How should we think of our moral obligations to animals? If we have such obligations, what grounds them? And is it the same as the ground for the obligations we have to human beings?
Believing that the grounds for our obligations to humans are different from the grounds for our obligations to animals is sometimes called “speciesism.” The label is typically used pejoratively, but the underlying view is in fact quite sound. For the alleged “speciesist” sees our treatment of human beings as determined by the special kind of thing human beings are. Beings which are not special in the way that we are, who do not have the same nature that we have, cannot be the objects of the same kind of moral concern that human beings are.
What kind of nature is it that warrants the thought that human beings are owed some special kind of moral treatment? “Speciesists” typically hold that it is our rational nature, our nature as beings possessed of a radical capacity for intellection and free choice, that grounds the obligation that other rational beings have to treat humans with fundamental forms of moral respect. Such forms of respect prohibit, for example, intentional killing, rape, torture, slavery, and treatment as a thing, as if one were consumable or creatable by others for reasons of pleasure or even necessity.
This line of thought is based upon the concept that each being who possesses this radical capacity is not only fundamentally different from each creature that does not, but also fundamentally like — equal to — every other being that possesses this capacity. This idea of fundamental equality among a class of beings, whom we can call persons, and fundamental inequality between that class and all other classes of non-personal beings is central to the notion that the relationships between those within the relevant class ought to be structured by norms of justice.
Justice, to put it another way, is centrally concerned with the relationship between beings that are equal. Does this mean there are no questions of justice between, say, parents and children, or the privileged and the disenfranchised, or the ruler and the ruled, all of whom are unequal in one or another respect? It does not, for all are human beings, and all deserve equal treatment from one another in some fundamental ways, even if the contours of just treatment is also shaped by awareness of the facts of difference and inequality in certain respects.
From this standpoint—the standpoint derided as “speciesist” by its opponents—the moral norms that should govern our treatment of non-human animals simply cannot be the norms of justice in any non-metaphorical sense. For this reason, defenders of this standpoint — who are also, typically, the most committed defenders of the right to life of unborn human beings — will balk at the claims of Charles Camosy’s new book, For Love of Animals.
A central, and ambitious, goal of Camosy’s book is to show that non-human animals are not only owed moral treatment as a matter of justice, but that their treatment should be shaped by a specifically Christian ideal of justice. Christian justice is not merely concerned with consistently and impartially giving what is owed; it requires being specially and actively concerned with “vulnerable populations on the margins.” The idea of a “preferential option for the poor” will be familiar to many in this regard.
If other animals stand in relationships of justice with us, then the Christian must be specially and actively concerned with rectifying their situation, even at the cost of significant personal sacrifice. Moreover, if they are truly subjects of justice in relation to us, then their situation is grave indeed. Camosy at one point compares, though indirectly, the situation of animals to the Rwandan genocide and the the 1.2 million abortions every year in the United States. If non-human animals are truly members of a justice community with us — Camosy’s basic claim — then these comparisons are more than warranted.
However, the basic claim is mistaken, and the arguments put forth for it by Camosy are weak, in both their secular and theological variations.
What, then, are Camosy’s arguments for his claim that “our culture is fundamentally unjust to animals”? According to Camosy, injustice is often the fruit of “othering” — wrongly considering something that should be thought of as “one of us” as if it (or, rather, he or she) were something “other.” Camosy notes that such treatment lies behind people’s willingness to enslave those of a different skin color, demean those of a different gender, or kill those in their nascent stages of life.
Such treatment of those really like us as “other” is most often, Camosy believes, a result of power differentials. We treat some as others because we can, because we have power and they do not. We are, in our fallen human state, inclined to exploit those who are vulnerable or defenseless. This tendency is exacerbated by contemporary autonomist and consumerist ideologies. It also, argues Camosy, explains our treatment of non-human animals:
Human beings used other animals for their own purposes because they had the power to do so — just as human groups with power have subjugated African Americans, women, and prenatal human beings.
This is a strong claim. 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?
Camosy’s argument is found primarily in Chapter Three, “Christianity and the Nonhuman: From Angels to Aliens.” That chapter addresses the “special” nature of human beings relative to the rest of God’s creation in a number of ways that collectively are intended to defeat the “speciesist” presumption in favor of the human.
Recall the nature of that presumption: human beings are unlike every other species on earth because we are capable of intellection and free choice. This radical capacity is the ground of the claim that humans possess an essential form of dignity. That claim, in turn, finds theological expression in the view that human beings are specially made in the image and likeness of God. And it finds further theological expression in the claims that human beings were (and are) made directly by God, and for God — that we are created to have a special relationship of friendship with our Creator.
And we may add one final theological point: in order to redeem fallen human nature — but also, as Camosy rightly points out, all of creation — God became man. This is a point well remembered at this time of year, but it is not, I think, given central enough focus by Camosy. The redemption of all creation, and the gathering up of that perfected creation for a return to the Father by the Son, comes through a man, and through the men and women who are part of that man’s body, the Church.
Thus, humankind has a centrality in the cosmic drama of redemption. This centrality is behind the somewhat un-nuanced but not obviously false claim that Camosy puts in the mouths of Christian defenders of human specialness: that “the human being is the most important and highest being in creation.”
Camosy spends Chapter Three making the point that the claim is false, by arguing that non-human creation, including non-human animals, have inherent or intrinsic value without reference to human beings; by claiming that biblical texts show also that “it is clear that the world is not created for human beings,” and by noting that the Christian tradition recognizes the existence of beings “higher” than humans, namely angels, and the possible existence of non-human persons, such as intelligent aliens. Camosy then concludes:
So what does this have to do with animals? At a minimum, it is overwhelming evidence that Christians should drop the speciesist view that non-human creatures are mere “things” for us to do with as we please.
Set aside the rhetoric of the conclusion: few Christians believe that they can do whatever they please to animals. But they do indeed think that human beings are entitled to different forms of respect than non-human animals. Does Camosy’s argument give them “overwhelming evidence” to change their mind?
It does not. To begin with, even if angels are higher than human beings, this does mean that humans are not higher than animals in ways that are morally relevant. No one has ever suggested that angels have been given dominion over human beings. Yet Psalm 8, cited by Camosy as evidence for the claim that angels are higher, goes on to say that God has crowned man with glory and honor; “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea.”
That makes it seem, again, as if human beings are set off in a morally relevant way from the rest of earthly creation in a way that angels are not set off from human beings. And the reason for this is clear: both angels and human beings are persons, rational agents capable of intellection and choice. No non-human animal fits this description.
Moreover, the claim that all creation is good, including the animal world, is entirely compatible with the permissibility of killing animals for food or making use of them for labor. None of God’s creation may be treated with disdain or disrespect. But that simply does not imply that all of it must be treated with the respect owed human persons, nor does it imply that any of it stands in justice relationships with us.
Were we to discover another rational species, that would be different, of course. They would be rational animals, and thus persons, just as we are (and some philosophers would even consider them human beings on precisely those grounds: they would be members of the same species as us). The possibility that we are special in relation to non-human animals is not at all vitiated by the possibility that there are other special beings out there.
In the end, Camosy seems to me to draw far too strong a conclusion from some true claims. It is true that animals are good and that they contribute to the beauty and goodness of creation. It is true that creation does not exist for human exploitation, even if it is, in some sense, created as a gift for human persons. And it is true that human beings should not be confident that they are the only personal beings in the universe.
But these claims do not suffice to show that animals stand in a community of justice with human beings, because they do not disprove the claim that human beings and animals are not fundamentally equal in the way that all human beings are, as free and rational beings created in the image of God. Camosy’s claims of Rwandan-like injustice simply cannot stand.
But there are still questions that must be addressed. First, what of the link, promoted by Camosy and others, between the animal liberation movement and the pro-life movement? And second, if not by way of justice, how should we think of the norms governing our treatment of non-human animals? In another essay, I deal with these questions.
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. This articale is reproduced with permission from Public Discourse.