According to the first chapter of the Genesis, God gave man the "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, ..., and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."(1) Throughout history the view, that man can arbitrarily dispose of not only animals but also plants and the whole environment, has persisted and was never questioned. It was only in the last century that some philosophers were starting to rethink the traditional moral standing of non-human creatures. Especially in the last two decades an intensive discussion of this matter arose. In what follows, I will try to give a picture of what is currently thought to be the moral status of non-human entities, concentrating on animals but also considering plants.
"In Western ethics, non-human animals were until quite recent times accorded a very low moral status" (2), if any at all.
The medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, argued that because of animal's lacking rationality, we do not have any duties of charity or beneficence towards them. One of the few reasons we could have for not being cruel to them, is , as Aquinas puts it, "to remove man's thoughts from being cruel to other men, lest trough being cruel to animals one become cruel to human beings ..." (3).
Sharing Aquinas' opinion that animals are non-rational, but expressing it in a more extreme way, R. Descartes believed that animals are like machines or "automata", able to move and emit sounds but not being sentient. Modern science has proven Descartes' view wrong: all higher animals, such as mammals or birds, do feel pain at least as acute as we do, for many of their senses are far better developed than ours (e.g. vision...