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Do Animals Have Rights?

May 18, 2014

Some time ago I wrote two articles on a Christian environmental ethic. (Although I agree with the conclusions to those articles I actually don’t think I wrote them very well.) In the first of these articles I very briefly touched upon a philosophical issue that plagues certain moral philosophies of environmentalism and is of dire and pressing concern to those who espouse animal rights. Now, this in and of itself would make the topic interesting to me – I always like a good philosophical quandary, but I also know enough people who would claim to believe in animal rights that I am interested in whether there is a Christian position on this issue.

Let’s start with some definitions quickly. “Animal rights” has become an idiomatic phrase that implies a very particular set of rights that animals might have but the issue in abstract (do animals, like humans, possess natural rights?) is more interesting. I plan on addressing this issue from two directions: first, do animals actually possess rights and second (regardless of the answer to the first) are Christians under obligation to treat animals kindly?

Having dealt with this let us move on to the philosophical quandary that lies at the heart of animal rights: are all animals equal? Most animal rights activists will unhesitatingly tell you “yes” but very few act like it. Instead most animal rights activists focus on the more relatable animals – mammals first, then other vertebrates, and invertebrates last or never. (Conservationists have long understood this as well. If you want someone to conserve the habitat of an ecologically-important snail you find a mammal that shares the same habitat and use it in your fundraising posters instead.) However, if all we had was a failure to live up to espoused moral standards animal rights would be in the same position as Christianity: too hard for mortals to live up to but perhaps worth following nonetheless. The real problem comes in when we start talking about the interactions between animals. Let’s take cats. Domestic cats are animals that most people feel fairly sympathetic towards but they are, from the perspective of anything small than about 50% of a cat’s weight, hideous murderballs. Not only do cats kill even when they are well-fed on cat food (indeed, it appears that well-fed domestic cats kill almost exactly the same number of small birds per capita as feral cats who kill birds for food) but cats often play with their food in a manner that would be called torture if a human did it. They are hardly the only example of this behavior – humans are unusual in taking time to consider how to give their prey a swift and merciful death. Most predators kill their prey by eating it (rather than killing it and then eating it). So if all animals have equivalent moral worth what do we do with cats? They are basically serial killers of the animal world. Do we lock them up? Sentence them all to death? Probably none of these in reality but this is a mismatch between expressed values and acted out expressions of these values. (There’s an excellent article out there about how if you really believed that all animals had the same intrinsic value you would feed cats to large snakes because large snakes eat much less often than cats and so you end up with a net gain in terms of fewer animals being eaten. Needless to say the author was bombarded with emails calling him a horrible person – and yet he’s right if all animals have the same moral value.)

Now, I don’t bring this issue up merely to poke fun at bad philosophy (as much as I enjoy doing that). I also bring it up because if we are going to treat the issue of animal rights seriously we had better be able to avoid that pitfall. So let’s start with rights: do (or can) animals have them?

To answer this we would need to answer a much more fundamental question: why within Christianity do human beings have rights? Non-Christian attempts to defend human rights always strike me as a bit iffy and subject to Darwinian rules where the winner writes both the histories and the moral instruction booklets. However, in Christianity humans have rights because God loves them. Any attempt to subvert the rights of other humans runs across a simple issue: all humans stand equal before God and so what is the basis for one human to trample on another?

So do animals also have rights? The Torah might grant them some: Deuteronomy 25:4 famously tells the faithful Israelite not to muzzle an ox who is treading out grain (in other words, the ox must be allowed to eat some of the grain it is working). However, some of the other rules that place limits on the use of animals in ways that are clearly not simply utilitarian also undermine the idea of animal rights in the normal sense. For instance, Exodus 23:19 prohibits boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk, a prohibition that makes sense only in view of a respect for the mother-child relationship of the goats. However, Exodus 23 sees no problem with killing and eating the young goat. For that matter, Deuteronomy sees no issue with (to use animal rights language) enslaving oxen. Were we to extend these protections and only these protections to human beings we would be considered extraordinarily cruel.

There’s another way to get at this issue that may make more sense. Let’s leave aside the issue of whether a non-human animal can have rights. Should Christians treat animals in a particular way? I think the answer has to be yes. We normally ask about the external effects of actions (who else does this impact?) but if we stop and ask about the internal effects of our actions the answer to this question seems clear. Treating anything with cruelty fosters the wrong sort of spirit inside of us. The very idea that treatment could be cruel requires that we believe that the recipient of that treatment be able to process it in a way that causes it pain and I can’t imagine how the deliberate infliction of pain (without a larger redemptive purpose, e.g. surgery) could be Christian. In fact, what I am proposing here is that it does not actually matter what is going on inside an animal when it is treated cruelly, what matters is what is going on inside the human who believes that the animal is suffering. If for some reason a group of people came to believe that toasters were beings with feeling who hated to have their doors slammed it would be unchristian for these people to slam toaster doors. Doing so would be a soul-damaging act of contempt for another feeling being. It’s not for nothing that cruelty towards animals is seen (correctly in many cases) as a gateway to cruelty towards other humans.

There’s a difference between deliberate cruelty and use, though. If humans raise an animal for meat I see no problem with that – this is not inherently cruel (largely because a cow cannot figure out what end awaits it). However, there would be a moral obligation to kill the animal quickly and cleanly and to raise it in decent conditions. Indeed, the lives of animals in the wild are often harsh and short and so despite frequent (extremely first-world) complaints about keeping animals captive I doubt that most animals, given the ability to comprehend their choices, would choose exposure to predators and starvation over decent conditions in captivity. (Humans themselves have a sometimes-unfortunate tendency to value security over freedom.)

This solution, to focus on the internal state of the human, also gets us around the issue of predators and cruelty between animals. It’s not my job to police the natural world. To the extent that I favor intervention in nature it is along the lines described in my environmentalism article – intervention to save God’s masterwork of Creation for future generations. On this scale I am not concerned whether this deer will die horribly under the teeth of coyotes but whether there will be both coyotes and deer for my grandchildren.

Of course, for many people the specific issue of animal rights is not particularly relevant. Despite this I think the issue is worth thinking about. Like a lot of moral issues of our day the moral underpinnings are either philosophically inconsistent or simply ignored for emotionalism (and randomly-focused public outrage) most of the time. Almost all moral issues in the public sphere suffer from this problem. The ability to address a problem by thinking in internal terms (how does this change me as a person?) rather than external terms (who doesn’t like this and wishes I would stop?) is also applicable to other problems.

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