Reason, Compassion, and Humanness in the Animal World

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

During the Renaissance, debates raged about the necessary properties that defined humanness and human superiority.  For some, including Jean Bodin, “the real essence of a human being…was not physical form, but the rational faculty.”  While such a position sat in line with humanism, which privileged human interiority and cogita, Bodin’s assertions did not sit well with all.  Contemporaries such as Reginald Scot claimed that the separation of humanness from human physicality might too broadly construe humanness, allowing us to locate examples of animal reason that would suggest “euerie asse, woolfe, or cat that we see, were a man, a woman, or a child” (in Fudge 53).

More recently, philosophers such as Peter Singer have argued that there is, in fact, no essential property that elevates humans above non-human animals.  Indeed, humanness is merely a species condition the same as an animal’s being labeled as feline or canine.  Drawing on utilitarian Jeremy Bentham’s ethical assertion that a being’s ethical value emerges from its ability to suffer, animal rights philosophers and activists suggest that the choice to rescue a child or a chicken from drowning should not rest on the creature’s species, but on the level at which it would experience distress and suffering.

Not confined to the halls of academe, these philosophical discussions persist in daily life as well.  “Compassion,” so often considered synonymous with “humanity,” has been called to question each time a news story emerges in which witnesses to a crime video or tweet updates during its commission, failing in the process to stop and render aid to a human victim.  Only one of many examples was a recent convenience store stabbing in Wichita, Kansas: as 27 year old stabbing victim LaShanda Calloway laid dying of internal bleeding, 5 shoppers stood by. According to the local police chief, “she lay on the floor while people continued to do their shopping […] They’re taking photographs.”  Another account stated that a witness  “step[ped] over the body to reach the snack food display near the counter” (Todd).

How are our assumptions about human superiority and human compassion troubled or broadened when we find greater reason or sympathy among non-human animals?  In a recent video released on YouTube, for example, a young goat falls into a petting-zoo pond and begins to drown. Behind the camera, a man consistently comments, “Goat in the water, goat in the water” while continuing to film.  At no point do any zoo staff or visitors attempt to aid the struggling kid.  Yet the kid does not ultimately drown: from the right corner of the screen, a pig appears and purposefully swims into the water and nudges the goat to shore and safety.  The same unhelpful cameraman from early in the video acknowledges the amazing thing that he’s witnessed, dubbing the rescuer a “hero pig.” 

Such a moment of cross-species aid draws attentions to the failures of the humans observing a creature in pain—a creature different from themselves and potentially less deserving of their own efforts or inconveniences.  How does such an example of compassion, of problem-solving—of so-called “humane” or “human” qualities—function for us?  How does it differ from other moments when animals rescue animals within their own species or families, inspiring our awe because they are “like us” in their affections or biologically instinctual drives?  It seems that an instance like that of the petting zoo brings an interesting contrast and blurs boundaries in crucial ways.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of early modern literature at Ball State University in Indiana.  Her current book manuscript examines Renaissance drama and women’s silent authorial performances in England.


 Images: Jean Francois Largot, “Lioness Saves Cub” (Mail Online, 26 September, 2011).  Screenshot from “Pig Rescues Baby Goat.”

Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals (University of Illinois Press, 2002).

‪jebdogrpm. “Pig Rescues Baby Goat.” (YouTube, 19 September, 2012)

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Harper Classics, 2009).

David Todd, “People Snapped Pictures But did not Assist a Dying Woman. Could they be Charged with Failing to Render Aid?” David Todd Law Letter (


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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