The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973


A civilising influence -
Rev. Basil Wrighton and animal rights

From the Jesuit journal The Month, February 1991:

David Oderberg describes the work of Basil Wrighton in the field of 'animal liberation'. His approach was based on a recognition of 'rights', whereby we 'treat more of the individual and its nature, and see its rights as insulating it from sacrifice for the benefit of others'.

Organisations for the promotion of animal welfare have been with us for more than a century - apparently a long time, but quite a short part of the history of mankind's ethical development. Over the last twenty years, however, we have seen the growing influence and activity of bodies devoted not simply to animal welfare - after all, one can believe in the absolute exploitability of animals and still be concerned for their welfare during exploitation (witness the official bodies within the meat industry or the scientific community, said to monitor the welfare of their victims) - but to the cause of what has been dubbed, following the title of Peter Singer's well-known book, 'animal liberation'.

These latter organisations are devoted to upholding not pragmatic principles but moral rules governing our conduct toward our nonhuman fellows. These rules embody requirements of, variously, 'equal respect', 'equal consideration', 'non-discrimination against members of other species', and the like. From such rules it follows that certain practices, such as animal experimentation and meat-eating are, in some measure, prohibited. Some groups are total abolitionists, others make exceptions, and it is not difficult to conceive of hard cases that test these moral rules to the limit of their acceptability.

On the whole, however, the modern animal liberation movement has had a philosophical underpinning which is utilitarian in character, deriving its support from Peter Singer's many writings on the subject. (1) Such thinking sees only the existence of suffering in itself as important, a quantity to be reduced (and happiness, of some ill-defined sort, promoted). The principle of Double Effect, a mainstay of moral theology, whereby the common-sense idea that the ends do not justify the means is given a theoretical formulation, is rejected. Hence, for example, if animals could be raised in happiness and comfort, and slaughtered painlessly, there would be no principled objection to eating them. (2) This notion of the expendability of living beings for the 'greater good' is the hallmark of utilitarianism, and has been generalised to cover, interalia, comatose patients and infants (and adults) whose lives are 'not worth living'. (3)

All of this is pernicious stuff, bound up with a noble cause, that of protecting our nonhuman fellow creatures. A way of nullifying such an approach is provided by a recognition of rights, whereby we treat more of the individual and its nature, and see its rights as insulating it from sacrifice for the benefit of others. With respect to animals, such has been the approach of Tom Regan. (4) And for Catholics, such has been the approach of Basil Wrighton.

Basil Wrighton

Basil Wrighton was a parish priest who spent his life in Staffordshire and Oxfordshire, retiring in 1976 to Hendred House, where he was given a flat and use of the Eyston family's thirteenth-century chapel in which he celebrated Holy Mass daily until his death in 1988, at the age of eighty-eight. He had a working knowledge of fifteen to twenty languages, was steeped in classical learning and wrote, over more than half a century, scores of articles for many Catholic journals. These include articles on Christian philosophy and theology, on Kierkegaard, Newman, Eastern religion, modernism and its effects, and many pieces on the rights of animals. In the 1940's he discovered the Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare, still the leading organisation in the Catholic animal rights movement, and began writing for their splendid magazine The Ark around 1950. For many years he served as the CSCAW's Chairman and later Emeritus Chairman. A shy and reclusive man, he was regarded by all who knew him as saintly, and the sermons he gave in Oxford were said by many to have been the most inspiring they had ever heard.

The principle pieces on animal rights which Fr Wrighton wrote for The Ark over a period of thirty-five years have recently been collected and published as a single volume called Reason, Religion and the Animals. (5) In it he expresses his debt to the earlier work of Dom Ambrose Agius, (6) and many of us are familiar with the work of the Anglican theologian Andrew Linzey. But there is much to be done by Catholic thinkers in systematising the philosophy of animal rights or, more neutrally, of our moral obligation toward animals, in a way which runs counter to the predominant utilitarian trend mentioned above, and which provides theoretical recognition of a sphere of moral concern that extends to all of God's creatures.

Let us look at Basil Wrighton's chief concerns, which no doubt will constitute a reference-point for future thinkers on the subject.

In his 1950's piece ' The True Civilisation' he laments the disappearance from the modern world of the 'mystic vision of the saints', notably St Francis (although St Aidan springs to mind as well), whose civilising influence can counteract the persecution of animals daily carried out in the name of pleasure and elegance (for instance, hunting and fur-wearing), but especially in the name of scientific curiosity where, 'ignoring the patent facts of a physical and nervous organisation similar to his own, he [the scientist] can. . . condemn helpless and guileless fellow-creatures, living and breathing and loving like himself, to the last extremities of torture and mutilation. . . ' (p.2).

Moving through his writings in chronological order (as they are arranged) in Reason, Religion and the Animals, one finds Fr Wrighton concentrating less and less on hunting, fur-trapping and other abuses of animals for amusement and profit - not that these activities have by any means disappeared, rather that they have tended to diminish over the years in the face of their increasingly apparent unjustifiability - and more on scientific (especially medical) research on animals, ever increasing and ever difficult effectively to criticise in the eyes of a public confronted daily with tragic stories of human suffering. (7)

Animals have moral rights

The principle theme of Fr Wrighton's thought is that, as a general principle, animals have moral rights, and these moral rights claim from us respect for them. They have been placed on earth by God, and have their own natures, their own ends, and their own capacities to develop and to flourish according to their endowments. This position is in stark contrast to scholastic philosophy which, as Fr Wrighton points out, was notoriously deficient in its attitudes to animals, inheriting from Aristotle a type of utilitarian thinking toward them from which it has never been able to rid itself, and which has always sat paradoxically in what is otherwise a system of natural law binding humans. Take for instance this claim by Aristotle: 'If nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man'. (8) It seems that this was also the view of St Thomas Aquinas. (9) By recognising the man-independent teleology of our fellow living creatures, however, we broaden the scope of our moral awareness and avoid the trap of seeing the natural world and its inhabitants as exploitable commodities, created solely for mankind's use and benefit. Thus it is a theological mistake - pointed out often now but recognised by Fr Wrighton in his 1967 article 'Morals in the Melting-Pot' - to regard God's grant to us (10) of dominion over nature as one of beneficial ownership. It is, rather, one of stewardship or trusteeship, whereby our actual power to control and subdue nature and our fellow creatures is recognised, but qualified by an absolute duty to refrain from violating the rights of those who, with us, are cohabitants of the one planet.

Objective justice

This obligatory respect, due to our nonhuman fellows as a matter not simply of mercy but of objective justice, does not involve a downgrading of the status of humans or a derogation from our own rights, because 'the demand [for respect] is greatest for our own species, but it extends to the others too in proportion to their nearness to us' (p.73). For example, faced with the choice, in a no-cost Good Samaritan situation, between saving a drowning human and a drowning pig, I should save the former. But does this imply that I can take the pig and torture it with a battery of toxic drugs to learn how I might save a human's life? What rights to ascribe to which animals is largely an empirical matter: we have a duty to inform ourselves of the qualities and capacities of nonhuman animals and to recognise (not to endow but to discover) rights on the basis of those qualities and capacities which we humans typically posses as well and in virtue of which we have rights. If, for instance, we learn, as Heathcote Williams tells us, that elephants bury their dead, this must impinge on the thought that we can pillage elephant carcasses (those of elephants which have died naturally, of course, hunting being prohibited a fortiori) for their parts - ivory, feet, hide and so on. Interhuman morality is thus the paradigm by which we judge the rights of God's other creatures, to be recognised according to their natures (both as individuals and as members of kinds).

Things we ought not to know

Another of Fr Wrighton's principal concerns is 'that a good and merciful God, such as we believe in, cannot conceivably have so arranged things that necessary knowledge [scientific, especially medical] can only come to man through the infliction of merciless cruelties on His other sensitive creatures' (p.80). There must be, and are increasingly revealed to be, other, more humane types of research whereby the same beneficial knowledge can be acquired. Some incidental, pure knowledge will probably not be available, but 'not all knowledge is good or desirable. There are things which we ought not to know' (p.59). And even if some beneficial knowledge is not forthcoming, it is not as though we have been given a divine guarantee that all human suffering will eventually disappear (at least in this life), a fact often forgotten in a culture in which freedom from all pain is a pathological pursuit. He does not concentrate on the ineffectiveness and positive danger to humans of animal experimentation, for that would be to concede too much to the scientists (though such information is readily available); (11) Fr Wrighton's point is always the ethical one, that 'our spiritual mentors on the other hand, the representatives of the Church, are primarily concerned with morality, and cannot for one moment admit that a good end can justify evil means, or even doubtful means' (p.34). Hence the Principle of Double Effect must be respected: 'We must be utterly uncompromising here, for vivisection is a deliberate choice to do evil in the furtherance of one's aims; and that is a thing which nothing can justify or excuse' (p.88). Without this principle all morality would collapse into a morass of dangerous and muddled utilitarian thinking. Thus animal experimentation, condemned as it was so many years ago by Cardinal Manning, Bishop Westcott and Cardinal Gibbons of the USA (not to mention C.S. Lewis, (12) Ruskin and others), can never be justified when the experiment involves an intrinsic evil; the violation of the properly recognised rights of God's creatures.

The proper view of the Creation is then, according to Fr Wrighton, the traditional Genesis view properly interpreted. This view is incompatible with any that treats the animals as 'cheap bodies' - of no value in themselves, and entirely expendable for the use and convenience, and even the amusement, of humans. 'Is it conceivable that their loving Creator designed them, in their endless variety and beauty, for such a purpose? Can we pretend that He made the progress of science and medicine depend on a perpetual holocaust of innocent lives squandered on experiments of doubtful value and possible futility? If such a thing cannot be God's will, it ought to be unthinkable for us too (p.97).'

On a practical level Christians have, for many centuries, 'swum with the social tide. They have become more and more deeply involved and compromised with the unbelieving world of science and politics, so that they find it extremely difficult to cut themselves loose and regain their freedom of mind and conscience' (p.75). Theologians, says Fr Wrighton, 'have encouraged this conformity and have themselves indulged in dogmatic slumber when they ought to have been up and sounding the alarm' (p.75). It is up to Christians to reconquer the moral high ground by opening their eyes to the natural world around them and bringing within their sphere of compassion their fellow creatures who have been placed on this planet as part of the divine plan. Compassion does not mean simply feeding the neighbour's dog while he is on holiday, it means waking up to the living hell which exists in this nation's (and the world's) laboratories and slaughterhouses for countless millions of suffering beings, and putting a stop to it.

Attitudes towards animals

In a fascinating study entitled 'Animals in the other religions', Fr Wrighton examines the attitudes to animals of all the major religions outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Although some, such as ancient Egyptian religion, had a more sensitive attitude toward animals than others (for example, Confucianism), all failed and still fail to measure up to the moral standards required of us by a proper understanding of the Creation. Fr Wrighton's greatest praise is reserved for Hinduism and pure Buddhism, which consistently teach (in so far as clear teaching can be found) reverence for all animal life, and not at the expense of charity toward men. We have much to learn from the 'contemplative, pacific and humanitarian philosophy of India', an outlook from which the Church, with its Graeco-Roman heritage, has long been divorced. As farsighted as Hinduism and Buddhism are, however, their inherent philosophical defects prevent a properly adjusted ethical attitude - Buddhism especially, for its denial of a personal God, forgiveness of sins and 'identity of soul': its 'profession of universal benevolence remains somewhat austere and withdrawn, an Olympian stoicism lacking the warmth of charity exemplified for us in the incarnate Saviour-God' (p.69). The 'nightmare of reincarnation' and the deification of animals (in Hinduism) also contribute to an unbalanced view, syncretistic in its approach to the Creation, and so leading to extremes of behaviour which we should regard as more than what is required of us by the moral law. Only Christianity (as the fulfilment of the Jewish revelation) contains the world view which can provide a balanced ethic involving attention to the particularity and diversity of the Creation and requiring of us compassion and the observation of justice toward all creatures. (13)

Harmony in a Golden Age

To the extent that carnivorousness can be shown to be typically unnecessary for the survival of the human being (and it can, hard imaginary cases aside), vegetarianism is one part of our total obligation of respect for all nonhuman creatures according to their natures. (14) Flesh-eating, claims Fr Wrighton (and many others), is an acquired taste, and a concession to weakness. Genesis (15) tells us that 'the Creator's original plan, then, was that both man and the animals should be vegetarians' (p.40) The Fall, however, involving as it did ' the entry of sin and violence, with the disruption of natural conditions and the change to a savage diet' (p.41), radically altered man's nature. But Biblical prophecy (for example, in Isaiah) reminds us of the eventual return to a Golden Age of harmony between God's creatures. 'The irresistible conclusion, then, is that there is little hope of abolishing the manifold cruelties to animals which disgrace our society, until men give up the habit of eating flesh' (p.43). Self-preservation may once have been a legitimate motive for hunting and eating meat (lack of all the facts concerning dietary necessity mitigating man's culpability) but now it is not - we are no longer in this condition (though we are still corrupted by original sin).

Ahead of his time

Reading through Fr Wrighton's elegantly written essays one is struck by the prescience of his thought, the prophetic nature of his moral awareness. Thirty years before the utilitarians and secular thinkers had even begun seriously to investigate the facts and moral principles behind our treatment of animals, he was trenchantly criticising our practices and the spurious values underlying them. He employs terminology which has only recently become part of popular usage, railing against 'factory farming', 'reproduction by test-tube methods', and 'social engineering'. It is true that the thoughts of this shy, saintly and learned man leave many questions unanswered: To what extent are we enjoined to strive to return to an Edenic state - or is this to wait until the Last Judgement? Does a movement toward wholesale vegetarianism require such a radical transformation of our nature? How do we deal with hard (albeit fanciful) cases where the sacrifice of a few animals can save the lives of many humans (the Daisy the Cow versus the City of New York scenario)? There are many philosophical and theological questions begging to be dealt with adequately.

Despite the elegance of Fr Wrighton's prose and the gentleness shining through his life and work, one is consistently aware of the foreboding inherent in his reflections, involving a scenario that would be laughable were it not so plausible: (16) 'Perhaps when science has advanced a bit further and human bodies are walking around with other people's heads and the characters of synthetic devils, the moralists will wake up and call a halt - if there are any moralists left' (p.74). Fr Wrighton's work is compulsory reading for all who wish to prevent this nightmare becoming a reality.


(1) Beginning with Animal Liberation (Avon, 1975) and including (with J. Mason) Animal Factories (Crown, 1980), Practical Ethics (CUP, 1979), (ed. with Tom Regan) Animal Rights and Human Obligations (Prentice Hall, 1976) and (ed.) In Defence of Animals (Blackwell, 1986).

(2) Animal Liberation, pp. 164-165.

(3) A dizzying tour of the utilitarian literature will reveal books with such titles as Should the Baby Live? (Singer and Kuhse), The End of Life (Rachels), Abortion and Infanticide (Tooley - he favours both), and What Sort of People Should There Be? (Glover).

(4) See his The Case for Animal Rights (Routledge, 1983)

(5) Reason, Religion and the Animals, by Fr Basil Wrighton (CSCAW, 1987). All references in the body of the article are to this book.

(6) Dom Ambrose Agius, God's Animals (CSCAW, 1973).

(7) In 1987 there were (according to Home Office statistics, the actual number being almost certainly larger) 3 million animal experiments, including: 600,000 tests of the effects of toxic drugs and chemicals; 5,000 tests connected with alcohol and tobacco research; 137,000 'procedures' causing animals to have cancer; 90,000 cases of exposure to radiation; 32,000 cases of 'procedures deliberately causing psychological stress'; and 80,000 cases of the injection of germs directly into the brain or spinal chord. There were no prosecutions under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, and one license was revoked. Thousands of the experiments would have been performed without any form of anaesthetic.

(8) Politics (tr. Jowett) 1 1256b.

(9) Summa Theologiae I.q.96.

(10) Gen. 1:26-28.

(11) See for example Dr Robert Sharpe, The Cruel Deception (Thorsons, 1988).

(12) See a paper by Lewis published by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (Boston, 1947).

(13) It should be noted as well that the less-than-sensitive approach of biblical Jewish teaching toward animals has been modified by Talmudic principles requiring much greater compassion (for example the doctrine of Tza'ar Ba'alei Chaim [pain to living creatures]).

(14) 700 million animals are slaughtered in Britain each year for food (2 million per day, or 1,400 per minute).

(15) Gen 1:29-30.

(16) See the experiments of Dr Robert White, bioethical consultant to the Vatican, reported in my article 'Animals - the Need for a New Catholicism' (New Blackfriars, May 1989).

David S. Oderberg lectures at Trinity and University Colleges, Dublin.

The Month, February 1991

NB A selection of Rev. Wrighton's reflections on animal rights may be read at:

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