Christianity and Animal Rights, Part 6:
The Need for Legal Rights for Nonhumans

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Christianity and Animal Rights, Part 6:
The Need for Legal Rights for Nonhumans

[Ed. Note: Please visit Animals - Tradition, Philosophy, Religion for many articles about animals and religious beliefs: Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and more.]

By Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10

The Bible provides crucial moral direction for Christians, but it does not provide much guidance for applying its moral principles in secular, pluralistic societies, such as United States and other Western nations. Laws provide protection of the weak against the strong; if there were no laws, the principle of “might makes right” would determine outcomes. Many laws aim to protect “rights” held by individuals who, without laws protecting their rights, would often be victimized. While human greed and human frailty can impede the application of rights, their existence is a powerful defense against abuse. Rights offer the possibility that victims can plead for justice in courts of law, and courts of law are buttressed by the power of the state.

Nonhuman beings have never had legal rights in the United States, and outside the United States legal rights for nonhumans have been rare and very limited. There have been animal-protection laws, but these have resulted from either human good-will or the desires among humans to protect certain animals of whom those humans are fond. Nearly universally, animals have not enjoyed the most basic right, which is the right not to be enslaved. Throughout the world, humans have regarded nonhuman beings as property, and humans have had the right to do to their own property nearly anything those humans desire. Courts of law have repeatedly favored “persons” over individuals whom the law regards as “property,” however trivial the “person’s” desire might be and however essential the “property’s” need might be. (I take issue with aspects of Gary Francione’s “abolitionist approach,” but I am indebted to his insights regarding the property status of animals.)

I think there is a place for welfare reforms designed to ameliorate conditions of animal abuse, but these reforms will likely have very limited impact as long as the law regards nonhuman beings as property. As long as animals are property, they will depend on human goodwill to prevent abuse, and history has shown unequivocally that humans are nearly universally hard-hearted when it comes to animals. For millennia, but never before on the scale we see today, humans throughout the world have inflicted misery and suffering upon animals to a massive degree, and huge numbers of animals meet early, violent deaths.

From a Christian standpoint, everything belongs to God. There are human and nonhuman slaves in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, but the Bible never endorses abuse. I don’t know to what degree biblical mandate to show compassion toward animals and to treat slaves with respect influenced behavior in ancient times, but they certainly haven’t done much to protect animals today. We need laws that define and defend animal rights. Without them, animal abuse – including abuse perpetrated by people who claim to be inspired by God’s love – will continue largely unabated.

The problem is that clearly most people don’t care that much about animals. They might prefer that animals not be abused, but they are unwilling to allow that preference to significantly alter their lifestyles. Perhaps the best hope for animals to gain rights is to show that animal rights are essential for human rights. I will turn to that topic next week.