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.”