Beastly Morality

Animals as Ethical Agents

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Jonathan K. Crane
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , December
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sparky must have known death was imminent. It was an early fall morning and my wife and I were busy getting the kids ready to school. Where was Sparky? There he was, hiding outside under the trampoline, breathing with difficulty. He would not come in the house: it was almost as if he didn’t want the kids to be upset—for he tenderly and painfully entered after they left. Even while dying, Sparky seemed considerate of others. Almost as if, seemed—can I clearly state that Sparky, in these and in other ways, was an ethical agent?

Edited by Jonathan K. Crane, Beastly Morality is a richly interdisciplinary collection of essays examining the possibility, foundations, meaning, challenges, and repercussions of positing animals as ethical agents. The collection is composed of thirteen essays divided into five parts whose interactions, parallels, and juxtapositions are not meant to form any tight, cohesive, unified set, “but open ambiguities and opportunities,” as Crane writes in the epilogue (251). It is such ambiguities and opportunities which render the work particularly valuable, especially when combined with a magisterial work like Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (Picador, 2015). While Beastly Morality generally lacks the poetic and autobiographical depth resonant in Safina’s work, its strength is in the variety of thinkers, religious traditions, and texts consulted—from the fields of theology, philosophy, law, social and political thought—and religious texts in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Unfortunately, the general lack of expert theologians, philosophers, and law experts working daily with scientists who observe and study non-human species (admittedly a problematic term) is also evident. So, too, is there little of primatologists evidencing deep, sustained theological, and philosophical readings which could add further insights into their observations and studies. The well-known primatologist Frans B. M. De Waal, for example, contributes an important essay on animal empathy. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (W.W. Norton & Co, 2017) succeeds in casting doubt on both humanity’s uniqueness and ability to judge animal intelligence. If De Waal had drawn on the work of the Dalai Lama, for example, his conclusions could have been more nuanced and dialogical. Beastly Morality, though, remains an important step in breaching this divide, and in bringing a range of voices in different disciplines together in one volume.

The biggest conundrum is to locate a satisfying and yet elastic definition of morality, which recognizes its diverse use and understanding among human beings, while also recognizing ways to avoid judging, interpreting, and testing non-human animals based purely on human ways of understanding, interpreting, and interacting. When male chimpanzees are fighting or showing violent tendencies, an older female chimp will often defuse their tension by leading away the protagonists, and getting them to groom her. Humans generally use means other than grooming for similar reconciliation and a return to a peaceful status quo; there is similarity, but in no way identical overlap. Think also of how dogs greet each other: not something I would recommend at the next AAR meeting, but such is not to judge dog sniffs—or growls—but in recognizing the difference. What this entails is rich compassion and empathy, thus siding with the Dalai Lama’s rich celebration of those virtues while opposed to Paul Bloom’s nuanced, but still unsatisfactory critique against empathy. For the Dalai Lama in works like Beyond Religion, empathy is a trait shared by all human beings and so a unifier for those of all faiths and none (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). Such empathy is also not denied to nonhuman species. Bloom, however, in his Against Empathy (Ecco, 2017) contends empathy lacks a sufficient rational basis and so too often exacerbates the suffering encountered or faced. The key issue here, though, is whether such moral terms can be rationally applied to nonhuman animals.

Admittedly, claims of animal morality make many of us uncomfortable. Perhaps we still cling to some sense of uniqueness for human beings, or more crassly, we enjoy steaks, turkey dinner, or salmon. The more we learn of elephants—Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell’s Elephant Don (University of Chicago Press, 2015)—or of whales and dolphins—Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell’s The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (University of Chicago Press, 2014)—for example, not to mention Jane Goodall’s pioneering work with primates, the more the boundaries, the uniqueness, and the othering becomes difficult to sustain. Ongoing studies with ravens and rats, testing intelligence and even empathic tendencies, or studies highlighting suffering in fish, push us further into “ambiguities and opportunities,” quoting Crane again (251).

For AAR readers, I want to highlight a few chapters from Beastly Morality which  I particularly recommend. Mark Goldfeder’s “Not All Dogs Go to Heaven: Judaism’s Lessons in Beastly Morality” contends that an understanding and definition of humanity in the Jerusalem Talmud posits moral rights, obligations, and privileges included, but not limited, to a biological understanding of human beings, or what is called “practically human” (73). We are told to learn from the animal kingdom, for example, or how animals serve and praise God. Harrison King’s essay “Reading, Teaching Insects: Ant Society as Pedagogical Device in Rabbinic Literature” nicely interacts and supports Goldfeder’s argument, as does Crane and Aaron S. Gross’ presentation of biblical, Talmudic, and Muslim Shia texts which they argue, serve as viable countertraditions which support animal moral agency through examples of animals testifying against humankind’s immorality. As an aside, in regards to Goldfeder’s title, I am certain Sparky is in heaven; and if not, I certainly have a lot more to worry about than I thought!). Finally, my favorite essay in the collection is Michael Bathgate’s examination of animal behavior, morality, victimhood, and justice-seekers from medieval Japanese tale literature, more expansively drawing from Indian and Chinese traditions in the collected works (of over a thousand tales) known as the Konjaku monogatarishū. Where else can you read of vengeful oxen or a turtle who repays a man who had freed him by saving him and his family from drowning?

There is a certain audacity of human beings who have reaped so much misery and destruction on nonhuman species—and, at times, on their fellow human beings—to then be in a position to decree whether or not non-human animals are ethical agents. What is evident, at the least, is still how little we know or understand. Maybe Sparky was hiding under the trampoline because animals often seek out a solitary place to die; maybe he knew to stay away as he seemed to recognize that was always better when Mommy and Daddy were getting the kids to school. Could it be possible that he was still thinking of the kids, and of my wife and I, in his dying moments? Regardless, Sparky will forever embody patience in my mind, patience at its most kind and simple, a patience I have a long journey to reach and imitate.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Admirand is lecturer in theology at the school of theology, philosophy, and music, and the coordinator of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue, Dublin City University.

Date of Review: 
April 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan K. Crane is the Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in Bioethics and Jewish Thought at the Emory University Center for Ethics. He is the past president of the Society of Jewish Ethics, founding editor of the Journal of Jewish Ethics, coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality, and author of Narratives and Jewish Bioethics.



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