Nonhuman Animal Rights

This article will explore a particular application of the revolt against dualism and the defense of a scale of becoming in Whitehead’s thought. It will detail Whitehead’s simultaneous belief in the continuity between nonhuman animals and human beings, and the partial transcendence of human beings over nonhuman animals. It will also note two arguments used by recent philosophers in favor of nonhuman animal rights. Finally, it will indicate what a Whiteheadian defense of these two arguments might look like.

1. Revolt Against Dualism

Throughout his career Whitehead was, for various reasons, an opponent of dualism. Not least among these reasons was the fear that dualism could easily lead to reductionistic materialism once it was realized that mind (or life or self-motion) is, as a result of dualism, an irrelevant ghost in the machine. The materialist merely exorcises the ghost (SMW, Chapter 5).

Whitehead’s response was to advocate a fusion of mind (or life or self-motion) and physical nature in the composition of the “really real things.” This revolt against dualism has the following implication for nonhuman animals: in abstraction from its animal body, a living nexus is not understandable at all (and vice versa). Indeed, each actual occasion is a bipolar fusion of the physical and the appetitive or mental (e.g. PR 104, 108; MT 150; AI 210, 212-13, 253, 259).

2. Scale of Becoming

This fusion (or better, interfusion) is spread throughout nature in something like a scale of becoming—the process version of the traditional “scale of Being.” At one point, Whitehead distinguishes among six types of occurrences in nature. In descending order, these are human existence, the kind of life found in vertebrate animals generally, vegetable life, living cells, large-scale inorganic aggregates, and finally the happenings on an infinitesimally small scale as disclosed by physicists (MT 156-57; PR 98). At another point, he distinguishes in an analogous way among four grades of reality, with the highest level exhibiting a reorganization of experience characteristic of reason (PR 177-78).

Whitehead makes it clear that these are not airtight boundaries, but are rather heuristic and explanatory devices. That is, different modes of existence “shade off into each other.” By implication, there is no absolute difference between human beings and nonhuman animals; indeed human beings are animals. Likewise, the most primitive plants fade into the lives of a cluster of living cells. There is not even an absolute gap between living and nonliving societies. Ours is a “buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (PR 50, 102; MT 157).

The problem for Nature (Whitehead himself capitalizes here) is the production of complex societies that are unspecialized; in this way “intensity is mated with survival” (PR 101). This problem is solved by the enhancement of the mental pole. It should be noted that Whitehead does not restrict such enhancement to human beings (as in Kant), rather he extends it to “higher organisms.” These are organisms that “think,” at the very least in the sense that they do not thoughtlessly adjust to causal factors affecting them (PR 101-103). I will return to nonhuman animal mentality momentarily.

Animal bodies are living societies that contain both living cells as well as “inorganic” subservient apparatuses at the level studied by physicists. In a famous turn of phrase, Whitehead describes life as “the clutch at vivid immediacy” (PR 103-105). We will see that this immediacy is noteworthy from an ethical point of view if what is vividly experienced is pain, especially if it is unnecessary pain.

Nonhuman animals clearly exhibit modes of behavior that are directed not only toward the avoidance of pain, but also toward “self-preservation,” Whitehead thinks. In fact, they give every indication of having some sort of feeling of causal relationship with the natural world. Even a jellyfish advances and withdraws in response to causal influence; and plants reach down to find water and nutrients with their roots (PR 176). Although feeling of some minimal sort is spread throughout nature, in that there are “throbs of pulsation” in molecules, plant cells, and the lives of nonhuman animals and human beings, it is only with animals that we find sense perception or sentiency per se. It is probably true that nonhuman animal perception does not rise to the level of presentational immediacy found in human beings. In human beings there can be immediate absorption in the projected present, as opposed to being (largely but not exclusively) a vehicle for receiving the past. But whereas the laws of nature are constituted by large average effects that are impersonal, those beings capable of both sense perception and “expression” exhibit a significant degree of personal individuality (PR 176-78; MT 21, 86).

3. Continuity with Nonhuman Animals

We have seen in the previous section both that Whitehead defends a hierarchy of becoming in nature and that there are no wide gaps, but rather continuity and shades of difference, between each hierarchical stage. There is no sharp division between mentality and nature. Likewise, there is no sharp division among the levels of mentality found in nature: we live within nature (MT 156; AI 186).

Like us, nonhuman animals have minds that are temporally ordered in a continuous way. Further, their minds are incorporated in bodies that are constituted by a vast number of occasions of experience that are spatially and temporally coordinated. Such coordination is a major factor in the activities of the parts (PR 106). In addition, vertebrate animals with central nervous systems, at the very least, have their social systems dominated by mentality to such a significant extent that it is fair to say that their lives are personally ordered. Although a dog does not rise to the height of human mentality (and hence, in this sense, is not a person in the commonsensical version of personhood), a dog nonetheless has a mental life that is temporally coordinated, with continuity among its occasions of experience (and hence, in a different and technical sense, is a person). To take a simple example, if a dog is kicked by a particular human being on Tuesday, then when the same human being approaches the dog on Wednesday the dog either cowers or growls because she remembers what happened the previous day. Lower animals and vegetation, by way of contrast, lack the dominance provided by a (quasi-monarchical) personal society of occasions. As Whitehead put the matter: “a tree is a democracy” (AI 205-206, 215, 291).

In technical language, personal order characterizes a society when “the genetic relatedness of its members orders these members serially” or when a society “sustains a character” (PR 34-35). Immediately we think of human persons, and rightfully so. In some sense we think of human persons as the same realities from birth to death, but the issue of personal identity is complex in process philosophy, as is well known, due to the belief that the primary, concrete realities are momentary experiences. There is something more abstract involved in attributing identity to these experiences when they are strung together over long stretches of time. As a result, the abstract identity of a human being or a nonhuman animal should not be overemphasized. This is because if, as Whitehead thinks, “life is a bid for freedom,” then human identity (or the soul) cannot be seen as a strictly enduring substance. Both we and nonhuman animals change from moment to moment. That is, human beings and nonhuman animals are living organisms that exhibit self-motion in their reactions to any tradition (PR 90, 104).

Charles Hartshorne’s Whiteheadian way of putting the issue is to speak of personal identity in terms of temporal asymmetry: we are internally related to our pasts, which are already settled (e.g., I cannot change the fact that I was born in Philadelphia), but externally related to our futures, which are partially open to our plastic control (who knows what city I will be in when I die?). “Life is a passage from physical order to pure mental originality” (PR 107). Whitehead’s use of “pure” here is misleading, however, in that it suggests complete central control or strictly mental activity without the body. Rather, Whitehead seems to think that we are somewhat more decentralized than this in that our hearts beat and our hormones secrete largely in ways outside of our control (PR 106-108).

The key point here is that whereas primitive feeling is to be found at lower levels of reality, “we have passed the Rubicon” when sense perception is acquired; here “we” refers to both human beings and other sentient animals. Sentient nonhuman animals (albeit to a lesser degree than most human beings) use sense perception to learn from their mistakes; they “profit by error without being slaughtered by it.” And in our own “upward evolution” we proceed not only by way of error-elimination, but also by a positive, confident “animal faith” (à la Santayana) that the world is intelligible (PR 113, 142, 168; AI 4, 20, 177-78, 214, 247). Donald Griffin has us notice here that the aforementioned Whiteheadian “Rubicon” is not crossed when human rationality comes on the scene, but when sense perception is acquired by nonhuman animals.

It is because human beings have animal bodies capable of sense perception that we can use these bodies as “the great central ground underlying” more intellectual pursuits. This central ground makes possible the “inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature,” an inflow that sometimes overwhelms us such that it is only gradually, after much thought and experimentation, that we can understand it. In Whiteheadian terms, the supposedly more exalted perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is dependent on perception in the mode of causal efficacy. Hume and other modern epistemologists erroneously invert this relationship (and thereby obliterate causal efficacy); hence they misunderstand the nature of the continuity between nonhuman animals and human animals. We, as with nonhuman animals, feel with our animal bodies in terms of a “vector transmission of emotional feeling,” with such feeling being not only transmitted but also modified along the way (PR 170, 178, 181, 312, 315).

Even in MT, where a human being’s partial transcendence of nonhuman animality is a major theme, Whitehead notes that the rise of human genius and of human civilization has a long history that stretches back to nonhuman animals. That is, the highest reaches of the human psyche cannot be dissociated from our animal physiology. Indeed, sense perception already involves abstraction in the sense that it encourages (in fact, requires) selective emphasis. Thus, when a human being tries to be as clear as possible regarding sense perception, he or she “sinks to an animal level.” Nonhuman animals, too, in a certain sense specialize their perceptions, as when a pig picks up a scent for food when hungry and then will not let it go. Our “triumph of specialization,” although distinctive, is continuous with nonhuman animals’ transmission and modification of massive and vague experiences in the mode of causal efficacy (MT 65, 73, 113, 121).

To put the aforementioned point in a phenomenological way, the sharp distinction between mentality and nature is not what we experience. In a courtroom trial we are skittish about merely circumstantial evidence; we also want to know what the accused’s motive was. Likewise, a lost dog that exerts great effort to get home is believed to have aimed to do so. Despite the fact, rightly noticed by George Lucas, that Whitehead does not explicate the thoughts of Darwin or other major evolutionary biologists with the same attention that he gives to major figures in the history of physics, nevertheless everything that he says about nonhuman animals presupposes a worldview thoroughly consistent with the theory of evolution. Consider vision. We are obviously not the only animals who can see, even though vision is considered by some scholars to be the most intellectual sense because of its abstract, impartial spectator quality (in contrast, say, to the concreteness of touch). In fact, some nonhuman animals (e.g., eagles) see better than we do. Hence, Whitehead sees evidence of “flashes of mentality” in nonhuman animals (MT 156-59, 167-68).

4. Partial Transcendence of Animality

Despite the considerable continuity between human beings and nonhuman animals detailed in the previous section, Whitehead nonetheless is committed to the contrast between the high-grade functioning of human beings and “mere animal savagery” (AI 48). The contrast is a subtle one, however, despite the startling language regarding savagery. For example, the high-grade functioning of human beings in Whitehead is quite different from the traditional anthropocentric, essentialist claim that human beings are rational. “This is palpably false: they are only intermittently rational” (PR 79); and only some of them are intermittently rational, as we will see. The higher nonhuman animals (i.e., vertebrates with central nervous systems) are persons, in the sense specified above, but they are not aware of themselves as such, as we at times are. Our intermittent self-consciousness allows us a partial transcendence of nonhuman animality (PR 107, 109).

Much of our lives is spent aesthetically appreciating the world in ways continuous with those of the nonhuman animals. Thus, Whitehead thinks that Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic” is a distorted fragment of what should have been his main topic. When Whitehead says that “intensity is the reward of narrowness,” he seems to be referring to those relatively rare moments of self-consciousness when we reflect on our lives as conscious animals (PR 112-13). We pay a price for this narrowness, however. That is, we pay a price for our partial transcendence of nonhuman animality. This is because it is precisely narrowness in the selection of evidence that is the chief danger to philosophy, especially when such narrowness is confused with synoptic vision of all aspects of a problem (PR 319, 337). It seems that narrowness of focus (and the intensity of experience it brings) is both necessary to and destructive of systematic philosophy.

A human being’s partial transcendence of nonhuman animality is found in all of Whitehead’s major philosophical works (SMW, AI, PR), but it is especially prominent in MT. Here he makes it clear that he thinks that although songbirds (the hermit thrush, the nightingale) can produce real beauty, they are not civilized beings. Note in the quotation below, however, evidence of both the partial transcendence of nonhuman animality as well as the seeds of a Whiteheadian ethic of nonhuman animal rights:

The hermit thrush and the nightingale can produce sound of the utmost beauty. But they are not civilized beings. They lack ideas of adequate generality respecting their own actions and the world around them. Without doubt the higher animals entertain notions, hopes, and fears. And yet they lack civilization by reason of the deficient generality of their mental functionings. Their love, their devotion, their beauty of performance, rightly claim our love and tenderness in return […]. Civilized beings are those who survey the world with some large generality of understanding (MT 3-4; emphasis added).

Along with many other twentieth-century philosophers, Whitehead sees language as the key to our advanced mental functioning, but even the most articulate among us often find it difficult to speak with learned precision about what we feel as animals (MT 5).

In Whitehead’s terms, nonhuman animals as well as human ones have intense “interest” in various particular things as well as some inchoate sense of the “importance” of the whole environment. Further, Whitehead thinks that it is importance that generates interest and that such generation gives rise to discrimination among interests and hence gives rise to language and advanced consciousness. Once again, there is continuity with nonhuman animals here. They can clearly engage in both signaling and emotional expression, but Whitehead thinks that nonhuman animals are limited in the degree to which they can engage in abstraction from the immediate situation. The biblical metaphor used by Whitehead to make the point is that on the sixth day God gave human beings speech and they thereby became souls (PR 11-12, 44, 52-53, 57).

At one end of the continuum of nature there are human beings with a profound experience of “disclosure” of nature’s secrets; at the other end there is supposedly inorganic nature. Toward the upper end of this continuum there are confused nonhuman animal satisfactions as well as a certain degree of clarity found in human understanding. Or again, nonhuman animals enjoy the structure of the world, but human beings can study it. We can see form within fact. By way of contrast, Whitehead cites an example from personal experience of seeing a mother squirrel remove her young from a dangerous place one by one until all three were safe, but she returned a fourth time to the old place because […] she could not count (PR 87, 104-107).

We can try to understand nature in terms of concepts like “space,” “time,” and “deity.” Nonhuman animals only anticipate this understanding when they sometimes pass beyond the enjoyment of immediate fact. The aforementioned mother squirrel, for example, presumably stored up acorns for the winter. In Whitehead’s strongest statement in favor of partial human transcendence of nonhuman nature, however, he suggests that “when all analogies between animal life and human nature have been stressed, there remains a vast gap in respect to the influence of reflective experience” (MT 102-103). Or again, “take the subtle beauty of a flower in some isolated glade of a primeval forest. No animal has ever had the subtlety of experience to enjoy its full beauty. And yet this beauty is a grand fact in the universe” (MT 120). Even less capable of experiencing such a beauty are the living cells in the flower.

Yet Whitehead nonetheless thinks it is an example of “holiness” that one notices the “sacredness” of natural beauty in both flowers and nonhuman animals. Partial transcendence of nonhuman animality depends on the level of abstraction at which we (some of us, some of the time) can think. Granted, nonhuman animals live at a much more abstract level than cells, but we emphasize and are explicit about such abstraction (MT 123).

5. Two Arguments in Favor of Nonhuman Animal Rights

There are two arguments that have been most frequently cited by animal rightists in the past generation—the argument from sentiency and the argument from marginal cases. In very abbreviated form, the former is as follows:

A. Any being that can experience pain or suffer has, at the very least, the right not to be forced to experience pain or suffer or be killed unnecessarily or gratuitously.

B. It is not necessary that we inflict pain, suffering or death on nonhuman animals so that we can have a healthy diet, because a vegetarian diet can be healthy or even healthier than a meat-eating one.

C. Therefore, to inflict unnecessary pain, suffering or death on nonhuman animals in order to eat them is morally reprehensible.

Jeremy Bentham put the point famously when he said that the key question is not whether nonhuman animals can reason, but whether they can suffer (Bentham 1948, Chapter XVII). All philosophical vegetarians, even those who are not utilitarians, agree with Bentham on this point.

Some might suspect that an escape from this argument can be found in “sneaking up” on the nonhuman animal so as to kill it painlessly. There are many ways to respond to this objection, one of which is through the argument from marginal cases. Peter Singer sums up this argument in the following terms:

The catch is that any such characteristic that is possessed by all human beings will not be possessed only by human beings. For example, all humans, but not only humans, are capable of feeling pain, and while only humans are capable of solving complex mathematical problems, not all humans can do this. So it turns out that in the only sense in which we can truly say, as an assertion of fact, that all humans are equal, at least some members of other species are also “equal”—equal, that is, to some humans (Singer 1975, 265).

To say that we can legitimately eat (or wear, experiment on, etc.) nonhuman animals but not human beings, because human beings are rational, or autonomous, or language-users, etc., ignores the fact that some human beings are not rational, autonomous and the like. These “marginal cases” of humanity include infants, the mentally enfeebled, those with senile dementia, etc. If we lower our standard to that of sentiency per se (e.g., the ability to experience pain or suffer) so as to protect these human beings (as we no doubt should!), in order to be consistent we must also protect many nonhuman animals, including those that we eat. Hence, the argument from marginal cases can also be called the argument from moral consistency.

6. A Whiteheadian Contribution

There is much that a Whiteheadian could contribute to the contemporary debate regarding nonhuman animal rights. We have seen that regarding the argument from sentiency a Whiteheadian could emphasize that higher animals with central nervous systems have an enhanced mental pole and do not thoughtlessly adjust to causal factors affecting them. Life, in general, is the clutch at vivid immediacy, an immediacy that is especially noteworthy from an ethical point of view when it involves unnecessary or gratuitous infliction of pain or suffering. Although feeling of some minimal sort is spread throughout the universe, it is only with animal sense perception that the Rubicon of sentiency per se (in contrast to microscopic sentiency) is crossed. Further, nonhuman animal minds are temporally ordered; indeed, according to Whitehead, they are personally ordered societies. For these and other reasons, nonhuman animals rightly claim our “love and tenderness” in return; there is some “holiness” or “sacredness” in their beauty that civilized beings like ourselves cannot fail to notice. This emphasis on what we civilized beings should notice indicates that a Whiteheadian approach to nonhuman animals is as much a virtue approach as a rights-oriented one. However, as a political liberal Whitehead himself was not opposed to the language of rights, as are some philosophers.

Whitehead also helps us to understand the implications of the argument from marginal cases. There are no airtight boundaries (whether scientific or ethical) between species in that different modes of existence shade off into each other. Specifically, there is no absolute boundary between nonhuman animals and human beings at the very least because human beings are animals. Whitehead defends both hierarchy in nature and continuity and shades of difference between each hierarchical level: we live within nature, as do nonhuman animals. Further, there is something hyperbolic in claiming that human beings are rational. Rather, some of them are rational some of the time and some others (the marginal cases of humanity) are either hardly ever or never rational. And some nonhuman animals exhibit remarkable mentality, such that we are tempted to think that they are either rational or are on the cusp of rationality. The argument from marginal cases makes it clear that there are ethical implications to the continuity (and overlap) thesis that Whitehead defends.

Some Whiteheadians resist the conclusions to these two arguments because a chicken, they allege, does not have a mental life that is very high and its momentary suffering just before its death is outweighed by all of the pleasurable moments it could have had in its life before the point of death; a life, by the way, that probably would not have come into being were it not for the practice of meat-eating. A four-way debate between myself, John Cobb, Clare Palmer and Timothy Menta has explored the nuances of this sort of objection and of a process response to it. Here we should note once again that Whitehead thinks not only that nonhuman animals try to avoid pain, they also engage in self-preservation, which seems to presuppose a sort of stable identity that is stronger than that found in the view that there really is no enduring self to be preserved. A process view of a self changing through time is nonetheless compatible with a genetic relatedness among the events in a temporal series that constitutes a same self; in fact, a personal society is one that sustains a character (PR 34-35, 176). To kill a nonhuman animal painlessly is nonetheless to deny it all of the future experiences it would have had in its life (not ours).

We should take seriously Whitehead’s example wherein, in the Garden of Eden, Adam saw nonhuman animals before he named them, whereas children today can name nonhuman animals before they ever see them (SMW 198). By extension, justifications of meat-eating are often very abstract, armchair (or better, dining-room table) sorts of affairs. Actually seeing what goes on at slaughterhouses moment by moment is a gruesome affair, as anyone who takes the time to do so will quickly learn. As more people become aware of nonhuman animal sentiency and mentality, we can hope with Whitehead that “if mankind can rise to the occasion, there lies in front a golden age of beneficent creativeness” (SMW 205). Or again:

There is something in the ready use of force which defeats its own object. Its main defect is that it bars cooperation. Every organism requires an environment of friends, partly to shield it from violent changes, and partly to supply it with its wants. The Gospel of Force is incompatible with a social life (SMW 206).

One practical advantage of process metaphysics is that it could enable us to give a more accurate analysis than has been given historically of quite ordinary propositions like (to use Whitehead’s own example): “There is beef for dinner today.” The process analysis would insist that “the point to be emphasized is the insistent particularity of things experienced and of the act of experiencing,” in contrast to a very abstract description of the act of meat-eating wherein the point at which the cow suffers intensely is left out of the picture; the cow appears only later in a creation ex nihilo wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store (PR 11, 43).

Whitehead notes that for a living organism to survive it needs food, even if there is no absolute distinction between living organisms and those that are “nonliving.” The foods that are eaten are themselves societies of some sort. Whitehead’s term for what is required in order for living organisms to survive is “robbery.” The question is whether the robbery is to be a mere petty theft or a major heist. As Whitehead puts the point, “life is robbery. It is at this point that […] morals become acute. The robber requires justification” (PR 105-106). It is noteworthy that in the paragraphs immediately following this passage Whitehead speaks of divine tenderness directed toward each actual occasion as it arrives in the evocation of intensities of experience.

It is commonly acknowledged that there is a romantic component to Whitehead’s thought wherein the Wordsworthian dictum that “we murder to dissect” is taken quite seriously. Process philosophy (or better, the philosophy of organism), as Whitehead sees it, is explicitly an attempt to enlarge ethical discourse so as to include consideration of the nonhuman animals whom we rob or murder. No hyperbole is committed here on a Whiteheadian view. The goal should be to foster intensities of experience that are positive “adversions” or contributions to reticulative beauty rather than negative, painful “aversions” to gratuitous killing. Moral responsibility consists in owning up to the ways in which we use our power of self-motion to determine the course of events (PR 140, 204, 254-55; SMW, Chapter V).

A nonhuman animal body is a nexus of many actualities that can be treated as though it were one actuality. This one actuality when considered in reference to the publicity of things is a superject; but in reference to its own privacy it is a subject, a moment in the genesis of its own self-enjoyment. And as Whitehead famously put the point, God is the “fellow-sufferer who understands” such self-enjoyment. To put the point in different Whiteheadian terms, intense self-enjoyment has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. The key point to notice in the present context is that human experience is but one, albeit especially exalted, sort of higher experience, given the reigning doctrine of evolution that Whitehead supports (PR 287, 298, 351; MT 111-12).

It may very well be the case, however, that the greatest contribution a Whiteheadian could make to the current nonhuman animal rights debate would involve the emphasis Whitehead placed on what can be called reflective equilibrium. All of us, or almost all of us, recoil emotionally at the thought of (more so at the sight of!) a cow having its carotid artery slit. This emotional reaction needs to be reconciled with the justifications we give for our eating practices (robberies). The meat-eater, at the very least, is in a state of disequilibrium between emotional response and rational justification (PR 16).

No doubt some Whiteheadians will reach a different conclusion. They will say that because human eating invariably involves robbery, we can eat what we wish as long as we do so “mindfully,” by recognizing the loss in intrinsic value that occurs when we eat nonhuman animals.

Two final comments are in order by way of response: (1) It is crucial that we not commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by thinking that it is the Platonic forms of Cowhood or Chickenness that suffer and die. It is individual cows and chickens, here and now, who are the loci of value in a Whiteheadian universe. (2) When these individuals are killed for food, their suffering and death are unnecessary, given the healthiness of a vegetarian diet, and hence the robbery involved is, as mentioned above, a major heist rather than a petty theft. Granted, all of the pleasures the nonhuman animal experienced up until the point of death are not negated, in that they are preserved in the divine life, but neither are its sufferings negated, nor is the loss of its life (not ours) forgotten. It is unclear, to say the least, whether these meat-eating “contributions” (to use Hartshorne’s word) to the divine life are the sorts that we would like to make when seen from the perspective of the adventure of ideas that spreads across the generations. That is, species-ism may very well eventually go the way of racism and sexism.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Bentham, Jeremy. 1948. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (New York, Hafner).

Singer, Peter. 1975. Animal Liberation (New York, New York Review).

Author Information

Daniel A. Dombrowski
Philosophy Department, Seattle University, Seattle, WA 98122

How to Cite this Article

Dombrowski, Daniel A., “Nonhuman Animal Rights”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.