By Paul Johnson
From the Catholic Herald dated Friday, February
One of the problems which churchmen and theologians will some day
have to tackle is the moral rights of animals. Do they have any rights,
and if so what are they? Do animals exist merely as servitors for the
use and exploitation of divinely-appointed humanity, or do they have
rights of their own, which exist independently of ours, which may even
be in conflict with our interests? Do we owe them moral duties, and how
can these duties be defined?
Theologians have been
extraordinarily obscure on this topic. Traditionally they have supposed
that animals have no rights at all; or, rather, that our attitudes
towards them should be guided purely by our own enlightened
self-interest. Thus the slaughter of animals for the purpose of food or
security, and their breeding in the horrific conditions of modern
factory farming, are not sinful.
The secular law, in fact, has
been in advance of ecclesiastical law in this respect, at least in
recent times. It accords, in this country for instance, certain
categories of animals considerable rights, and organisations exist to
see these rights are enforced. But even the secular law is confused -
particularly on the vexed question of biting dogs. It also varies from
place to place. Thus the county where I live, Buckinghamshire, is the
only one in England or Wales where it is an offence to keep a
persistently barking dog, though to judge from what I hear it is more
honoured in the breach than in the observance.
But at least the
law keeps an occasional eye on animals, and is sometimes pushed forward
- usually in a progressive direction - to enlarge the scope of the
supervision and protection it accords them. Theologians, by contrast,
seem reluctant to enter this territory.
But it is a matter of
common observation that some animals do perform actions which can only
be described as moral. Though dominated by instinct to a much greater
degree than we are, they will sometimes suppress these instincts for
what, to them, is a higher purpose. A dog will often do things - ranging
from eating its dinner when it's not hungry to exposing itself to death
or injury - purely to please its master. And it does these things not
just from training but from affection, and from the conscious
recognition of a higher moral power. These are moral actions.
Again, while I do not know how to define conscience in a dog, it is
evident to me that some dogs, at least, possess a conscience in a
rudimentary form, and exhibit it. Now if an animal performs conscious
moral actions and possesses an embryonic conscience, must it not also
have a soul? And do not momentous moral conclusions follow from this
Our difficulty in elucidating the theology of the
lower species springs chiefly from our inability to communicate with
them. We cannot explore their moral capabilities because they cannot
talk to us. It is surely no coincidence that those holy men like St.
Cuthbert and St. Francis, who achieved the closest contact with animals,
and established rudimentary forms of communication with them, accorded
them a high place in the divine scheme of things. In short, the more one
knows about the minds of animals, the more inclined one is to believe
they possess moral capabilities.
Scientists are now seriously
engaged in establishing communication systems with certain species,
notably dolphins. It is at least possible, and may well be likely, that
in our own lifetimes the breakthrough will come. Some creatures may then
be able to indicate to us how they approach moral choices, and be open
to advice and instruction and - dare one use the word? - conversion.
Where will that leave Christian theology?
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