Kee Tetze: Do animals have full moral standing

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Kee Tetze

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Isaiah 54:1-10

For decades, scientists have tried to get us to stop describing animal behavior in human terms. A difficult task, as anyone who has observed animals knows, for so much of what they do reminds us of our own acts.

Furthermore, we command a rich vocabulary for describing human intentions and actions; our objective, neutral vocabulary to describe animal behavior seems, by contrast, poor and undeveloped. But in order to learn not to think of animals as "just like us," scientists have struggled to get humans, themselves included, to avoid anthropomorphisms as much as possible.

More recently, several writers have rejected the entire enterprise of trying to limit our descriptions of animal behavior to non-anthropomorphic terms. Vicky Hearne writes that people who train horses or dogs think and speak about the animals as individuals, with particular likes and dislikes, with their own "personalities."

In "When Elephants Weep," Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson writes about the apparent reality of animal emotions. It distorts observations when a scientist makes the effort not to notice that animals express happiness, anger, fear and sadness.

Indeed, why should we find it more scientific to assume that humans have nothing in common with animals, when we also assume that the animals evolved in the same way as we did?

Masson draws certain moral conclusions from this argument. If animals can feel genuine emotions, as real as human emotions, then animals must also have full moral status. An injury done to a sentient, feeling animal belongs on a continuum with any injury done to a human being. We should avoid injuring animals by killing them for food, or imprisoning them for our own edification, or experimenting on them to increase our knowledge. We should, as much as possible, allow them to live out their lives exercising their full potential in the wild.

Incidentally, I wonder whether the deer in the zoo would prefer to exercise their full potential, skillfully running away from most predators, cunningly finding almost enough food in times of scarcity, or would they prefer to live in an enclosure, safe from predators, enjoying a steady supply of food? But I digress.

Let us look at an earlier discussion of the significance of animal emotions, and, perhaps consequently, of the moral standing of animals. In this week's Torah reading, we find a commandment addressed to anyone who collects the eggs or chicks of nesting wild birds: "Do not take the mother with the children. Send away the mother bird and take the eggs or chicks for yourself" (Deut. 22:6-7).

Nachmanides (Ramban), in his commentary on verse 6, compares this commandment with the prohibition of killing a domesticated animal and its offspring on the same day (Leviticus 22:28). He offers two rationales for these commandments: "the rationale for both, that we not develop a cruel heart so that we do not have mercy, or that the Writ has not permitted us to lay waste, to make a species extinct, even though it has permitted slaughter of members of the species."

Nachmanides' first rationale focuses on the impact of this behavior on the perpetrator's personality: It would make one cruel. His second focuses on the impact of such behavior on the world: It would improvidently wipe out the entire family of this animal. Who knows if the species could ever recover?

Maimonides offers an entirely different rationale for this commandment. "The reason for sending away the mother bird, and for not slaughtering the animal and its child on one day, is to warn us not to slaughter the child in the sight of the mother, for the animal's suffering in such instances is very great; there is no difference between the concern of a human and the concern of an animal for its children, for the love of a mother and her care for the children of her womb is not brought about by reason and speech, but by the action of the power of thought [or imagination], found among animals as it is among humans" ("Guide of the Perplexed," 50:48).

Maimonides, like Masson, understands that the animal's ability to feel emotional pain gives it moral standing. According to Maimonides, the Torah prohibits these acts because of their impact on the animal.