Francisco de Vitoria: Building human rights on animal exploitation

I must admit that I tFrancisco_vitoriahought I was going to write a more joyful note today than the one I am about to draft. My interest this week was on Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546). Francisco de Vitoria is one of the founding father of international law. He is usually presented as a rather progressive thinker. He is in particular known for his defense of the rights of the native Americans – at a time when this position was far from mainstream. His De Indis (literally “on the Indians”) is often seen as an important intellectual contribution to the development of the idea of a universal legal regime to protect basic human rights.

I hadn’t actually read his writings but I thought that, being a naturalist, his plea for the “Indians” would be based on some sort of natural right to freedom to which every living creature would be entitled. Simply put, I thought de Vitoria would have based his recognition of “Indians rights not to be slaves” on the observation of the animals and their “natural right to be free”.

I couldn’t be more wrong. De Vitoria actually pleads that “Indians” have (at least some) rights because they are not animals – hypothesis in which, of course, they would have no right at all.

According to Vitoria, animals are mere things. They are irrational and therefore deprived of any rights. Here is how Vitoria supports his argument:

“Irrational creatures can not have dominion. This is clear, because dominion is a right (…). But irrational creatures cannot have a right. Therefore they can not have dominion. The proof of the minor is that they can not suffer a wrong and therefore can have no right. The proof of this assumption is that he who kept off a wolf or a lion from its prey or an ox from its pasture would not do it a wrong, nor would he who shut a window to prevent the sun from shining in do the sun a wrong.” (De Indis, Sect. 1, Twentieth).

He even goes further by stating that animals are incapable of controlling themselves and can be killed for pleasure:

« Also, wild beasts have not dominion over themselves. Therefore much less over other things. The proof of the assumption is that they may be killed with impunity, even for pleasure; and so Aristotle (Politics, 1) says that the chase of wild beasts is just and natural » (Id.)

The reasoning of Vitoria is tautological – as naturalist logic often is. What Vitoria is writing is: “nature teaches the human that animals should not have rights because the human said (in this case Aristotle) that animals have no rights”. Vitoria could as well have stated the following: “As humans, our apisanello3ttitude towards animal is justified because we think our attitude towards animals is justified”. The exact same circular logic is used by Vitoria to answer the classic problem when one wants to deny rights to animals on the basis of their alleged lack of reason: “Does that mean that irrational human beings should not have rights either”. Using the example of a boy not yet rational, Vitoria uses the very same tautology:

“There might seem some doubt whether a boy, who has not yet the use of reason, can have dominion, inasmuch as he seems to differ little from irrational animals. And the Apostle says (Galatians, ch. 4): “The heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a slave”; but a slave has not dominion; therefore, etc. But let our second proposition be: Boys, even before they have the use of reason, can have dominion. This is manifest, because they can suffer wrong; therefore they have rights over things; therefore also they have dominion, which is naught else than a right”. (De Indis, Sect. 1, Twenty-first).

The reading of de Vitoria is therefore quite disappointing for someone looking for ways to think a non-speceist organization of the world. Vitoria did not help more than Grotius a few weeks ago. But it was not for nothing because we now have a new lead on who might help: Conrad. I am not entirely sure that de Vitoria is referring to Conrad Von Gelhausen (a German theologian of the 14th century) when he writes about this “Conrad”. But I will certainly try to find out, as what that Conrad writes certainly is interesting:

“Conrad, indeed (bk. I, qu. 6), propounds the conclusion that ownership is competent to irrational creatures, alike sensible and insensible. The proof consists in the fact that ownership is nothing more than the right to put a thing to one’s own use. But brutes have this right over the herbs and plants (Genesis, ch. 1): “Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth and every tree in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat and to every beast of the earth.” The stars, too, have the right to shine for light (Genesis, ch. 1). “And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth and to rule over the day and over the night.” And the lion has dominion over all animals that walk, whence he is called the king of beasts. And the eagle is lord among the birds whence in Psalm 103 the verse about his house being their leader.[2] Sylvester (under the word dominium, at the beginning) is of the same opinion as Conrad, saying that the “elements exercise dominion one over the other” (De Indis, Sect. 1, Twentieth).

Vincent Chapaux – March 2015

(Image 1: Francisco de Vitoria, wikisource. Image 2: The Vision of St Eustace, Pisanello, early 15th century, wikisource)


2 thoughts on “Francisco de Vitoria: Building human rights on animal exploitation

  1. olivier corten says:

    Intéressant, mais pas tellement étonnant selon moi. D’une part, accorder un “natural right to be free” aux animaux me paraît être une idée assez récente, et on (enfin, moi en tout cas) ne s’attend en tout cas pas à la retrouver chez un théologien qui distingue assez logiquement l’homme des autres créatures divines. D’autre part, et si on passe à présent d’une perspective jusnaturaliste à une autre plus positiviste, accorder un droit me semble par définition tautologique; “vous avez des droits parce qu’on a décidé que vous avez des droits”; la qualité de sujet de droit est variable et relative, et dépend de la volonté de ceux qui ont établi et qui contrôlent l’ordre juridique et politique concerné; donc pas là non plus le raisonnement de de Vitoria (qu’on y adhère ou non) de paraît pas très étonnant non.


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