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“I knew him by his voice”: Can Animals Be Our Friends?

Stephen Clark examines how far Aristotle’s concept of friendship might apply to animals, among themselves and between us and them.

One of the stories told about Pythagoras is that he rebuked a man who was beating a dog, with the words “That’s a friend of mine – I knew him by his voice.” The story is told to illustrate, maybe to mock, the Pythagorean belief in metempsychosis – the thought that souls migrate into new bodies when their present body dies. But let this pass: metempsychosis isn’t my concern. I shall also not be addressing (neo-)Cartesian arguments against animals having consciousness, beliefs, desires and affections. I shall take it for granted that no reader seriously disputes the thesis that vertebrates, at any rate, have a point of view, are conscious – that there is ‘something it is like’ to be a bat, a cat or a crocodile. It is probably also common sense to suppose that there is something it is like to be a worm, a wasp, octopus, or many other invertebrates. Of course it doesn’t immediately follow that their points of view are ours, or that they inhabit anything like the same moral universe we do. After all, plenty of human beings don’t seem to do that either.

Pythagoras’ heart went out to the dog when he heard his yelps: in that moment, he became his friend. Let’s leave it at that, for now. It’s not the only possible reaction to an animal’s complaint. A story is told of the Rabbi Judah, that when he heard a calf complaining on the way to slaughter, he rebuked the calf, telling him that it was for this that he had been created. For this insensitivity the Rabbi had toothache for thirteen years, until one day he saved a weasel’s life and was pardoned.

At least Judah gave the calf an answer. The commonest reaction of all is simply to ignore the noise – which cannot really be a complaint, nor an appeal for justice, nor even a cry for help. Animals, after all, are merely animal. And even those late antique philosophers who lived out a Neo-Pythagorean or Neo-Platonic tradition mostly made the same distinction, to defend their very un-Pythagorean resort to blood sacrifice. But maybe they were wrong.

The context of my present argument is current, Western, common sense. On this view, non-human animals are neither vehicles for just the same sort of soul as humans, nor are they merely insentient mechanisms. They are sentient, aware creatures, but they are not human, and neither are they all the same. The sociologist Sherry Turkle can speak of sitting watching children pulling the wings off butterflies, because she supposes that a butterfly is “far enough from being alive in the way that a person is alive to make its mutilation and killing almost acceptable” (The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, 1984.) I could not myself have been so indifferent, or so easily persuaded that the children were not simply being thoughtless or cruel. No doubt the children don’t really know what they are doing: it is up to adults to correct them. But it is still true that we do commonly make effective distinctions: I doubt if even Turkle would have been quite so laid back if the children were dismembering vertebrates (and the vertebrates would have objected much more strongly too). Amongst invertebrates only the common octopus (and not even its closest relatives) is given the same protection in the UK as vertebrates by the Animal Procedures Act of 1986.

Philosophers working within the mainstream Western tradition often make a simple distinction between human and non-human animals, as though chimpanzees were more like worms than people, but common sense does not agree. We generally make both objective and subjective distinctions – that is, we divide animals both by their own properties and also by our own attitudes to them. We treat vertebrates and molluscs differently because they are innately different, we suppose. We treat dogs and pigs differently because they mean different things to us, although we might recognize that their intelligence and sensitivity are much the same.

Friendship involves both objective and subjective elements. My friends share some objective properties, perhaps; but not all who have those properties are therefore my friends. So my question, ‘Can animals be our friends?’ should really be replaced by a different and much lengthier pair of questions: Which animals, if any, can be our friends? and What is friendship?

Some animals clearly like our company and like to be petted – even giant tortoises, so my daughter tells me. Tradition tells us that even certain insects (namely bees) cooperate more eagerly with certain humans than with others. Conversely, some humans get on more easily than others with various animals. Liking one another’s company is at least an element in friendship, but is not the only one. Traditionally, amongst our household pets, dogs may be counted friends; cats, it is supposed, just like the warmth, the scent, the touch of humans, and of course the food they offer. I doubt this is entirely accurate: the distinction is one of culture rather than objective judgement. Its value is largely that it draws attention to the things we expect of friends. Feline affection is not expected to be either faithful, obedient or protective, whereas we take it for granted that dogs will guard and obey us until death. Once again, I am not sure that this distinction is objectively correct: canine fidelity can also be interpreted as the sort of pack loyalty that is easily transformed to rivalry, and cats too can seem both faithful and concerned. But the cats of our imagination are their own masters in ways that dogs are not.

Aristotle’s Friends

On the other hand, by Aristotle’s account of friendship, masters and slaves cannot be really friends, since the master does not take any of the slave’s goals as his own. The slave, indeed, has no acknowledged goals, beyond the satisfaction of immediate desires and release from fear. Natural slaves, in Aristotle’s political ontology, have no conception of doing what is right, nor any chance of a ‘life well-lived’. Still less have any non-humans any share in moral action or in a life well-lived. In practice there may be shared affections, loyalties, and reciprocal obligations even between slave and master, even between man and dog. Since most actual slaves are slaves unjustly (not being ‘natural slaves’) the relationship may ascend a step, to the sort of ‘unequal friendship’ in which the merit of the friends differs so much that their relationship more feudal rather than egalitarian. Rather than sharing the same advantages from the friendship, unequal friends get different gains, offer different honour to each other.

This may not look like friendship as such at all; Aristotle, after all, was discussing philia, the vital bond of Greek societies by which one marks off ‘one’s own’: it is a relationship much more political than romantic. But perhaps it is still a useful model, and one we can extend to the non-human: relationships can be reciprocal or complementary. This is a distinction drawn by animal behaviourists, who probably haven’t read Aristotle. It is important to traditional common sense that our animal companions be inferior, and furthermore, acknowledge their subservience – which is another reason we are uncertain that cats are ever friends. Dogs that too obviously control their households are in need of therapy, we suppose. Dog-owners who mourn their pets too openly embarrass themselves and others. Those who feel more sorrow at their pet’s death than at any human relative’s decease experience the grief that dare not say its name. Does not their sorrow prove they had given their hearts to something less than human, preferring mindless affection to the challenges of human intercourse? Their dogs were, in a way, philoi; but the philia was of the unequal kind, and the feudal superior ought not to lose his dignity in grief.

Aristotle’s analysis has further advantages. There are distinctions even among more equal friendships. The commonest sort of philia is for pleasure: the philoi who take pleasure together in games, or drink, or even more intellectual pursuits. A second kind of philia is the business partnership: for profit. Only the third kind is counted by Aristotle, as true philia: the case where philoi recognize each other as good, as just what they themselves would wish and hope to be – as ‘other selves’ for whom it would be proper and even easy to die. Such philoi share their conception of the life well-lived, and value their own virtues expressed more openly in the other. They love each other as themselves.

Aristotle held it would be slavish to live ‘for another’, taking the other’s ideals and interests as one’s own – except in just these cases where the philoi take their pleasure and their profit in a single noble enterprise. Only human beings can be such philoi – and only what we call ethical human beings, those who do all and only what they conceive is right (which excludes most of us). But the other forms of philia also have in common with the best form, that philoi do things together; they are partners in some enterprise. Inferior partners follow their superiors’ plans. Equal partners are jointly committed to the same endeavour.

Animals Care

So what about non-human animals, especially of the sort that human beings domesticate and rule? By Aristotelian as well as commonsensical standards, such animals don’t share our plans, except at the level of desiring pleasure, and maybe profit. Human and cat may both have pleasure in the other, even if not the same pleasure. Human and dog may profitably join in hunting or herding, each with their own goals and alert to each other’s profit:

“Different as they are from language-using human beings, they are able to form relationships not only with members of their own species, but also with human beings, while giving expression to their own intentions and purposes. So the relationships are far more clearly analogous to human relationships than some of the philosophical theorizing that I have discussed would allow. Some human beings indeed and some nonhuman animals pursue their respective goods in company with and in cooperation with each other. And what we mean by ‘goods’ in saying this is precisely the same, whether we are speaking of human or dolphin or gorilla.”
Alasdair Macintyre Dependent Rational Animals, 1999, p.61.

But can such partners ever share a conception of what it is right to do, or of a life well-lived? Aristotle’s answer was that they could not, because the notion of what is right, noble and beautiful is something only visible to the eye of the intellect. Other Platonists (for Aristotle himself was a kind of Platonist) were prepared to suppose that any animate being had some connection with intellect, even if its eye was blind for the moment. They could therefore imagine that non-human animals were sometimes moved by ‘moral beauty’, even if the animal could not articulate that emotion or vision. But that is another item I shall not address – largely because I don’t know how we could settle the question. Instead, it is worth asking whether our common sense, not being Platonist, has any grounds for saying that animals can’t manage what we manage in terms of basic emotions?

Mutually caring companionships are already more than pleasurable associations (the first and commonest form of philia) and more than quid-pro-quo partnerships (the second). They depend on a kind of mutual liking, a recognition of common sentiments and attitudes which are the sentimental origin of ethics. Even Platonists can agree that sentiment, and not pure intellectual reason, is our ground of moral judgement. Our ethics are the ethics of a certain sort of social mammal, programmed to care for our offspring and our immediate kin. In some species that care seems carefully confined: chimpanzees seem wholly indifferent to more distant relatives, feeling no impulse to care for them, and even willingly killing members of any rival group. But this need not be a universal feature. Experiments suggest that other primates will forego advantages rather than cause others pain (and rather more strongly that some scientists won’t). In other species it is even possible for affectionate care to reach out beyond the species. Recent cases noted in the media include the snake that lives contentedly with the hamster intended for its lunch, and the lioness that persisted in adopting oryxes. Young chimpanzees can play with young baboons: maybe some day a pair will maintain that connection into adulthood. Sociobiologists may believe that this is or would be in some sense ‘an error’ – a bit of behaviour that cannot really be ‘fit’ and so must always be rare. My own guess is that ‘fitness’ in this sense is not so easy to calculate. At the very least, it is obvious that the human capacity for caring for more distant kin, and even for the non-human, has not restricted our reproduction. On the contrary, it is the humans incapable of caring who are rare: we call them psychopaths.

It is perhaps notable that adult male baboons are connected most easily to female baboons of roughly their own age. They don’t have many same-sex ‘friendships’:

“Female baboons, in general, are wary of males. This is understandable: males sometimes use their larger size and formidable canines to intimidate and bully smaller troop members, Females, however, were apparently drawn to their male Friends, and they seemed surprisingly relaxed around these hulking companions, The males, too, seemed to undergo a subtle transformation when interacting with female Friends. They appeared less tense, more affectionate and more sensitive to the behavior of their partners. ”
Barbara B. Smuts, Sex and Friendship in Baboons, 1985, p.61.

This sort of friendship offers an escape from the normally antagonistic nature of baboon and other primate society. We aren’t always rivals, or need not be. And generosity goes along with justice: it is possible to feel aggrieved that our associates and almost-friends aren’t ‘playing fair’, and there is evidence that non-humans feel the same. We are all sensitive to betrayals, and united in a desire to see fair play.

None of this need be reckoned the result of any rational will, any deliberate intent to comfort or console or take revenge. I am willing to assume that animal ethical behaviour is indeed the product of unreasoned sentiment, and even that these sentiments have been selected as being ‘fit’. But it doesn’t follow that just because non-humans cannot deliberately prefer their friends’ welfare to their own, they are therefore to be reckoned merely selfish, although perhaps they cannot distinguish the real good of others from their own comfort in the feeling of companionship (as we can do). What they feel is something that, in us, can sometimes conscientiously be separated: one of Owen Barfield’s ‘ancient unities’.

Divided Kingdoms

This is a strikingly verbal age. It is widely assumed that those who cannot talk (and therefore reason) can’t really amount to much. Traditionalists who wish to defend the rights of the unborn, the infantile, the incoherent imbecile or senile, have to insist that because they are human, the imbecile and infant etc must have souls and be deserving of the same respect as rational adults. John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae (25/03/95) makes the point, in rebuking

“the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection.”

But why are the non-human not allowed this silent language, even within the older tradition? Where did we get the idea that only those in human form have the sort of souls that allow affection? Even Augustine, who absorbed too much of the Stoic attitude to animals, suggested that many people will understand their dog better than they understand or appreciate a foreigner. Our experience is often of a household where creatures of several species get along more-or-less: it is the outsider, the foreigner, even of our own species, who is suspect.

It was not Biblical Christianity that imposed a radical disjunction between human and non-human (although there are now self-styled ‘Bible Christians’ who seem to think it part of their creed that no-one should care for animals). Nor was it ‘Greek Thought’ which left the West this heritage, although there were elements in that tradition that helped create the division. Nor is it reasonable to assume that we will change things for the better by adopting non-Western, Oriental or Amerindian thought patterns, which are as diverse as our own, and often even less animal-friendly.

Both Stoics and Epicureans rested much of moral law on some form of social contract theory, and explicitly excluded those who could make no verbal contracts. Stoics also reckoned that only human beings could be ‘friends of God’, since only humans shared God’s intellectual capacities. Platonists, who founded moral law on an intuition of the Good and its embodiment in the ‘dance of immortal love’, might be expected to have a more animal-friendly outlook, whether or not they believed in metempsychosis. Platonists (including Aristotle) could also recognise that there are no stable or definite boundary lines in nature, and that our formal taxonomies are only a way of thinking. But language creates distinctions; above all the distinction between those who have it and those who don’t. We are further easily persuaded that verbal distinctions correspond to natural kinds – and that we must defend those boundaries. Hybridisation is either impossible or somehow rather deplorable.

One of Darwin’s most dangerous ideas is that species are not natural kinds, but only varieties grown just a bit more different. Just sufficiently different in fact as to prevent most interbreeding: a ‘species’ is a reproductively isolated set of interbreeding populations; isolated either by geography, temperament or physiology. There need be no species-nature universal among and peculiar to all members of a particular species. This is why ‘speciesism’ does indeed have the same form as ‘racism’ even though species are better defined than races.

Speciation may still be a Good Thing (whereas ‘pseudo-speciation’ is not, whether based on race, class or creed): “Without isolation [that is, without speciation] all organic beings would have been nearly uniform, and all would have belonged to a single type, which would be the one best fitted to getting food and for propagating its race: a half-animal, half-vegetable, and a ruthless cannibal. ” (F.W. Hutton, Darwinism and Lamarckism, 1899, p.105.) Speciation allows the construction of a living world more diversely beautiful, and more stable, than the uniform world imagined by Hutton. The price is that everyone has a commitment towards, and sentiment in favour of, their own particular species-life. But those commitments and sentiments are not the only ones, nor even necessarily the most powerful. Our own species, after all, provides our chief rivals and competitors! It may actually be easier to value one’s dog than a stranger, as Augustine said: the dog, after all, is a valuable member of one’s household – whether or not he is a friend, he is certainly philos. And there is no reason why our genes should care which gene-pool they populate. In Dawkins-speak, they have as strong an interest in their survival outside our species as within. And it is not so long since our ancestors were one species: our separation is the recent thing.

My point here is to emphasise just how far modern thought has drifted from the metaphysical and biological theories that, once upon a time, validated the conviction that non-human creatures were all so different from ‘us’ that we could not possibly be friends. Each of us, human or non-human, is the product of a set of genes, almost all of which are widely shared between species: there are possibly no specifically human genes: no genes that belong only and entirely within ‘the human genome’ – and no specifically human patterns of behaviour.

There is a risk we shall slide into a future where individual selfhood is forgotten – where the world-hive generates whatever units, with whatever functions, it temporarily desires. One thing that may preserve us from this is the memory of friendship – the memory that individual creatures matter. Those who suppose that animals cannot be our friends do so because they doubt that animals are ever real individuals: animals are to be valued, if at all, entirely for the good they do us. On this account, it would not be unreasonable to acquire cloned copies of dead pets (though it may well be utterly impractical). But those who more truly loved their non-human companions would no more desire this outcome than a lover would be pleased by the substitution of his beloved’s twin, or a well-designed replica. In friendship we encounter an individual, not a type, and don’t transfer our loyalties so quickly.


This study is a triangular affair. In one corner are the traditionalists, maintaining that non-human and human animals are ‘ships that pass in the night’ whose interests and ideas are entirely opaque to each other. For example, “A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels.” (G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered, 1908, p.220.) Any friendship that may seem to exist between such different entities can only be superficial, a mere liking of the other’s physical presence. And although Chesterton insisted that we should respect these other, inscrutable creatures, the practical effect of the doctrine of division is to endorse most of our existing, exploitative practices.

In the second corner are the modernists, for whom species boundaries are temporary and easily subvertible, and whose metaphysics hardly allow the existence of individuals at all (though they may retain some superstitions on the subject). The practical effect is very much what Chesterton feared: the transformation of persons as well as animals into tools.

In the third corner are those like myself, who acknowledge that species makes little difference, but wish to insist on the individual reality of those we love or might love.

Animals become our friends, we become their friends, when they look back at us and we are confronted by the mystery of the Other which is at the root also of our own being. Non-humans aren’t as clever as we are in human terms; but neither are we as clever as they are in their terms. Language is not all-important, and the boundaries it creates are there to be transcended. As John Paul II put it, we can “communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection.” Pythagoras heard his friend, and knew him by his voice.

© Professor Stephen R. L. Clark 2008

Stephen Clark is Professor of Philosophy at Liverpool University. He has written several books on animal-related ethics.

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