Morality crises keep arising in modern life partly because science keeps creating new ways to change the world and new ways of understanding the damage we are doing when we change it. Debates about how to respond to global warming are the most prominent example these days, but I think there's one coming on that challenges more fundamental moral and spiritual beliefs. It is the growing scientific understanding of animal minds.
As far back as we know, humans paid a degree of respect to the idea that animals have minds or even spirits. Equally far back, however, humans used animals for food and tools, and civilized humans have exploited them en masse
. It's as though our minds are divided -- respecting or even loving individual animals but treating the bulk of them like so many rocks or vegetables. The division has been reinforced, at least in the West, by dominant beliefs that humans have souls but animals do not.
Science is making such a division harder to sustain. It may not directly address the question of divine souls, but it demonstrates that animals have sophisticated minds that operate in the world's diverse environments in ways we can barely comprehend. Science regularly finds animals that possess traits we once thought defined us as humans. Some use tools, some are self aware, some plan for future events, some mourn their relatives' deaths, and many suffer emotionally when they are in pain.
If you'd like to learn about such animals, a good place to start is Virginia Morell's Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
. In researching her book, she traveled the world to interview scientists working with creatures as small as ants and as large as elephants. Her bottom line is that the mushrooming evidence of animals' intelligence and -- my term -- soulfulness creates a great moral challenge for us human animals as we continue to use and often abuse billions of creatures while also destroying wildlife habitats.
If morality is based on theologies that grant humans a spiritual dimension not granted to animals, then maybe some people can still have comfort zones about treating animals in ways that would be called monstrous if applied to other humans. If instead we try to live morally by granting animals as much spiritual recognition as ourselves, where do we go from here?
Evan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.