Animal rights is more than Peter Singer

Tony Jones posted a link to a Peter Singer article arguing, among other things, that animal-welfare concerns should trump claims to religious liberty in cases like humane slaughter laws. Whatever the merits of Singer’s argument (Brandon pretty thoroughly demolishes it here), the post at Tony Jones’ blog provides an example of how Christians often react to Singer’s work. At least a couple of commenters dismiss Singer out of hand because of his views on abortion/infanticide/euthanasia.

Now, as someone who would like animal-rights arguments to get a wider hearing in the Christian community, I’m disheartened by this type of response. It seems that many people–not least Christians–treat “Singerian” views on the status of non-human animals as being of a single piece with his views on issues at the boundaries of human life.

But I think this is a mistake for at least a few reasons. First, it’s not clear that someone who accepts Singer-style arguments against irrational species prejudice (say) is committed to embracing his conclusions about the status of fetuses or newborns. It’s possible to accept Singer’s conclusion that animal interests should be included in our moral calculus without accepting his view that it’s okay to painlessly kill beings that lack certain future-oriented preferences.

Second, even within the world of secular theorizing about animal rights, Singer’s approach is far from the only one on offer. In fact, it’s a bit ironic that he’s sometimes referred to as “the father of animal rights” considering that Singer’s moral theory does not include rights as a fundamental component. But there are thinkers who do put rights into the foundation of their theory (e.g., Tom Regan), as well as those who argue for radical changes to the way we treat animals on the basis of contractarian, feminist, neo-Aristotelian, and other moral approaches. And most of these approaches avoid the implications of Singer’s utilitarian ethic that so many balk at.

Finally, the Christian tradition itself has resources for re-thinking our treatment of animals, as I’ve tried to document on this blog. The works of theologians like Andrew Linzey, Stephen Webb, Richard Alan Young, and Jay McDaniel, to name just a few, deploy traditional theological motifs to support an ethical agenda similar to that proposed by secular animal liberationists. They argue that the gospel, rightly understood, demands that we modify or abandon certain practices (such as factory farming) that do violence to the flourishing of God’s beloved creatures.

My personal view is that Peter Singer’s work has contributed to the way we should think about our obligations to non-human animals (and to other vulnerable groups like the global poor). But I also agree with Singer’s many Christian critics that at least some of his other views are objectionable. Whatever one’s stance on Singer’s work, though, it shouldn’t serve as an excuse for Christians not to engage with the challenges to our traditional ways of using animals.

7 thoughts on “Animal rights is more than Peter Singer

  1. Thanks for all the links.

    I had a short post about the human slaughter subject too.

    Brandon’s post is interesting and I’m not an especial fan of Singer, but Brandon makes some assertions in his post about the Catholic Church which I think are debatable.

  2. Hi Brandon,

    A couple of things you mentioned ….
    1) – that Catholics are required to do acts of mercy like healing the sick and educating the ignorant
    2) – that Catholic universities and hospitals would be forced to shut down if required to offer contraception insurance to employees

    2 – That the US Bishops are making a conscience issue of contraception is just a joke when almost all Catholics have voted with their consciences to use it, when the majority at Vatican II wanted it oked, when the pope’s own pontifical commission was for the use of contraception, when hundreds of Catholic theologians have endorsed it. And actually some Catholic hospitals and universities have already offered such insurance and were not forced to shut down ….

    1 – I’m not aware of any Catholic rules forcing indiviuals or orders to help the sick or educate the ignorant. There are religious orders whose members never leave their cells and who do nothing but pray, orders whose members only sell food and beverages, etc.

    1. Hi, Crystal, Thanks, that’s helpful for if I make any future comments on the subject. To clarify, though:

      (2) in the argument derives not from Catholic teaching but from Singer’s argument: Singer’s argument is that requiring contraception (or anything like it) is not a religious liberty issue because Catholics can shut down their universities and hospitals without violating their religion. Catholics can’t complain about *any* regulations on hospitals or universities on religious grounds, given Singer’s argument, because nothing about the Catholic faith requires Catholics to be involved in education or health care at all. (Likewise, Singer argues, Jews can’t complain on religious grounds about laws eliminating all possibility of kosher butchering, because nothing about Judaism requires that Jews eat meat.)

      I don’t understand the rest of your argument on this point, though; although one should always act according to conscience, there is no such thing as voting with one’s conscience, and in the context of Singer’s argument, which only looks at requirements and prohibitions, not permissions, the only thing relevant is what one can show other people to be required or prohibited on the basis of religious authority. Whatever the majority of Vatican II may have wanted, Vatican II did not actually OK contraception, and despite the majority report of the advisory commission, the Pope did not in fact OK it but forbade it for Catholic married couples, a prohibition that has been consistently repeated, and is widely recognized as the official Catholic position. Whatever one may regard as the status or scope of that prohibition, people who object to any sort of involvement in contraception can point to religious authorities for it, and do in fact do so; this is not a “joke” but simply the way appeals to religious authority work in the public sphere. If a Muslim, for instance, refuses to do something and points to a hadith as interpreted by an Islamic school as the religious ground for his refusal, it doesn’t make it a “joke” if many Muslims don’t accept the hadith (a situation that occurs often, since different jurisprudential schools will often differ on which ahadith are to be accepted); he can still point to an objectively recognizable religious source for his refusal, and this raises directly the question of religious liberty.

      On (1), you are quite right if you mean that specific acts of mercy are not required of individuals; this is for the obvious reason that which of them can be done will depend on circumstances. But mercy itself is certainly a requirement; and on the basis of Mt 25:31ff. there’s a longstanding tradition that we will all be held accountable to God for failing to do what works of mercy we have the opportunity to do, to the extent that we are able to do them properly. And visiting the sick, comforting the afflicted, and instructing the ignorant are all on the lists of works of mercy. How far one considers this to impose an actual requirement is perhaps open to argument, but certainly it’s not difficult to find Catholics who regard it as doing so.

  3. Sorry for being unclear – by “voting with their consciences” I meant that they had shown with their actions – using contraception – that using contraception was not against their conscience.

    There are few absolute requirements for being a Catholic – there are Catholics who don’t even believe in the resurrection, and look at the SSPX bishops who don’t believe in the documents of Vatican II … at worst they are excommunicated, but they are still in the church and Catholics and always able, if they want to badly enough, to be reinstated in good standing.

    So I guess the argument is that religious liberty isn’t about what’s necessary to be a believer in good standing, but about follwing one’s conscience? But in a pluralistic society, the conscience argument’s not good enough to alloow believers to do whatever they want, only to believe whatever they want, or so the Supreme Court seems to have said.

  4. Ashley S

    I am perplexed regarding Singer’s edorsement of euthanasia for unfit children.
    When he was meeting at the Oxford Group where Singer who was not a vegan or had thought about animals according to Richard Ryder, came together in the formation of the Oxford Group along with Andrew Linzey, Stanley and Rosilin Godlovitch, John Harris and professor Hume and others, to formulate the plans for exactly what animal rights was. This was not long after Ruth Harrison’s book on factory farming that led to the Brambell report which led to the 5 freedoms for farm animals of which not much was based on science but stuck and now used by many countries.
    Just wondering how a group could be formulated who may not have an interest in animal rights who evidently think so little of human life and seem to be in favor of population control. Yet Singer works to do good in the world?
    I have often read that Andrew Linzey was a Christain Socialist. What does this mean?
    Many in the animal rights movement seem to be agnostic or athiest.
    I see it more as an anti capitalist movement steming from the philosophers who were members of the Fabians and often quoted by the animal rights activist. There seems to be a disdain for the world getting more industralized and where people can become wealthy and where animals are used. Perhaps it does boil down to people believe that it does destroy the earth and is a close link with the enviromentalist and agenda 21. Can anyone explain this? Interesting that many in the Oxford Group went to the USA to teach in USA Universities to spread their message.

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