For centuries, theologians and philosophers alike have maintained an absolute categorical distinction between human beings and other animals. According to this assumption human beings are moral agents who are capable of both moral virtue and moral vice. They are also linguistic agents who are capable of speech. Animals, by contrast, are neither moral nor linguistic.
No doubt, the contrast between Homo sapiens and the vast majority of other species is secure. But the sweeping claim that we’re unlike all other animals, is gradually being eroded. Take, for example, the Scottish researchers who grabbed headlines around the world this past week by compiling the first dictionary of chimpanzee sign language. Of course chimps don’t have language like we have language. But increasingly the absolute claim that only human beings are (or could possibly be) linguistic is being shown to be an outdated dogmatism.
And then there is the question of moral agency. Can any non-human creatures sin? Can they aspire to moral virtue? Can they do the right thing? When you consider the gradual, developmental way that human beings become moral agents, it becomes very difficult to declare with any sense of absoluteness that no other species could possibly have attained some limited degree of moral agency on that developmental continuum.
Consider as Exhibit A the video below, a video that shows the best and worst of chimpanzee behavior. Watch the gang of chimps isolate and severely beat the outsider. And then watch the one single chimp risk his own well being to offer protection and aid to that severely beaten outsider.
For years the stock answer to such displays has been “anthropomorphic projection”: that is, we’re treating the animals as human by projecting human thoughts, emotions and intentions on them. But why think this? If a two year old can behave in a naughty way, why not a chimpanzee? If a child can act in a noble fashion on the playground, how do we know a chimp might not do likewise?