What We Owe Animals: A Response to Christopher Tollefsen


Animals are not simply “a gift for human beings.” The needless cruelty inflicted on animals by factory farming not only violates a duty to provide them just treatment, but far outweighs the goods that humans gain by eating such meat.

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This past December, Public Discourse published Christopher Tollefsen’s two-part review of my recent book on animals and Christian ethics. Both pieces misunderstand my argument and are instead directed at a straw man. But the second part of the review is stronger than the first, and I’ll begin my response to the review by praising Tollefsen’s conclusions in that piece.

In articulating his moral concern for animals, Tollefsen makes the very strong (and very welcome) claim that farming of animals ought to be seen as “an extension of the home.” Quite rightly, he says that the farms from which the overwhelming majority of us get our meat reveal—rather than goodness and virtue—much “ugliness and filth.” From genetically altering chickens so that they will never have the modest relief of a full stomach to forcing sows to spend most of their lives in crates so small that they cannot even turn around, something is clearly terribly disordered in our contemporary human-animal homestead in the developed West.

I’ve long admired Tollefsen’s advocacy for equal protection of the law for prenatal children, and it is quite rare that a member of our pro-life community has anything serious and substantial to say about moral concern for animals. So the fact that one of the most important pro-life voices in the English-speaking world is prepared to make such a statement against factory farming is no small thing. Tollefsen now joins a small but growing list of very publicly traditional Christians (like Mary Eberstadt, Matt Scully, William Wilberforce, and C.S. Lewis) who have declared their substantial moral concern for animals.

But Tollefsen’s moral concern does not go far enough. He even makes the unfortunate and wrongheaded assertion that non-human animals “are, in some sense, created as a gift for human beings.” As I show in my book, the first two chapters of Genesis—along with the Catechism of the Catholic Church—have a very different understanding of the relationship between human and non-human animals. God creates animals “good,” period, without reference to human beings. Before the stain of human sin clouds and distorts creation, God commands both human and non-human animals to eat a vegetarian diet, and brings the animals to Adam because “it is not good that man should be alone.” After the fall, God does give restricted permission for humans to eat animals, but it is never claimed that animals exist as gifts for human beings.

Perhaps Tollefsen’s theological mistake is informed by a related mistake in thinking about justice. Without argument, he asserts that justice “is centrally concerned with the relationship between beings that are equal.” Of my view that non-human animals are deserving of just treatment, he says:

But it is clearly question-begging in the absence of an argument for the claim that non-human animals belong in what we might call the “justice community.” And entrance into that community comes only with equality, equality which is clearly possessed by the readers and author of this essay and all African Americans, women, and prenatal human beings. Why should we think that dogs, pigs, or cows possess that equality with us?

Tollefsen’s central critique of my views relies on an understanding of justice that presumes a relationship of equality. But for at least two reasons this is an extremely odd critique for a good and careful philosopher like him to make. First, in multiple places throughout the book, I explicitly deny that dogs, pigs, or cows possess equality with human beings. Second, while a “relationship between beings that are equal” is certainly part of what justice is, limiting it to these kinds of relationships is narrow and incomplete.

Why should we treat equal beings equally? The answer is that equal treatment is what equal beings are owed. This is the broader and more fundamental notion of justice at work in the book. I claim that justice consists in “being consistent and impartial in giving both individuals and groups what they are owed.” But a relationship of justice in this broad sense can most certainly exist between unequal beings. God and humans, for instance, exist in a relationship of justice despite being unequal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that human beings have a higher moral status than animals, but nevertheless claims that we “owe them kindness.”

The verb “to owe” is not used by the Church to refer to the moral duties we have to creation, broadly speaking. One could expand Tollefsen’s insight about the family and claim that how a family treats other beings in God's creation (such as the plants under its care) could also reveal “ugliness and filth.” It could reveal poor stewardship of creation and the harming of our virtue and character. However, mistreatment of plants would not mean the plants had been treated unjustly. Unlike animals, plants are not the kinds of beings to which we can owe moral behavior.

That he does not allow for this distinction reveals Tollefsen’s fundamental mistake. Because non-human animals are not substances of a rational and relational nature, he “others” them by insisting that they fall outside the sphere of moral concern containing those beings who demand just treatment. Animals, he says, should be understood as gifts given to human beings, and any moral failings on our part with respect to their treatment can be ultimately reduced to harm done to our own virtue and character.

But the Catechism insists that when we participate in cruelty to animals, in addition to harming ourselves, we fail to provide the animal what he or she is owed. Not surprisingly, because it is working from this understanding of justice, the Church comes to significantly stronger conclusions about our moral duties to animals than does Tollefsen. Indeed, the Catechism insists that it is wrong to cause animals to suffer “needlessly.” This is a very high bar. Whether a farmer, a hunter, or researcher, one must present a “need” as justification for causing an animal to suffer.

Most people reading these words, however, are not likely to be farmers, hunters or researchers. Especially in our increasingly urbanized Western culture, our most regular contact with animals comes when we eat them. And given that most of the meat we eat comes from factory farms, we must ask ourselves a difficult question, “How should we think about our cooperation with this unjust practice?”

For most of us, I argue, such cooperation cannot be morally justified. The evil perpetuated by factory farms is certain and grave. And, especially when we buy our meat from such farms because of the cheaper price, we align our will with that of the owner of the factory farm. After all, the cruel practices perpetrated upon the fifty billion animals factory-farmed worldwide each year are used precisely to drive down costs for those who buy such meat because of its cheap price.

Suppose, however, that I’m mistaken. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we accept Tollefsen’s view that there is no issue of justice in how we treat animals. He argues that the benefit produced by individual choices to eat factory-farmed meat is proportionate with the burden created. But is it? The average American eats about 270 pounds worth of animal flesh in a single year, and this requires that large numbers of animals suffer and die. Tollefsen claims that “pleasure and health” are benefits humans gain from eating this factory-farmed meat, and that they are proportionate with the burden caused, but this is far from clear.

Pleasure all by itself, I take it, would not be a proportionately serious reason to contribute to the suffering and death required to eat 270 pounds of meat per year. But what about health? As I show in the book, eating factory-farmed meat is one of the unhealthiest practices in which Westerners engage. We can now get protein and other nutrients from much more healthy sources—often at cheaper prices—without exposing ourselves to the high rates of cancer, heart disease, and antibiotic resistance associated with eating factory-farmed meat. And when one factors in their role in ecological degradation and the destruction of our small farms and rural communities, there are even more reasons to reject Tollefsen’s view that we have proportionately serious reasons to cooperate with factory farms.

Tollefsen represents a generation of pro-lifers who grew up believing that those concerned with moral treatment of animals were the enemy. They had good reason to think this: Peter Singer and others in the early animal rights movement explicitly connected concern for animals with disregard for the value of human life, and especially the lives of prenatal children. But this is no longer the case of the pro-life movement of the contemporary era, especially as more and more young defenders of human life are also convinced that they must live lives consistent with serious moral concern for animals.

This should not be surprising. The fundamental moral orientation of pro-lifers concerns itself with protecting vulnerable populations—especially victims of horrific violence. Pro-lifers are particularly sensitive to the marginalization of the voiceless whose dignity is inconvenient to those who have power over them. That more pro-lifers are now becoming a voice for just treatment of both animals and prenatal children does not imply a false moral equivalence between these two concerns. Rather, it demonstrates that—when stripped of the political baggage that characterized the relationship in the 1970s and ’80s—the pro-life and pro-animal movements share much of their moral orientation in common.

Charles C. Camosy is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. His most recent book is For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action. You can follow him on Twitter @nohiddenmagenta. 

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