Contrary to what you may have heard, I don’t intend this to be an all-vegetarianism, all-the-time blog, but this objection came up in comments to the previous post, and it seemed like it was worth addressing separately. The objection here is that a vegetarian diet also results in animal deaths, since animals such as voles, field mice, and certain birds will be killed in the process of clearing land to grow crops and during harvesting.
I’ve seen this argument canvassed more widely in recent years, and its popularity seems to stem in part from a 2003 paper by Steven Davis in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. Davis argued that, because of the animals killed unintentionally in raising crops, a diet consisting of plants and pasture-raised beef actually would actually result in fewer total animal deaths than a strictly vegetarian diet. Note that Davis is not defending the status quo–his “least harm” diet would actually require a radically different food system (chicken, pork, eggs, and dairy are out, as is conventionally raised beef).
Moreover, Davis’s article was criticzed by, among others, Gaverick Matheny, who pointed out some critical flaws in Davis’s calculations, including that he assumed that the same amount of land would be required to support a plant-based diet as one that included beef. Since less land is required to produce the same number of calories from plants than meat, the relevant comparison should be animals killed per capita. Matheny also pointed out that Davis only considered animal deaths and ignored the question of animals’ suffering during their lives, which is surely a relevant part of the moral calculus.
While this is an interesting debate, I’m not sure it’s a terribly relevant one. As I’ve pointed out before, the debate between proponents of all-vegetarian (or vegan) diets and proponents of free-range, “humane” meat-eating is a rarefied one. The overwhelmning majority of meat produced and consumed in the U.S. results in far more death and suffering for animals than either. That’s why I think “progressive disengagement” from the factory farming system is a worthy goal, but am not particularly interested in picking fights with people who choose to eat meat raised in more humane or sustainable fashions.
The New York Times “Ethicist” column recently challeged its readers to submit essays making the case for why it’s ethically okay to eat meat. The submissions are supposed to offer a pro-meat answer to the question “Whether it is right to eat animals in the first place, at least when human survival is not at stake.” The essays will be judged by a panel consisting of Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light.
One interesting thing about this contest is that it puts the onus back on meat-eaters to justify a practice that’s usually taken for granted as the normal thing to do. Getting people to question this assumption is a worthy goal in itself.
But for the sake of clarity, let’s flesh out (so to speak) the anti-meat (or pro-vegetarian) argument. Here, in schematic form, is what I take to be a simple, but powerful, moral argument for vegetarianism:
1. It’s wrong, other things being equal, to be the cause of avoidable suffering.
2. Meat-eating causes avoidable suffering.
3. Therefore, meat-eating is wrong.
The first premise is about as close to a moral truism as you could find. It would be a very different value system from any most of us would recognize that endorsed the idea of causing avoidable suffering. Most of us also think, of course, that sometimes there are good reasons for being the cause of suffering (e.g., a painful medical procedure that saves someone’s life). But to cause suffering when it’s not necessary seems like a paradigm case of acting immorally.
The second premise is more contentious. Let’s stipulate, along with the Times, that we’re talking about cases where meat-eating isn’t necessary for human survival. The question then becomes: is the suffering caused by meat-eating justifiable on some other grounds?
For this infliction of suffering to be justifiable, the human interest in meat-eating would have to outweigh the animals’ interest in avoiding suffering. So what human interest is at stake? Well, pleasure is one obvious one: many people really like the taste of meat. There are also cultural and culinary goods associated with the practices of preparing and eating meat which, in a meatless world, would have to be abandoned or at least modified (the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, for example).
Now, the tricky thing is that there’s no mechanical way of weighing competing interests to find out whether the animal’s interest in not suffering should trump the human’s interest in having a tasty meal. That being said, though, I think it’s intuitively quite plausible that an animal’s interest in not suffering is greater than my interest in the pleasure I’d get from eating a steak. Consider the case of a sadist who derives great pleasure from torturing kittens: would any of us say that his pleasure outweighs the kitten’s interest in not being made to suffer? The only way I can see to decisively tip the scales toward meat-eating is if you’re willing to say that animal interests count for nothing, or for so little as to be trumped by even the most trivial human interest.
You could also develop a parallel argument where “avoidable suffering” is replaced with “avoidable death.” That is, even if animals could be raised and slaughtered for food without being made to suffer (a questionable proposition, but let’s concede it for now), they would still be killed, and, other things being equal, killing a sentient being seems like a significant harm. Now, there are some philosophers (including, ironicially, Peter Singer) who say that painlessly killing an animal doesn’t actually harm the animal, because they don’t have a concept of death and thus can’t take an interest in not being killed. This response only works, though, if you’re willing to accept Singer’s particular version of preference-based utilitarianism, and other philosophers have argued (persuasively, in my opinion) that death is indeed a harm for animals.
Assuming this is all correct, or at least plausible, let’s note a couple of things about this argument. First, it doesn’t require accepting that humans and animals are “morally equivalent” or denying “human exceptionalism.” It’s quite possible to hold that humans are more important than animals but that trivial human interests don’t justify overriding or disregarding vital animal interests. Second, it doesn’t rest on detailed claims about the horrible state of factory farming. So long as raising and slaughtering animals for food entails any significant suffering–which includes both factory and traditional farms–the argument can get some traction. Finally, it doesn’t require adopting any controversial ethical theories like utilitarianism or a particular notion of animal rights. All it assumes is that it’s wrong to cause avoidable suffering (or death) and that animals’ interests count for something, even if not as much as comparable human interests. I think these minimalist assumptions help make it a pretty strong argument.
What do you think?
In the second part of On Animals (see previous post here), David Clough turns to Christology. While the topic of creation might strike us as the obvious place where the question of animals would arise, it’s less apparent, at first blush, how they fit in to the great themes of Incarnation and Atonement–grouped together by Clough under the heading of “reconciliation.”
But this impression quickly disappears, as Clough engages in some of the most original and engaging thinking so far in the book. Clough offers three main arguments for why the Incarnation is relevant to animals. First, since we don’t restrict the significance of the Incarnation to males or Jews (Jesus was, after all, a Jewish man), why should the species boundary be the point at which its effects stop? As John’s gospel says, the Word became flesh, not simply human.
Second, Clough offers an extension of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election in Christ to include all creation. This at first seems like an unpromising approach–Barth after all is know for his rigorously human-centric account of God’s reconciling work. However, Clough argues that it’s a natural extension of Barth’s radical, Christocentric doctrine of election. “In Barthian terms, if we understand God to be radially ‘for’ creation, nothing less than the election of all creation can give it an adequate place in his theology” (3355).
Finally, Clough points to the passages in the New Testament–particularly the Pauline epistles–that speak of “all things” being created in Christ, or held together in him, or reconciled in him. It’s very clear that the NT sees the Incarnation as having cosmic–not merely human–significance. “Not merely the being of one species of creature, but the being of every kind of creature is transformed by the event of incarnation” (3480). This move allows Clough to come back to the discussion of the imago dei from part 1: Christ is the true image of God, and we only image God as we are conformed to him. However, as the fleshly incarnation of the Word, Christ makes it possible for all living creatures to “image” aspects of the divine.
Turning to the Atonement, Clough challenges our belief that animals don’t need reconciliation because they are incapable of sin. He points out that animals do seem to be capable of what we might recognize as “sinful” behavior–using the example of a group of infanticidal and cannibalistic chimpanzees observed by Jane Goodall. This was behavior that was clearly “abnormal” and regarded as such by the other chimps. While we might draw back from attributing moral responsibility to these animals, Clough points out that the line between humans with “free will” and animals without it is much fuzzier than we like to think. We all act from a mixture of causes (both biological and environmental) and conscious motives, and humans probably have less freedom than we think. The difference between us and chimps is more a matter of degree than of kind. Clough also recounts some of the long, strange history of humans putting animals on trial for various crimes (including a fascinating account of an excommunication trial of a swarm of locusts!). The notion that animals are incapable of acting sinfully or viciously is more recent than we might think.
Recognizing that this is somewhat speculative ground on which to stand, Clough offers another reason for thinking that animals are in need of reconciliation. This is the fact that the animal kingdom is characterized by predation and its attendant bloodshed and suffering. The long history of nature “red in tooth in claw” seems to be at odds with the vision of the “peaceable kingdom” offered in the Bible. Clough rejects a literalist reading of Genesis that would attribute predation and animal suffering to human sin, but he also rejects “evolutionary” theodicies (such as that offered by Christopher Southgate) which portray predation as a necessary part of creation. Instead, Clough prefers what he calls a “trans-temporal” and Christological account of the Fall. The depths of creation’s estrangement from God is only revealed in the light of Christ. It’s not something that happened at some point in time as the result of a single, fateful decision; instead, it is the fact of creaturely estrangement from God throughout history–a fact that is illuminated by the equally trans-temporal effects of the death and resurrection of Christ.
I have to confess that I find Clough’s account of the Fall opaque. I have a hard time distinguishing the idea of a creation that is estranged from God at every moment throughout history from one in which predation, suffering, and death are necessary elements of the evolutionary process. At the very least, I’d like to see it spelled out in more detail.
Clough then turns from the need for reconciliation to the means of reconciliation, pointing out that “Christ’s death is not merely like an animal sacrifice–it is an animal sacrifice” (4341). Simply put, the death of Jesus is the death of a human animal. “In Christ, a human animal was sacrificed not for humans but for the sake of all creatures” This creates a certain symmetry between the fact of the sacrifice and the scope of its saving power. This provocative suggestion is not really explored in depth, and I would’ve liked to see a bit more on Clough’s understanding of how this sacrifice makes a differences for (human and non-human) animals. But this minor quibble aside, Clough offers strong reasons for thinking that God’s act of reconciliation, as much as God’s act of creation, encompasses all creatures.
As mentioned in my previous post, David Clough’s On Animals is divided into three parts, each focusing on a central Christian doctrinal topic: creation, reconciliation, and redemption.
Chapters 1-3, making up the section on creation, collectively make the case that (non-human) animals have an independent value and role in God’s creation. Chapter 1 argues that human beings are not the point of creation. “It is not difficult to find Christian theologians stating that human beings are God’s sole or primary purpose in creation. It is harder, however, to find good theological argument in defense of this proposition” (685).* This view, Clough suggests, owes more to Stoicism or Platonism than the Bible, and rests on non-biblical distinctions between “rational” and “non-rational” or “immaterial” and “material” beings.
By contrast, the Bible is surprisingly reticent about exalting humanity, although we obviously occupy a special place in creation, and affirms the goodness of all created beings. Clough draws heavily on key passages like Psalm 104 and God’s speech to Job to highlight the biblical assertion that non-human animals have their own worth and role to play, quite independent of any benefit to us. Non-human creation is not merely the “scenery” for the human drama; rather, “all creaturely life, and each creature, has a part in God’s purposes” (869).
In chapter 2, Clough discusses what makes the animal form of life (including both human and non-human) distinctive. Because God is creator of all, there is a “basic creaturely solidarity” between all things, and the Bible frequently portrays humans and animals sharing a common life:
Together they are given life by their creator as fleshly creatures made of dust and inspired by the breath of life, together they are given common table in Eden and beyond, together they experience the fragility of mortal life, together they are the objects of God’s providential care, together they are given consideration under the law of Israel and its Rabbinic interpreters, together they are subject to God’s judgment and blessing, together they are called to praise their maker and together they gather around God’s throne in the new creation. (1558)
Animals are distinctive in that they are vulnerable–they depend on the existence of other living organisms to survive, but at the same time they have a capacity for independent action and responsibility (response-ability) before and to God. “It is clear… that it is not only human animals that are addressed by God and called to live in response to God.” (1588)
Having established the distinctiveness of animals as a theological category, in chapter 3, Clough considers the oft-touted distinction between human and non-animals. A long tradition of both religious and secular thought maintains that humans are superior to animals, and thus worthy of moral consideration that animals aren’t. Usually this entails identifying some trait uniquely possessed by humans, such as reason or free will. But both scientific and theological considerations call into question such an absolute distinction. Post-Darwinian biology has made familiar the idea that boundaries between species are far more fluid than we once thought, and comparative studies of animal behavior and cognition have shown that the differences between humans and animals relative to such things as rationality, emotion, sociability, and even a sense of morality are matters of degree rather than of kind.
This doesn’t mean that there are no significant differences between humans and non-human animals, but “we need to speak of human uniqueness with considerably more care and sophistication than has commonly been the case” (1949). What Clough emphasizes is that there is a wonderful diversity of animal life, which can’t be ranked along some unilinear “scale of perfection” or “great chain of being” with humans at the top. Traditional rankings usually place creatures higher or lower on the scale to the extent that they resemble humans, but “the project of constructing one particular hierarchy as authoritative is ill-conceived” (2254). Clough quotes Thomas Aquinas to good effect, who wrote that “because [God's] goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another” (2027). Clough notes that there is “something theologically striking about the sheer abundance of differentiation between creatures” (2055) and that “the Jewish and Christian creation narrative does not allow for some creatures being more distant from God than others” (2201).
Following many recent commentators, Clough suggests that the idea that humans were created in the “image of God” is best understood in “functionalist” rather than “substantialist” terms. That is to say, it refers to a task we are given to do (to represent God as caretakers of God’s creation), not to something we are or have (rationality, free will, etc.). He further notes that a fully Christian understanding of the image of God must make reference to Jesus Christ, who alone is the true “image of the invisible God.” This raises the question of how, or to what extent, the Incarnation and Atonement can be considered inclusive of non-human animal life, which is the topic of the second part of the book.
*Parenthetical references refer to “location numbers” in the Kindle e-book edition. If someone knows of a different way of citing passages in an e-book, I’d be interested to hear it.
Over the weekend, I started reading the British theologian David Clough‘s On Animals: Systematic Theology (Volume 1). Clough, who co-edited this excellent collection on animals and theology, writes that he had originally intended to write a book about animals and Christian ethics, but found that the doctrinal foundations for such a project were so underdeveloped that he needed to write an entire volume on doctrine before getting to the ethical implications! (Volume 2, as I understand it, will cover the ethical upshot of the doctrinal points developed in this volume.)
The book is organized around the themes of creation, reconciliation, and redemption. Clough argues that, when properly understood, traditional formulations of these doctrines have implications for the place of animals that are far different than usually assumed. For example, the first two chapters on creation (which is as far as I’ve gotten) make the case that creation is not for the sake of human beings. Many theologians have maintained just this, but that’s largely, Clough contends, because they uncritically adopted positions from extra-biblical sources such as Stoicism, Platonism, or gnosticism (in the case of several of the church fathers) or had absorbed secular zeal for mastery over the natural world (as happened among some early-modern theologians). A better reading of the Bible and Christian faith, Clough says, is that creation is for the sake of God’s fellowship with all creatures and that (non-human) animals have their own place and vocation before God that is not merely to serve humanity.
I plan to blog more about Clough’s book as I make my way through it. (And note that the hardcover is listed at $120, while the Kindle version is a mere $15.)
On the Death of a Cat
By Christina Rossetti
Who shall tell the lady’s grief
When her Cat was past relief?
Who shall number the hot tears
Shed o’er her, belov’d for years?
Who shall say the dark dismay
Which her dying caused that day?
Come, ye Muses, one and all,
Come obedient to my call;
Come and mourn with tuneful breath
Each one for a separate death;
And, while you in numbers sigh,
I will sing her elegy.
Of a noble race she came,
And Grimalkin was her name
Young and old fully many a mouse
Felt the prowess of her house;
Weak and strong fully many a rat
Cowered beneath her crushing pat;
And the birds around the place
Shrank from her too close embrace.
But one night, reft of her strength,
She lay down and died at length;
Lay a kitten by her side
In whose life the mother died.
Spare her line and lineage,
Guard her kitten’s tender age,
And that kitten’s name as wide
Shall be known as hers that died.
And whoever passes by
The poor grave where Puss doth lie,
Softly, softly let him tread,
Nor disturb her narrow bed.
To A Cat
Algernon Charles Swinburne
Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.
All your wondrous wealth of hair,
Dark and fair,
Silken-shaggy, soft and bright
As the clouds and beams of night,
Pays my reverent hand’s caress
Back with friendlier gentleness.
Dogs may fawn on all and some
As they come;
You, a friend of loftier mind,
Answer friends alone in kind.
Just your foot upon my hand
Softly bids it understand.
Morning round this silent sweet
Sheds its wealth of gathering light,
Thrills the gradual clouds with might,
Changes woodland, orchard, heath,
Lawn, and garden there beneath.
Fair and dim they gleamed below:
Now they glow
Deep as even your sunbright eyes,
Fair as even the wakening skies.
Can it not or can it be
Now that you give thanks to see?
May not you rejoice as I,
Seeing the sky
Change to heaven revealed, and bid
Earth reveal the heaven it hid
All night long from stars and moon,
Now the sun sets all in tune?
What within you wakes with day
Who can say?
All too little may we tell,
Friends who like each other well,
What might haply, if we might,
Bid us read our lives aright.
Wild on woodland ways your sires
Flashed like fires:
Fair as flame and fierce and fleet
As with wings on wingless feet
Shone and sprang your mother, free,
Bright and brave as wind or sea.
Free and proud and glad as they,
Rests or roams their radiant child,
Vanquished not, but reconciled,
Free from curb of aught above
Save the lovely curb of love.
Love through dreams of souls divine
Fain would shine
Round a dawn whose light and song
Then should right our mutual wrong—
Speak, and seal the love-lit law
Sweet Assisi’s seer foresaw.
Dreams were theirs; yet haply may
Dawn a day
When such friends and fellows born,
Seeing our earth as fair at morn,
May for wiser love’s sake see
More of heaven’s deep heart than we.
(Thanks to Crystal for bringing the second one to my attention.)
This seems like a big deal:
In an historic agreement reached today by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP), these long-time adversaries will work cooperatively to enact the first-ever federal law related to the treatment of chickens. It would also be the first federal law related to the on-farm treatment of animals raised for food.
The proposed federal legislation endorsed by the HSUS and UEP would:
- Ban barren battery cages—small, cramped cages that nearly immobilize more than 250 million birds today—and essentially phase in double the amount of space each laying hen is presently given.
- Require environmental enrichments for birds such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas for all hens.
- Prohibit forced molting through starvation, an inhumane practice that involves withholding all food from birds for up to two weeks in order to manipulate the laying cycle. Tens of millions of hens in the country still endure this cruelty today.
- Prohibit ammonia levels in henhouses from going above 25 parts per million.
- Prohibit the sale of eggs and egg products in the U.S. that don’t meet these requirements.
- Mandate that all egg cartons sold in the U.S. clearly identify the method of production; such as “Eggs from Caged Hens.”
From what I’ve read, the egg industry was motivated to reach this agreement in part because of the various state-level initiatives the HSUS had been pursuing, like Proposition 2 in California a couple of years ago. Rather than deal with a patchwork of state-level regulations, it seems they’d prefer a uniform federal standard.
In addition to the concrete improvements this should make in the lives of the millions of laying hens in the U.S., it will also be a big step to enshrine in federal law the principle that farmed animals are entitled to a certain level of humane treatment.