I recently read a fascinating paper by Michael Northcott with the wonderful title, "Do Dolphins Carry the Cross?" With a title like that I had to read it!
Northcott is reflecting on Alasdair MacIntyre's book Dependent Rational Animals (1999). In that book MacIntyre seeks to ground an account of the virtues in narratives of dependent, as opposed to autonomous, existence. In this he is continuing to develop his revolt against Enlightenment ethics begun in After Virtue.
However, says Northcott, he has now moved away from the pure Aristotelian account of heroic virtues to a more Thomistic account grounded in an understanding of human embodiment. Humans - from birth to death - are biologically and emotionally dependent on others. We are dependent, vulnerable and weak and this is fundamental to understanding the virtues. Our moral lives are nurtured in communities in which we depend on other to acquire the skills - especially that of practical reasoning - that enable us to become mature individuals. And even as adults we need to acknowledge our ongoing dependence on others. The communities that we need for the formation of virtues are "networks of giving and receiving".
But a stress on embodied human life will lead one to note the similarities between humans and other animals (as Aquinas did). And some other animals, including dolphins, are "goal-directed animals who recognize a number of goods - such as child rearing, communication, skill in hunting, play, and socialbility - and are able to choose between them. Dolphins are therefore capable of elements of what humans call practical reasoning" (quoting Northcott's summary of MacIntyre)
Now MacIntyre acknowledges that it is only through the work of Aquinas that he has been enabled to see ethics in this way. He did not simply read the account straight off 'the facts'. What he does not mention, but what is central to Nortchott, is that Aquinas only saw things in this way because he was steeped in the Christian scriptures and, in particular, the narrative of creation and of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus.
So whilst Northcott sees in MacIntrye's work an account of ethics that comes close to, and is compatible with, Christian ethics - an account which takes nature as 'the book of God's works' seriously as a means of revelation - he is not suggesting that one can rightly interpret this natural revelation without Scripture. It is the biblical story which opens up the meaning of the creation.
For the Christian the story of Christ is central to any account of the good life. That story gives moral priority to the weak. Christ is the key for making sense of the reality of creation and embodied life. The book of God's words (Scripture), through the cruciform narrative of Jesus, and the book of God's works (nature) sing from the same hymn sheet and the former provides the clue to the interpretation of the latter.
So - coming to the heart of the question: what are Christians to make of animal moralities? Northcott suggests that we can see something of a pre-Fall social order in dolphins. They "have not given themselves up so fully to the law of sin and death, violence and domination, as have the ancient and modern empires of human history." Dolphins may do something analogous to sinning but it appears that they do so far less than humans. Dolphins also need redemption (he does not elaborate on this claim but redemption from human abuse may be partly what he has in mind).
Christians should love dolphins because "they are in their exuberant playfulness, and richly communicative and intelligent lives, exemplars of a generous God who shared godlike qualities of community and intelligence well beyond [humanity]."
"Do dolphins carry the cross? Well, clearly no, they do not carry crosses, they have not heard the gospel, they do not, as far as we know, have the concept ... of God. But do they reveal, do they share in the hidden meaning of reality which the cross shows forth, and are they exemplars of the moral priority of the weak? Well yes." The community lives of dolphins exemplify something of the self-giving, 'cruciform' nature of the cosmos as a whole and, in that sense, they do carry the cross.
Interesting stuff. Any thoughts?