By Tom Regan
This essay originally appeared as chapter 6, pp. 73-87, in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Tom Regan is among the foremost ethicists of our time who argue for the rights of nonhuman animals. Christians who are concerned with the liberation of the oppressed must listen to the voices of such ethicists; they must begin to hear the demand that we see the wrongfulness in the mistreatment of nonhuman animals -- a demand Regan takes to be absolute. In such a demand, so Regan insists, many Christians are faced with an individual -- and a parallel social -- choice: to live out of hypocrisy or to act for the transformation of oppressive and evil habits and institutions.
In its simplest terms the animal-rights position I uphold maintains that such diverse practices as the use of animals in science, sport, and recreational hunting, the trapping of fur-bearing animals for vanity products, and commercial animal agriculture are categorically wrong -- wrong because these practices systematically violate the rights of the animals involved. Morally, these practices ought to be abolished. That is the goal of the social struggle for animal rights. The goal of our individual struggle is to divest ourselves of our moral and economic ties to these injustices, for example, by not wearing the dead skins of animals and by not eating their decaying corpses.
Not a few people regard the animal-rights position as extreme, calling, as it does, for the abolition of certain well-entrenched social practices rather than for their "humane" reform. And many seem to imagine that once the label "extreme" is applied, the need for further refutation evaporates. After all, how can such an "extreme" moral position be correct?
I addressed this question in a recent speech, reminding my audience of a few "extreme" moral positions upon which we are all agreed:
The murder of the innocent is always wrong.
Rape is always wrong.
Child molestation is always wrong.
Racial and sexual discrimination are always wrong.
I went on to note that when an injustice is absolute, as is true of each of the examples just adduced, then one must oppose it absolutely. It is not a reformed, "more humane" rape that an enlightened ethic calls for; it is the abolition of all rape that is required; it is this extreme position we must uphold. And analogous remarks apply in the case of the other human evils I have mentioned.
Once this much is acknowledged it is evident -- or at least it should be -- that those who oppose or resist the animal rights question will have to do better than merely attach the label "extreme" to it. Sometimes "extreme" positions about what is wrong are right.
Of course there are two obvious differences between the animal rights position and the other examples of extreme views I have given. The latter views are very generally accepted, whereas the former position is not. And unlike these very generally accepted views, which concern wrongful acts done to human beings, the animal-rights position concerns the wrongfulness of treating animals (nonhuman animals, that is) in certain ways. Those who oppose or resist the animal rights position might seize upon these two differences in an effort to justify themselves in accepting extreme positions regarding rape and child abuse, for example, while rejecting the "extremism" of animal rights.
But neither of these differences will bear the weight of justification. That a view, whether moral or otherwise, is very generally accepted is not a sufficient reason for accepting it as true. Time was when the shape of the earth was generally believed to be flat, and time was when the presence of physical and mental handicaps were very generally thought to make the people who bore them morally inferior. That very many people believed these falsehoods obviously did not make them true. We don’t discover or confirm what’s true by taking a vote.
The reverse of the preceding also can be demonstrated. That a view, moral or otherwise, is not generally accepted is not a sufficient reason for judging it to be false. When those lonely few first conjectured that the earth is round and that women are the moral equals of men, they conjectured truly, notwithstanding how grandly they were outnumbered. The solitary person who, in Thoreau’s enduring image, marches to a different drummer, may be the only person to apprehend the truth.
The second difference noted above is more problematic. That difference cites the fact that child abuse and rape, for example, involve evils done to human beings, while the animal-rights position claims that certain evils are done to nonhuman animals. Now there is no question that this does constitute a difference. The question is, Is this a morally relevant difference -- a difference, that is, that would justify us in accepting the extreme opposition we judge to be appropriate in the case of child abuse and rape, for example, but which most people resist or abjure in the case of, say, vivisection? For a variety of reasons I do not think that this difference is a morally relevant one.
Viewed scientifically, this second difference succeeds only in citing a biological difference: the victims of rape and child abuse belong to one species (the species Homo sapiens) whereas the victims of vivisection and trapping belong to another species (the species canis lupus, for example). But biological differences inside the species Homo sapiens do not justify radically different treatment among those individual humans who differ biologically (for example, in terms of sex, or skin color, or chromosome count). Why, then, should biological differences outside our species count morally? If having one eye or deformed limbs does not disqualify a human being from moral consideration equal to that given to those humans who are more fortunate, how can it be rational to disqualify a rat or a wolf from equal moral consideration because, unlike us, they have paws and a tail?
Some of those who resist or oppose the animal-rights position might have recourse to "intuition" at this point. They might claim that one either sees that the principal biological difference at issue (namely, species membership) is a morally relevant one, or one does not see this. No reason can be given as to why belonging to the species Homo sapiens gives one a superior moral status, just as no reason can be given as to why belonging to the species canis lupus gives wolves an inferior moral status (if wolves have a moral status at all). This difference in moral status can only be grasped immediately, without making an inference, by an exercise of intuitive reason. This moral difference is self-evident -- or so it will be claimed by those who claim to intuit it.
However attractive this appeal to intuition may seem to some, it woefully fails to bear the weight of justification. The plain fact is, people have claimed to intuit differences in the comparative moral standing of individuals and groups inside the human species, and these alleged intuitions, we all would agree, are painful symptoms of unquestioned and unjustifiable prejudice. Over the course of history, for example, many men have "intuited" the moral superiority of men when compared with that of women, and many white-skinned humans have "intuited" the moral superiority of white-skinned humans when compared with humans having different skin colors. If this is a matter of intuition, then no reason can be given for this superiority. No inference is or can be required, no evidence adduced. One either sees it, or one doesn’t. It’s just that those who do see it (or so they will insist) apprehend the truth, while those whose deficient intuitive faculties prevent them from seeing it fail to do so.
I cannot believe that any thoughtful person will be taken in by this ruse. Appeals to intuition in these contexts are symptomatic of unquestioned and unjustifiable moral prejudices. What prompts or encourages men to "see" their moral superiority over women are the sexual prejudices men bring with them, not what is to be found in the existence of sexual differences themselves. And the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of "seeing" moral superiority in racial or other biological differences among humans. In short, appeals to intuition, when made inside the species Homo sapiens, and when they purport to discover the moral superiority latent within existing biological differences -- such appeals can gain no admission to the court of fair judgment.
That much established, the weakness of appeals to intuition in the case at hand should be apparent. Since intuition is not to be trusted when questions of the comparative moral standing of biologically different individuals inside the species Homo sapiens are at issue, it cannot be rational to assume or insist that such appeals can or should be trusted when questions of the comparative moral standing of individuals outside this species are at issue. Moreover, since appeals to intuition in the former case turn out to be symptomatic of unquestioned and unjustifiable moral prejudices, rather than being revelatory of some important moral truth, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the same diagnosis applies to appeals to intuition in the latter case. If true, then those who "intuit" the moral superiority of all members of the species Homo sapiens over all members of every other species also emerge as the unwitting victims or the willful perpetrators of an unquestioned and unjustifiable moral prejudice.
Speciesism is the name commonly given to this prejudice. This idea has been characterized in a variety of ways. For present purposes let us begin with the following twofold characterization of what I shall call categorical speciesism.
Categorical speciesism is the belief that (1) the inherent value of an individual can be judged solely on the basis of the biological species to which that individual belongs, and that (2) all the members of the species Homo sapiens have equal inherent value, while all the members of every other species lack this kind of value, simply because all and only humans are members of the species Homo sapiens.
In speaking of inherent value, both here and throughout what follows, I mean something that coincides with Kant’s famous idea of "end-in-itself." Individuals who have inherent value, in other words, have value in their own right, apart from their possible utility for others; as such, these individuals are never to be treated in ways that reduce their value to their possible usefulness for others. They are always to be treated as "ends-in-themselves," not as "means merely." Categorical speciesism, then, holds that all and only humans have this kind of value precisely because all and only humans belong to the species Homo sapiens.
I have already indicated why I believe that appeals to intuition cannot succeed in establishing the truth of categorical speciesism as so characterized. But that a given view has not been proven to be true is not tantamount to showing that those who believe it are prejudiced. No one has yet proven that the "Big Bang" theory is true. But it hardly follows from this that those who accept this theory must be in the grip of some prejudice. By analogy, therefore, it is apparent that those who believe in categorical speciesism (speciesists, so-called) are not shown to be morally prejudiced simply because their appeals to intuition turn out to be rationally inadmissible. How, then, might the prejudicial character of speciesism be established?
Part of that answer is to be found when we pause to consider the nature of the animals we humans hunt, trap, eat, and use for scientific purposes. Any person of common sense will agree that these animals bring the mystery of consciousness to the world. These animals, that is, not only are in the world, they are aware of it -- and also of their inner world. They see, hear, touch, and feel; but they also desire, believe, remember, and anticipate. If anyone questions my assessment of the common-sense view about these animals, then I would invite them to speak with people who share their lives with dogs or cats or horses, or others who know the ways of wolves or coyotes, or still others who have had contact with any bird one might wish to name. Common sense clearly is on the side of viewing these animals as unified psychological beings, individuals who have a biography (a psychological life-story), not merely a biology.
Of course, if common sense happened to be at odds with our best science over this issue, it would be difficult to be altogether sanguine in siding with common sense. But common sense is not in conflict with our best science here. Indeed, our best science offers a scientific corroboration of the common-sense view.
That corroboration is to be found in a set of diverse but related considerations. One is evolutionary theory, which implies that (1) the more complex has evolved from the less complex; (2) members of the species Homo sapiens are the most complex life form of which we are aware; (3) members of our species bring a psychological presence to the world; (4) the psychological capabilities we find in humans have evolved over time; and (5) these capacities would not have evolved at all and would not have been passed on from one generation to the next if they (these capacities) failed to have adaptive value -- that is, if they failed to offer advantages to our species in its ongoing struggle to survive in an ever-changing environment.
Given these five points, it is entirely consistent with the main thrust of evolutionary theory, and is indeed required by it, to maintain that the members of some species of nonhuman animals are like us in having the capacity to see and hear and feel, for example, as well as to believe and desire, to remember and anticipate. Certainly this is what Darwin thinks, as is evident when he writes of the animals we humans eat and trap, to use just two instances, that they differ psychologically (or mentally) from us in degree, not in kind.
A second related consideration involves comparative anatomy and physiology. Everything we know about nature must incline us to believe that a complex structure has a complex reason for being. It would therefore be an extraordinary lapse of form if we humans had evolved into complicated psychological creatures, with an underlying anatomical and physiological complexity, while other species of animals had evolved to have a more or less complex anatomy and physiology, very much like our own in many respects, and yet lacked -- totally lacked -- any and every psychological capacity. If nature could respond to this bizarre suggestion, the verdict we would hear would be, "Nonsense!"
Thus it is, then, that both common sense and our best science speak with one voice regarding the psychological nature we share with the nonhuman animals I have mentioned -- those, for example, many people stew, roast, fry, broil, and grill for the sake of their gustatory desires and delights. When the dead and putrefying bodies of these animals are eaten, our psychological kin are consumed.
Recall the occasion for this review of relevant scientific considerations. Categorical speciesism, which I characterized earlier, is not shown to be a moral prejudice merely because those who accept it are unable to prove its truth. This much has been conceded and, indeed, insisted upon. What more, then, would have to be established before the charge of moral prejudice could be made to stick? Part of that answer is to be found in the recent discussion of what common sense and our best science contribute to our understanding of the nonhuman animals we have been discussing. Both agree that these animals are fundamentally like ordinary human beings -- like you and me. For, like us, these animals have a unified psychological presence in the world, a life-story that is uniquely their own, a separate biography. In the simplest terms they are somebody, not something. Precisely because this similarity is so well-established, grounded in the opinions, as Aristotle would express this, of both "the many and the wise," any substantive moral position at odds with it seems dubious to say the least.
And categorical speciesism, as I have characterized it, is at odds with the joint verdict of common sense and our best science. For once the appeal to intuition is denied (and denied for good reasons), the onus of justification must be borne by the speciesist to cite some unique feature of being human that would ground the attribution of inherent value exclusively to human beings, a task that we now see is all but certain to end in failure, given the biographical status humans share with those nonhuman animals to whom I have been referring. Rationally considered, we must judge similar cases similarly. This is what the principle of formal justice requires, what respect for logical consistency demands. Thus, since we share a biographical presence in the world with these animals, it seems arbitrary and prejudicial in the extreme to insist that all humans have a kind of value that every other animal lacks.
In response to this line of argument people who wish to retain the spirit of speciesism might be prompted to alter its letter. This position I shall call modified speciesism. According to this form of speciesism those nonhuman animals who, like us, have a biographical presence in the world have some inherent value, but the degree of inherent value they have always is less than that possessed by human beings. And if we ask why this is thought to be so, the answer modified speciesism offers is the same as categorical speciesism: The degree of value differs because humans belong to a particular species to which no other animal belongs -- the species Homo sapiens.
I think it should be obvious that modified speciesism is open to many of the same kinds of damaging criticisms as categorical speciesism. What, we may ask, is supposed to be the basis of the alleged superior value of human beings? Will it be said that one simply intuits this? Then all the same difficulties this appeal faced in the case of categorical speciesism will resurface and ultimately swamp modified speciesism. To avoid this, will it be suggested that the degree of inherent value an individual possesses depends on the relative complexity of that individual’s psychological repertoire -- the greater the complexity, the greater the value? Then modified speciesism simply will not be able to justify the ascription of superior inherent value to all human beings when compared with every nonhuman animal. And the reason it will not be able to do this is simple: Some nonhuman animals bring to their biography a degree of psychological complexity that far exceeds what is brought by some human beings. One need only compare, say, the psychological repertoire of a healthy two-year-old chimp, or dog, or hog, or robin to that of a profoundly handicapped human of any age, to recognize the incontrovertible truth of what I have just said. Not all human beings have richer, more complex biographies than every nonhuman animal.
How are speciesists to get around this fact? For get around it they must, because fact it is. There is a familiar theological answer to this question; at least it is familiar to those who know something of the Jewish and Christian religious traditions, as these traditions sometimes have been interpreted. That answer states that human beings -- all of us -- are inherently more valuable than any other existing individual because we are spiritually different and, indeed, unique. This uniqueness stems from our having been created in the image of God, a status we share with no other creature. If, then, it is true that all humans uniquely image God, then we are able to cite a real (spiritual) difference between every member of our species and the countless numbers of the millions of other species of creaturely life. And if, moreover, this difference is a morally relevant one, then speciesists might seem to be in a position to defend their speciesism (and this is true whether they are categorical or moderate speciesists) in the face of the demands of formal justice. After all, that principle requires that we judge similar cases similarly, whereas any two individuals -- the one human, the other a member of some other species -- will not be relevantly similar, given the hypothesis of the unique spiritual worth of all human beings.
Now I am not ill-disposed to the idea of there being something about humans that gives us a unique spiritual worth, nor am I ill-disposed to the idea that the ground of this worth is to be found or explicated in the idea that humans uniquely image God. Not surprisingly, therefore, the interpretation of these ideas I favor, while it concedes this possible difference between humans and the rest of creation, does not yield anything like the results favored by speciesism, whether categorical or moderate.
The position I favor is one that interprets our divine imaging in terms of our moral responsibility. By this I mean that we are expressly chosen by God to be God’s viceregents in the day-to-day affairs of the world; we are chosen by God, that is, to be as loving in our day-to-day dealings with the created order as God was in creating that order in the first place. In this sense, therefore, there is a morally relevant difference between human beings and every other creaturely expression of God. For it is only members of the human species who are given the awesome freedom and responsibility to be God’s representatives within creation. And it is, therefore, only we humans who can be held morally blameworthy when we fail to do this, and morally praiseworthy when we succeed.
Within the general context of this interpretation of our unique imaging of God, then, we find a morally relevant difference between God’s creative expression in the human and God’s creative expression in every other aspect of creation. But -- as should be evident -- this difference by itself offers neither aid nor comfort to speciesism, of whatever variety. For to agree that only humans image God, in the sense that only humans have the moral responsibility to be loving toward God’s creation, in no way entails either that all and only humans have inherent value (so-called categorical speciesism) or that all and only humans have a superior inherent value. Granted, our uniqueness lies in our moral responsibility to God and to God’s creation, including of course all members of the human family. But this fact, assuming it to be a fact, only answers the question, Which among God’s creatures are capable of acting rightly or wrongly (or, as philosophers might say, "are moral agents")? What this fact, assuming it to be one, does not answer are the questions: To which creatures can we act rightly or wrongly? and What kind of value do other creatures have?
As very much a nonexpert in the area of biblical exegesis, I am somewhat reluctant to make confident declamations about how the Bible answers these questions. But like the proverbial fool who rushes in, I shall make bold and hazard the opinion that there is no one, unambiguous, unwavering biblical answer to either question. Many passages lend support to viewing all of nonhuman creation as having no or little value apart from human needs and interests, a reading that tends naturally to support the view that human moral agents act wrongfully with regard to the nonhuman world only if our treatment of it harms some legitimate human need or interest. This is the traditional Christian anthropocentrism. By contrast, other passages support views that are more or less nonanthropocentric. I do not profess to know how to prove that the anthropocentric reading is false or unfounded, or that a lesser or a greater nonanthropocentric reading is true or well-grounded. Indeed, as I already have indicated, I do not myself believe that the Bible offers just one answer to the questions before us.
The upshot, then, to my mind at least, is that we are left with the awesome responsibility of choosing between alternative biblical representations of the value of nonhuman creation, none of which is clearly or incontrovertibly the correct one. And this fact, I believe, should chasten us in our conviction that we have privileged access to the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. With minds so feeble, spirits so weak, and a biblical message so open to honest differences of interpretation among people of real faith and good will, all who take spiritual sustenance from the pages of the Bible ought to realize both the value of, and the need to practice, the virtue of tolerance.
Having said this, I may now speak to my own reading of the biblical message and indicate why that message, as I understand it, not only fails to offer aid and comfort to speciesism, it actually can and should serve as a healthy spiritual antidote to this virulent moral prejudice.
I take the opening account of creation in Genesis seriously, but not, I hasten to add, literally (for example, a day, I assume, is not to be understood as twenty-four hours). I take it seriously because I believe that this is the point from which our spiritual understanding of God’s plans in and hopes for creation must begin and against which our well-considered judgments about the value of creation finally must be tested. It is therefore predictable that I should find significance in the fact that God is said to find each part of creation "good" before humans came upon the scene and that humans were created by God (or came upon the scene) on the same day as the nonhuman animals to which I have been referring -- those whose limbs are severed, whose organs are brutally removed, and whose brains are ground up for purposes of scientific research, for example. I read in this representation of the order of creation a prescient recognition of the close, vital kinship humans share with these other animals, a kinship I earlier endeavored to explicate in terms of our shared biological presence and one, quite apart from anything the Bible teaches, supported both by common sense and our best science. If I may be pardoned even the appearance of hubris, I may say, in the language of St. Thomas, that this fact of our common biographical presence is both a "truth of reason" and a "truth of faith."
But I find in the opening saga of creation an even deeper, more profound message regarding God’s plans in and hopes for creation. For I find in that account the unmistakable message that God did not create nonhuman animals for the use of humans -- not in science, not for the purpose of vanity products, not for our entertainment, not for sport or recreation, not even for our bodily sustenance. On the contrary, the nonhuman animals currently exploited by these human practices were created to be just what they are -- independently good expressions of the divine love which, in ways that are likely always to remain to some degree mysterious to us, was expressed in God’s creative activity.
The issue of bodily sustenance, of food, is perhaps the most noteworthy of the practices I have mentioned since, while humans from "the beginning" were in need of bodily sustenance and had a ready supply of edible nonhuman animal food sources available, there were no rodeos or circuses, no leg-hold traps or dynamite harpoons in the original creation. Had it been a part of God’s hopes in and plans for creation that humans use nonhuman animals as food, therefore, it would have been open to God to let this be known. And yet what we find in the opening saga of creation is just the opposite. The food we are given by God is not the flesh of animals, it is "all plants that bear seed everywhere on the earth, and every tree bearing fruit which yields seed: they shall be yours for food" (Gn. 1:29, NEB).
Now I do not believe the message regarding what was to serve as food for humans in the most perfect state of creation could be any clearer. Genesis clearly presents a picture of veganism; that is, not only is the flesh of animals excluded from the menu God provides for us, even animal products -- milk and cheese, for example -- are excluded. And so I believe that, if, as I am strongly inclined to do, we look to the biblical account of "the beginning" as an absolutely essential source of spiritual insight into God’s hopes for and plans in creation, then -- like it or not -- we are obliged to find there a menu of divinely approved bodily sustenance that differs quite markedly from the steaks and chops, roasts and stews most people, in the Western world at least, are accustomed to devouring.
To a less than optimal or scholarly degree I am aware of some of the chapters and verses of the subsequent biblical record: the fall, the expulsion from the garden, the flood, and so on. There is no debate about the details of the subsequent account I could win if paired against an even modestly astute and retentive young person preparing for first communion. I wear my lack of biblical (and theological) sophistication on my sleeve -- although even I cannot forbear noting, in passing, that the covenant into which God enters with humanity after the flood is significant for its inclusion of nonhuman animals. The meaning of this covenant aside, I believe that the essential moral and spiritual truth any open-minded, literate reader of the first chapter of Genesis must find is the one I already have mentioned; namely, that the purpose of nonhuman animals in God’s creation, given the original hopes and plans of God-in-creation, was not that humans roast, fry, stew, broil, bake, and barbecue their rotting corpses (what people today call meat).
In this reading of God’s creative activity, therefore, I find a spiritual lesson that is unmistakably at odds with both the letter and the spirit of speciesism. That lesson, as I understand it, does not represent the nonhuman animals to whom I have been referring as having no or less inherent value than humans. On the contrary, by unmistakably excluding these animals from the menu of food freely available to us, as granted by God’s beneficence, I infer that we are called upon by God to recognize the independent value of these animals. They are not put here to be utilized by us. At least this was not God’s original hope. If anything we are put here to protect them, especially against those humans who would reduce these animals to objects for human use. As you might imagine, the message we find in Genesis 1 is celestial music to the ears of one who, like myself, is not embarrassed or silenced by the "extremism" of the animal rights position.
I am aware that some theologians take a different view than I do of Genesis’s opening saga of creation. Eden never was, they opine; the perfection of creation is something we are to work to bring about, not something that once existed only to be lost. I do not know how to prove which vision of Eden, if either, is the true one. What I do believe is that, when viewed in the present context, this question is entirely moot. For what is clear -- clear beyond any doubt, as I read the scriptures -- is that human beings simply do not eat nonhuman animals in that fullness of God’s creation the image of Eden represents. And this is true whether Eden once was (but was shattered), or is yet to be (if, by the grace of God, we will but create it).
Every prejudice dies hard. Speciesism is no exception. That it is a prejudice and that, by acting on it, we humans have been, and continue to be, responsible for an incalculable amount of evil, an amount of truly monumental proportions, is, I believe, as true as it is regrettable. In my philosophical writings over the past fifteen years I have endeavored to show how this tragic truth can be argued for on wholly secular grounds. On this occasion I have looked elsewhere for support -- have in fact looked to the original saga of creation we find in Genesis -- in the hope that we might there find a religious or theological account that resonates with the secular case for animal rights. Neither case -- secular or religious -- has, or can have, the conclusiveness of a proof in, say, geometry. I say "can have" because I am reminded of Aristotle’s observation, that it is the mark of an educated person not to demand proof that is inappropriate for a given subject matter. And whatever else we might think of moral thought, I believe we at least can agree that it is in important ways unlike geometry.
It remains true, nonetheless, that my attempt to explain and defend an egalitarian view of the inherent value of human and other animals must face a number of important challenges. For reasons of length, if for no other, I cannot on this occasion characterize or respond to all these challenges, not even all the most fundamental ones. The best I can do, before concluding, is describe and defuse two of them.
The first begins by observing that, within the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, every form of life, not simply humans and other animals, is to be viewed as expressive of God’s love. Thus, to attempt to "elevate" the value of nonhuman animals, as I might be accused of having done, could be viewed as having the unacceptable consequence of negating or reducing the value of everything else.
I think this objection misses the mark. There is nothing in the animal-rights philosophy (nothing, that is, in the kind of egalitarianism I have endeavored to defend) that either denies or diminishes the value of fruits, nuts, grains, and other forms of vegetative life, or that refuses to accept the possibility that these and the rest of creation are so many ways in which God’s loving presence is manifested. Nor is there anything in this philosophy that disparages the wise counsel to treat all of creation gently and appreciatively. It is an arrogant, unbridled anthropocentrism, often aided and abetted in our history by an arrogant, unbridled Christian theology, not the philosophy of animal rights, that has brought the earth to the brink of ecological disaster.
Still, this philosophy does find in humans and other animals, because of our shared biographical status in creation, a kind of value -- inherent value -- that other creatures fail to possess, either at all or at least to the degree in which humans and other animals possess it. Is it possible to defend this view? I believe it is, both on the grounds of a purely secular moral philosophy and by appealing to biblical authority. The secular defense I have attempted to offer elsewhere and will not repeat here. As for the Christian defense, I shall merely reaffirm the vital importance (in my view) of Genesis 1, as well as (to my mind) the more than symbolic significance of the covenant, and note that in both we find biblical sanction for viewing the value of animals to be superior to that of vegetables. After all, we do not find carrots and almonds included in the covenant, and we find God expressly giving these and other forms of vegetative life to us, as our food, in Genesis’s first creative saga. In a word, then, vegetative life was meant to be used by us, thus giving it utility value for us, which does not mean or entail that we may use these life forms thoughtlessly or even irreverently.
So much for the first challenge. The second one emanates from quite a different source and mounts a quite different objection. It begins by noting the large disparities that exist in the quality of life available to those who are affluent (the "haves") and those who are poor (the "have nots"), especially those who live in the so-called third world. This objection states: It is all fine and good to preach the gospel of animal rights to those people who have the financial and other means to practice it, if they choose to do so, but please do spare us your self-righteous denunciation of the struggling and often starving masses of people in the rest of the world, who really have no choice but to eat animals, wear their skins, and use them in other ways. To condemn these people is to value animal life above human life. And this is misanthropy at its worst.
Now, this particular variation on the familiar theme of misanthropy (at least this is familiar to advocates of animal rights) has a point, up to a point. It would be self-righteous to condemn the people in question for acting as they do, especially if we are acting worse than they are, as well we may be. But, of course, nothing in what I have argued supports such a condemnation, and this for the simple reason that I have nowhere argued that people who eat animals, or who hunt and trap them, or who cut their heads off or burst their intestines in pursuit of "scientific knowledge," either are or must be evil people. The position I have set forth concerns the moral wrongness of what people do, not the vileness of their character. In my view, it is entirely possible that good people sometimes do what is wrong, and evil people sometimes do what is right.
Indeed, not only is that possible, it frequently happens, and among those circumstances in which it does, some concern the actions performed by people in the third world. At least this is the conclusion we reach if we take the philosophy of animal rights seriously. To make my meaning clearer, consider the following example. Suppose we chance upon a tribe of hunter-gatherers who annually, on a date sacred to their tradition, sacrifice the most beautiful female child to the gods in hope that the tribe will prosper in the coming year. In my view this act of human sacrifice is morally wrong and ought to be stopped (which does not mean that we should invade with tanks and flame-throwers to stop it!). From this moral assessment of what these human beings do, however, it does not follow that we should judge them to be evil, vicious people. It could be that they act from only the best intentions and with nothing but the best motives. Nevertheless, what they do, in my judgment, is morally wrong.
What is true of the imaginary case of this tribe is no less true of real-life cases where people in the third world raise and kill animals for food, cruelly subject other animals to forced labor, and so on. Anytime anyone reduces the inherent value of a nonhuman animal to that animal’s utility value for human beings, what is done, in my view, is morally wrong. But it does not follow from this that we should make a negative moral judgment about the character of the human moral agents involved, especially if, as is true in the third world, there are mitigating circumstances. For it often happens that people who do what is morally wrong should be excused from moral blame and censure. A person who shoots a family member, for example, in the mistaken belief that there is a burglar in the house, does what is wrong and yet may well not be morally blameworthy. Similarly, people in the third world who act in ways that are prohibited by respect for the rights of animals do what is wrong. But because of the harsh, uncompromising exigencies of their life, where they are daily faced with the demand to make truly heroic sacrifices, where indeed it often is a matter of their life or their death that hangs in the balance, the people of the third world in my view should be excused from our harsh, uncompromising judgments of moral blame. The circumstances of their life, one might say, are as mitigating as any circumstances can be.
In light of the preceding remarks, I hope it is clear why it would be a bad reading of the philosophy of animal rights to charge its proponents with a hearty appetite, if not for animal flesh then at least for self-righteousness. When we understand the difference between morally assessing a person’s act and that person’s character, and when we take cognizance of the appropriateness of reducing or erasing moral blame in the face of mitigating circumstances, then the proponents of animal rights should be seen to be no more censorious or self-righteous than the proponents of any other philosophy.
Finally, then, in closing, I wish to make a few observations closer to home, as it were. Most of us who were in attendance at the Annecy conference traveled hundreds or thousands of miles at the cost of irreplaceable fossil fuels, the production and combustion of which, when added to the total from other sources, contribute to the pollution of air and water, and the deforestation of the earth’s woodlands. We were housed in a lovely setting, slept in comfortable beds, were the beneficiaries of indoor plumbing and hot showers -- all this while the great majority of our fellow humans scraped by, catch-as-catch-can, from one day to the next. And we journeyed there, and were gathered together there, leisurely to discuss issues relating to the integrity of creation. Truly we are among the lucky ones -- the sons and daughters of a capricious dispensation of privilege -- to enjoy such benefits.
Just as surely, in my view, we daily run the risk of succumbing to a detached hypocrisy. For the questions we must face concern not only the idea of the integrity of creation, they also ask how we -- you and I -- should live if we are to express our allegiance to this idea in our day-to-day life. That ancient question has no simple answer. There is much good that we would do, that we do not. And there is much evil that we would not do, that we find ourselves doing. The challenge to lead a good, respectful, loving life just in our dealings within the human family is onerous and demanding. How much more onerous and demanding must it be, therefore, if we widen the circle of the moral community to include the whole of creation?
How might we begin to meet this enlarged challenge? Doubtless there are many possible places to begin, some of which will be more accessible to some than to others. For my part, however, I cannot help believing that an appropriate place to begin is with the food on our plates. For here we are faced with a direct personal choice, over which we exercise absolute sovereign authority. Such power is not always within our grasp. How little influence we really have, you and I, on the practices of the World Bank, the agrarian land-reform movement, the call to reduce armed conflicts, the cessation of famine and the evil of abject poverty! These large-scale evils stand beyond the reach of our small wills.
But not the food on our plates. Here we are at liberty to exercise absolute control. And here, then, we ought to be asking ourselves, Which of those choices I can make, are most in accord with the idea of the integrity of creation?
When we consider the biographical and, I dare say, the spiritual kinship we share with those billions of animals raised and slaughtered for food; when, further, we inform ourselves of the truly wretched conditions in which most of these animals are raised, not to mention the deplorable methods by which they are transported and the gruesome, blood-soaked reality of the slaughterhouse; and when, finally, we take honest stock of our privileged position in the world, a position that will not afford us the excuse from moral blame shared by the desperately poor who, as we say, really have no choice -- when we consider all these factors, then the case for abstaining from animal flesh has the overwhelming weight of both impartial reason and a spiritually-infused compassion on its side.
True, to make this change will involve some sacrifices -- in taste perhaps, in convenience certainly. And yet the whole fabric of Christian agape is woven from the threads of sacrificial acts. To abstain, on principle, from eating animals, therefore, although it is not the end-all, can be the begin-all of our conscientious effort to journey back (or forward) to Eden, can be one way (among others) to reestablish or create that relationship to the earth that, if Genesis 1 is to be trusted, was part of God’s original hopes for and plans in creation. It is the integrity of this creation we seek to understand and aspire to honor. In the choice of our food, I believe, we see, not in a glass darkly, but face to face, a small but not unimportant part of both the challenge and the promise of Christianity and animal rights.