Our Obligations to Animals

 
 

Because animals are not truly our equals, advocating that we should treat them as such weakens the pro-life cause. But animals are meant to be part of our households, and the way we treat them should express beauty and virtue, not decay, pride, and domination.

In my previous essay, I argued that Charles Camosy’s new book For Love of Animals does not adequately demonstrate that animals are truly subjects of just and unjust treatment by human beings. Camosy has not, therefore, shown that non-human animals are the subjects of systematic injustice and exploitation. In this essay, I will address two further questions.

The first concerns the link, posited by, among others, Camosy, Mary Eberstadt, and Matthew Scully, between the animal liberation movement and the pro-life movement. The second concerns the moral framework in which we could think about the wrongs of factory farming without conceding Camosy’s objections regarding “specieisism” or suggestions of genocidal injustice.

For most defenders of unborn human life, the link between animal and fetal rights is not at all apparent. Human beings are all persons, and thus all equal. Therefore, no human should be intentionally killed, enslaved, tortured, or willfully treated as a mere thing. Animals, as non-personal beings, are not equal to humans, even if they should be treated without cruelty.

Yet Camosy and others suggest that pro-lifers should align themselves with the animal liberation movement. On the contrary, I believe that the animal-equality position is dangerous for unborn human beings.

To the extent that one wishes to attribute to human and non-human animals the same kind of moral status, that claim must be made on the basis of sameness of the relevant moral properties. It makes little sense to say that human beings ought not to be enslaved because they are rational, and horses, say, ought not to be enslaved because they are sentient.

But finding the lowest common denominator between non-human and human animals is inevitably to the detriment of human rights, for the lowest common denominator seems to be something that some human beings do not have: the ability to feel pain, for example, which is not found in very early fetuses who are, nevertheless, fully human beings. Lowest- common-denominator thinking is deadly to the pro-life movement and to those that movement serves. The work of many animal-rights advocates shows this clearly.

Now, pro-lifers are familiar with a common objection at this point. I have just admitted that fetuses are not right now rational and capable of free choice; why, then, are they entitled to immunity from intentional killing? The answer is that human fetuses posses the radical capacity for acts of reason and choice, even though that capacity has not yet been developed to the point at which it can be exercised. In a similar way, most adult humans possess the radical capacity to speak Amharic (a language of Ethiopia), but most human beings have not developed that capacity.

But suppose this move is made in regards to the least common denominator: all beings with the radical capacity for sentience are to be given full moral status of the sort pro-lifers attribute to unborn human beings. We are now well on the way to a further problem.

Our obligations to other human beings are stringent but practicable. They include obligations not to inflict certain kinds of treatment on others, obligations to provide certain kinds of aid to others, and obligations not to burden others unfairly with the consequences of choices that are of primary benefit to ourselves.

It seems possible, in principle, to live up to these standards, even if one believes that human beings are fallen and will inevitably act selfishly and destructively. But it seems impossible to be impartial with respect to the interests of every being that has the capacity for sentience. Human beings living up to their moral responsibilities in this stringent sense would not drive cars, build cities, make movies, plow fields, cut timber, or engage in a host of other human activities, for the side effects on animal populations would be far greater than we would ever countenance for human populations. And the number of beings crying out for positive attention, not just restraint from unjustified violence, would grow beyond any reasonable hope of meeting our moral responsibilities.

The end result of genuinely treating all animals on a moral par would surely be to cease treating human beings with the respect that they deserve; genuine impartiality between humans and animals would be massively detrimental to the common good. Yet a more likely scenario is that human beings would simply give up on the effort to treat non-human animals impartially; why bother, when they would certainly not go out of their way for us? But this too would be disastrous, for it would cast all of morality into doubt and pave the way toward further “self-interested” entrenchments.

If we can’t treat all animals impartially, despite an alleged “obligation” to do so, why treat all human beings equally? And as Camosy is surely right to suggest, the first to be thrown under the bus would be the least powerful, of which the unborn are the first example.

I will raise but one more of a host of difficulties. To genuinely treat animals as subjects of justice in the specifically Christian sense that Camosy identifies—with active concern for the most vulnerable—would require great attention to their plight. Because resources and time are finite, that would certainly come at the expense of some time, money, and attention that is now given to the unborn and to other disadvantaged human beings.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks to this point, in a sentence immediately following one that Camosy quotes in support of his position:

It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery.

So animals should not be, and indeed cannot be, treated as our equals; any wrongs that are done in respect of them are not, therefore, injustices that are done to them. Yet even those who disagree with Camosy’s strongest claims are often moved by descriptions of factory farming, such as those in his book, to think that something has gone wrong. But what could it be?

Here I want only to sketch one line of thinking about this issue. It does not replace other considerations such as that God’s creation should not be treated with disdain, and that human beings should practice kindness, not cruelty, even when killing animals, so as not to become cruel to human beings. But there is something more.

Human beings are domestic animals: they establish and belong to households. These households are, in many ways, the physical expression and bodying forth of their person: of who they are, both individually, and with the others with whom they form the household. As such, there are many resemblances between the persons who are domestic, and the domus in which they live: just as children resemble their parents, so does the household, in its operation, organization, physical appearance, and interrelation to the rest of the world resemble the family.

The resemblance is inexact, and can be hampered by many intervening considerations, such as poverty or disability. Yet two points seem noteworthy.

The first is that good and just characters and human relationships are, when things go well, expressed and bodied forth into the world in fine and beautiful homes. Good people do not like to live in filth and ugliness, in decay and stink. Nor do they like to live in opulence and display: beauty is not found in the expression of vanity. They work to make their homes a visible image of their lives, bringing clarity and order to the natural resources around them. They humanize their surroundings and make them habitable, not simply survivable. Many of us have surely had the sensation of walking into a home and recognizing it as telling us something good (or bad) about its owner. We can be wrong in those judgments, but they are based on a reality.

The second point is that this truth is compatible with a considerable degree of pluralism about good homes and households. There are surely many good marriages that are quite different from one another. Not every good relationship between parents and children is the same. Moreover, the individuals in a home can be good in many different ways, and they can be good together in many different ways as well. So good homes and households are likely to be every bit as variegated as good lives and relationships, and that is a very good thing indeed, contributing to the variety of manifest excellences we find in the world.

Now farms are, in origin at least, an extension of the home. That means that the so-called family farm, even if quite large, should express and body forth the character of the household. But as I have noted: we do not like to live in filth, ugliness, stink, or decay; to which we should add, in light of undercover videos of pig factories, casual brutality and violence. Our farms should express who we are, and that ought to mean that they express goodness.

That, I believe, is entirely compatible with killing and eating the non-human animals on a farm and making those animals available to others to eat. I have participated in the killing and eating of pigs on a friend’s farm. That farm is the embodiment of my friend’s and his family’s very Christian life: the pigs are well treated; their slaughter is preceded by a prayer; and the entire family works together to make sure that the pig’s life and death is for the sake of the family’s common good.

How big, and how extended, can the work of a farm get before it ceases even to be able to express the character of good people? I do not know. But in the worst instances of factory farming we are forced to ask: what kinds of people could extend their household in such a way? How could they want to surround themselves with such ugliness and filth? And if the answer is that they live in beautiful and opulent houses but have outsourced the dirty work to a distant plot of blighted land operated by workers who have no concern for the animals in their care, then perhaps we are entitled to ask whether they are taking sufficient responsibility for the need of the animals that we kill and eat, just as the animals that we live with as pets, to be domesticated—to be made part of our households.

In his book, Camosy argues that the book of Genesis reveals that animals were made for our companionship only. I doubt that. But the idea I am trying to put forward here is in some ways an extension of what Camosy holds. I think that the animals with which we interact and from whom we satisfy our needs were, arguably, created to share our households, in some cases in a very extended sense: the household of our world. We should want that household to express beauty and virtue, not decay, pride, and domination, even if it is the case, as I have argued, that not all members of the household are created equal.

Does this mean that only meat from family farms, lovingly raised and humanely slaughtered, may be morally consumed? I do not think that this follows. The norms I have articulated are not norms of justice. There are unwanted side effects to the purchase of meat from factory farmed animals. But in the absence of fundamental forms of injustice, the negative side effects of such individual choices are surely both minimal and proportionate to the benefits which many families receive, in terms of both health and pleasure, from those same choices. Our primary moral responsibility is for our own choices, and our choice of meat to feed our families can be upright even when the choices of those caring for the animals were deficient in various respects.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His book Lying and Christian Ethics is forthcoming in March from Cambridge University Press.

 

 

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