Why Medieval Europeans Used to Put “Bad” Animals on Criminal Trial

You’re sitting on the couch, feet up, drink in hand, feeling relaxed for the first time all day. Suddenly, like a jungle predator, your cat jumps onto your bookshelf. With a swagger, she walks over to the picture frame, pausing to look at you. There are Something in his eyes. Some intention. With the most callous of nudges, she rips your photo off the shelf and it smashes to the floor. She did it deliberately, do you think. She still does things like that.

We often attribute intention to animal behavior, whether it’s contrary cats, vicious dogs or wild horses. We conceptualize them as agents who deliberately choose to do this or that. When we look into the eyes of our pets or those animals in a zoo, we see intelligence looking back.

The question then is to what extent can we treat animals as moral agents who deserve punishment or praise (and not just as a conditioning technique)? How responsible are they? And why is Colonel Kittens so dumb?

Cow do you find the accused?

Believe it or not, humans have a long history of animal trials. As early as the 13th century, animals of all kinds across Europe could be charged with criminal offences, named by lawyers, and sentenced to punishments including death. Historians have suggested various explanations for exactly why medieval Europeans held animal trials, although a common explanation is that the Church wanted to do all it could to spread a sense of control over law, order and justice to the audience.

In France in 1386, a pig was executed after “indulging in the evil propensity to eat infants on the street”. A century later, some rats have been brought to justice for wantonly destroying and eating the district’s crops.

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In Switzerland in 1474, a rooster is accused of having laid an egg. It was, after all, well known that rooster eggs were used by witches and wizards to do their evil things. The confused hen’s defense rested on the fact that “the laying of the egg was an involuntary act”. But it was not good. The rooster was accused of being in cahoots with the devil and summarily burned at the stake (and, presumably, introduced as the main course to his own wake).

In France in 1750, a donkey and a man were both accused of bestiality. Witnesses testified to the donkey’s good character, and the animal was eventually acquitted. The man was not.

(If I ever have a bad day, I try to imagine life like the lawyer Pierre Ducol, who in 1545 had to defend a colony of weevils from angry lawsuits from local winemakers. It turns out that 40 years later, the weevils got their own piece of land in perpetuity!)

Today, animals are almost never subject to official criminal prosecution. (Almost ever: In 2004, a bear named Katya was sentenced to 15 years in prison for mutilating two people. She was released in 2019.) But should we really let animals off the hook so easily when they do “bad” things?

some doubt

It’s easy (and fun) to scoff at these strange moments in legal history, but they raise an interesting philosophical question about the moral responsibility of animals. We will punish a dog, for example, for eating the wrong food or defecating outside of its designated area (after a time when “it should know better”). We often assume that animals have some kind of guilt, at least after some degree of training.

The question is easy enough to answer for low-level intelligences – from viruses to weevils. While we often talk about things like cancers or HIV ‘wanting’ to spread, this is mostly figurative and poetic anthropomorphism. But there comes a time when the metaphor becomes literal. As we dive deeper into the scale of animal intelligence (or sentience), things get much vaguer.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell highlighted the problem when he wrote:

“A fisherman once assured me that ‘Fish have no sense or feeling.’ I have failed to find out how he acquired this knowledge… common sense admits growing doubt [about animal mindedness] as we descend into the animal kingdom, but as far as human beings are concerned, that admits of no doubt.

Animal intentions

So how should we understand “animal agency”? From a basic Darwinian point of view, all animals have strategies to achieve certain goals, such as mating or eating. They have an end in mind, and they exploit a means to achieve it. However, this type of “behavioralism” risks reducing terms like “belief” and “desire” beyond recognition to the way we understand them. A bacterium intention to do things; it works much more systematically and responsively. We mean that the agency requires a certain degree of complexity, or some kind of minimum and necessary requirement.

Yet you don’t have to go far into the animal kingdom to see the surprising depth of mental processes. Darwin, for example, was fascinated by worms. He noticed how the worms could pull leaves, sticks and plant matter into their burrows, regardless of size. The plugs were too perfect to be pure luck. He discovered that the worms performed a sort of trial and error on mining strategies, eventually settling on a preferred approach.

He wrote: “If worms have the power to acquire a notion, however gross, of the form of an object and of their burrows, as seems to be the case, they deserve to be called intelligent; for they can act as a man would under similar conditions. If humans are the measure of the mind and animals behave like a human would, then we should assign them some kind of minimal the mind.

Moral reasons

We often judge the merit of an action based on its motivations. If I help a friend out of kindness, that’s fine. If I break a window because I hate my neighbors, that’s bad. But animals clearly act for “moral reasons”. After a hard day at the office, you might find yourself at a ball, sobbing and looking generally distraught. Then comes a restless, hopeful little dog to help. Your dog will jump on you, lick you and snuggle up to your hand. In this case, the dog is acting to help you because he “wants” you to get better. It is acting out of compassion – an undeniable “moral reason”.

Like the philosopher Mark Rowlands argue“…at least some animals exhibit a wide repertoire of behaviors that can rightly be considered moral. These include being fair, showing empathy, showing trust and being reciprocal.

Animals cannot act “metacognitively”: they cannot ask themselves what they should or should not do in a given situation. Rather, they are simply pushed in this direction or in that direction by feelings. But that does not render certain animals incapable of acting morally. Being motivated by moral reasons and acting from a moral feeling makes you a moral actor.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Little Book of Big Ideas.

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