Animal cloning and "granting things their space"

I don’t suppose it’ll come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I think that cloning animals for meat and milk is a bad idea. Leaving aside the health considerations, what bothers me is that it’s one more step in reducing animals (and, by implication, the rest of nature) to the status of commodities or resources which are entirely at our disposal. Animals are viewed as raw material to whom anything can be done in order to increase their productivity (and the profits that generates). Cloning is one more step away from the semi-mythical idyllic family farm toward the complete mechanization and industrialization of animal husbandry.

In his interesting book Animals Like Us, philosopher Mark Rowlands argues that this instrumentalist view of animals (and nature) has implications in the way we treat other human beings. Seeing the world around us as fundamentally a resource for our use has a “spillover” effect in our perceptions of the value of persons. “This is the logical culmination of the resource-based view of nature: humans are part of nature, and therefore humans are resources too. And whenever something – human or otherwise – is viewed primarily as a resource, things generally don’t go well for it” (p. 196)

It’s hard not to see similarities in the application of cloning to the meat industry and the application of similar technologies to human beings. Embryos – i.e. nascent human life – are turned into a commodity to be used either for reproductive technologies or for scientific research. Lauadable as the goals of some of these enterprises may be, the instrumentalization of human life is disturbing. And one of the reasons it’s so disturbing is that we have a hard time articulating why we find these sorts of things disturbing. Our public language of costs and benefits doesn’t incorporate values that may transcend the starkly utilitarian. Satifsying people’s felt needs (e.g. for cheaper meat; or, perhaps more accurately, for greater meat industry profits) without creating tangible harm to people’s health is all the government spokesmen permit themselves to be concerned with.

This doesn’t mean that I think we should embrace the views of some extreme environmentalists that human beings have no special worth, or that it’s wrong for us to use nature for our benefit. I think a recovery of the sense of the natural world as God’s good creation would, if taken seriously, go a long way toward creating a more humble approach to our dealings with nature. For instance, we might come to see animals as having their own role in God’s providential ordering of the world, beyond being things which exist solely for our use. There are tantalizing hints in the Bible of God having a covenant, not just with human beings, but with all flesh (cf. Genesis 9)

Expanding on this in his article “The Covenant with all Living Creatures,” philosopher Stephen R.L. Clark (about whose political philosophy I blogged a bit the other day) argues for taking the idea of just such a covenant seriously. Clark concludes:

The covenant God made, we are told, in the beginning and affirmed since then, is to grant all things their space. `The mere fact that we exist proves his infinite and eternal love, for from all eternity he chose us from among an infinite number of possible beings’. Every thing we meet is also chosen: that is a good enough reason not to despise or hurt it.

By “grant[ing] all things their space,” Clark means, among other things, allowing them to live “according to their kind.” This requires us to recognize that animals have their own telos, under God, that may be quite independent of our interests. To clone animals in order to make them “better” from the point of view of our purposes is, it seems to me, a pretty clear example of refusing to grant them their space.

One thought on “Animal cloning and "granting things their space"

  1. Pingback: Blogs of Christmas past « A Thinking Reed

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