Quaker Universalist Voice

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Animal Minds

A Book Review of Barbara King, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat (2017)

At every meal, we choose who lives and who dies.  This is a fact at every meal, three times per day for most of us.

This eating experience may be for this generation like the experience of the institution of slavery that the great bulk of Quakers benignly accepted for a century before the Civil War.  Awareness grows slowly.  The scope of care enlarges slowly.

The thesis of this book, Barbara King, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat (2017) is that all animals have sentience.  All animals have all elements of essential human characteristics.  All animals must be included in the scope of care.  What sayest Quakers?  Do current Quaker testimonies apply?  Or, is there an additional Quaker testimony emerging?

The author devotes discrete chapters to each of several groups of animals: octopus, fish, chickens, goats, cows, pigs, and chimpanzees.  There is also a chapter on insects and arachnids (spiders), even though they are ultimately placed outside the author’s scope of comparable care.  In each chapter, King assesses the existence of key elements of awareness and preference comparable to those elements attributed to humans.  These elements are:

  • Sentience: the ability to feel sensations like pleasure and pain.
  • Cognition:  the capacity to perceive and acquire knowledge and understanding.
  • Thought: the process of considering and assessing perceptions (which can be accomplished without the tools of language).
  • Emotion:  the experience of feeling about perceptions.
  • Personality: the relatively stable ways that specific individuals feel, think, and act in the world, which is a combination of genetics and experience, subject to constant modification based on experience during life.

The author makes a weak moral exception argument for excluding insects and spiders from the scope of care on grounds of a qualitative gap in the characteristics of insects and spiders compared to other animals.

This book is written in an engaging style, combining an excellent expert overview of the current scientific evidence and personal experiences with particular animals and advocacy initiatives on behalf of groups of animals.  There are no footnotes for the scientific evidence, but King does include references at the end of each chapter roughly correlating the references in order of their mention in the text. The book includes a thorough index.

This is a penetrating book.  It is troubling as well as enlightening.

Quakers:After reading this book, we are left with the observation that any current Quaker reflection on what we owe animals fails to focus on the particular characters of individual animal’s lives and the very personal relationships we share with them.  For Quakers, we are left with the questions: What can we say?  How does our practice implement our testimonies of our faith about the reality of the universe we inhabit?

King sees all animal groups and individual animals on a sliding scale for each of these elements, but all animals are credited with something of each element, which provides the moral basis of kinship with humans and justifies inclusion in the human scope of care.  


  • Do Quakers disagree regarding details of this analysis or, in more fundamental ways, that would exclude some or all animals from the scope of care and permit cultural norms of animal killing and eating?


B. King, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat (2017)

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