlightenment view that the moral community is a community of equals. The right model is not a state composed of citizens, but an army composed of soldiers. The general and the corporal are in a community, but their obligations to one another are not symmetrical. The corporal must obey, and the general must command without misusing his power. The general’s responsibility is to order the corporal’s life. That responsibility is compatible with using the corporal in ways that will see him maimed or killed. The best general is a father to his men, because the microcosm for all healthy human interactions (and consequently, a constant target of the Enlightenment) is the family. A father leads his family, but the members of the family are not individuals with separable interests. A father who abuses those he leads is harming himself.

The medieval world had a name for this hierarchical moral community: the Great Chain of Being. God the Father is at the top of the chain, while the lowest links are the least conscious living things, plants and bacteria and so on. Mankind has a place in that chain. But the hierarchy is, as one might say, fractal. Everywhere one looks one finds hierarchical structure. Compare apes and insects and you find a hierarchy. Compare one species of ape with another species of ape, and there too, hierarchy emerges. Zoom in on a particular sort of ape, even on a particular shrewdness of apes in the jungle, and you will find apes that are better and apes that are worse. Human beings fall into this hierarchy, indeed, in a human life we often occupy more than one position. A cat should not scratch a baby who grabs at its tail. A six-year-old who pulls a cat’s tail and gets scratched gets what he deserves. This is because somewhere in those years the normal child rises above the cat, and the responsibility of providing order shifts from one to the other. The child has a place in the moral community both before and after its capacities exceed those of a cat.

Lest one think that such an idea is only religious, scientists will not be surprised at the suggestion of such a hierarchy, which maps nicely onto Philippe Rushton’s r-K theory of life history traits: More primitive animals have a shorter life span, smaller brains, shorter gestation times, etc. The additional idea behind the Great Chain of Being is that this evolved order contains a moral order. One’s interests may be tied to one’s place in the chain, just as in a family, a child’s interests are not best served by rebellion against parental authority.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” began the founders of the American Republic, “that all men are created equal”. But it is the opposite that is self-evident. The problems with the West today and the conservative’s inability to answer the animal liberationist grow from the same denial of what everyone’s experience tells him to be true. The reactionary alternative would premise the state on the inequalities that actually are self-evident among men as they are among all animals. This alternative would assign responsibilities at every tier so that those above might order the lives of those below. We farm and hunt the lower animals, ordering their lives to fit into our civilization. Some orderings are, I suspect, not right (factory farms come to mind), but the alternative is not to let animals run free in the streets. A tenable alternative would be the the smallholding farmer who knows his animals by name. Something similar is true of human beings. The West today is an object lesson in what happens if we ignore the responsibility to bring order to those who cannot order their own lives. A city that allows gangs of drug-addicted, mentally ill or simply low-intelligence criminals to congregate in public has failed to provide order in precisely the same way as the city that does not remove packs of wild dogs. My challenge to conservatives would be to tell me why they recoil at the former statement but not at the latter.

In point of fact, one of the blessings of our age of enforced diversity is that it has become almost impossible for the left as well as the right to maintain the Enlightenment position. The broader your experience of beasts or of men, the more you are struck by the differences among them. The left, it is true, maintains that the hierarchy of achievement that we see everywhere is held in place by the boundless malice of whiteness. But the recognition that the social order is a chain moves the conversation in the right direction. Reactionaries today may find themselves in the position of Nietzsche, as he fixed his hateful gaze on what remained of Christendom. Nietzsche saw that he could bring it all tumbling down through his ‘revaluation of values’. Perhaps today, something similar could bring it back.

Theodore Owlglass is the author of “Christianity Among the Ruins.”

14 replies
  1. James Bowery
    James Bowery says:

    The right model is not a state composed of citizens, but an army composed of soldiers.

    Certainly this is true in our current state: War.

    The general and the corporal are in a community, but their obligations to one another are not symmetrical.

    Answering, “Who is to be general and who corporal?”, is a special case of the ultimate question of culture as artificial selection regime:

    “What is the appeal of last resort in processing disputes between individuals?”

    Answer that question and you’ll not only have defined the “state” but the distinction between the State of War and the State of Peace within the Chain of Command hence the Great Chain of Being.

    This question is not rhetorical nor is it a “critique” as I have laid out my operational answer in in terms both religious and “secular” (as though there can be any real difference) and received nothing but “a culture of critique” in return, including from those ostensibly “pro-white”, save one constructive criticism several years ago that caused me to modify my proposal.

    This is a hard problem. As such it truly does separate those worthy of the fictive honorific “Father” from their fictive “children”.

    A clear clue as to which is which:

    The children merely critique solutions offered by those who might be fathers.

  2. Fredrick Toben
    Fredrick Toben says:

    The joke from the liberated Marxists/Communists followed the Orwellian maxim: We are all equal but some are more equal than others, which in reality killed off social relationships and replaced it with what today we call PC, something I observed while visiting Eastern European countries during the 1970s.
    The West is, indeed, dying but that kind of nihilism is often a form of generational self-projection, and as soon as we realize that NATURE, as a living entity, cannot rationally be controlled – the nonsense about climate change/global warming, etc – then we know and observe the process is a cyclical cleansing of our human endeavour, as Richard Wagner so brilliantly portrays in his Nibelung Ring Cycle.

  3. Carnivore
    Carnivore says:

    “Then, in the Greek way, the farmer burns the fat and organs and he and his remaining family eat the meat.”

    I’ve just lost a great deal of respect for that Greek farmer.

    Seriously though: interesting illustration of the understood nutritional value of fats and organs, inferring (correctly I hope) that the gods are receiving the best bits.

  4. terry
    terry says:

    Reincarnation has been proved countless times all over the world, transmigration or the belief that humans can reincarnate as animals is based on an error in the ancient indian scriptures. No human that has seen truth can be retrograded into an animal
    The scripture is as follows
    The man eats the cow, the cow becomes the grass, this is eaten by a cow and is then eaten by a man, thus
    the cow the worms in the ground and the man are one.
    THe burning of the huge library at Alexendria destroyed so much knowledge, rememeber every religion in the world teaches reincarnation, the christians only stopped with the jewish rewriting of the bible and sticking their own old testament on the front

  5. Sophie Johnson
    Sophie Johnson says:

    Did Pythagoras’ contemporary not wonder why the farmer’s son reincarnates as an animal belonging to his father? The reincarnating son would surely have known that he runs the risk of being sacrificed by his past-life father. The reincarnation seems rather pointless, for the father has no clue that the animal he sacrifices then eats is his son, and he lives happiy ever after eating meat. So not even a cautionary tale emerges here. Owlglass is far to quick to conceed the egalitarians’ argument, particularly since the premises of those arguments are all too easily kicked out from under their proposers.

  6. TJ
    TJ says:

    SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear “violations” of user policies.

    No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump.

    [you can use a fake name to see the basics of the site]

  7. Richard B
    Richard B says:

    In a nearly 2,000 word article the word “order” appears eleven times. That’s about every 175 words. It appears twice in one sentence and six times in one paragraph. So, the word “order” is obviously very important to the writer.

    The word first appears after this paragraph which begins, “Can the reactionary right do better? I think so, because we reactionaries do not share the Enlightenment view that the moral community is a community of equals.”

    But that’s not the only definition of the Enlightenment, nor it’s most important.

    The Enlightenment can be reduced to one principle, the adaptation of the organism to the environment should be the basis of all scientific and moral decisions. That all moral decisions can be grounded in “Nature.” Whatever is out of line is owing to ignorance or political, or religious, tyranny.

    The idea being to align Man, Nature and Society and Viola! Utopia!

    But the conservative Enlightenment, represented by Burke, saw mind, nature and society as an organic system that revolution would disrupt and damage, possibly irreparably. Reform, not Revolution, was the answer to the conservative.

    So, from the same belief-system, with the same values of adaptation, two diametrically opposed views emerged. Since the age of revolutions the two sides have been snapping and snarling at each other as if no other alternative existed or exists (and the Left gaining ground steadily since then).

    But there are alternatives. The two most important responses to the failure of The Enlightenment have been Romanticism, its principle being the drive toward reality and its theme being cultural transcendence.

    The other being A Return to The Middle Ages, which is the position taken by the author of tihs article, who, if he had his way, would return all, or some of us, to a world based on a drive toward order, with its source located in his conception of Divinity, where the attributes of the subject would exhaust the categories of the object.

    The essence of Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being is the shift in European thought from conceiving the world as a static mechanism to conceiving it as a dynamic organicism.

    Mr. Owlglass would return us to a militaristic, authoritarian, static, mechanical and uniform world that he either imagines existed at one time or will in the future if he has his way. He doesn’t see what his worldview has in common with the others.

    What the reactionary, the conservative, and the radical all have in common is the rage for order. The radical plays at chaos, like a two year old playing at being indepdent of its mother. But make no mistake about it, their rage for order is even more intense than any reactionary or conservative. Which is why they’ve caused us all so much trouble.

    I see all three together as representing one great betrayal of the dynamism and greatness of European man. The culmination of European thought and action is found in its drive toward reality, not in the drive toward order, or, to put it baldly, the rage toward order, based on a theological or ideological explanatory system.

    The real hero or our current dilema is the still vital, the remarkably stable and fruitful, Romantic tradition. The reason being that the logic of Romanticism can include contridictions in a single orientation without resorting to pseudo-reconcilliations (like the kind the author correctly addresses regarding conservatives and why they’re always losing to the Left).

    For the past 200+years the Romantic has been the tough-minded man, because of his determination to create value and experience his identity without surrendering his will to a primitive and childish fantasy of a world of perfect order. A world that has never existed and never will exist.

    • Richard B
      Richard B says:

      “where the attributes of the subject would exhaust the categories of the object.”

      Should be,

      where the categories of the subject exhaust the attributes of the object.

      The ideas of the individual, through ecclesiastical transmition and sanction, can explain and understand the Divine which controls the world.
      This is the Medieval position.

      The Rationalistic-Enlightenment position is the opposite, that the attributes of the object exhausts the categories of the subject (the conservative would say, “Conform!” and the Liberal would say, “Just go with the flow, dude.”). They replace the word “Divinity” with another handy capitalized word, “Nature.”

      Both The Medieval and Englightenment positions are Redemptive.

      Romanticism is superficially similar with the Medieval position in the sense that the subject does the determining. But, the source of this determination is not in the Divine, nor as with the Englightenment, is it in Nature.

      The source is in the response of the invididual.

      As G.H. Mead might have put it, The meaning of something is the response to it.

      Meanings are determined behaviorally.

      And the behavioral determination of meaning is found in the process of categorization and judgment.

      That’s basically the Romanitc position. It’s hard-headedly anti-metaphysical. Meaning, it’s based on a critique of all explanatory systems, including its own.

      It’s because of this grasp of the conditions of explanation itself that it’s capable of reducing every other explanatory system to intellectual rubble.

      And this is exactly why, though there were signs of promise, even in the second half of the 20th century, Cultural History in general and Romanticism in particular are not properly taught in our high schools and universities, or not taught at all.

  8. Michael Persson
    Michael Persson says:

    If the egalitarian moral community of the conservative is inferior to the inegalitarian one of the reactionary, though both systems share code of conduct, what makes you claim it results only in a lost ethical argumentation for the former?

    The corpral and the child share the moral right to be neither sacrified outide the necessities of their survival or abused, this seemingly regardless of their equality or inequality, or that of men or of men in comparison to other animals. In what way do you mean inequality in itself, and its pre-existence to the enlightenment, supplies an ace to the ethical demand that this same standard be upheld also towards animals?

  9. Henry Heffner
    Henry Heffner says:

    This is what happens when one tries to base our relationship with animals on philosophical principles. But our relationship with animals is biological, most often a symbiotic one in which the animals need us to survive.

    As Leslie Stephen wrote, “The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon. If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.”

    For an updated discussion of this issue, search for The Symbiotic Nature of Animal Research.

Comments are closed.