Philosophers throughout history have been trying to pin down what it exactly means to be human - what it is that separates humans from (other) animals.

Some have voted for our ability to make rational choices for the future - in a word the ability to intend; and then acting accordingly or contrary to our own better judgements. Some put emphasis on our capacity for language and communication by the use of signs/abstract representations. Another variety is about freedom of will as opposed to freedom of action. Humans, they say, has both.

Others still said it has really nothing to do with our rationality, but rather that it has to do with the internal structure of our will. That is to say, humans can want (or not want) to want something. We can have desires about our desires. I can say "I want to eat cake, but I don't want to be fat and I don't want to be seen as a person who succumbs to temptations. Therefore I shall abstain." A cat can want to chase and kill a mouse, but the idea is that the cat doesn't have the ability to say "I'm hungry and want to catch a mouse and eat it, but I don't want to be that kind of cat. Therefore I shall abstain."

How is this in Buddhism? What makes us human, what separates us from animals? Is it our capacity to understand/see that samsara is suffering? Is it our ability to see emptiness and dependent arising? Our capacity to be freed from suffering? Is it our rationality? Is this the same in all traditions?

  • One possible distinction is the phrase: "Humans can reason about other minds." That would be evidenced by our ability to reason about our own minds, since there is not really a distinction - modelling is modelling. We can posit the idea of changing how we think, and related concepts like enlightenment, and there is no evidence whatsoever that animals do this. I don't know where this is described in Buddhism. I suppose the distinction is just a common-sense idea that need not be supported by scripture. "It just does, OK?"
    – user2341
    Dec 9, 2015 at 23:45
  • Interesting, but do you think that an answer has to be based on scriptures to be an answer? That is, shouldn't you have posted this as an answer and what is your reasons for not doing so? Does all answers need to be supported by scripture? Else it's speculation? Dec 10, 2015 at 6:22
  • I asked a Question yesterday and it was closed as off-topic because :: "This question does not appear to be about Buddhist philosophy, teaching, and practice, within the scope defined in the help center." So, I am reticent to post an Answer when I am not a Buddhist and don't even know a proper scriptural reference. If people think my comments are useless, they can delete them. I consider myself a "guest" here, as my primary interest is Nonduality. There is no other site with a closer fit for that, and my attempt to start a new site went nowhere. Oh, well. Have fun!
    – user2341
    Dec 10, 2015 at 13:12
  • I agree, I think the moderators here are OK, but a bit strict with what goes as relevant and not relevant. But I find your comments very good and gives many different perspectives - perspectives is the main reason for me being here. So was it you question about composers you refer to? Get any further on that? I think your friend's suggestion, Bach, was a pretty good candidate. Dec 10, 2015 at 13:23
  • One thing, what might "separate" us from the other animals, is something, about which the Buddha has given many discourses: our conception of some eternal, idealistic self ( "atman" ) connected with the "me" and a lack of compassion. One of the Buddha's intentions was to help us ( "...there might be some with less dust on the eyes..." ) to overcome ignorance ( aviyya ) and to develop compassion (karuna, metta ) with all living beings and understanding of common fears and fate ( because of annicca ), of the connectedness in this ... May 2, 2016 at 19:35

2 Answers 2


According to Buddhism there 31 planes of existance out of one which is the animal kingdom.

Your next birth is decided by the last thought moment where you remeber a recent or grave act of Karma which you have performed. So what decides or separates us from animals the Karma which decided our birth.

  • It's interesting to see how my - and western philosophical/conceptual minds generally - always think about these questions in terms of individual existence and categories based on biology and/or rationality. It goes to show how stuck one is in concepts. Thanks for the link and answer Dec 8, 2015 at 16:42

" A cat can want to chase and kill a mouse, but the idea is that the cat doesn't have the ability to say "I'm hungry and want to catch a mouse and eat it, but I don't want to be that kind of cat. Therefore I shall abstain."

See this big cats behavior

  • Pretty cool! I think animals have empathy and feelings, but the question is if they - the lion here f.ex. - can act contrary to their own desires. How hungry was that lion? Was the lion out to kill the baby cow in the first place or was that what the baby cow thought? That seems to be difficult to find out. Moreover I did not mean to say that second order volition as defining humans is my view, but my question is whether there is something similar in Buddhist thought Dec 8, 2015 at 15:33
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    @Mr.Concept I think humans have freedom/capacity to understand how there (his/her) personality creates.
    – Shrawaka
    Dec 8, 2015 at 15:41

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