“What is man,” asked the Psalmist, “that Thou [God] are mindful of him?” An excellent question, and one which has aroused considerable controversy within the context of the arguments surrounding animal rights.
What, if anything, separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, and what are the implications of one’s belief in this area? While these are certainly not new questions, they have become increasingly contentious in a world in which the line separating the human animal from the rest of the animal kingdom has become increasingly elusive.
Stephen Jay Gould once stated that “biology has shifted our status from a simulacrum of God to a naked, upright ape.” If that is the case, then the movement to elevate the status of non-human animals seems long overdue. At any rate, the animal rights movement has been remarkably successful in recent years. Switzerland passed a law in 1992 recognizing animals as beings; in 2002, Germany added “and animals” to its constitution, which already obligated the state to protect and respect the dignity of people. The Great Apes Project, founded by Peter Singer, the father of the modern animal rights movement, is lobbying the United Nations to include a wide range of simians in the “community of equals” with humans, thus extending the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture.
The surge in animal rights is not limited to other countries. Beginning in 1999, Harvard began offering its first course in animal rights. During a recent election, the state of Florida made it a constitutional right for gestating sows to have space large enough to turnaround. And Princeton is home to Peter Singer, a bioethics professor, who believes that “it can no longer be maintained by anyone but a religious fanatic that man is the special darling of the universe, or that animals were created to provide us with food, or that we have divine authority over them, and divine permission to kill them.”
While the animals rights movement is diverse in both its stance and its level of activism, there is plenty of common ground to be found in the defense of animals, both philosophically and pragmatically. The philosophical core of the argument usually takes one of two approaches: The Argument from Equality, or the Argument from Pain.
The Argument from Equality
The Argument from Equality is an analogical argument stating that non-human animals are similar enough to people that they should be granted some of the same core rights that humans enjoy. Proponents argue that since animals (well, perhaps not mollusks, but at least the higher order animals) are sentient and self-aware, and they certainly seem to have an interest in leading their own lives, they deserve rights on par with those of the human species.Proponents include Arthur Schopenhauer, who argues that animals have the same essence as humans; virtually anyone involved in the Great Apes Project; and Gary Francione, who has stated that sentience is the only valid determination for moral standing.
For the most part, proponents see the differences in humans and beasts as one of degree rather than kind. Some proponents of this view make a distinction between self-aware animals and lower life forms, while others see equality in all life forms, even those without nervous systems or self-consciousness.
Tom Regan is perhaps the leading spokesman for this “direct duty” that humans have to other animals. He argues that animals have intrinsic value, and thus have rights. In fact, non-human animals bear the same rights as humans; therefore, humanity has a moral obligation to treat them equally. Animals should not be raised for food, commercially farmed, experimented on for medical or cosmetic purposes, trapped or hunted.
In light of these foundational claims, perhaps one can understand why the Vegan Voice claims that “it was speciesist to think that the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center was a greater tragedy than what millions of chickens endured that day and what they endure every day because they cannot defend themselves against the concerted human appetites arrayed against them.” After all, sentience is sentience, be it human or chicken, and we therefore have direct duty to protect all animal life.
The Argument from Pain
Unlike the Argument from Equality, the Argument from Pain does not claim that animals have intrinsic rights; in this sense, it will not call upon a “direct duty” humanity has, but an “indirect duty.” This indirect duty comes from the claim that the reality of pain is enough to create a moral obligation to stop causing pain in any part of the animal kingdom. This view, which has found a current voice in such advocates as Peter Singer, Michael Berumen, and Matthew Scully, has its modern foundation in the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham.
Jeremy Bentham argued for utilitarianism, from which springs an argument claiming that which is ethically correct is that which gives the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This, for Bentham, involved the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. Since animals are just as capable of feeling pain as people are, then “the question is not, Can they reason? nor Can the talk? but, Can they suffer?” His stated desire was a day when “the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them by the hand of tyranny.” Needless to say, philosophers like Descartes, who thought of animals as machines whose cries of pain were the sounds of “broken machinery,” have not been admired by the philosophical descendants of Bentham.
This is the foundation of Peter Singer’s philosophy, a philosophy based only on the principle of minimizing suffering. In fact, he believes that humans specifically do not have rights because of anything distinctly human. Animal equality does not depend on “intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact.”
To support this view, Singer invokes what is called the Argument from Marginal Cases. For example, if a person were comatose, incapable of showing intelligence, exercising reason, or exhibiting a moral sense, would people treat that person inhumanely? Of course not, says Singer, because that person can still feel pain, and that fact alone creates a moral obligation based on Bentham’s utilitarian principles. Since distinctly human characteristics are not the basis for rights, certain non-human animals have lives more valuable than certain human lives, and are thus more deserving of rights than some humans.
So whether humanity’s duty is direct or indirect, whether we grant rights based on sentience or suffering, the implications are the same. For example, the animal rights movement loudly declaims animal testing, either because the animals are so like us in exhibiting sentience or because they are so like us in feeling pain. This is a position with serious implications, as almost every major medical advance in the 20th century has been the result of animal testing.
This is where the philosophical rubber meets the day-to-day road. Ideas have consequences, and validity of the arguments aside, the implications of the animal rights position are enormous.
Bodies, Souls, and Spirits
So how is a Christian to respond to this position? On the one hand, God makes covenants with people and animals, and both thepristine realm of Eden and the New Heaven and Earth present what appears to be an ideal of vegetarianism and peace on behalf of all of creation. When God gave people dominion, they were originally instructed to eat plants, not animals (Genesis 1:29). Tom Reagan has noted:
“The whole fabric of Christian agape is woven from the threads of sacrificial acts. To abstain, on principle, from eating animals, therefore, although it is not the end-all, can be the begin-all of our conscientious effort to journey back (or forward) to Eden, can be one way (among others) to reestablish or create that relationship to the earth that, if Genesis 1 is to be trusted, was part of God’s original hopes for and plans in creation.”
On the other hand, the Bible presents a clear break between mankind – as the only part of Creation bearing the image of God in body, soul and spirit – and the rest of the animal kingdom. While the Hebrew word Nephesh indicates a “soulishness” in some non-human animals in creation, mankind alone was created in the image of God, and mankind alone was given the authority and responsibility of having stewardship over the rest of the world, including animals. (Genesis 1:26-1:28).
So are we just another animal? Do we deserve Peter Singer’s label “speciesist” if we view and treat the rest of the animal kingdom differently than we do ourselves?
From a philosophical perspective, rationality has always been the measure of a tremendous ontological gap between humans and animals. Immanuel Kant, for example, believed that the fact that people are capable of analyzing their desires and choosing a course of action, as well as the fact that they are self-aware, creates a crucial gap between humanity and the other animals.
Bambi and Babe and White Fang have helped to create an image of animals as analogous to people, but they are, after all, just fictional. People have argued that if animals could read, talk and tell us what they think, we would be surprised.
But they don’t, and we aren’t.
Christians do not ignore that fact that animals exhibit varying degrees of human attributes. However, surface anthropomorphic similarities do not make for ontological similarity. Wesley Smith has pointed out in “Money Headed To The Wrong Kingdom”: “Chimpanzees are highly intelligent creatures that exhibit sophisticated social behavior. They have a higher capacity to suffer than do mice, rates, or birds. Hence– as empathetic, moral beings — we have a higher duty to treat them properly and humanely…But as intelligent as chimpanzees are, as sophisticated as their social interactions may be, as easy as it is to anthropomorphize their lives, we must also never forget that they are animals, not persons.”
Numerous Christian theologians have made the point that the image of God humanity reflects is not physical, since God is spirit. The shared similarities in DNA point more to a common Designer than to an equivalent worth. The imago Dei involves such aspects of our nature as creativity, consciousness, personality, the ability to think abstractly and the capacity to make moral judgments.
In addition, there are three key categories in the realm of creation: creatures of body only, such as amphibians and reptiles; animals with a body and a soulishness, the nephesh, such as birds and mammals; and creatures with body, soul, and spirit, which are humans (1 Thessalonians 5:23). While humans and animals can both have mind, will and emotions, only humanity has a free will with which to override instinct, an immortal soul that Christ died to redeem, and a spirit to experience God and form a relationship with him.
Sentience and Rights
C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain that the very order of creation speaks against viewing man and animals as having equal worth in their relationship to God.
“Man is to be understood only in his relation to God. The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God….Atheists naturally regard the co-existence of man and the animals as a mere contingent result of interacting biological facts…but a Christian must not think so. Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine Right.”
From an ethical perspective, philosophers have made that argument that only moral agents have moral rights, and because of this status people are held morally responsible for their actions. Animals are not moral agents, which is why we do not hold the cheetah accountable for killing the crippled gazelle. While there are always Singer’s marginal cases of people who do not fully share the capabilities of other people, their handicaps does not diminish their ontological nature. There is an image of God found in humanity in general which is unique to the group as a whole; it is not the same are sentience and reason, and it is not found in the rest of the animal kingdom .
Just the fact that humanity even discusses the morality of the issue of animal rights suggests a significant distinction. Only humans have even considered the idea of freedom, democracy, and rights, both human and animal. Thomas Hobbes and others have even gone so far as to argue that moral rights only occur in the context of contracts between rational beings who clearly have their own interest in mind. Since this is not the case with animals, they are excluded from the same types of rights, if any, that the human race enjoys.Even our closest genetic relatives in the animal kingdom do not exhibit the ability to comprehend, respect, or act upon the idea of rights. The very idea is irrational when applied to animals.
It is ironic, as Father Richard John Neuhaus has noted, that the “hope for a more humane world, including the more humane treatment of animals, is premised upon what [animal liberation theorists] deny.” Ultimately, people are justified in being wary of applying an immortal nature to animals, lest the differences between man and beast, sharp as they are in the spiritual realm, cease to offset the murkiness in the biological realm.
An apt response to the argument from Peter Singer and Matthew Scully that animals should be treated differently because of their capacity to feel pain comes once again from a theologian who predates them both. C.S. Lewis describes what he calls unconscious sentience in the following manner:
“Now it is almost certain that the nervous system of one of the higher animals presents it with successive sensations. It does not follow that it has any ‘soul’, anything which recognizes itself as having had A, and now having B, and now marking how B glides away to make room for C.”
Suffering and Redemption
While acknowledging that some higher animals have some degree or sense of a self or soul, Lewis noted that “a great deal of what appears to be animal suffering need not be suffering in any real sense. It may be we who have invented the ‘sufferers’ by the ‘pathetic fallacy’ of reading into the beasts a self for which there is no real evidence.” He fully believed that all pain, even animal pain, was a tragic result of the Fall, an evil that God would one day eradicate. In the meantime, while people should try to offset the suffering of animals, that by no means suggested that animals were equals in sentience, reason, or spiritual nature.
While philosophy and reason may be helpful in sorting through the issue, theology is not silent. The Bible gives plenty of insight into the topic of animals and their relationship to us and to God. Genesis 1 and 2 clearly show that all of creation was created good. The early relationship between man and beast was truly Edenic – vegetarianism all around. Conditions changed, however, when evil entered the world. God himself shed animal blood and instituted sacrificial requirements as a result of the Fall.
That did not mean God initiated a free-for-all with the world. Norman Geisler has made several key points about how God has designed our relationship with animals.
First, since God has made a covenant (the Noahic covenant) with all living creatures (Genesis 9), we are obliged to preserve His creation. Second, that very same covenant is clear that God has given us animals for food. Third, we are to treat animals kindly, since it is taught as a sign of righteousness and seen in Jesus’s teaching (Matthew 6:26)
Old Testament Law specifies how to show respect for animals. For examples, animals were to be given a day of rest (Exodus 23:12, Exodus 20:10). Solomon noted that “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10). Sacrifices were regulated so as to be as painless and humane as possible. Clearly, while animals are different from and lesser than humanity, they are not insignificant, or their sacrificial death would be irrelevant.
The New Testament continues the standards set in the Old Testament. Jesus said, ”If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12). This compassion for the dignity and worth of animals did not necessarily negate their role as potential nourishment. God told Peter in a vision that all animals could now be eaten (Acts 10), and Paul wrote that Christians should not judge people by what they eat (Romans 14; I Corinthians 8).
Therein lies the tension. On the one hand, animals have worth and are to be respected and cared for. On the other hand, there is apparently a way in which to do this while also consuming them for food. Perhaps this tension is what leads Lewis Smedes to ask in Mere Morality,
“If we are forbidden to destroy the earthly, animal life of a human person, are we not called to reconsider our easy slaughter of beasts? Can we justify turning butchery into a major industry? Can we justify breeding cattle by the millions only to kill them out of a lust for red meat? And is mass slaughter of grain fed cows not more dubious if it decreases the amount of protein available to hungry people around the world? An imaginative hearing of the sixth commandment may place a question mark behind our moral right to a life-style whose centerpiece is a beefsteak.”
An imaginative hearing indeed, but perhaps a challenge worth considering, not based primarily on the rights of animals, but on the responsibilities of people toward the rest of creation.
The Call to Stewardship
Certainly the call to stewardship requires that a Christian seek to follow God’s design for interaction with the animals; accordingly, the Judeo-Christian worldview has a rich theological and philosophical tradition of teachings in this area: Old and New Testament law; Augustine and Aquinas; St. Francis; John Wesley; William Wilberforce; G.K Chesterton; C.S. Lewis; and Malclom Muggeridge, who asked, “How is it possible to look for God and sing his praises while insulting and degrading His creatures?”
However, this tradition has never understood the relationship between animals, humanity, and God to be one of equality. In Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth speaks of distinction between man and beasts that “consists in the fact that he [mankind] is the animal creature to whom God reveals, entrusts, and binds Himself within the rest of creation… in whose life-activity He expects a conscious and deliberate recognition of His honor, mercy, and power. Hence the higher necessity of life, and his right to that lordship and control.”
While noble in its intent, the excessive elevation of animal rights too often fosters a cheapened view of humanity as rights once considered uniquely human are granted to an increasingly broad group of beings. “This is not,” says Boston University professor Charles Griswold, “just a debate about the meaning of words. It’s a debate about our future, about our idea of what it means to be human. The thesis that there is no difference between a boy and a pig debases man.”
From a biblical perspective, there is a crucial difference between caring about the animal kingdom and elevating them to the same status of those for whom Christ died. Matthew Scully explains the tension well in Dominion:
“I know that they do not have reason comparable to ours. I know that their lives and place and purpose in the world are different from ours. I know that theirs is an often violent world, ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ as Tennyson described it. But I also know that whatever their place and purpose among us might be, it is a mysterious one beyond any man’s power to know. Whatever measure of happiness their Creator intended for them, it is not something to be taken lightly by us, not to be withdrawn from them wantonly or capriciously.”
While all creation is moving toward a kingdom in which all will live at peace (Isaiah 11), that kingdom is not now, and it never will be until God himself intervenes. To the extent that the animal rights movement reflects a yearning for reality rightly ordered, undiscouraged that the witness it bears about a hope for the future runs contrary to the way things are, it is commendable. Meanwhile, we seek to treat God’s creation as it was intended to be treated: neither too loftily or too lowly, and always with God’s order and purpose in mind.
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