The History of Western Ideas about Animals

AuthorLesli Bisgould
ProfessionAdjunct Professor, Faculty of Law
the history of
western ideAs
Why do we treat anim als, like anim als?
Dr. Dool ittle 1
The status of animals in Western legal thought seems to have de-
veloped on two ideological paths which, disti nct though they are in
some ways, have crossed and commingled on t his subject just as they
have on others: f‌irst is the biblical inter pretation of the human-animal
divide, according to which God gave dominion over all of the ani mals
to humanity, and “dominion” means ownership and control;2 second
is a more or less secular philosophy th at sees all animals as being cat-
egorically distinct f rom humans on the basis of one or more of their
incapacities or in feriorities.3
At various points in history, biblical or secular philosophy has
maintained t hat animals do not feel; or if they do feel, their feelings
are of no concern to us because they do not reason; or, if their feelings
are of concern to us, it is only because of the harm that hurting t hem
does to our own character; or if hurting them does matter to them, we
are the superior being, so our interest s trump theirs in any event. As
a result, when it came to formali zing the rules of the human-animal
1 Dr. Doolittle, 1967, DVD, directed by R ichard Fleischer (Calabasa s, CA: Twenti-
eth Centur y Fox Home Entertai nment, 2000).
2 Gen 1:20–28.
3 For further di scussion see Gary L Fran cione, Animals, Property and the Law
(Philadelphia: Temple Univers ity Press, 1995) at 36–37.
Anim Als And the lAw16
relationship, the interests of the latter were l argely disregarded and ani-
mals have held the legal statu s of property from the moment general
property law notions were conceived.
On the other hand, while the dominant perspective has alway s
been some variation of that theme animals m atter less, if they matter
at all that has never been the only perspective apparent. Wherever
one touches down in history, one can f‌ind an alternative voice bespe ak-
ing some sort of kinship with animals, or at least some anim als, and
seeking to improve our approach to them.4
That alternative voice becomes more audible in modern times but
has yet to ameliorate the legal status of an imals in any meaningful way.
Despite developments in science and philosophy, we are stuck in a con-
f‌lict between what we openly refer to as our “love” for animals and our
often violent exploitation of them. But as knowledge about the similar-
ities between humans a nd other animals continues to accumul ate, the
“alternative” voice becomes more popular. Increasingly, people turn to
law to develop ways to ref‌lect that new awareness and mea ningfully
protect animal interest s.
This chapter and the next are a whi rlwind tour through the history
of these ideas. Chapter 1 begins with a glimpse at ancient Greece, where
serious Western philosophical thought began, and t hen skips ahead to
some of the inf‌luential thinkers from the Age of Reason through to the
nineteenth century. Chapter 2 picks up in the twentieth century and
considers where we are in this ea rly stage of the twenty-f‌irst century in
our understanding of what an animal is and what status animals have
and ought to have in law. These chapters provide a backdrop for con-
sideration in subsequent chapters of the legal iss ues that ari se in modern
times in the spec if‌ic kinds of relationships we now have with animals.
Humans and anim als had interacted for thousands of years, both be-
fore and after domestication, before the Greeks f‌irst gave serious intel-
lectual attention to these relationships. While being cautious not to
oversimplify the complexity of ancient philosophica l thinking, it is fai r
to say in a general way that the Greeks took ideas seriously and under-
stood that everyt hing in the universe, human existence, and our role
4 An interesti ng read on this subject is Er ika Ritter, The Dog By the Cradle, the
Serpent Be neath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Rela tionships (Toronto: Key
Porter Books, 200 9).

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT