WASM 1: The difference that difference makes

In chapter 1 of Why Animal Suffering Matters, Linzey identifies several differences between humans and non-human animals that are typically offered as justifications for disregarding the interests of animals. In a neat twist, though, he aims to show that, properly understood, they call for a greater consideration of animal interests.

Animals as natural slaves: Aristotle and St. Thomas contend that “brute” creatures are naturally made for the use of human beings. Linzey counters that Aristotle confuses a natural hierarchy with a moral one and St. Thomas’s account of power is insufficiently Christian. Christianity portrays a God who sacrificies himself for his creation – the “higher” for the “lower.” Being “higher” on the scale doesn’t give you unlimited rights over the “lower.”

Animals as non-rational: The suffering of rational creatures is held to be more morally significant than that of non-rational ones. Humans experience existential dread, foreboding, and a sense of their own mortality, for example. But this can cut both ways: a human prisoner may be able to understand his plight and devise some comforts, but an imprisoned animal will be unable to understand what’s going on, heightening its terror and suffering.

Animals as non-linguistic: Animals lack language–at least a language we can understand. But this implies that they lack the ability to represent their interests to us or to consent to things being done to them. This increases rather than decreases the burden of proceeding cautiously in our treatment of them.

Animals as non-moral: Animals are not moral agents, at least not in the full-fledged sense that (most) humans are. But this means that they are morally innocent and cannot deserve to have suffering inflicted on them, much less benefit morally from any such pain, as humans might sometimes be thought to.

Animals as soulless: Animals are frequently taken to lack an immortal soul that can survive death. But, if anything, this implies that it’s worse to treat them badly since they can’t receive recompense in the afterlife for their suffering. Linzey quotes C.S. Lewis’s essay on vivisection: “animals cannot deserve pain, nor profit morally by the discipline of pain, nor be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this. Thus all the factors that render pain more tolerable or make it less than totally evil in the case of human beings will be lacking in the beasts. ‘Soullessness’ in so far as it is relevant to the question at all, is an argument against vivisection” (p. 27).

Animals as devoid of the divine image: Human beings are said to be the only animals created in the image of God. But Linzey contends that recent OT scholarship shows that this shoud be understood in a “functionalist” sense: human beings are God’s representatives on earth, and their task is to treat creation with loving kindness. Even more, a “Christ-shaped” notion of lordship suggests service to creation, not mastery over it. Thus “dominion” means caring for the rest of creation, including animals.

Linzey’s analysis yields a reconfigured list of differences that support, rather than undermine, solicitude for animals’ well-being:

–Animals cannot give or withhold consent

–Animals cannot represent or vocalize their own interests

–Animals are morally innocent

–Animals are vulnerable and relatively defenseless

Linzey points out that these characterisitics are also shared by very young children, and our general sense is that these characteristics impose greater obligations to look out for children’s interests, not a license to exploit them. He notes that both animals and children are “exceptional cases” that don’t fit comfortably into traditional moral theories. Those theories tend to take rational, adult humans as the paradigm of moral concern and, consequently, are driven to more or less ad hoc measures to make room for children and animals. But the differences between “normal” adult humans on the one hand and children and animals on the other calls for a de-centering of our moral thinking:

The practical upshot is that we cannot continue to privilege human suffering as if it stands alone as a unique source of moral concern. Some animal-friendly philosophers advance solicitude for animals on the basis that they are, inter alia, like us. But my thesis is that their very alterity in many respects should underpin their moral claim. The usefulness of animals, paradoxically, is that they help us to grapple with the moral relevance (as well as irrelevance) of difference. (p. 37)

Linzey concludes the chapter with a reflection on a Good Friday sermon by John Henry Newman in which Newman compares the suffering of Christ on the cross to that of an innocent lamb. That suffering–the suffering of one who is completely innocent and vulnerable–ought to call forth our greatest reserves of sympathy and moral concern.

12 thoughts on “WASM 1: The difference that difference makes

  1. Thank you for these posts, Lee. It is terribly important, morally, ecologically and spiritually, the we Christians truly get hold of this question of our treatment of animals, and by extension, the rest of creation. Perhaps some of us are just beginning to realise this…

  2. Linzey is exactly correct in my reading, though I would quibble with a couple of things. Aquinas, for example, once said of Creation itself as image of God–image of God language in Genesis does not exclude animals from showing forth something of God’s language. I think of saints and their animal companions in icons, for example. Our tendency to go prescriptive or proscriptive rather than descriptive with Genesis 1-2 causes all sorts of problems for animals and other human beings. Animals too can show forth affection and even real loyalty among other virtues that we should not dismiss. And I would suggest that animals do speak, can tell us something of what they need, if we stop long enough to try to figure it out–that requires us taking on the full weight of our responsibility as humans. Not to mention, denial of souls to animals is Modern. Aquinas did not do this, and neither do I and classic “immortal soul” language is problematic. Rather we are promised immortality because of the Resurrection. Not quite the same thing. I would say that this promise extends to all of Creation which is in the Word created and redeemed.

  3. I should clarify that Linzey is accepting some of these differences arguendo, as it were. I.e., he’s saying that even if animals are non-rational, non-linguistic, soulless, etc. those differences provide ample grounds for moral solicitude on our part.

  4. The neat twist is just mistaken anthropomorphism, repeated, though, isn’t it?

    Animals as non-rational: The suffering of rational creatures is held to be more morally significant than that of non-rational ones. Humans experience existential dread, foreboding, and a sense of their own mortality, for example. But this can cut both ways: a human prisoner may be able to understand his plight and devise some comforts, but an imprisoned animal will be unable to understand what’s going on, heightening its terror and suffering.

    They lack understanding at all times, and not only when they are in situations deplored and pitied by Linzey.

    This does not mean they are anxious or confused.

    An animal’s lack of understanding is not the same as the experience a human has when he says, with dread and fear, “I don’t understand.”

    The claim that animals of some species, when in pitiful circumstances, experience fear, dread, or confusion will have to stand on other ground than that.

    And can, surely.

    Animals as non-linguistic: Animals lack language–at least a language we can understand. But this implies that they lack the ability to represent their interests to us or to consent to things being done to them. This increases rather than decreases the burden of proceeding cautiously in our treatment of them.

    Odd that, here as above, Linzey construes their non-humanity as vulnerable humanity.

    Suffering animals are not like suffering people who have mysteriously fallen mute or otherwise unable to make their situation known.

    Animals as non-moral: Animals are not moral agents, at least not in the full-fledged sense that (most) humans are. But this means that they are morally innocent and cannot deserve to have suffering inflicted on them, much less benefit morally from any such pain, as humans might sometimes be thought to.

    Here Linzey construes their not being moral subjects at all as moral innocence.

    A tiger is no more innocent than a toaster.

    This is not really neat, is it?

  5. Pingback: WASM 2: Engaging the powers « A Thinking Reed

  6. I think I could have been clearer in this post. Let me take another crack:

    rationality: I think the point is that being non-rational doesn’t mean that animals suffer less. There may be circumstances in which they actually suffer more than humans (because, e.g., they can’t understand what’s happening to them).

    language: the fact that animals undoubtedly have interests but can’t–at least in the same way as us–consent to certain kinds of treatment, puts an additional onus on us to determine what their actual interests are.

    moral agency: I agree that in one sense moral innocence/guilt doesn’t apply to animals. At the same time, though, animals can undoubtedly suffer, but just as clearly can’t deserve to suffer.

  7. Pingback: WASM 3: The fox and the hound (and the mink and the seal) « A Thinking Reed

  8. Pingback: WASM 5: sed contra « A Thinking Reed

  9. Pingback: Press and web reports up to February 2010 | Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

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