Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Animals in the Dock

Anyone who has ever formed a deep bond with a pet knows that each is unique and has a distinct personality. Some animals are definitely more intelligent than others. It is unlikely, however, that animals know the difference between right and wrong or that they can exercise free will. For this reason, it would seem strange to us today to subject animals to prosecution for their bad acts. How can an animal be responsible for bad acts if the animal did not know they were bad? How much of their behavior is instinctual? During the Middle Ages, animals were sometimes tried for attacking and killing people as well as other offenses. “Animal trials were commonplace public events in medieval and early modern Europe,”according to James McWilliams writing recently in Slate. McWilliams teaches at Texas State University, and is the author of four books on agriculture and food.

Among the animals tried were pigs, cows, goats, horses, and dogs; when they broke the law, they “were subjected to the same legal proceedings as humans … they were treated as persons.” Underlying the animal trials was the belief that “some animals possessed moral agency, ” free will, an idea that does not prevail today. McWilliams wonders whether people living in “preindustrial agrarian societies” ascribed moral agency to animals because they “interacted almost constantly with domesticated animals.” In fact, people “watched these animals make choices, respond to human directives, engage in social relationships, and distinguish themselves as individuals … “

The close relationship between humans and domestic animals continued into the late nineteenth century when “feedlots and packing plants consolidated the business of animal agriculture,” and long-term proximity of humans and animals came to an end. The Slate article reminded me of a
film I saw some years ago that was set in medieval France. It revolved around a young attorney (played by Colin Firth) who moves from Paris to a rural area seeking peace and quiet. The film, made in 1993, was originally entitled The Hour of the Pig, but was released in the United States as The Advocate. When the attorney takes on a case defending a pig accused of killing a young Jewish boy, the public prosecutor tells him, “Anyone who knows animals knows there are good ones and bad ones.” After much intrigue and many plot twists, the attorney heads back to Paris, having learned that the rural village was even more corrupt than the big city.


Betsy McKenzie said...

What an intriguing post, Marie! I have to say the animals I have known have a keen sense of justice where it applies to what they are entitled to. For instance, my dog and cat watch very closely to be sure that the other never gets a treat when they have none! Even if the cat had a treat a few minutes earlier, she MUST have a treat if the dog is having one at the moment. It's a lot like sibling rivalry.

I don't suppose it's quite the same as a sense of justice or mens rea. Certainly, the cat has no apparent sense of guilt when she then gets up on the counter, where she is not supposed to be and knocks breakables onto the floor. From her point of view everything in the house is hers, and we just live here on suffrance. You just have to understand her point of view.

Marie S. Newman said...

As the saying goes, dogs have owners, and cats have staff.