The crooked path from metaphysics to morals

Guest-blogger “Aeolus” at In Living Color flags a book by Rod Preece that attempts to set the historical record straight on Christianity’s attitude toward animals. The assumption among many animal advocates has been that Christianity reinforced a hierarchical attitude that was inherently detrimental to animal well-being, and that only a more science-based approach, heavily indebted to Darwinism, has allowed us to begin to change our attitudes. The history, as is usually the case, seems to be a bit more complex:

To take one example, his close reading of the Victorian debate over vivisection turns the standard notion of Darwinism’s benign influence on attitudes toward animals, if not on its head, at least on its side. Although Darwin wrote that the subject of vivisection made him “sick with horror”, he supported it in the interests of scientific progress. Indeed, those opposed to the practice, who included Queen Victoria, Lord Shaftesbury, and many other prominent Britons, were more likely to be motivated by their Christian beliefs than by a belief in evolution, Darwinian or otherwise. John Ruskin, who passionately opposed harmful experimentation on animals as being in defiance of “the great link which binds together the whole creation from its Maker to the lowest creatures”, resigned his professorship at Oxford in 1885 because the university Senate approved funds for a physiology laboratory that would perform vivisection.

Read the rest here.

It seems to me that this is just one example of how you can draw different moral conclusions from the same metaphysical or religious premises. Many do seem to take the exalted ontological status ascribed to humanity by Christian theology as a license to exploit animals. Others–notably Andrew Linzey–argue that our special status actually imposes special obligations on us to treat animals with compassion and respect. Similarly, Darwinian naturalism has been used to justify both a dog-eat-dog ethic of ruthless competition and an ethic of respect for animals based on our kinship with them.

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