On lords as opposed to animals

-In the first question that he asks about human morality in the Summa, St. Thomas divides human beings from the animals saying that man is a dominus of his own action. Man is lord, and from his being lord it follows that he should be rational and volitional.

-St. Thomas can admit a very broad intelligence to animals – an intelligence that is often difficult to distinguish from human intelligence (and he admits intentions even to sparrows). He distinguishes the animals by saying none is a dominus- a lord.

-No one holds animals responsible. If an animal mauls someone, we either shoot him (if it won’t cost too much to replace him) or we just shrug and try to do a better job keeping the people away from him. All this is compatible with admitting a tremendous amount of animal cunning and intelligence.

-Responsibility is the first sense of cause or aitia. It is the keeper or lord who is responsible for his own actions and those under him. Other senses of cause in the animal or physical world fall away from this one by lower orders of transcendence. Causality is clearest in a lord.


  1. Beth said,

    September 17, 2010 at 3:12 am

    Aquinas says that animals have an estimative sense, which allows them to grasp more than external sensibles under the universal of “pleasurable” or “useful.” Hence, a sparrow sees twigs as more than merely long hard things, but as useful objects for nest building. In humans, the internal sense is similar, even analagous, to the estimative sense, but is called the cogitative. I don’t recall Aquinas saying that humans have an estimative sense anywhere. Regardless, both non-human animals and humans are, in a sense, rational. So what’s the difference? For Herbert McCabe, the difference is language. We (humans) are linguistic animals, thus rendering us able to make decisions, which animals cannot. Both me and a dog may want to bite someone, but only I can “talk” myself out of it.

    If we take this seriously, do you think that hypothetically, if a non-human animal were to develop language, it would then have a cogitative sense attributed to it?

  2. September 17, 2010 at 3:55 am

    I’d suggest that the difference is what STA says in Prima Secundae q. I a. 1: man is a lord of his acts (stress on lord) while the other animals are not. One gloss on this appeals to the notion of responsibility- not even Peter Singer has suggested that we should hold animals responsible for what they do – maulings are never treated as assaults and no one has ever even suggested that they could be.

    STA does say that animals communicate, that is, they use real signs (see de interpretatione in the prologue and first chapter) but they don’t have signs “a conventione” or “a placitu”, signs by convention or agreement.

    And human beings do have an estimative sense. I’ve got the texts somewhere but I can’t dig them up just now.

    I want to say more but am rushed.

  3. thenyssan said,

    September 18, 2010 at 3:25 am

    I’m sure there are more but ST I Q78 springs to mind.

    I don’t know enough about McCabe’s theory to critique, but I’ve long been uncomfortable with using language as the discriminator between rational and non-rational. At the very least, that theory as stated briefly above relies on a use of “language” that is not immediately obvious. Perhaps all my objections could be answered satisfactorily but I’m not sure we would then be talking about “language” as the common man means it. I suspect something else is doing the heavy lifting in that theory.

    This is extremely timely, James. Next week my boys are cracking open ST I-II Q6 for their first taste of Aquinas this year. This will really help with Q6 a2 when we drive by it.

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