Taking pity on the weak and defenseless

July 26, 2013

The National Institutes of Health is retiring most of its chimpanzees from research. The director of the NIH, Francis Collins, explained that although similarities between chimps and humans has made chimps valuable as research subjects, this very likeness shows the need for greater justification in using them in research. If they are like us in terms of cognitive, social, and emotional experience, it is difficult to justify using them in ways that we wouldn’t use human beings.

This leads to some deep questions about our supposed superiority to animals and the justification of using animals for our benefit. We are like animals in many ways — in physiology and genetic constitution, for example. We reproduce, enjoy basic pleasures, and live in social groups. We explore our environments and become attached to others. While those similarities help explain the usefulness of animal models in research, they also indicate the need to be judicious in using animals.

While animals and humans share many capacities, only human beings seem to be aware of our moral obligations to other species. Our superiority to animals — if there is such a thing — is found in our ability to reflect on morality and our ability to imagine ways to use tools and other species.

This idea has deep roots. Plato tells a creation story in which the Titan, Prometheus, distributed powers and talents to various animals. Some got fur. Others got wings. And so on. By the time Prometheus turned to human beings, all the gifts were given away. Human beings were weak and defenseless, without fur, claws or hooves. As Plato puts it, we were left naked, unshod and unarmed.

But Prometheus took pity on us and gave us gifts that he stole from the gods, knowledge of fire, other technologies and agriculture. The gods punished Prometheus for giving us these god-like capacities. Prometheus’ Titanic pity for humans is a symbolic example of the pity felt for a lower species that is weak and defenseless.

The idea of taking pity on weak and defenseless members of another species is an important one. Some ancient philosophers argued for vegetarianism and against animal cruelty along these lines. The followers of Pythagoras argued that animal cruelty makes us insensitive to suffering and that by pitying the beasts we develop compassion, which can help us develop compassion for human beings.

Most Western religion and philosophy didn’t follow Pythagoras toward his vegetarian conclusion. But the animal question returned occasionally. In the 10th century, for example, Muslim scholars in Baghdad produced a fascinating story in which animals and humans argue before the King of the Jinn. The animals complained that human beings had no pity on them — forcing them to work, stealing their babies and killing them.

The text is very sympathetic to the animals’ complaint. But it concludes that humans are superior to animals because only human beings become sages, saints and prophets. The text also notes that saints and sages often chose to live apart from other human beings — as hermits residing in the wilderness. The best human beings appear to recognize that animal company is often preferable to the corrupt company of cruel and vicious human beings. Furthermore, many of those saints and sages are remarkably kind to animals. The best humans may be those who do not lord their superiority over the beasts.

If we really are superior to animals, that superiority gives us greater responsibility to avoid being cruel to those who are at our mercy. It might be that the truly superior human being is the most modest and the most kindhearted, especially when it comes to the treatment of inferior, dependent and vulnerable animals.

The NIH’s chimp retirement plan recognizes that the suffering of members of other species matters. It is a good thing that we are developing a kind of Promethean pity for those animals who depend entirely upon our mercy. I hope the chimps enjoy their retirement.

But is compassion for animals enough? Pity for weak non-humans is wonderful. But we have even stronger obligations to pity weak and dependent humans, including children, the disabled and our own aged population. A truly superior human species would treat vulnerable members of our own species as well as we treat animals — and vice versa.