Facilitating Nonhuman Personhood

January 27, 2016 Rachel Littler

The second of a two-part article, this is an investigation into ways that facilitating nonhuman personhood (referred to here as simply “personhood”) within our cultures and daily lives is not only possible, but a responsibility. Read the first part, A Question Of Personhood, here. 

 

Using Language to Affect Change

If we look at the way indigenous tribes or tight-knit communities perceive the ‘self’ (including species which live in groups such as dolphins and whales who live in pods, or primates who live in tribes), they have harnessed the ‘selves in-community’ aspect for the good of the group and therefore, on the whole, for the individuals comprising that group. This might go a way towards explaining why some animals living in groups don’t identify solely as a ‘self’ or exhibit ‘self-awareness’, because their collective identity is first and foremost. In the case of some human tribes, when asking an individual how they are, the individual will say ‘we are doing well’ because the tribe is their extended identity. If the rest of the group is okay, they are okay too.

Language is an important facet of the personhood debate. It not only creates the framework for how we express our relationship with animals and our relationship with members of our own species, it is also a source of controversy due to the ongoing ‘debate’ about whether animal species have their own languages. This is controversial because verbal or non-verbal language is implicit of intelligence and this makes the way we currently treat animals somewhat difficult to bear.

The fact that other animals can plan and organize like we can implies that there must be a commonly understood language or communication strategy amongst members of that species. Perhaps, in some cases, this language is unique to animals in a particular region –  with many researchers and publications such as New Scientist and Smithsonian.com reporting regional variations of dialect present in orcas for example, as well as examples of completely different languages being spoken within orcas in Iceland versus orcas off British Columbia. In ‘The Last Rhinos’, Anthony references an orphaned rhino called Heidi who grew up hanging out with a wildebeest herd. Heidi could make their calls when she spotted danger and the herd reacted accordingly to the danger, reinforcing the belief that cross-species communication is perhaps possible, at least amongst some other animal species.

The limits of the language’s vernacular make it hard to describe the relationships with animals which indigenous peoples have felt and kept in touch with for thousands of years.

Even within our species, one of the limitations of languages such as English can be felt when trying to describe concepts which have become increasingly abstract to people who live in cities made of concrete and glass. The limits of the language’s vernacular make it hard to describe the relationships with animals which indigenous peoples have felt and kept in touch with for thousands of years. Although language is constantly evolving and borrowing from other cultures, perhaps many words we could use to describe our relationships with other animals and cultures have as yet to be absorbed into mainstream dialect.

The word ‘ubuntu’ is perhaps a prime example in this case. ‘Ubuntu’ is probably best known to developers as an open source software but the original meaning (and reason for Ubuntu software’s name) comes from the ancient African word for the concept that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. Ubuntu places an emphasis on the importance of the overall community, not on the selfish needs of one individual or nation. Perhaps now is the time that we should extend the spirit of ubuntu to human and animal communities in order to restore balance.

How we could better facilitate personhood

In part one of this article ‘A Question of Personhood’, I opened with a quote from Gandhi. Perhaps, after looking at Gandhi’s quote again we need to consider humanity needs to adapt very quickly if we are to protect the other animals we share the planet with. But we can start to make improvements and reconsider our relationships with the following in mind.

Religion. Half of the planet’s human population is religious, so religion is still a primary means for outlining a moral code and for providing a forum and regular pattern for education. Societies and nations built on principles which encourage the belief that humans are in fact ‘God-like’ (because we have been created in the image of God) may have a harder time protecting their environments and the other-than-human animals they share it with, particularly if their religious texts or their teachers instruct that other creatures are subordinate or created solely to fulfill our needs.

To help enshrine personhood within our cultures, perhaps it is important for our religious leaders again to help cherry-pick and teach quotes which depict personhood or a healthier suggestion for how we interact with other species.

The Bible as we know it contains only four gospels, however many more were left out. This is because there were too many differing opinions between different factions of Christians so Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were the gospels agreed on as core. This helped stop factions of Christians from warring against each other. To help enshrine personhood within our cultures, perhaps it is important for our religious leaders again to help cherry pick and teach quotes which depict personhood or a healthier suggestion for how we interact with other species. For example, the beginning of the passage below emphasizes that God has appointed us to look after the other animals- not drive them into extinction- which could amount to the first wildlife management policy. If so- and we are stewards who God has asked to look after his creatures- are we not in direct violation with his command by denying protection and, indeed, eliminating many of those creatures from the earth?

Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Changing Language. One of the most important qualities which humans possess is language (many argue that other animals also possess language, although this is still the subject of debate). It is therefore important that we recognize that the English language has limitations in being able to describe some ‘feeling’ elements of our relations with non-human animals. For example, English vernacular often separates humans from the rest of the animal species in a way which exacerbates self vs. other by grouping many species of animal species together- i.e. dolphins, whales, spiders, fish, frogs etc- and referring to these all as ‘animals’ in common tongue but calling humans ‘people’, not animals which infers a special quality humans possess which animals don’t, despite having seen evidence of personhood across many species

Adopting and utilizing words from other languages and cultures would allow us to better express a sentiment which English cannot convey because there isn’t a word, just a feeling

Fostering Empathy. Human beings can show great empathy for other animals, particularly when we see traits in them that remind us of ourselves. As more examples arise of dolphins and whales exemplifying similar traits to us, the more we feel a common bond and kinship grow. Research of dolphins and whales in the wild helps support this because it illustrates why they are truly unique on an individual level as non-human persons as well as and the ethical significance of enforcing their rights to life, and to be free and safe from negative human impact

Rethinking Relationships. We must also go beyond merely treating the relationships that indigenous cultures hold with animals as anecdotal and instead we must actively re-align our ways of thinking and global social behaviours to get back in touch with these relationships with non-human animals and our environment. These relationships have always existed and to tackle many of our self-inflicted problems, we need to restore balance and respect

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Appendix- Religious perspective of human and other-than-human animal relationships

Below are some examples of religious teachings about our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom to glean an insight into how animals ‘should’ be treated according to scripture. Religious scripture has formed the basis of many cultural perceptions and legislative and judicial systems of modern societies so understanding the positions of religions regarding humanity’s relationship with God and with other animals allows us to understand the basis of modern opinion.

Qur’an: Hadith

The Earth is green and beautiful, and Allah has appointed you his stewards over it. The whole earth has been created a place of worship, pure and clean. Whoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded. If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field and humans and beasts and birds eat from it, all of it is love on his part.

Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

There are three key considerations when examining these quotes in the context of personhood and how religion can be used as a tool to entrench other animal personhood status as a cultural value.

  1. Were humans created in God’s image or were we created by God, but we don’t possess a spark of His divinity?
  2. Is the relationship between God, humans and animals hierarchical?
  3. What format should the relationship between humans and other animals take?

The Bible says that God created humanity in His own image- thus inferring there is one human-like God who appears in three forms (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) but each of these forms is human-like or human.

Christian teaching places human-like God at the top of the tree, with God-like humans to follow and all other animal species below. Unlike animals, humans contain a spark of the divine and so we have souls and can go to heaven.

God created humanity so we could feel the gift of everlasting love through a relationship with Him. The relationship between humans and animals throughout the Bible broadly supports using animals to clothe and feed us. However, there are many instances where although God allows us to eat meat, he also asks that we treat animals kindly and compassionately. For example, we should act as stewards and should ‘manage’ animal populations, helping to remove weak, sick or old animals, thereby regulating the food chain and ensuring the population remains healthy.

The Quran teaches us that Allah is the Creator of humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. However, as created beings we cannot assume to possess the divinity of Allah. Therefore, all animals (human and otherwise) are inferior to Him and do not contain a spark of the divine. Only Allah- who is the divine- can possess this quality.

The Quran explains that other animals were created for the benefit of human beings primarily as food and transport. Despite this, the Quran is very specific that Allah will reward you for acts of charity to animals. Similarly, unless you are killing an animal for food, Allah will punish you when He comes to judge you for any acts of harm, cruelty, neglect, over-working or sport-hunting of animals. These acts also extend to include fighting of animals and factory farming. The quote above from the Quran denotes the ideal values for how we should act as stewards for our animal companions, much like the Bible does.

Like Christianity, Judaism teaches that God created Adam in His own image with a soul that gives him a God-like quality. The other animals on the planet aren’t granted this divine attribute so it is a unique human trait.

As with the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah skips pre-human history and instead starts with the creation of humanity. God has created us so that we may have the gift of having a special relationship with Him. He has also given us dominion over all other animals.

God asks that we are compassionate to other animals and in order to demonstrate the goodness of figures such as Moses and Rebecca, the Torah provides examples of acts of kindness or compassion that they have undertaken for animals. The Torah also depicts what punishments you could face if you aren’t compassionate (Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi was punished with painful health issues when he wouldn’t empathize with the fear of a calf who was being led to the slaughter and only relieved of his ailments once he showed compassion to animals). Unnecessary cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden and parallels are drawn between people who harm animals and people who harm other human beings. Despite this though, God does allow us to kill animals if they are needed to fulfill a human need i.e. food.

Unlike the religions outlined so far, polytheistic religions such as Hinduism believe that there is a Supreme God who is served by many other Gods. These Gods are closely tied to nature or appear as a human, an animal or human-animal hybrid.

Animals and humans both have souls because they are manifestations of God and so that divinity is also present in us. Animals and humans both endure the cycle of birth and death but we all have the ability to be liberated by overcoming our ignorance and delusion. Additionally, Hinduism recognizes that animals have their own language and intelligence.

Hinduism asks followers to treat animals fairly, not to sacrifice them and not to harm them or cause them pain through cruel acts. Instead we should follow a path of non-violence towards animals and plants. Nourishing animals is one of the five daily sacrifices which human beings must make but in turn, animals are also intended for nourishing humans by providing milk and meat. However, many Hindus follow a vegetarian diet and compassion for animals is one of the highest virtues and a mark of divine quality.

Photo by Atmo Kubesa / Wildquest.