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


Stewards of God's Creation

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 test cosmetics.

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 involve?

Reproduced with thanks.

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