Indeed, the socially constructed nature of conventional human attitudes about other animals implies an almost continuous social discourse on the matter. Essentially, Forsey wants to know about historical orientations to human exceptionality claims which speak of human beings being over and above the other animals. Human exceptionality is claimed on various if fairly familiar grounds, including:
- (a) we have souls and so share in the Divine (and animals do not);
- (b) we have free will and so can make choices (and animals cannot); and
- (c) we are rational (and animals are not).
Such real or assumed factors serve and have served for a long time to morally separate humans and other animals, perhaps enough to create and maintain the “wide and bridgeless chasm” that Spiegal refers to: the same “sharp discontinuity between humans and animals” which Noske finds in Western culture and discourse.
Although Forsey regards Cartesian views as those representing what she calls “deep chasm arguments” concerning the moral status of humans and other animals, it is clear that even the “softer,” apparently more inclusive views embedded within animal welfare ideology allows the greatest interests of nonhumans to be “sacrificed” for arguably trivial human ones. Therefore, although animal welfarism can be logically posited as a position that tends toward the bridging of suggestions of a “deep chasm” between humans and nonhumans, species differences remain sufficiently distinct within the orthodoxy to allow the routine exploitation of other animals.
Sociologist Bauman claims that a certain degree of everyday human social activity involves erecting and maintaining boundaries - human beings do appear to like placing objects in neat, orderly boxes.
A feature of the social construction of the orthodox moral view of human-nonhuman relations is the stock use and the preferencing of phrases like “humans and animals” to differentiate groups: all humans linguistically separated from all animals. Let’s have a look at some of the particulars of this routine, systematic and incredibly “useful” differentiation.
Start with God.
Ryder argues that early Christian views created a sense of human-nonhuman separation within the assertion that men and women could not be animals since humans were created in the image of “God” who had given only “their kind” an immortal soul. Such views explain why a good deal of recent animal rights discourse has sought to challenge this absolute separation and remind human beings that “we” too are animals. However, even long before Darwin, it appears that there was recognition and acknowledgement that humans were indeed “animals,” although “developed” ones.
Ryder states that “classical literature, Epicureans and writers such as Lucretius, Cicero, Diodorus Siculus and Horace had suggested that humankind had only slowly developed from the animal condition.” Aristotle, despite his insistence that humans, animals and nature were held in a “natural hierarchy of value,” never claimed that a human being should not be regarded as an animal. Later William Shakespeare’s Hamlet would describe humankind as “the paragon of animals.”
Nevertheless, Ryder notes - using an interesting term - that a full awareness of our kinship with other animals was “intermittent.” Moreover, acknowledgement of kinship became “discouraged by the Church.” Therefore, it was [and remains] common for people to behave as though human beings were altogether different from animals: of a completely different order to them: indeed, “made in the image of God.”
Reacting to this continuing tendency, many modern animal advocates began in the 1980s to use the phrase “nonhuman animals” to make it clear that there are such things as human animals (although it is interesting that this term itself is rarely, if ever, heard; and presumably not merely because it would be regarded as a tautology).
However, some campaigners have complained that the term ‘nonhuman animal’ can imply that the standard is the human one, which may further imply that nonhuman individuals may be regarded as much less important in comparison. Such people often favour phrases such as “animals-other-than-human” or “humans and other animals.”Piers Beirne reports that fellow criminologist Geertrui Cazaux uses “a clever, if obscure” acronym “aothas” (animals other than human animals).
Dess and Chapman remark that they were struck by jarring taxonomy in a radio broadcast they heard concerning the aftermath of a hurricane: “Not only were humans affected by the storm, birds and animals were affected too,” the report stated. Since birds, humans and other animals are all animals, why the malapropism, they ask.
They state that they realise that such routine differentiation is simply a version of an established linguistic convention. However, it is perhaps safe to say that when a linguistic construction exists long enough to become a firmly fixed convention, it is because it continues to hold meaning and/or utility for those (or many of those) who use it. Moreover, it is probably safe to speculate that very few fellow radio listeners would have registered the problematic taxonomy identified by these authors.
Perhaps the central meaning of the common separation of human and animal categories may be correctly identified by Dess and Chapman when they note that, “In everyday parlance, animals means not, and less than, human.”
Thus, “The ‘animals’ in ‘animal hospitals’ are understood not to be human;” furthermore, the negative usage of “animal” is never far away: “the insult is clear in a snarled, ‘You’re an animal!’” On the origins of these long-standing, firmly-sedimented, and socially-transmitted understandings, Peter Singer argues that Western intellectual roots lie in Ancient Greece (especially when the school of Aristotle became dominant) and in the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Neither is kind to those not of our species,” he states.
Alexander Cockburn’s advice about addressing the issue of the construction of human attitudes toward other animals is impressively clear: “Start with God,” he says. With a lively and belligerent style, Cockburn declares that, “The Bible is a meat-eater’s manifesto,” or at least it is after a mythical event known as “the Fall.”
Until then, the story goes, hippie prototypes Adam and Eve were vegetarians, eating grains, nuts and fruit. But, as though she ran across a trippy Jack Kerouac novel, Eve could not resist eating from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” and boy, have we all paid for that mistake. Cockburn explains what is said to have happened next:
- Hardly were Adam and Eve out of Eden before God was offering “respect” to the flesh sacrifice of Abel the keeper of sheep and withholding “respect” from Cain the tiller of the ground. Next thing we know, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, slew him and we were on our way.
Thus began “Man’s” “dominionism” over and above creation. Genesis I: 26-28 reports the edict of the Almighty: “Man” was given dominion over the earth and was told to be “fruitful and multiply” in order to “subdue” the planet. Cockburn is right: we really were “on our way;” and it has been largely slash and burn ever since. Some Christian writers, such as Tony Sargent, seek to provide a far more animal-friendly account of common Biblical events, and “animal rights theologian” Andrew Linzey is unflagging in pointing out that “dominion” really means “stewardship” rather than “despotism.”
Yet it has to be admitted, Cockburn’s account seems to be the popular version, commonly reproduced in accounts of the development of human attitudes towards the other animals.
Moreover, “stewardship” sounds a great deal like animal welfarism which has rationalised rather than halted the human exploitation of nonhuman animals. Since it tends to organise the exploitation of other animals, Mason speaks of the “stewardship apology” in Christian cosmology.
That anyone actually believes in the existence of “trees of knowledge” and “gardens of Eden” is quite bizarre and, of course, sociologically fascinating; but believe it, and live and die by such “teachings,” many do. Several modern religious wars seem to testify to the fact that people earnestly hold such religious beliefs.
Thomas Luckmann suggested in 1967 that religious belief go beyond church going. That religious teaching may remain influential in the creation of culturally-transmitted meanings, even in an increasingly secular world. Of course, people also believe in Captain Kirk and the Enterprise, Gandalf and Middle Earth, and Aslan the Lion and the Old Narnians, but less real blood has flowed from these fables. God-stories, on the other hand, have been instrumental in the creation of entire belief systems which people will kill and be killed for.
Apart from a remarkable increase in human-to-human violence, Cockburn states that “the Biblical God” launched humans on the exploitation of the rest of the natural world, a world newly conceptualised as seriously “un-Christian” and “theirs for the using.”
-  When I mentioned this theme to my sister, Lynne, a chemistry teacher and vegan since the 1980s, it reminded her that she had caused uproar in class when explaining the common ‘animal, vegetable, mineral’ formulation. She had used a picture of a human being as an example of the animal category. This resulted in several objections from angry students who declared flatly that they were not animals, and that they did not want anyone else to have the opportunity to call them one.
-  I suspect that initial reaction to such a phrase would be to regard it as rather odd, rather than the immediate reaction to focus on the tautology. This, I believe, is significant in itself. In terms of the “truth” of the phrase, many may be quick to reassert “points of separation.” Take this, the very first words in the first chapter of Michael Haralambos’ introductory textbook of Sociology: Themes & Perspectives: “Human beings learn their behaviour and use their intelligence whereas animals simply act on instinct.”
-  On April 28th, 2003, The Sun tabloid “newspaper’” featured a story (Stars Learn the Art of Survival) about a TV programme called “I’m a Celebrity…… Get Me Out of Here” in which the contestants must gut fishes and prepare chickens for eating. They may also encounter dangerous wild animals. Lembit Opik says of his “weathergirl” girlfriend Sian who was taking part in the program: “If she ends up in a scrap with an orang-utan, it’ll be the animal that runs off with a thick ear. She knows how to look after herself.”
-  The particulars of the use of “animal” would surely provide an interesting area of research for ethnomethodological conversation analysists. For example, in April 2002 regular TV and hourly radio bulletins featured the comments of a police officer investigating the murder of a pensioner in the north of England. The officer described the killers as “animals” with such emphasis that the phrase was unusually striking. Enough that the editor of the animal rights magazine ARCnews was prompted to write to him with a complaint about the usage.
-  Francis of Assisi appears to have based his compassion for animals on notions of indirect duties and animal welfarism. There is a story of a disciple who is said to have sliced off a pig’s trotter: Francis rebukes the disciple, not for the cruel act toward the pig, or because of violating rights, but because he has damaged the pig owner’s legal property.
-  Journalist Jonathan Dimbleby featured on Radio 4’s farming programme on 22/7/2001. Dimbleby is a part-time farmer and, in relation to farming animals, he described himself in the programme as a “steward.”