God, animals, and rights

Brandon has a very good post in response to the post below on animal rights. He argues for a view of rights that is grounded in justice and explicitly connected with our status as creatures of God (all of us, that is). He notes that this can be done in a quasi-Lockean manner, seeing all rights as ultimately derived from God, or in terms of natural piety based on relationship and benefits received:

It is along these two lines, I think, that we can establish the claim that animals have at least a weak form of right. They have rights in virtue of being good creatures of God, and in virtue of being our benefactors, in however weak a sense. The problem with basing animal rights on interests is that the only interests that can establish rights are just rights, so an interest-based account, if it is to work at all, simply reduces to a justice-based one.

I agree with pretty much all of this. In fact, it’s similar in significant ways to the case that Andrew Linzey has made for animal rights in his Animal Theology and Animal Gospel. Linzey taks about “theos-rights” – that is, the rights of God with respect to his creatures. “When we speak of animal rights we conceptualise what is objectively owed to animals as a matter of justice by virtue of their Creator’s right.”

I think Brandon may be right that an interst-based account, as an account of why some creatures are in the “moral club” so to speak, reduces to a justice based one as he’s laid it out. Interests by themselves don’t show that they must be respected. You need some principles of justice such as equality and desert. Still, having interests – that is, having the capacity for one’s experiential welfare to be affected – seems like a sufficient indication that a creature deserves to be given some moral consideration (I agree with Brandon that it may not be necessary, and that it’s possible, and indeed likely, that inanimate creation has moral claims). It’s often, if not primarily, with respect to experiential welfare that we apply our principles of justice. I think this is why some kind of interest-based account can play a role in filling out the contents of rights. Given that animals are good creations of God, wouldn’t some description of their vital interests be necessary in order to give content to what it means to respect them as creatures of God? An animal has a vital interest in, say, not being confined or killed in virtue of the kind of creature that it is and what it means for that creature’s life to go better or worse for it. And respecting that creature’s nature strikes me as an essential component of what it means to treat it as a good creature of God.

8 thoughts on “God, animals, and rights

  1. Consumatopia

    I also think it’s highly plausible that inanimate stuff of various sorts has moral claims. There’s obviously stuff that’s quasi-animate, like ecosystems, cultures, memes, and communities. Then there’s ancient ruins and artifacts. Then there are landscapes like deserts and glaciers. Would it really be ethical for us to disassemble lifeless solar objects like asteroids or moons for our material ends?

    Once you take moral claims that far, though, ethics starts to look more like aesthetics. I’m comfortable with that, but I imagine a lot of people wouldn’t be.

  2. Are you (is he) dropping back to some kind of theological voluntarism?

    Linzey taks about “theos-rights” – that is, the rights of God with respect to his creatures. “When we speak of animal rights we conceptualise what is objectively owed to animals as a matter of justice by virtue of their Creator’s right.”

    Not in virtue of their own natures? And then what of human rights?

    If the intrinsic value of things rises with their perfections, with their standing in the Great Chain of Being, why not their natural moral status?

    Secular moral theorists, who do not accept any such notions as these, anyway, appeal all the same to such things as the ability to have interests, etc, as necessary (and maybe sufficient) for having rights, or for us having duties of regard.

    That may be an important rung on the ladder, marking a significant difference between the moral statuses of species above from species below, but who says thinkers in the Christian tradition have to make this crucial for rights, in the first place?

    And the possible implications re the abortion issue are surely a further reason for caution when it is suggested that some condition about interests is necessary for moral status. Secular moralists may appeal to the having of intersts both in defense of animal rights and in attack on rights of unborn humans, or even children.

    Too, why suppose our duties toward animals (or trees, or the Grand Canyon), if we have any at all, must be the same as they are toward people? Or the rights of animals (trees, etc.) much like the rights of people?

    May not animals have rights, but not a right to life? Or a different right to life, so that there are different circumstances in which one may kill an animal without rights violation, from those in which one may kill a man?

    May we not have duties of preservation regarding animal species that do not logically, but may circumstantially, entail duties regarding individuals of those species, though neither those species nor those individuals have rights?

    May it not be true that individuals of any species that can have duties have rights that must be honored by individuals of any species that can have duties; while individuals of species that cannot have duties may nevertheless have some (not necessarily all the same) rights that must be honored by individuals of species that can have duties?

    Assuming any of this is true, why do we need to appeal for justification to rights of the Creator? Is the creator an owner? Are creatures property? Does that mean creatures have no rights good against God? So God can do whatever he likes with us? What does that do to the problem of evil, or the claim that God is All Good as well as All Wise and All Powerful?

    I would not have thought you would want to accept any suggestion of theological voluntarism.

    (And I am not sure God has rights, anyway.)

    Oh. Consumatopia asks, “Would it really be ethical for us to disassemble lifeless solar objects like asteroids or moons for our material ends?”

    My own answer would be yes, usually. But surely it would depend on which material needs.

    Have you gone veggie, Lee? Or vegan?

  3. Re: theological voluntarism, I think what I’d say is that creation is good because it is the creation of a good God. Creatures have intrinsic value because they reflect, in a finite fashion, the goodness of the Creator. It’s not arbitrary that they have value, but it’s also not unrelated to the fact that they depend on God for their existence. I think this is consistent with a gradation of value among creatures, since creatures reflect or resemble God in different degrees.

    I agree that it’s sort of weird to talk about the “rights” of God, but I think you can get basically the same result if you talk about what is owed to God as Creator. If creatures participate in the divine goodness, then it would seem to follow that we ought to respect them in a fashion consonant with their natures.

    Oh, and I’ve been on a gradual (slippery?) slope away from meat-eating for the last several years, to the point where I’m pretty strict about not eating meat (I finally gave up fish last fall), but will still eat eggs and dairy. I’m also not fanatical about avoiding products that have animal byproducts, but try to avoid them when I can. I’m unlikely to ever go vegan, but I do admit to being a bit of a vegan-symp. 😉

  4. P.S. I think there’s a connection between my quasi-Platonic view of goodness and Consumatopia’s comment about reducing ethics to aesthetics. If God is supreme beauty as well as supreme goodness, then beauty should have a role to play in our ethics.

  5. Nozick suggested a kind of “weak rights” for animals. While animals were not entitled to be treated as ends rather than means, any end they were to be sacrificed to had to have a high degree of necessity. That would seem to rule out (say) torturing lab animals to test lipstick.

  6. Yeah, I think his typically pithy formulation was “Kantianism for human beings, utilitarianism for animals.”

    Nozick makes a surprisingly strong argument for vegetarianism pretty much as an aside in A,S&U.

  7. I can see saying, platonistically, that creatures participate in goodness by participating in the goodness of God, just as they participate in being by participating in the being of God.

    But participation isn’t reflection. The moon reflects the light of the sun. It has none of its own. But what participates in whiteness is white, what participates in squareness is square, what participates in being exists, and what participates in goodness is, itself, good.

    It may seem like splitting hairs, but I don’t think it is, really.

    You write, “If creatures participate in the divine goodness, then it would seem to follow that we ought to respect them in a fashion consonant with their natures.” And I couldn’t agree more.

    So you’ve gone butter-and-egg veggie? Entirely ethical/religious reasons, or health as well?

    Many years ago I tried that butter-and-egg regime, myself, for a few months. The woman I was living with at the time made me give it up after she had to take me to a hospital for an emergency room enema. I hadn’t been able to go at all in days.

    And I am NOT kidding.

    What a disaster.

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