Do Animals Have Moral Responsibility?


An unbelievable case grabbed my attention while I was scrolling the bottomless pit of Instagram. In bold and block, it went thus: 

“SHEEP JAILED FOR 3 YEARS FOR KILLING A 45-YEAR-OLD WOMAN.”

This is a wonder of the modern world, not the murder committed but the procedures taken to solve the issues. As a consequence, the guilty sheep will be subjected to three years in the military camp. This issue would have been a masterpiece were it to appear in a creative piece of literature, and literature gurus would have employed their steep experience to explain the symbol of the sheep. But here is a real-life issue which transpired in the Republic of South Sudan. 

Image by Citizen Digital.

Whereas the legal framework found the ram guilty of murder (I would like to tender my sincere condolences to the family of Adhieu Chaping)  and sentenced him to three years of incarceration in the military camp, it didn’t stop there. The customary law further demanded the owner to give five cows to the family of the deceased. This is not an excerpt from some mythology but a confounding reality. This, therefore, bring us to the big question to be handled today: “Do animals have moral responsibility?”

Morality, defined, is the recognition of the distinction between good and evil or between right and wrong; respect for and obedience to the rules of right conduct; the mental disposition or characteristic of behaving in a manner intended to produce morally good results (Oxford Dictionary). G. K. Chesterton in his work, “ Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, ch. 16, 1911” said, “Science and art without morality are not dangerous in the sense commonly supposed. They are not dangerous like a fire, but dangerous like a fog.”

For morality to exist, the parties involved must have a moral capacity and responsibility to transact the ideals. It is obvious that the act committed by the ram is evil and quite unfortunate, but it is extremely debatable if the sheep has a moral responsibility not to commit murder. My opinion simply is that a ram is like a rifle in someone’s hand. When possessed by the soldiers, we feel safe, but when in the hands of bandits everyone runs away in pursuit of safety. Animals must be taken care of by the owners, and so the people involved in fending for the said ram are guilty of neglect. If I were a judge, I would have demanded compensation and let customary laws take cause. This is simply my opinion, but I do understand that the legal procedures follow the law and established precedence. So I will still find it logical to give the legal team a break. 

However, the big question still remains, “Do animals have a moral responsibility?” 

Historically animals have demonstrated some degree of intelligence. Most animals can be trained to perform duties and responsibilities. Oxen have been employed to plough fields and ease the farming process. Horses and mules have been trained to help men in wars. Donkeys, Camels, Ilammas, and Elephants have been employed as beasts of burden, and they have proved dutiful and obedient. And dogs have been used by the police for centuries to unearth contrabands and concealed banditry. Animals also show gratitude for our hospitality by developing loving relationships with human beings who take care of them. This demonstrates abilities that dumb animals are endowed with. 

In fact, to take it further, I think animals to some extent know what is right and wrong within their acceptable framework. That is why a donkey will kick in retaliation to show their dissatisfaction when cornered with overwork, and dogs will play with and hug familiar faces but scare life out of strangers. I have an experience with goats when I was a little boy, that is coming in handy in this discourse. I remember some goats which would slither on their bellies like snakes when invading plantations to escape the all-seeing-eye of a herdsman.  These goats must have had ringing in their brains that feasting on corn and legume plantations was an unpardonable sin. So they tried their level best to make their way unnoticed to change their diet with what man was keeping away from weeds, aphids, and stalk borer. 

But what could we do when the animals broke the unwritten laws, which instead were written on their hearts? And incase the offended party discovered that our Ang’ech was marauding their field, they would not solve issues with Ang’ech but would lookout for the one in charge. Ang’ech would sustain a few injuries or at times dislocation (which was not kindly regarded by the society, and would mean the existence of bad blood between the parties) from the stones thrown broadcast to set Ang’ech in motion. This would remind her that she was a trespasser. In most cases, the customary laws would take their course to help clear the issues. 

The conclusion is that, while animals can align themselves with moral codes taught to them and behave in ways considered morally upright, they don’t have a capacity to hold moral responsibility.  In most traditions, when an animal killed a human being, it was considered an accident and the guilty beast would be killed.  If the beast killed the owner, its murder was considered due justice. If the beast killed another party, then it would be killed and due compensation made. 

Even in the good book, only human beings have moral responsibility. The fate of animals is controlled by human behaviour. When Adam fell, the entire creation was corrupted. When the antediluvian world filled their cup of iniquity, the deluge affected the entire creation. And as human activities destroy or build nature, the animals are affected in the same degree and direction. This is how Paul writes about the suffering of the creation:

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.  Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.  For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. [Romans 8:18-22]

In the Torah, the rule of thumb was tooth for a tooth:

Anyone who injures another person must be dealt with according to the injury inflicted—a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Whatever anyone does to injure another person must be paid back in kind. “Whoever kills an animal must pay for it in full, but whoever kills another person must be put to death. [Leviticus 24:19-21]

What do you think about animals and moral responsibility? Leave your thoughts in the chat section.

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