Towards the shift in attitudes to non-human species

K.S. Sidorova, MLitt Fine Art Practice

When asked about death, in most cases we think about our own death or the death of those close to us. Such ideas are personal, emotional. But, first of all, these are ideas about the death of people.

If we are talking about mass catastrophes, for example during a natural disaster, then again only human casualties are indicated. Moreover, it is rare, almost never talked about animal casualties in the same catastrophe. There is a fact of inequality in the life of man and animal and, accordingly, an unequal attitude to the dying, extinction and killing of humans and other species. What is the reason for the difference in the perception of death of various representatives of the animal kingdom?

The author attempts to reveal the ethical aspects of interspecies differences in relation to death, leaving aside the polemic of vegetarianism and veganism for a time being.

The attitude towards death at different stages of the development of history was not static. The most common classification is the list cited by Philippe Aries in his work “Man in the Face of Death” (1977). [1] Aries was one of the first to determine the connection between the public view of death and its self-determination, which is so important for us. According to F.A. (European) society went through five stages of understanding death from “death tamed” to, contemporary to it, “death inverted” – a state of pushing death out of society, suppressing and hiding mourning.

Interestingly, what unites all the stages given by Aries, is one fact – death every time is the death of a person. Indeed, in this work, as in many others devoted to questions of death the reasoning is rooted in a tradition of anthropocentrism. Let us turn to a more detailed explanation of the last statement.

During the existence of man, and more specifically – philosophical thought, we can talk about the gradual increase and intensification of anthropocentrism. Already in ancient philosophy, the premise of anthropocentrism was laid by Socrates, later this view was held by representatives of patristics, scholastics. In the XV-XVI centuries, for the most part together with the deepening of the secularization of society, one can speak of a gradual increase and then the dominance of anthropocentric thinking, which finally formed in the Renaissance. For us, the views of the New Age philosophers, Rene Descartes himself, are specifically important.

Anthropocentrism itself is an idealistic philosophical worldview, according to which man is the centre of the universe and all events taking place in the world; man is the highest achievement of nature. Anthropocentrism is one of the most developed expressions of teleology, that is, the search for natural goals that are external to the world. The idea of a person as the highest value, the sovereign of nature, is often associated with prescribing to a human (and only to a human) the ability to conceptualize the world of things and phenomena external to him. At the same time, systems similar to the human mind system have not been studied in animals, and only the latest research allows us to get closer to understanding the functioning of the nervous systems of non-human species, their presence of emotions, memory, logic, etc.

In many respects, anthropocentrism was supported by the rationalist concept of Rene Descartes, which cemented the idea of the special position of man in the natural world as the only one with the spirit and thereby ascending over the world of things. Descartes’ ideas about animals were quite radical:

“They (animals) ... are machines. They feel neither pleasure, nor pain, nor anything at all. Although they shrill when they are cut with a knife, and writhe in their efforts to avoid contact with red-hot iron, this does not mean anything. ”[4]

The very idea of the soul as the only difference between the living creature and the living machine and the precept of the soul exclusively for man have served for many years and serve as a guide to the exploitation of other species by man. “Descartes’ theory allowed the experimenters to free themselves from any remorse that they could feel under these circumstances. Descartes personally dissected into parts living animals in order to supplement his knowledge of anatomy, and many of the leading physiologists of that time declared themselves Cartesians and mechanists ”[5] At present, despite the recognition of the inconsistency of anthropocentrism by many philosophical directions of post-modernism, the work of philosophers of deep ecology in the 1970’s continues to dominate anthropocentrism in everyday consciousness.

The above is resulting in unbalanced relationship between humanity and the animal kingdom. Man is essentially singled out into a special supernatural category of being, moreover, man and the territory of his life form a new layer of existence on Earth – the Anthroposphere (a concept rooted in the concept of Vernadsky’s noosphere, but unlike the views of the latter, it is not so optimistic amongst modern ecologists) .
The anthroposphere is a supposed geological era dating back to the beginning of significant human impact on the geology and ecosystems of the Earth, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change. The concept of the anthroposphere is closely related to human influence on (among others) the climate, reserves of natural resources, and also species diversity. The latter brings us to the question of ethical issues of human influence on animals.

The ethical aspects of the relationship between animals and humanity are actively considered by environmentalists and environmental activists since the 1970’s (the earlier studies date back to the 19th century), but they have not widely spread to the field of philosophy. We believe that in order to position modern man in the world and to more accurately determine the role of man in the global ecosystem, as well as ontologically, a review is necessary. It is impossible to talk about life on Earth, defining it as only one of the species.

The modern picture of the world is as follows: at the top of a pyramid of all kinds is a person (a European person equipped with technologies and gadgets serving not only as a continuation but also as an extension of his consciousness). The natural world is completely subordinate to man.

The fauna is divided into 3 unequal groups with unequal rights. The division into these groups is endowed with a considerable number of paradoxes, which we will try to reveal:

• Wild animals – concern for species diversity, protection of species under threat of extinction.

Domesticated animals, among them:
• Companion animals – their killing is immoral, they are attributed a primitive spiritual world, they “understand” the “owners”, they can be treated medically, their death is a tragedy for a person living with them (instead of the word “owning”).

• Livestock – can be bred for food, health of each animal is less considered in comparison to overall health of the stock (for example, the lack of treatment strategies for pigs – the case of Esther the Wonderpig, not yet described in the scientific literature but already entailing serious consequences in relation to livestock in Canada and the USA), humans completely dispose of their lives.

Livestock is the most numerous of all species, one of the most studied and at the same time possessing the least rights. Some modern philosophers (Peter Singer) [5] compare the control over the body, life and death of an animal with the position of slaves during the time of Colonialism, which raises the issue of interspecific slavery. This paradox in assessing the life and death of closely related species (the life of a dog is more valuable than the life of a pig; however, dead chinchilla fur is more valuable than the fur of a dead dog) and a huge gap in assessing the life of humans coincides with the crisis of species diversity (currently more than 70% the number of all living creatures on Earth – man and his food [7]). It is more important than ever to reconsider our attitude to the balance of life on the planet, introduce polemics about interspecific relationships in contemporary global discourse and forever renounce the ideals of Anthropocentrism/

However, such discourse must be approached with extreme caution. History knows examples of an incorrect interpretation of the concepts of animal welfare and interspecific equality.

One of the saddest (and most modern) ones is Tierschutzgesetz – a set of animal protection laws issued in Nazi Germany on November 29, 1933. The law put an end to vivisection, animal trials, and cruel treatment of animals. However, the same law proposed a new hierarchy of species. People as a separate species lost their integrity and status. A new hierarchy was proposed, the peak of which was occupied by the Aryans. They were followed by wolves, eagles and pigs. Below all were Jews and rats. Such a hierarchy was an excuse for the many tortures suffered by nations who fell under the control of the Nazi regime. [2]

Researchers point out that this was the worst answer to the question of what should be our relationship with other species [15]. It was not about the equation of all kinds in the right to life, but the intensification of the exploitation of people and, for this, comparing them with animals.

More than ever, today a revision of our relationship with animals is important alongside the rejection of Cartesian dualism and the rejection of obsolete terminology (many researchers have proposed the term – non human species – “creatures of a non-human nature”). The question of death and dying should not be the prerogative of humans. Animals should be inscribed in the discourse about death on an equal basis with people, only because death is known to them, contrary to the general idea of this issue.

Creatures of a non-human nature possess “inherent value” as “subjects of life”, according to the American philosopher Tom Regan [4]. And therefore, they cannot be considered as a means to achieve someone’s goals.


1. Ariès, P. Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974)
2. Arluke, A. and Sax, B. Understanding Animal Protection and the Holocaust [Текст] / А. Arluke, B. Sax; Anthrozos, том 5(1): Taylor & Francis, 1992. – с. 6-31.
3. Descartes, R. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes vol. II [Текст] / R. Decartes; под. ред. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
4. Regan, T. The Case for Animal Rights [Текст] / T. Regan; USA- University of California Press, 2004.
5. Singer, P. Animal Liberation: A Personal View // Writings on an ethical life [Текст] / P. Singer; London : Fourth Estate, 2001
6. The world’s most famous pig is cancer-free now, and her unique CT scanner is saving lives [Электронный ресурс] / C. Controneo, Mother Nature Network, 2018, Режим доступа: (дата обращения 22.10.2019)
7. United Nations Nature Decline Report [Электронный ресурс] / United Nations, 2019, Режим обращения: (дата обращения 22.10.2019)