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Porphyry against the sacrifice and eating of animals


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Porphyry against the sacrifice and eating of animals
Date: 2nd May 2009 11:05

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 1 May, with your essay for the University of London Post-Aristotelian Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'How successful was Porphyry in arguing that a Platonist philosopher should not sacrifice and eat animals?'

I am responding to this quickly, as you told me you are taking your exam on Tuesday, 4th May. Please make sure you send your remaining essays for this module to me by Sunday evening (UK time) at the latest, so that I can assess them on Monday morning.

(In answer to your question, I am a meat eater. However, I would become a vegetarian if someone presented me with sufficiency convincing arguments.)

I like this essay. You have correctly noted that the question does not merely ask how successfully Porphyry argues against the practice of sacrificing and eating animals, but rather whether he successfully argues that a Platonist philosopher should not do this. In other words, the question invites you to say what it is about the commitment to Platonism which requires that one does not sacrifice or eat animals.

There is an interesting point to make concerning the belief in a 'soul'. Descartes notoriously argued that animals do not have souls, and that the motions of their bodies are just a kind of clockwork. It was Hume who, in denying the soul theory, emphasized the continuity between man and non-human animals.

Another point concerns the emphasis on rationality. Although you observe that Porphyry also says that animals have feelings and emotions, experience pain and terror, he goes further than a modern defender of animal rights or vegetarianism in arguing that they are also 'rational'.

His arguments for animal rationality look less convincing to us today. Jonathan Bennett, in his book 'Rationality' argues that the key difference between humans and non-humans revolves around the capacity for human language to represent beliefs about other times and universal generalizations. What corresponds to these features in animal behaviour is merely inculcated habit (stealing food from the table is associated with a smack).

In response to Porphyry's observation regarding the purposive behaviour of animals, a contemporary philosopher would argue that the theory of evolution by natural selection explains much of the 'teleological' aspect of animal behaviour. Actions which would be planned if they were undertaken by human beings, merely manifest evolved instincts when observed in animals.

There is more to 'language' then merely the transfer of information. The often cited example of dolphins 'communicating' information about objects in the water (not something Porphyry knew about, but I'm giving arguably the most remarkable example of sophisticated animal 'language') should be seen as instinctual rather than intentional, a natural extension of the dolphin's powers of perception, which has evolved over millions of years.

As you present it, Porphyry's argument seems to go like this. Anything which has a soul should not be sacrificed or eaten. Anything which has a soul, is rational. Animals are observed to be rational. Therefore, animals have a soul. Therefore, animals should not be sacrificed or eaten.

There is a slight problem with this, however, as a key step in the argument commits the fallacy of affirming the consequent. It is consistent with animals being observed to be rational that they don't have souls. In other words, there could be two kinds of 'rationality', the kind that arises from possession of a soul, and the kind that arises through the workings of nature. This is in effect what I have argued. The 'rationality' of animal behaviour is merely a reflection of the fact that we are able to take the 'intentional stance' (Daniel Dennett) towards them, and the reason we are able to do this is because they have been 'designed' by evolution.

In defence of Porphyry, it could be said that he is not reasoning deductively but inductively. The 'best explanation' for apparently rational behaviour in animals is that they have souls.

There is a second line of argument which I have not yet discussed: the case for abstinence on ascetic grounds. Here Porphyry has a plausible case (on the very best authority, Plato in the Phaedo) for arguing that the philosopher should resist the demands of his animal nature so far as this is possible.

I'm not convinced by this. I find the image of the 'ascetic philosopher' repellent. (Nietzsche gives a devastating analysis of 'ascetic ideals' in his book Genealogy of Morals.) However, if I were a Platonist, maybe I would be. As a Platonist, my view of myself would not be that I am a 'rational animal' but rather that I am an intellectual entity trapped in the prison house of a body, and while we live on this earth intellectual freedom can only be found by strenuously resisting the demands of the body.

All the best,