(Excerpt from The Beauty and Nobility of Life)
Contrary to our long history of confusing the noble concept of ‘dominion’ with the vulgar concept of ‘domination’, the biblical tradition clearly maintains that God is concerned with all life on Earth, and human beings have an obligation to care for our planetary home and all the planet’s creatures. In Exodus, God determines that Moses is ready to fulfill his task when He sees that Moses is merciful toward animals. According to the prophet Hosea, God says “I will make a covenant on behalf of Israel with the wild beasts, the birds of the air, and the things that creep on the earth … so that all living creatures may lie down without fear.” (Hos 2:18). Proverbs states simply, “A righteous man cares for his beast.” (12:10) The Jewish physician and scholar, Moses Maimonides, would later say, “It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else.”
The eastern religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism all urge compassion for animals in recognition of the Oneness of life. Ahimsa, the central ethical doctrine of these traditions, is the principle of not causing pain or harm to others. Buddha commanded his followers not to kill animals, for acts of violence toward living things, in order to get what we want, is a horrific cause of attachment and only binds us ever more tightly to our suffering. Buddhism seeks release from suffering.
Mohammad taught his followers that “Whoever is merciful even to a sparrow, God will be merciful to him on the Day of Judgment.” He also said that “A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious as a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.”
In Christianity, Pope John Paul II wrote that “Creation was given and entrusted to humankind as a duty”, i.e., not a personal plaything, and God says of all creation “It is good that you exist.” St. Francis understood well that “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
It is by no means just the voices of religion that keep trying to get this message through to us. The well-known atheist, Christopher Hitchens, wrote, “when I read of the possible annihilation of the elephant or the whale, or the pouring of oven cleaner or cosmetics into the eyes of live kittens, or the close confinement of pigs and calves in lightless pens, I feel myself confronted by human stupidity, which I recognize as an enemy.” Cruelty and stupidity, he correctly points out, are often close companions.
Among scientists, Einstein spoke of “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty,” and he warned that “any society which does not insist upon respect for all life must necessarily decay.” Charles Darwin thought that “The love for all living creatures [is] the most noble attribute of man.” The American inventor, Thomas Edison, believed that “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.” Pythagoras knew that “as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other.” Rachel Carsen added, “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.”
In his book The Basis of Morality, Schopenhauer wrote that “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” Even earlier, Immanuel Kant became one of many thoughtful people who have always maintained that “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”
“Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless,” said Albert Schweitzer, “is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human lives.” This principle was perhaps stated most vividly in a quote that is often attributed to Theodor W. Adorno, though he never actually said it. It’s too bad. Whoever may have said it, it has a definite ring of truth. “Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.”