Animals Amongst Us
After last week’s column on meeting a possum on the trail, people wrote to tell me about their own possum encounters and more. Human beings attract other animals that can, as it were, live off us, even if they aren’t keen on making our personal acquaintance. Think, besides possums, of raccoons and skunks. One person wrote to tell me of a run she took in the twilight on which she, otherwise alone, met a cougar. The animal was elegant, graceful—and, it seems, already well-fed.
I was passing this story along when someone told me (it was in the news) of a young man who, also otherwise alone on his run, was attacked by a mountain lion (I think not full-grown). He had to fight it and, in the end, although he had no weapon, he prevailed.
I’ve been reading some Aquinas on what a human being is, and an important part of our coming to understand ourselves is for us to understand our relationship with other animals. This should be obvious, but the conditions of modern life work against it. For many people, their animal encounters are only with pets, a dog or a cat. We’re surprised to come across a neighbor possum who shares our space. We’re happy to hear a bird sing. But there’s not much encounter. We have replaced horses with cars, and we are proud of our cars’ “horse-power.” But to know how to feed and tend to a horse, to know about sharing the conditions of nature with one’s horse, to go through mud or rain or dryness, not protected in a bubble with “climate control,” but in the climate itself: this is not everyday, modern experience.
One result is this. Since we get around in machines, we are tempted to think of animals as machines also.
That is said to have been Descartes’ view. It’s one extreme: We humans are so different from animals, that we can consider them as nothing but machines. There are moral consequences to this view. My duty to care for my horse, say, is just the same as my duty to care for my car.
The other extreme is more commonly met: We humans are so similar to other animals that we should treat them as we treat people.
Aquinas’s view is in the middle. Animals clearly think, he says. They don’t merely notice us as some random thing in their vision, they make sense of what we are. Herbert McCabe would say, if you touch the tire of a Jaguar (the car), it matters not; you have no meaning to the car. But if you touch the leg of a jaguar (the animal), your touch isn’t just felt in its leg, it is significant to the whole jaguar. And we know it is significant—we know that the jaguar is thinking—because of how it acts as a result.
The point to remember, though, is that human thinking extends beyond mere animal thinking. This is hard to specify, but it is truly there. I recently had a student use the word “scenario” to point to the difference. Human thinking can embrace the consideration of alternative scenarios: we are able to ponder alternatives, to use words like “not” and “could have” or “should have.” Animals have memory, Aquinas argues, but for us it is different, and his example is that we are able to “reminisce,” to mull over what has been, to seek patterns and understanding.
So here is the current question for Christian ethics. We need to find a way to elevate our relationship to other animals—to treat them in accord with their godly dignity—while also upholding the special dignity that human beings have.
Out & About. I am to preach at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City this weekend. The Saturday service (March 2) is at 5:30 p.m., and the Sunday services (March 3) are at 8 and 10 a.m.
Then as we move into Lent, a couple of cheery topics for a seminar and a lecture:
Sunday, March 10, I will lead a “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar on James Joyce’s story “The Dead” (it’s in his collection Dubliners). This is at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and anyone who reads it is welcome to the conversation.
On Sunday, March 24, I am to give the spring theology lecture at Incarnation at 6 p.m.: “What Good Is Suffering?”