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.

WASM 2: Engaging the powers

Having established the moral significance of animal suffering, Linzey goes on in chapter 2 to ask why, if the importance of animal suffering is so clear, has it been so often ignored? After all, as Stephen R. L. Clark has pointed out, it’s hard to identify a more obvious moral truism than “Avoid being the cause of unnecessary suffering.”

What is needed, Linzey says, is to confront “the powers that be,” the patterns of thought and language and the institutionalized practices that make animal suffering virtually invisible. Animals in our society are routinely mis-described (as “dumb brutes,” “beasts,” etc.) and mis-represented (as unthinking organisms that operate entirely by instinct, or that lack any sentience or inner awareness). Our attention is mis-directed, away from animal suffering (often with lofty-sounding pretensions to scientific skepticism), and, perhaps most fundamentally, animals are mis-perceived by us. That is, we see them as parts of a landscape, or as things–commodities that exist solely for human benefit. Actually seeing animals as “subjects of a life” (to use Tom Regan’s term), beings with their own lives and interests, can require a paradigm shift in the way we look at the world (or as Linzey says, a “Eureka!” or “Aha!” experience).

Linzey points out that these obstacles to seeing the moral significance of animal suffering are institutionally reinforced: “where animal abuse differs from most others is that it is socially legitimised and institutionalised” (p. 57). Drawing on the social criticism of Noam Chomsky, particularly his analysis of the “propaganda system” in democratic societies, Linzey highlights some of the ways in which animal abuse is reinforced and what is required to expose it. This falls under the general heading of “cultivating and institutionalizing critical awareness.” Injustices persist in large part because critical voices are excluded from the debate. In liberal democracies this doesn’t happen through the outright suppression of speech, but from the assumptions and implicit premises embedded in the official and quasi-official organs of information.

Linzey suggests that discovering and disseminating the truth about animal abuse requires cultivating the just the kind of critical awareness Chomsky recommends. This entails:

(1) discovering the facts: most, if not all, the information we’re exposed to comes already value-laden or embedded in a particular narrative; disentangling the underlying facts allows us to take a critical stance toward the “official” narrative or interpretation of events.

(2) retaining the focus on the ethical: moral issues are often smuggled off the public stage by focusing on such supposedly value-free terms as “cost,” “need,” “science,” etc. When moral considerations are allowed to intrude, Linzey says, it’s usually in the form of a particularly vulgar or popularized utilitarianism. Advocates of social change should not let the central moral issues recede from view.

(3) recognizing the limitations of the media:
the way that controversial issues are presented in the media already presupposes a great deal of background agreement. Anyone who wants to present a genuinely radical alternative to the status quo is required to challenge a great many assumptions taken for granted. The media, particularly the broadcast media, aren’t well-suited to this kind of critical examination. Anyone promoting an unconventional point of view needs to understand this.

(4) establishing alternative sources of information:
this speaks for itself. The Internet, of course, has made alternative sources of information available on a previously undreamed of scale. Though, there’s no substitute for patient study of more in-depth sources like actual books (you can’t get all your information from blogs and Twitter).

(5) institutionalizing critical awareness:
just as the moral status quo is supported by its institutionalization, any revision to the status quo requires institutional support. Linzey mentions law-making, consumer choice, and education as institutional channels through which a more enlightened understanding of animal suffering can be expressed and reinforced.

I think the discussion here is important. It’s often assumed that if people just “see” intellectually the case for better treatment of animals, changes in behavior will follow automatically. But there are powerful forces that militate against such change, from the assumption–shared by nearly everyone around us–that objectively cruel treatment of animals is normal and even “necessary” to the powerful economic interests that stand to lose from any large-scale shift in attitudes. People’s attitudes and behavior are shaped as much, if not more, by the sort of institutional factors Linzey (and Chomsky) identify as by rational argument. Cultivating and institutionalizing a critical awareness of those factors is a necessary condition for any significant change.

One other thing I wish Linzey had touched on is the importance of alternative communities. This is implicit in some of the other points, but could probably benefit from separate treatment. Reality–or at least our understanding of it–is socially constructed and reinforced. We take our cues on how to behave from our social groups. It’s a rare fish who can swim against the stream her whole life. Thus, any sustainable social change is going to require ways of living together that reinforce values that differ from the mainstream values that are the object of critique.

While I’m wary of some of the more extreme claims made on behalf of the church as a “counterculture” or a “polis” unto itself, I do think churches (along with other intentional communities, religious or not) can be places where people learn a different way of living, one based on values of gentleness, peace, and compassion, which should surely include changes in the way we treat our animal cousins.