On the Greater Significance of Man than Beast

Note: an addendum has been added at the end of the article to clarify what is meant here by ‘intellect.’

With the increasing popularity of vegetarianism and veganism, the frequent villainization of the meat and fur industries, the campaign for adoption over breeders, zoo hate, et cetera, I cannot help but worry that North America (at least) is moving towards the dangerous philosophy that animals are on par with humans, which is certainly false.

The absolute superiority of man to beast is an opinion widely accepted by many, but is unsettling to an ever increasing minority. I greatly respect practice of the vegetarian and vegan diets for their health benefits, I oppose animal cruelty in the meat and fur industries and in zoos, and would urge governments to weed out abusive and inhumane practices that are intentionally ignored. I do also believe that someone who wants to purchase or breed a basset hound, or any other animal, should be permitted to do exactly that, and that hunters and exterminators are allowed to enjoy their job without being seen as bloodthirsty killers.

Matt Walsh wrote a fantastic piece on a similar theme, pointing primarily at the skewed priorities of a culture that demonizes those who hunt animals (often with much unaccounted partiality towards certain species), while standing idly by as millions of human children are murdered in the womb each year. Mr. Walsh, in his direct and appropriately cynical style, makes a solid point against the outlandish inconsistency demonstrated by the internet’s bizarre distribution of activist energy between two disproportionately important causes: the well-being of humans, and that of animals.

If my aim was to make the same point as Matt Walsh, I would not bother, since he has expressed himself more fully and adequately than I could ever hope to. However, my fellow blogger has based his argument on a certain assumption, and my fear is that it will not be long before humanity no longer recognizes its validity. The assumption is simple: that the life of a human being is of more value than that of an animal.

It is in light of this self-evident truth that Walsh has argued against hunter-haters and pro-abortionists alike. But if suddenly that maxim was left behind by popular vote, such an article would cease to be considered. Therefore it is necessary to establish exactly why humans are not only superior, but also more deserving of life, dignity, joy, and dominion over this planet, than are the brutes. This is my aim, and I will accomplish it with the help of Thomas Aquinas.


We will start by looking at the differences between our two subjects, man and animal, in the following areas: what causes the subject to act based on the information received through the senses, and for what end the subject is made to act. All supporting quotes are taken from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II: Creation.

Aquinas says the following concerning animals:

“…irrational animals are moved to operate rather than move themselves, because every one of their operations depends on an extrinsic principle which moves them. For the sense, moved by an external sensible object, places an impress upon the imagination, thus giving rise to an orderly process in all the powers, down to the motive ones.”

From this we understand that animals are moved by sensible things according to a principle. This principle is the foundation for every chain of events within animals.

For it is only through sense and appetite that the soul of the brute animal moves; since the power designated as the ‘executor of movement’ makes the animal’s members obedient to the appetite’s command.”

Here, Aquinas uses the word “appetite” to describe the aforementioned principle, characterizing it as a natural desire that all beasts seek to satisfy. So, there are two parts to the composition of an animal’s instinct: the sensible object, which is the “executor of movement,” and the appetite, which determines the movement. Furthermore,

“…a thing’s activity is directed to that object wherein it takes pleasure, as to its end. But all the pleasures of brute animals have reference to the preservation of their body; thus, they delight in sounds, odors and sights only to the extent that they signify for them food or sex, the sole objects of all their pleasures.”

Our picture of the flow of operations in beasts is as follows. The animal senses an object, as when a predator sees its prey. The beast, apprehending the executor of movement, is moved to the appropriate action according to its appetite, which is the preservation of its body. For the predator, this means chase, so that it might eat; for the prey, it means flight, so that it might escape death. It is evident, then, how a common principle stretching over all sensible creatures results in a diversity of actions among them. But every action of brutes can be traced back to its appetite, which is the desire for perpetuating life.

Let us now move on to man. And before doing so, it is important that we establish the best way to think of man in the context of this discussion. For because human beings possess corporeal bodies, senses, and passions, and because we both delight and despair as a result of changes in them, we can properly be called animals ourselves. But we are the only animals possessing intellect, and it is this difference which gives us our humanity. The proof of this will be demonstrated presently, and the application following that.

“Therefore, if the agent intellect is a substance outside man, all man’s operation depends on an extrinsic principle. Man, then, will not act autonomously, but will be activated by another. So, he will not be master of his own operations, nor will he merit either praise nor blame. All moral science and social intercourse thus will perish; which is unfitting. Therefore, the agent intellect is not a substance separate from man.”

Herein lies the great distinction of man from beast, who, when activated sensually, moves unambiguously under the direct influence of its appetite. For if man were moved in this way, he would move without choice.

“Therefore, the will is in the intellective part; and that is why Aristotle says in ‘De Anima III’: ‘Will is in the reason, but the irascible and concupiscible appetite are in the sensitive part.’ So it is that acts of concupiscence and irascibility involve passion, but not the act of the will, which involves choice.”

In man, the moving principle is not extrinsic, as by a sensible object, but intrinsic, as by the will. If it were extrinsic, as in animals, it could not be said that man is responsible for his deeds, since he would be acting according to a nature that is not found within him. But each man possesses an intellect appropriated to his body, which intermediates between sense and movement in the form of will, so that he is said to act as an individual.

A lioness is not put on trial for murdering an antelope, nor does she take any offence at her partner’s polygamy. As has already been proven, beasts act for the preservation of their body and of their kind. This is the sole purpose of their existence, and all of nature holds unswervingly and involuntarily to this principle, in keeping with the instinct that governs them. However, when man acts wrongly in the heat of passion, he is at fault, because his intellect governs all his actions, even those influenced by the senses.

Finally we can see the absurdity of likening man to beast, or vice versa. For if man is like beast, and is ruled by an external nature which moves him to act only for the protection of the body, this is contrary to what one observes in reality. To be suicidal is to deem the body unworthy of conservation due to the overwhelming anguish of the soul, and humans are the only animals who carry out this act. Art could not possibly be found in man either, if he were like an animal, since aesthetics are unnecessary for the continuation of the body.

Or, if beast is like man, and is responsible not only for bodily nourishment, but also for the fulfillment of higher, intellective needs, such animals would be detectable. But one does not see a wolf leaving its pack to accomplish some great calling, nor do crocodiles adopt vegetarian diets because they have drawn the conclusion that preying on inferior species is immoral. There has never been a bird who has refused to fly south to prove its endurance. Truly, there has never been a single animal that has diverted its path, because animals are not intellectual beings, as humans are.

Edit: Animals do, on occasion, act outside of the common tendencies of their species. Still, as is pointed out in the addendum to this article, these instances can be attributed to mental defects or miscalculations, and not to intellectual operations.

With all this now understood, one can easily see why man, in his essence, is immensely more deserving of earthly dominion, dignity, life and joy as compared to beasts. That beasts do not deserve authority over the earth is best shown in the fact that their nature does not grant that they may. Animals are bound to certain habitats, whereas man is unique in his ability to explore and occupy the entirety of the planet, as is demonstrated increasingly by human achievement. In no respect, then, can complete earthly dominion be fittingly accredited to animals.

As has been explained, animals do not possess will, because “will is in the intellective part,” which is foreign to brutes. Therefore, since animals do not will on their own, but act by instinct, acts of honour or dishonour cannot be attributed to them. For it is most evident that when man accomplishes a great feat, he is given praise for having willed good, and having brought that good to fruition through act. But this cannot be said of the brute, who, because it cannot think for itself, can neither dignify itself through any work executed as a result of its instinct. So it is clear that animals merit no dignity.

The way in which beasts deserve life is reflected in the nature of their operation. Animals move in fundamentally the same way, in keeping with the common appetite which determines their actions, and so they are deserving of life in as general a sense as the principle commanding them, whereas man is deserving of life in an individual sense because of the unique intellect suited to him. Again, since beasts do not act according to individual wills, but abide by an overarching principle that exists indistinctly within the whole, they are deserving of life primarily as a whole. Still, insofar as there are diverse species, each species is entitled to life in a secondary way in lieu of its inherent diversity from other species. But in no way can it be said that animals are deserving of life individually, as humans are.

Because man also belongs to the genus of animal, he is passionate, as Aquinas acknowledges. However, since the intellect is higher than the passions, which are common to animals, the objects of the intellect are of more value than the objects of passion. Now, will is an act of the intellect, and to will good and to accomplish the good willed brings joy, as when an artist brings a concept into being through his craft. This is of a higher joy than that of passions, so much so that to choose a joy of passion over an intellectual joy is an evil, as when a man indulges his lustful desires through adultery, choosing the joy that will satisfy his sexual wants over the higher joy which results from the virtue of faithfulness. But animals have no access to this higher joy, since they possess no intellect and therefore cannot will any good. Therefore, man is entitled to joy in a much loftier sense than brute animals.

So with careful analysis of the nature of man and beast, one can proclaim with good reason that man is manifestly more significant than beast in every way.


The applications of this particular view of lower creatures are far-reaching. So much so, in fact, that one might misinterpret what has been proven above and apply it falsely. I will address but a few possible errors.

Earthly dominion cannot be rewarded to animals in a complete sense due to their environmental limitations. This is in no way meant to imply that animals are not entitled to the occupation of their respective habitats, for to expel a species from all areas in which it is able to live is to secure the end of its kind all together. This is contrary to what has been concluded, namely, that beasts are entitled to life as a whole insofar as they have life, and as a species insofar as they are diverse from other species. Therefore man cannot rightly remove entire species from their suited environments.

But one might also take issue with the assertion that animals are not deserving of life individually, suggesting that it is essentially the same as claiming that every animal is undeserving of life. For one might put forth that since this animal is undeserving of life individually, so is that other one, and so on and so forth, until a death warrant is extended to the entirety of the animal kingdom. This, however, is a corruption of what has been concluded. For as stated above, animals as a whole are entitled to life in that they have been given being, since whoever is given something freely need not earn it in order to be entitled to it. Likewise, species are deserving of preservation because they have been given diversity from other species and are therefore entitled to it in the same manner. Thus, it is unjust for man to act in a way that results in the extinction of a species, though the same is not true of a single animal.

Furthermore, it has been said above that animals merit no dignity. Though a brute cannot fittingly receive praise for its actions because of its inability to will good as an individual, this is not to say that it is not entitled to a certain amount of dignity through its being. But dignity befits a beast in a much lower sense than it does man. For man, in addition to having dignity through his very being, can be dignified through his integrity, which results from consistently willing and actualizing good. This faculty of man is an intellectual one and therefore is outside the means of beasts.

As for the joy of an animal, it has already been shown that “all the pleasures of brute animals have reference to the preservation of their body.” It can be safely assumed, then, that acquiring what is necessary for bodily sustenance and/or the continuation of its kind is for the beast a sufficient source of joy. For example, a domesticated animal cannot be considered a slave. This is because freedom neither removes nor contributes to its joy, so long as it is fed by its master, who, in exchange for providing the brute’s physical necessities, receives affection and companionship, which is an essential joy for intellectual beings. But though an animal may participate in higher joys, such pleasures are not necessary for them as they are for man, ergo the absence of these forms of joy in animal life is of no harm to them.

False, then, is the position of those who hold that animals are entitled to the earthly realm proportionately to man, and of those who assign the same value to the life of each individual animal as they do to each individual human being. Disproven also is the claim that joy and dignity are to be imputed to beasts in the same manner as they are to man, or that it is the responsibility of man to impart to them the higher joys which to animals are nonessential.



Due to some very well-communicated responses from respected individuals regarding some of the ideas put forth in this article, I thought it necessary to add an addendum to clarify a concept that I failed to present in an adequately comprehensive way. I received two noteworthy replies, both of which made different points, but which were based on the same understanding of the word ‘intellect.’ Carelessly, I made abundant use of the term without first defining it according to its context in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. I will not pretend that I have as pure an understanding of it as he did, but will do my best to lay out the essentials.

The intellectual is not the same as the mental. The best way to understand this difference is to consider that not all people have the same mental capacity, because ‘mental’ refers to the material, or the brain, whereas ‘intellectual’ refers to the immaterial, or the soul. For example, someone who is mentally disabled is not intellectually disabled, for his intellect has all the faculties that an intellect should have. It is only the limitations of his body which handicap him.

If four apple trees were distributed to different stewards, one of whom planted it in an area with sufficient access to sunlight and rain, one of whom did not tend to it at all, one of whom had no ideal place for it, and one of whom received and planted his tree at a much later date, it would be false to say that the less fruitful trees were unable to absorb what they needed to be healthy trees on account of some disability they had. One suffered because of a poor steward, one because of an unaccommodating environment, and one was simply younger and less mature. In the same way, it is incorrect to say that someone in the beginning stages of learning, someone with a mental deficiency, or that even an old fool has an inferior intellect on account of his or her lack of knowledge. So even though the intellect is nourished in a corporeal way, each intellect has equal potential. This is why human beings are of equal importance regardless of differences in mental efficiency.

Furthermore, a lower being’s ability to participate in certain activities of higher beings does not signify that they do so in the same manner as the latter, and therefore does not put them on the same plane as them. Thomas Aquinas writes concerning this:

“Thus are we able to contemplate the marvellous connection of things. For it is always found that the lowest in the higher genus touches the highest of the lower species. Some of the lowest members of the animal kingdom, for instance, enjoy a form of life scarcely superior to that of plants; oysters, which are motionless, have only the sense of touch and are fixed to the earth like plants.”

Consider the following example. Plants grow towards the source of light which nourishes them, and animals migrate towards habitats which contain the resources they need for survival. It is evident that though the actions carried out by the two creatures are of the same kind, they do so according to separate natures. A plant, which has no nervous system, does not direct itself toward the sun according to some mental operation as the brute directs itself towards a more abundant source of food. So one can see how a higher and lower form of life may accomplish the same tasks according to different modes of operation. It is not contradictory, then, to hold that an animal may share an act in a non-intellectual way with man, who performs the same act in an intellectual way.

The same can be said to explain errors amongst humans and animals. For instance, a logical fallacy is much different than a mental miscalculation. The former involves one deliberately subduing reason for the sake of something lower, as when one is in denial of a fact which, if true, threatens him in some way. The latter is simply an imperfection randomly exhibited by the brain, such as a stammer or a loss of concentration. Both humans and animals miscalculate, whereas only man commits logical fallacies.

Moreover, the idea that a brute animal is of equal importance as man on the basis of common actions poses severe consequences in its broader applications. For if a creature’s significance is proportionate to another creature’s based on a form of life shared between the two, this rule must be extended to all creatures, since, as Aquinas points out, all forms of life are connected. Now both animals and plants nourish their bodies. According to the principle under scrutiny, then, the life of plants is as valuable as that of man and beast. Therefore, man is either as lowly as grass, or grass is as noble as man, which is manifestly false.

This should resolve any ambiguity concerning the term ‘intellect,’ especially as concerns its relationship to ‘mentality.’

5 Responses

  1. Hey David,

    Such a well-thought out post! I’m massively impressed you made it through anything by Aquinas – I’ve wanted to start the Summa, but my mind turns to jelly even thinking about it.

    Anywho, just wanted to say that this issue has been coming up in my circles as well, and it’s a great conversation. I agree with your conclusion, but I would also say that the way people who disagree are arguing their point is often really interesting. The ones I’ve heard are using some good science, where they’re saying that if it can be determined through experiments that animals self-reflect, experience emotion, plan for the future, etc., then arguments like Aquinas’ break down since they can show that although more limited to humans, animals show all the same characteristics.

    Another thing I was thinking about, and wanted your great thoughts – you talk about man not just going after lower bodily appetites and being driven by them, while animals are. You said:
    “Truly, there has never been a single animal that has diverted its path, because animals are not intellectual beings, as humans are.”

    What about birds that decide not to fly south (and probably die) and wolves that do leave the pack (and probably die). We can’t make any claims that they didn’t do it for a higher reason, because we have no proof either way. It does happen, and we just see that as natural selection weeding out the dumb. In the same way, couldn’t you say that people who fulfill intellectual desires over bodily ones fit into natural selection, just in a more sophisticated way? So the guy who studies instead of having babies at 20 is either going to be weeded out like the bird who didn’t go south, or his studies will eventually get him an even healthier and better mate in the long run, which proves he’s really like the animals driven by bodily appetites.

    But of course, I could be darkening your counsel by speaking without knowledge! Let me know either way!

    • Thank you Tanner for your thought-provoking comment! You have caused me to think much more on this subject, which has brought about a more developed opinion.

      In response to your insight, as well as other feedback I have received, I added an addendum to the end of the article, which I think you should read.

      You were right to point out the loose ends in the following excerpt: “Truly, there has never been a single animal that has diverted its path, because animals are not intellectual beings, as humans are.” Please see the note I added below it in response to you.

      I hope I have adequately addressed your comment. I have decided not to enter any discussion regarding natural selection since it strays too far from the goal of this particular topic.

      Thanks again for the thought exercise! I hope to hear more from you.

  2. Great addendum at the end to clarify!

    Other than agreeing with you, the only thought I would put in was that people who argue for the equality of animals aren’t trying to argue that they should be equal because of their mental capacity (e.g. “dolphins are smarter than 10% of humans!) that sometimes touches that of “lower humans”, but because they believe animals share intellect as well – they do the same actions for the same reasons as humans. That’s why I mentioned scientific experiments being done to see if animals self-reflect, feel guilt, lie, etc. Scientists want to know if the separation of humans and animals on the basis of intellect (not mental capacity) is real, or just a barrier that existed until we could conceive of the right experiments to actually get inside the heads of animals. If they can prove that, then Aquinas’ arguments are nullified and animals (maybe just some of the ‘higher’ species) deserve equality.

    Does that make sense? I stink at getting points across, so bear with me.

    • It does make sense. Well articulated. And I do concede that if it could be proven that animals acted not only in the same way as humans, but also by the same means (not only mentally, but also intellectually), Thomas Aquinas’ argument would not stand.

      As long as I believe that the intellect is connected to mental operation, which I do, I believe there is something that can be learnt about the former by scientific study. But if we who hold that the intellect is nonphysical want to study it, we must consult nonphysical sciences as well, since it is incongruous to make lofty statements about philosophical concepts based exclusively on physical observation. A naturalist does not study the intellect, and if he says he does, he means something quite different by ‘intellect’ than we do: that it is solely corporeal both in composition and action. In that case, whatever conclusion he draws concerning it will never suffice for us, because he is talking about something completely different.

      I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Have I oversimplified the matter?

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