From Methodist Recorder Comment (March 24, 1983)
A lecture delivered on Saturday in BBC2's Horizon programme raised
one of the awkward ethical questions that theologians have pushed to the
outermost fringe of their deliberations. A philosopher, Professor Peter
Singer, of Monash University, Victoria, Australia, talked about the way
in which humans treat animals, and did not think much of it.
There has, in fact, been a mounting concern about animal welfare. One
instance is the successful protest against the slaughter of seal cubs in
Canada. Another, close to success, is directed towards protection of the
whales. One motive is emotional and commendable dislike for what appears
to be excessive brutality. A second, more profoundly, is recognition of
the intricate interlocking of all life in the biosphere.
The second accounts, in part, for the interest that is now being
taken, happily, in conservation. The planet would be a poorer place
without its rich variety. Hence the legislation to safeguard wild life
and the countryside, the protection of endangered species, the
preservation of habitats in which native plants and animals may survive.
But the sharpest criticism is of two areas in which there is no
question of the extinction of species: Factory farming, and laboratory
experiments on animals. Is it right that hens should be crammed into
tiny battery cages, pigs confined to narrow concrete cells, calves
reared in darkness? Can the existing scale and method of animal
experimentation be justified?
The answer given is that human needs must come first. The effect and
possible side effects of drugs that may or may not cure human diseases
must be rigorously tested before they are prescribed. The mice, rats,
guinea pigs, rabbits, monkeys undergo the tests for our benefit. The
factory farmer provides more food more cheaply for our tables.
According to Dr Singer the answer is not good enough. The "Radio
Times" note on the lecture sets out his contention. 'Just as we
progressed beyond the racist ethic of the era of slavery, so we must
progress beyond the ethics of the era of factory farming, of animals as
mere research tools for testing unnecessary products, of whaling, of
seal hunting, and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final
step in expanding the circle of ethics.'
He said that the reasoning ability of a dog is superior to that of a
new born infant, but one does not experiment on babies. Experiments on
discarded test-tube embryos are forbidden, but not on captured
chimpanzees. Is this no more than a clever academic debating point, or
does it go deeper?
He would reply that it makes the essential point. Our attitude to the
rest of creation is not so much arrogant as complacently self-satisfied.
We ought to have more respect for the feelings of animals, biologically
akin to humanity, and therefore should acknowledge that they have
rights. True to his convictions he is a vegetarian, but he does not
insist that all farming is unethical. That which submits the hen or pig
or calf to unnatural conditions is. So is massive disruption of the
balance of life in the oceans. So are experiments on living creatures to
It should be added that the man-centred complacency is diminishing.
The 'conservation lobby' grows. The farmer, who drains wetlands is now
the villain of the piece. Evidence grows that the stress involved in
intensive pig farming has economic disadvantage. There is increasing
demand for free range eggs, partly in protest against the battery
system, partly because they taste better. Any day now the Council of
Europe will complete its work on a convention on experiments on animals.
We can, then, expect some improvement. But the theology that should
underlie the ethics remains too little explored. Christians believe that
God created the world. It is His world. We humans are stewards of His
creation. Are the robin and the skylark, the dolphin and the whale, the
lamb and the lion, our fellow-creatures? If so, what should that
Reproduced with thanks.
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