Piety, Justice, and Animals: A Response to Charles Camosy

 
 

Both natural law thought and the Catechism agree: animals are not part of the same justice community as human beings, because they do not possess the dignity that comes from existing as a rational being.

Charles Camosy has been good enough to respond to my criticism of his book, and I am grateful for that response. Camosy believes that I misunderstand him, and that I err in other ways as well. However, I believe that what Camosy identifies as errors are not; I think that some of his crucial claims are poorly defended; and I think that in fact the misunderstanding of Camosy’s position lies with him. That final claim may have the air of paradox about it, but I will attempt to make good on it below.

Camosy acknowledges that I make moderately strong claims concerning the immorality of the treatment of animals in factory farming. It is worth adding one point to those claims. Traditionally, natural law theorists have defended norms for the upright treatment of animals in two ways. First, following from our obligations of piety, respect for the goodness of God’s creation requires that we not treat that creation negligently or recklessly. Second, upright treatment of non-human creation is dictated by concerns of justice towards other human beings, including future generations. The material world, including the world of non-human animals, should not be exploited for one group or generation at the expense of another.

My argument in the second of my two essays, which began with the claim that human beings are domestic animals, attempted to augment these two traditional arguments by drawing attention to a third good, beyond religion and justice, at stake in our treatment of animals. Unfortunately, I did not name this good, so I will take the opportunity to do so here.

I believe that the good of personal integrity is crucially at stake in our establishment of our homes, including, as I argued, our farms. I think that factory farmers are often guilty of a failure of personal integrity: the “ugliness and filth” of their businesses do not reflect and express the character of their households as persons of virtue. (Of course, if they are already not persons of virtue, then the difficulties lie deeper.)

But the personal integrity of any agent is of primary concern to that agent herself. And while we should not encourage others to fail with respect to this good, another’s failings with respect to this good do not typically give us reasons to have no dealings with them. If the good of personal integrity is violated by factory farmers, this alone does not give us, individually, good reasons to stop eating meat. I can imagine a possible argument against factory farming on the grounds of injustice to other human beings, perhaps including future generations; but Camosy does not make such an argument, so I will not consider it here.

Regarding the errors Camosy believes I have committed, and those claims of his I believe are unsubstantiated, I will address three points.

First, Camosy calls “unfortunate and wrongheaded” my assertion that non-human animals are “in some sense, created as a gift for human beings.” Since Camosy helps himself freely to passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I will merely direct him to paragraph 299 of that work: “The universe, created in and by the eternal Word . . . is destined for and addressed to man . . . for God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined to and entrusted to him.” Non-human animals are a part of this creation and included in this gift. The error is Camosy’s, not mine.

Second, Camosy believes his treatment of Genesis has shown an error on my part: “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.” Of course, the claim that all creation is in a sense a “gift addressed to man” is hardly vitiated by the goodness of creation. Who thinks that the goodness of what they give their beloved is a result of their having given it?

Furthermore, what Camosy characterizes as a command of vegetarianism is no such thing. We have a good idea of what a command from God looks like in Genesis. “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” By contrast, the passage cited by Camosy in his book for an original command of vegetarianism is in fact a permission: “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” But this permission to eat vegetables clearly is not the same as a command not to eat meat.

Third, Camosy makes a number of points about the Catechism’s treatment of animals. He cites the Catechism’s claim that we “owe” animals kindness, and that it is wrong to cause them to suffer “needlessly,” as evidence that animals have moral status and are proper subjects of justice (a claim whose merits I will shortly address).

It is worth considering, as Camosy does not, the placement of these claims in the Catechism. Section Two of Part Three, “Life in Christ,” is organized around the Decalogue, and treats the various moral norms that flow from the commandments. It is under the treatment of the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not steal,” that we find the Catechism’s treatment of non-human animals.

That discussion begins in Section I with a point familiar in Catholic social doctrine, that the earth and its goods are destined for “the whole human race,” not merely for this group, or that generation. Yet, the Catechism continues, this is compatible with a right to private property which must be respected, both personally and politically.

Section II addresses various failures of justice as regards the earth’s goods, such as theft, fraud, or treating human beings as if they were mere goods for use, as in slavery. Section III then considers “Respect for the integrity of creation.” The section begins by noting that both animals and plants, on the one hand, and inanimate creation on the other are “destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.” But man’s dominion is limited in two ways: by concern for his neighbor, and by “a religious respect for the integrity of creation.”

We see here the two traditional natural law arguments I alluded to earlier, which point to justice for other persons and the demands of the good of religion. The discussion proceeds to address both concerns, beginning with the second: “Animals are God’s creatures.” By this point it should be clear that the thrust of the Catechism’s discussion is not the moral status of animals themselves, but their relation to their Creator, who must be glorified in our treatment of His creation. Thus, when the Catechism concludes that “we owe them kindness,” it is clear in context that this duty’s ultimate source is what we owe God. No claim about justice to the animals is being made here. What we should say is that we have obligations in respect of animals, but not to them.

What about the claim that we should not cause them to suffer needlessly? This seems to me a very low threshold to meet, and the Catechism, on any fair reading, strongly suggests that this threshold is met by using animals for meat, clothing, or animal experimentation, not in situations of life or death necessity but as a matter of course.

We see little reason to think, in consequence of any of this, that the Catechism is concerned with the question of justice and injustice to non-human animals. But ought it to have been? My claim, made in accordance with a tradition of thought that dates back to Aristotle, was that justice involves most fundamentally a relationship between equals. Camosy denies this, giving as a prime example that “God and humans, for instance, exist in a relationship of justice despite being unequal.”

This claim about justice between God and humans is not nearly so obvious as Camosy supposes. What does God owe us? Mark Murphy has argued recently that prior to God’s entering into equality-making (and covenantal) relations with the people of Israel, God did not exist at all in a relationship of justice with human beings; he argues, indeed, that only the Incarnation truly brought God into that kind of relationship with all humanity.

It is easy to see why one might hold this view: how is it possible to conceive that God, who has given us everything, owes us anything? For the relationship of owing, which Camosy puts at the foundation of justice, is indeed a relationship that implicates two beings as equal in some sense; it is a relationship of some form of reciprocity or mutuality, in which, the scales having been raised in one place (by favor, for example), now must be returned to their appropriate equilibrium (by, for example, gratitude).

Now, just as (perhaps) between God and human beings, so too, I argued, between animals and human beings. Their radical inequality with us puts them outside the “justice community.” Camosy believes this criticism of him reflects a misunderstanding of his view on my part, for he too asserts that other animals are not our equals. Indeed, Camosy believes that this misunderstanding of his view is so significant that, as he asserted on another forum, he is “at a loss to find a explanation for this beyond (1) [Tollefsen’s] reading my views with something other than care or (2) his willfully misrepresenting my views.”

But, again, the error lies with Camosy. Our obligations with regard to non-human animals are either derivative of our obligations to other human beings or to God (and thus are only obligations in respect of animals), or they are themselves obligations to those animals themselves. But if obligations to those animals, then they are obligations in virtue of some feature of the animals that is obligation-generating for us. But whatever that feature is, if animals possess it, then they are our equals in virtue of possessing an obligation-grounding feature, a feature that specifically binds human beings in respect of their treatment.

It is for this reason that Peter Singer, who explicitly holds that most human beings are unequal to most animals in virtue of being persons, nevertheless describes his own position (following Bentham) as devoted to animal equality. Animals are our equals in that respect which generates moral consideration, namely, the capacity to suffer, even if they are in vastly many other respects not our equals.

So yes, I acknowledge that Camosy denies “that dogs, pigs, or cows possess equality with human beings.” So does Singer. But I conclude that Camosy, simply in virtue of thinking that animals possess some property in virtue of which we could be obliged to them, is also committed to a form of equality, the form that is necessary for any being to be entitled to enter into the justice community with us.

But as I stressed in both pieces, that threshold for equal consideration (not equal treatment!) is both impossibly low, and also, in its insistence on occurrent ability to suffer, out of reach for many unborn and permanently unconscious human beings. It thus justifies far too much concern for animal interests at the expense of human interests, and no concern at all for not-yet or no-longer sentient human beings.

It thus fails to be even minimally pro-life, and is, I believe, profoundly in tension with the ideals of the pro-life movement. To be part of the justice community to which the author and readers of this essay belong, one must possess the form of dignity that comes from being a rational being. And, of all animals of which we are aware, only human beings meet that criterion.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute.  

 

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