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Ethics Before Darwin. Human Dignity. The Idea of Human Dignity Human life is sacred. We must protect human life and respect the lives and interests of human beings. Nonhuman life is not sacred. We may use animals as we see fit. Aristotle (384-322 BC).

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Ethics Before Darwin

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human dignity
Human Dignity
  • The Idea of Human Dignity
  • Human life is sacred.
    • We must protect human life and respect the lives and interests of human beings.
  • Nonhuman life is not sacred.
    • We may use animals as we see fit.
aristotle 384 322 bc
Aristotle(384-322 BC)

To understand anything, ask four questions:

1. What is it?

2. What is it made of?

3. Where did it come from?

4. What is its purpose?


[W]e must believe, first that plants exist for the sake of animals, second that all other animals exist for the sake of man, tame animals for the use he can make of them as well as for the food they provide; and as for wild animals, most though not all of these can be used for food or are useful in other ways; clothing and instruments can be made out of them. If then we are right in believing that nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.

--Aristotle, Physics


And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:26)


The Greeks and Romans

• approved infanticide

• approved suicide

• approved mercy-killing

• approved combat

• approved executions

The early Christians . . .

condemned all killing of human beings.

• murder

• infanticide

• suicide

• mercy-killing

• capital punishment

• killing by soldiers

some time around 325 ad something happened
Some time around 325 AD, something happened.

The Roman Emperor, Constantine, becomes a Christian.





capital punishment

soldiers in battle

Acceptable killings

Unacceptable killings


St. Augustine


The intentional killing of innocent humans is always wrong.


What about killing in self-defense?

Augustine: Although the state may kill to defend itself, individuals may not.

St. Thomas Aquinas


Killing of necessity, in individual self-defense, is not the intentional killing of the innocent, and it is permitted.


Aquinas on nonhuman animals:

  • Hereby is refuted the error of those who said it is sinful for a man to kill dumb animals: for by divine providence they are intended for man’s use in the natural order. Hence it is no wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing them or in any other way whatever.

Aquinas again:

If any passages of Holy Writ seem to forbid us to be cruel to dumb animals, for instance to kill a bird with its young: this is either to remove man’s thoughts from being cruel to other men, and lest through being cruel to animals one becomes cruel to human beings: or because injury to an animal leads to the temporal hurt of man, either the doer of the deed, or of another.


Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

Animals cannot think; they have no conscious experiences; they do not even feel pain.


They administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference, and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them and see the circulation of the blood which was a great subject of conversation.

--Nicholas Fontaine (1738)