Ancient and modern

Animal sentience law has finally caught up with Plutarch’s thinking

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

Almost no ancients cared whether animals felt pain or not. The classical Stoic belief that man’s reasoning capacity elevated him above all other creatures was the intellectual justification. Cruelty to animals could be frowned upon, but only because it might encourage man’s cruelty to man. Descartes (d. 1650) raised the question of whether animals really were conscious and, deciding they were not, concluded they did not feel pain: their reaction to it was purely mechanistic. Behaviourists of the 20th century took the same line. But there is one ancient dissenting voice to that view: the Greek essayist Plutarch (c. ad 100). Now that UK law has legislated that animals are sentient, it has finally caught up with him.

Plutarch’s basic view, expressed in three essays, was that animal behaviour demonstrated its kinship with man because animals were able to distinguish between what was harmful and what was useful to them, i.e. they possessed a reasoning capacity. One argument went as follows: rabid dogs no longer recognised friendly faces and abandoned their natural haunts. But why? Because their faculty for reasoning had been destroyed. With creatures, therefore, who were rational and akin to us, it was our duty to live ‘kindly and considerately’. Plutarch then backed up this claim by producing myriad examples of animals demonstrating sentience.


For instance, men punished disobedient dogs and horses — but had they not been sentient, it would have had no effect. ‘Deer and horses are spellbound and crabs lured from their holes by the sound of pipes, fish rise to the surface when there is singing and clapping, the horned owl is bewitched and twists its shoulders to the rhythm of men dancing.’ What of the donkey, too old for carrying the stones to build the Parthenon, that ‘still turned up every day to trot alongside his mates, urging them on’? And on the strength of many stories involving dolphins saving men (like Arion) at sea, Plutarch said here was the clinching philosophical argument: dolphins, ‘having no need of man at all’, demonstrated ‘friendship for no advantage’.

Animals insentient? How then can they demonstrate such evidence of pain, pleasure, friendship and altruism?

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