Decent conduct toward animals: A traditional approach

The Bishop of Questoriana has recently asked for a pontifical document ‘furnishing a doctrinal foundation of love and respect for life existing on the earth’. Mainstream moralists have urged, since the Axial Era, that it is human life that most demands love and respect. We realize and perfect our own humanity by recognizing humanity in every other, of whatever creed or race. Realizing that biological species are not natural kinds, more recent moralists have hoped to found moral decency either on a respect for ‘rationality’ which excludes many of our conspecifics, or on simple loyalty to our immediate kin. Neither option is without its costs, and Catholic moralists in particular have often been suspicious of a morality that seems to lead to contempt for ordinary human life. Neither advocacy of ‘animal rights’ nor utilitarian calculation of animal pains and pleasures sit well with a traditional Catholic morality. Conversely, many of those who defend traditional practices such as hunting, farming or goading animals to fight, themselves suppose that ‘human’ and ‘animals’ may sometimes inhabit the same moral universe, that there are virtues that both may display in ‘noble action’. Developing this thought, it is possible to locate decency elsewhere than in an over-intellectual respect for ‘reason’. Decent treatment of animals (as of others) is that form of life which lets us live together ‘humanely’, in appreciation of the actual beings they are. Virtue, as Aristotle argued, lies less in acting nobly than in appreciating nobility. Those who claim to appreciate such nobility in beasts must learn to live humanely.
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