Sentience, the Image of God, and Human and Animal Souls

Not to steal Jerry Risser’s topic, but I think a further response to his last two posts on sentience warrant a separate post, not just a comment…

To start:  I heartily endorse Jerry’s analysis, and I agree with him that human moral agency seems to be a fruitful approach to addressing the moral status of animals.  As Dr. John Kilner suggested in his comment last week, one may be concerned that the AAHA’s statement cloaks an agenda, in which the uniqueness of human status in creation is obscured by a sort of mirage in which the raising of animals’ status serves, in part, to pull human status down, creating, as it were, a blurred “horizon line” between man and beast.  But the issue is one of metaphysics, if you will, not just ends and means.

Jerry’s key point is that anthropology is the correct starting point.    This means asking what is the essential nature of humans, not “just” what is their standing in creation.   Here, I believe that reflection on the soul, such has been done by J.P. Moreland, may help.  Recall that Moreland takes a “Thomist” view of the soul, understanding it to be the “substantial, unified reality” that informs an individual’s entire being, grounds all of that individual’s ultimate capacities, is capable of existing in different states, and possesses different faculties.  Also, if I understand Moreland (and Scott Rae) correctly, we should distinguish between a being’s ultimate capacities—what it is capable of when fully developed and functioning—and its “capabilities,” which are “realized” or actualized capacities that can be actualized to greater or lesser degrees at different points in an individual’s existence.  It seems to me that this distinction between capacities and capabilities is real.  We are on shaky ground indeed when we attempt to ground moral status on capabilities (realized capacities), which are degreed properties.

Now, Moreland—and, if I am correct, Aristotle and Thomas before him, and, in contemporary days, Leon Kass—holds that animals do indeed have souls.  Indeed, Moreland says, so teaches the Bible.  But Moreland identifies several human capacities that do not characterize animals’ souls (for what follows, see Moreland’s booklet “What is the Soul?”, especially chapter 4):

  • Libertarian freedom of the will—and therefore, moral agency (as Jerry pointed out)
  • Ability to distinguish between desire and duty
  • Ability to entertain abstract thoughts
  • Ability to distinguish true universal judgments from mere generalizations
  • Awareness of themselves as selves, which envelopes [animals’ lack of] “desires to have desires, beliefs about their beliefs, choices to work on their choices, thinking about their thinking, and awareness of their awareness”
  • Finally, Moreland does not accept that animals possess language, which he argues requires symbols and not just signs.

Note that none of these bullet points is necessarily theistic in origin and none comes from a straightforward exegesis of Scripture.  But the implication, Moreland says, is that animals have souls and value before God, but not the intrinsic human dignity people, who are made in God’s image, have.  Humans “do not have duties to animals, [but] duties with respect to animals.”

This is all a longer way of endorsing Jerry’s “moral agency” approach.  But I must also add this: to get there, whatever one concludes about a narrow exegesis of the term “image of God” in scripture, one must allow that being in the image of God means something about the essence of man and woman—about what kind of beings we are.  I think that point is an indispensable starting point of a biblical approach to bioethics, and I find what I understand to be a more minimalist reading that the image of God is “a status and a standard” to be deeply, deeply unsatisfying.  I also think—forgive me, Dr. Kilner, for casting all humility aside here—that “the conclusion that animals matter much less than people because they are not God’s image” is NOT fallacious.  If you really believe that position is fallacious, then I submit you need to be prepared to negotiate with Jerry’s grizzly bear.

PS: Jerry’s emphasis on “responsible stewardship” echoes the current Presidential Commission on the Study of Bioethical Issues, which proposed “responsible stewardship” as a guiding principle in its statement on synthetic biology a couple of years ago.

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John Kilner
John Kilner

Thanks for your further reflections on this topic, Jon. To clarify my observation, to which you refer near the end of your post, I was making a logical point, not a substantive one, in response to Jerry’s post. My point is akin to assessing how two people in the U.S. should be treated. One is a citizen, and so that gives that person a certain status with implications for how that person can be treated. The other is not a citizen. So how can the second person be treated? It would be fallacious to conclude that we can do anything… Read more »

Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund

It does. I guess the key point is that “much less value” is not the same as “no value.” I am not sure that the citizen/non-citizen example is all that helpful because it implies two human beings (with identical moral status) rather than a human vis-a-vis an animal with “much less,” but hardly “no” value. On further reflection, I suppose we should say that the “moral agent” line of reasoning is only sufficient if the moral agents (the humans) are making right choices, which runs the risk of begging the whole question. Then the issue comes down to setting the… Read more »

Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund

Further to all this, check out the post “On Human Exceptionalism” over at Psychology Today:

and Wesley Smith’s response at his Human Exceptionalism blog at National Reivew Online:

I apologize for the copy-pastes of the full URL’s. I don’t know how to create a direct hyperlink in this comment space and I don’t want to take a full new post on it. Seems to me they are talking about Thomistic substance dualism, even if they don’t call it such.

Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund

Oh, the links lit up. Good.