Perhaps the precautionary principle is the start. Perhaps, indeed, it is the end. Whether or not we are comfortable with the language of ‘soul’, we ascribe moral significance to humans, and moral weight to decisions in relation to humans, on the ground that humans possess something tantamount to a soul. If there is some reason to suggest that non-humans may have a similar possession – or no compelling reason to suggest that they do not – does the principle not mean that we should ascribe moral significance to non-human entities?
By Charles Foster
We can’t prove that dogs or tomato plants have souls – nor, for that matter, that humans do. Should these speculations have any ethical consequences?
Of course we do sometimes weigh non-human interests. We acknowledge, for instance, that it is in an animal’s interests not to suffer. But this is relatively unusual. We tend to preserve non-human entities because we consider that it is in the interests of humans to preserve them. If an ancient woodland is spared from predatory developers, it is generally because humans might like to wander through it, or because trees are important for the sequestration of carbon (which is important to humans), rather than because the interests of the trees, the badgers and the butterflies would be violated by the wood’s destruction. Even when we do weigh non-human interests directly – as when we try to avoid animal suffering – that exercise does not entail the acknowledgement of any kind of animal soul. It is true that we think it more morally serious to cause an obviously conscious animal (such as a higher primate or a cetacean) to suffer, but that is usually because we think that, being conscious, its suffering is likely to be greater (or at least more like our suffering, so engaging our empathy).
We can argue about the meaning of ‘soul’, and about the relationship of ‘soul’ to consciousness, but most would agree that whatever ‘soul’ and ‘consciousness’ mean, and however they are related, there is some intimate and necessary connection between them – even if they are not identical.
Consciousness is plainly not a characteristic unique to humans. Indeed the better we get at looking for consciousness, the more we find it. The universe seems to be a garden in which consciousness springs up very readily.
This will be too much for most. I’ll leave it at this: the ancient and ubiquitous animist way of looking at the world has an intuitive attraction that should be taken seriously, as well as growing modern philosophical endorsement. If the premise might be right, in swings the precautionary principle, which mandates a far less blithe, anthropocentric approach to decision-making in a whole host of domains. Lawyers in some jurisdictions have sought to insist that non-humans – including rivers – are persons. With some notable exceptions, they have tended to fail because of judicial concerns about the dilution of human exceptionalism. Perhaps it is a mistake, at this point in our understanding of consciousness, to assert that non-humans have souls or should be, for all legal and ethical purposes, regarded as persons. The possibility that they might have souls/be persons should be enough for now.
Since no one has been able to suggest coherently how consciousness could have emerged from unconscious matter, many philosophers, including Alfred North Whitehead, Timothy Sprigge, David Griffin, Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers and Galen Strawson have argued for the old and parsimonious conclusion that matter is not unconscious at all. There are various philosophical iterations of this argument: the nuances do not matter for these purposes. The argument is essentially an argument for animism. It accords nicely with our immovable convictions about our pet dogs and our more amorphous intuitions about our gardens.
Nothing in this implies that we should assume the moral equivalence of humans and non-humans. Where the critical interests of humans and non-humans are in conflict, the principle, as it generally tends to be wielded in many practical situations (such as the judicial review of environmental law decisions) would not outlaw a decision in favour of humans. But the principle does demand a far more earnest weighing of non-human interests than is generally the case.
Whatever one thinks about the animist premise, our intuitions insist that to analyse the grubbing up of a woodland purely in terms of human interests fails to capture sufficiently the moral significance of the destruction. The insistence of those intuitions is interesting. Perhaps we’re hearing an appeal, soul to soul, from the trees?
Over the 40,000 years or so of the history of behaviourally modern humans, the overwhelming majority of generations have been, so far as we can see, animist. They have, that is, believed that all or most things, human and otherwise, have some sort of soul.

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