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.

Christianity and the roots of anti-animal sentiment

Over at the blog Year of Plenty, Craig Goodwin reviews Laura Hobgood-Oster’s recent book The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals. It’s a generally positive review, but at the end Goodwin takes issue with some of Hobgood-Oster’s explanations for our troubled relationship with the animal world:

The references and historical background offered on these key doctrines of the Christian faith are too abbreviated and simplistic. For example I have an entire shelf of my library that is taken up by Karl Barth’s Dogmatics wherein Barth lays out thousands of pages of complex theological perspectives (the joke is that not even Barth read all of Barth.) To sum up Barth’s theology of the atonement in a few paragraphs and to suggest that this is a root cause of the problem is inadequate for the argument being put forth in the chapter.

Hobgood-Oster’s arguments in the concluding chapter regarding the influence of the Enlightenment on the disconnect are much more on target. The quote from Descartes regarding animals as unthinking “automata” is fascinating and informative.

I’d likely agree that Hobgood-Oster’s book, which is pitched toward a popular audience, probably doesn’t do full justice to the nuances of Barth’s doctrine of the atonement. (I don’t have the book in front of me, but I’m willing to agree this is the case.) On the other hand, it’s equally simplistic to blame our history of mistreating animals and neglecting their interests on the Enlightenment, which has in any event become much too convenient a whipping-boy in recent theology.

As Andrew Linzey and others have documented pretty exhaustively, the historical Christian tradition is pretty ambivalent about the status of animals. While there are lots of examples of saints showing compassion to animals and some examples of faith inspiring reform on animals’ behalf, official theology and church teaching have generally taken a much more negative view of non-human animals. Linzey has put a lot of effort into recovering the “animal-positive” aspects of the Christian tradition, but even he admits that this has been an uphill battle. The fact is that for most of its history Christianity has been overwhelmingly concerned with human beings and only tangentially, if at all, with non-humans. Fortunately, both the Christian and Enlightenment traditions have resources that can foster a greater concern for animals’ interests and the place in God’s creation.

Peter Singer, utilitarianism, Christianity, and climate change

Here’s an interesting post from Mark Vernon, an English journalist and author (and former priest in the Church of England), reporting on a recent conference at Oxford University on the engagement of Christian ethics with the thought of Peter Singer. According to Vernon, Singer discussed problems that his brand of utilitarianism (“preference utilitarianism”–the view that the right action is the one which satisfies the most preferences) has in coming to grips with the problem of climate change.

Climate change is a challenge to utilitarianism on at least two accounts. First, the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change. This fact sits uneasily for a preference utilitarian, who would be inclined to argue that the existence of more and more sentient beings enjoying their lives – realising their preferences – is a good thing. As Singer puts it in the new edition of his book, Practical Ethics: “I have found myself unable to maintain with any confidence that the position I took in the previous edition – based solely on preference utilitarianism – offers a satisfactory answer to these quandaries.”

Second, preference utilitarianism also runs into problems because climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won’t much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won’t much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one. What this adds up to is that preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.

Christian ethics, Vernon suggest, may be more of a help here because, at least in most forms, it believes that the right and the good go beyond the satisfaction of preferences. For a Christian, the protection of creation can be seen as good in itself, without trying to calculate the balance of preference-satisfaction that would be involved. Or, to borrow the terminology of Andrew Linzey, we might say that God has rights in God’s creation–rights to the respectful treatment of that creation. Christian ethics generally doesn’t take preferences or desires that we happen to have as necessarily deserving fulfillment–those desires are all-too-often warped by self-seeking and self-preoccupation. The Christian moral life is as much about reshaping our desires as satisfying them.

God’s right to the respectful treatment of God’s creatures

I’ve been re-reading Andrew Linzey’s Christianity and the Rights of Animals and just wanted to jot down some salient passages.

On intensive farming:

To put it at its most basic: animals have a God-given right to be animals. The natural life of a Spirit-filled creatures is a gift from God. When we take over the life of an animal to the extent of distorting its natural life for no other purpose than our own gain, we fall into sin. There is no clearer blasphemy before God than the perversion of his creatures. To the question: Why is it wrong to deny chickens the rudimentary requirements of their natural life, such as freedom of movement or association?, there is therefore only one satisfactory answer: Since an animal’s natural life is a gift from God, it follows that God’s right is violated when the natural life of his creatures is perverted. (p. 112)

On vegetarianism:

The Christian argument for vegetarianism … is simple: since animals belong to God, have value to God and live for God, then their needless destruction is sinful. In short: animals have some right to their life, all circumstances being equal. (p. 146)

On “progressive disengagement” from animal exploitation:

What we need is progressive disengagement from our inhumanity to animals. The urgent and essential task is to invite, encourage, support and welcome those who want to take some steps along the road to a more peaceful world with the non-human creation. We do not all have to agree upon the most vital steps, or indeed the most practical ones. What is important is that we all move some way on, if only by one step at a time, however falteringly. (pp. 148-9)

Linzey’s basic perspective is that animals’ rights are grounded in God’s prior right to have God’s creatures treated with respect. This provides a basis for objecting not just to the infliction of pain on animals, but to the deprivation of their ability to live out their natural, God-given lives. In Linzey’s view, human “stewardship” of the natural world, properly understood, has a Christ-like and cruciform shape. It therefore can never justify the wanton use of animals for human benefit. Instead, it should be characterized by valuing the non-human world for its own sake, letting it be without undue human interference, and generally living peaceably with other creatures.

Friday links

– Many people have pointed to this omnibus post at Mother Jones that provides background, context, links, and ongoing updates on the situation in Egypt.

– Marvin writes on understanding apostolic poverty.

– At the blog Memoria Dei, a post discussing feminist theologian Mary Daly’s use of women’s experience as an analogue for the divine.

– Palgrave Macmillan and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics have launched a new series of books on the ethical treatment of animals. So far, two titles have been published: An Introduction to Animals and Political Theory by Alasdair Cochrane and An Introduction to Animals and the Law by Joan E. Schaffner. The series is co-edited by Andrew Linzey and Priscilla Cohn.

– Crystal has a post discussing John Milbank’s and Keith Ward’s differing views on Kant (complete with a video of Ward lecturing on the subject).

– Rodney Clapp on giving yourself (and others) permission not to pray.

– The State of the Union and “semi-Niebuhrianism.”

– Kevin Drum on the virtues of a strong labor movement.

– Oasis and Radiohead: two very different British bands that defined alternative rock in the late ’90s.

The radical Lewis

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that many C. S. Lewis fans–maybe especially his many evangelical admirers–don’t know that Lewis wrote a pamphlet for the British Anti-Vivisection Society. This essay, reprinted later in God in the Dock, anticipates some key arguments since made by philosophical proponents of animal rights.

Lewis posits a dilemma for the defender of animal experimentation: either they hold that humans are metaphysically superior to (non-human) animals (he identifies this with the Christian view), or they believe that there is no inherent metaphysical difference between humans and other animals (he calls this the naturalistic or Darwinian view).

If one takes the first view, Lewis argues, it by no means follows that humans are entitled to treat animals any way they wish. “We may find it difficult to formulate a human right of tormenting beasts in terms which would not equally imply an angelic right of tormenting men” (“Vivisection,” God in the Dock, reprinted in The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis, p. 452). Or, we might add, an extraterrestrial right of tormenting men. Further, “we may feel that though objective superiority is rightly claimed for man, yet that very superiority ought partly to consist in not behaving like a vivisector” (p. 452). This turns the superiority argument on its head; Andrew Linzey has also made much of this line of thinking (see his Animal Theology and Why Animal Suffering Matters, among other works).

Of course, as Lewis notes, most of those who experiment on animals are not Christians with a belief in the metaphysical superiority of humanity, but Darwinian naturalists who see humans as just one species of animal among many (albeit one with certain unique characteristics). “We sacrifice other species to our own not because our own has any objective metaphysical privilege over others, but simply because it is ours” (pp. 452-3). But Lewis is quick to point out that if there is no great metaphysical gulf separating human from non-human animals, what reason is there to draw the line at the species barrier? If all that justifies our preference for our own species is sentiment, than wouldn’t sentiment also justify a preference for our own nation, class, or race? “Once the old Christan idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men” (p. 453).

This argument similar to the one known as the “argument from marginal cases”–i.e., many non-human animals have the same cognitive abilities as so-called marginal humans (e.g., the severely mentally handicapped), so why are we justified in, say, experimenting on animals but not in experimenting on “marginal case” humans?

Of course, it’s open to the naturalist to admit the force of the argument and accept that we aren’t justified in experimenting on “marginal” humans or non-human animals. (James Rachels takes such an approach in his book Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism.) But this just concedes Lewis’s main point: once you do away with the “metaphysical” distinction between humans and animals, there is no rational ground for treating humans and non-human animals differently simply because they belong to different species.

Human “exceptionalism” as moral exclusion

In his review of Wesley Smith’s book that I linked to below, Angus Taylor puts his finger on exactly what has long bothered me about Smith’s rhetoric of “human exceptionalism”:

Even if can be shown … that all human beings deserve an elevated moral status, it is not clear why this elevated status should entail the right to exploit, kill, and consume beings of lesser status – especially in those instances where no human vital needs are at stake. The issue of moral agency is a red herring. There is no logical requirement that all humans be moral “by nature” in order for every one of them to be entitled to respectful treatment. If not Tom Regan’s “subject of a life” theory, then surely Gary Francione’s sentience-based rights view would give Smith all he desires in terms of recognizing the equal inherent worth of all humans, including the mentally handicapped. By recognizing sentience as a sufficient condition for the right to be treated with respect, Smith could make a rationally defensible argument against the abuses to which he believes many incapacitated humans are vulnerable. But his doctrine of human exceptionalism cannot countenance just any ethical view that protects humans, for it is not enough to include all humans within the moral community – one must simultaneously exclude all non-humans. And this is crucial: human exceptionalism is at least as much about whom we are determined to exclude from the moral community as about whom we wish to include within it.

Smith is able to get so much traction against proponents of animal rights/liberation largely by waving the red flag of “dehumanization.” In his view, elevating our treatment of animals necessarily involves downgrading our treatment of humans. But as Taylor points out, there’s just no logical reason for thinking this.

It should be added, though, that at least part of the blame for this might fall on the “father” of the animal rights movement himself–Peter Singer. Singer has long staked out controversial views on abortion, infanticide, euthansia, the rights of the disabled, and other “life” issues, which has led some to think that his arguments for animal liberation are simply part of an agenda to debase the value of human life. I think this is misleading–both Singer’s positions on animal liberation and his bioethical views derive from a prior commitment to a particular form of utilitarianism. On this view, the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its overall consequences, understood in terms of the satisfaction of preferences. From this it follows, argues Singer, that life–whether human or animal–is not inherently “sacred.” Rather, whether it’s wrong to end a life has to be judged in terms of the prospects for preference-satisfaction of all affected parties. Nevertheless, what some may consider admirable philosophical consistency, others regard as a dangerous cheapening of human life.

But Singer’s view is by no means embraced by all who advocate better treatment for animals (nor, for that matter, do all utilitarians embrace all of Singer’s more controversial bioethical views). As Taylor points out, a rights-based view such as that of Tom Regan elevates the moral status of animals without “demoting” human beings to some lesser status. I’d add that theological views like Andrew Linzey’s function in a similar way; in his book Why Animal Suffering Matters, Linzey is quite critical of Singer’s utilitarianism and its implications for vulnerable human life.

None of this takes away from the fact that Smith is generally quite sloppy in his engagement with the arguments of pro-animal rights/liberation thinkers. And I agree with Taylor that Smith’s version of “human exceptionalism” largely seems crafted to justify the ongoing human domination and exploitation of non-human animals.

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.

A debate on animal rights

Just catching up on some of my post-Christmas reading: in Sunday’s Washington Post there was a mini-debate between Andrew Linzey and neuroscientist Adrian Morrison over the rights of animals.

Linzey is certainly right that Morrison misses the thrust of his central argument. The question isn’t whether humans are different from non-human animals, but whether that difference justifies disregarding animal suffering. On the other hand, I’m not sure Linzey adequately grapples with the genuine dilemma of foregoing potentially life-saving medical research by ending experiments on animals.

In some ways, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to focus the debate on medical research (though given the participants, I suppose that was inevitable). The fact is that, by any reckoning, the vast majority of human-inflicted animal suffering comes from animal agriculture. And it’s pretty clear that the benefits of the factory farming system (i.e., the pleasures of the palate that come from eating meat instead of vegetarian alternatives) are far outweighed by the vast quantity of animal suffering they demand. Morrison’s argument that we can’t make judgments about the relative weight of pleasures that people get from, say, going to the rodeo or eating meat is frankly ludicrous.

Compared to our present world, a vegetarian one would be immeasurably better in terms of animal suffering. I’m not saying that animal rights activists shouldn’t criticize the practices of animal experimentation, particularly since a lot of that experimentation serves no vital human interests. But the case for changing our treatment of animals in fairly substantial ways doesn’t hinge on resolving all the hard cases like choosing whether to forego the benefits of a life-saving drug for your child.

Toward a non-anthropocentric theology

Jeremy asked if I’d recommend any books on moving away from an anthropocentric theology. This is a question at the intersection of some perennial ATR themes, so I thought I’d post the answer here. The following list makes no pretense to be either authoritative or exhaustive, but these are some books (in no particular order) that I’ve found helpful:

Bill McKibben, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation

H. Paul Santmire, Nature Reborn

Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology

Denis Edwards, Ecology at the Heart of Faith

Jay McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans

James M. Gustafson, An Examined Faith

Ian Bradley, God Is Green

Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation

Of course, a lot depends here on what we mean by “moving away from anthropocentrism.” But, at a minimum, I think it’s any theology which recognizes that the rest of creation does not exist solely for the sake of human beings and that God’s purposes encompass more than human salvation. The books above range from fairly orthodox to fairly heterodox, and I wouldn’t endorse everything in all of them, but all provide stimulating food for thought. The list doesn’t include any classic sources, which isn’t to deny that there are resources in the tradition for a less anthropocentric theology (Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Wesley and others contain material that might be richly mined, it seems to me); neither does the list include much in the way of biblical studies, but that also seems like an important area for thought on this topic.

p.s. Other recommendations are welcome!