Decent Conduct toward Animals: a Traditional Approach - The Political Issue
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Stephen R. L. CLARK

A: The Political Issue

At a synod of Catholic Bishops in November 1998, Manuel Valarezo Luzuriaga, Bishop of Questoriana, and Apostolic Prefect of Galepagos, spoke as follows:

Many islands in the Pacific have been enriched with an abundance of animal life, a diversity of endemic plants, uncountable natural beauties and spectacular landscapes which have given rise to great movements for their conservation and defense.

The Archipelago of Galapagos, which stands out among these islands and is surrounded by various cold and warm sea currents, has developed a variety of land and sea life over the centuries. Charles Darwin had already visited these islands last century and it was there that he conceived his theory on the "Evolution of the Species". They have been declared by UNESCO as "Heritage of Humanity".

The Holy Bible speaks to us on many occasions of the love of God for animals, plants and nature. In the same way, by starting off from their beauty and goodness, it teaches us to discover the Creator. Genesis tells us that God blessed them. Jesus tells us how God was concerned about the birds in the fields and richly adorned the lilies. Paul teaches us to discover the imprints of God in them. There have also been numerous saints in the history of the Church such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who have loved animals.

With the advance of technology our century has witnessed the destruction of natural riches, woods and the pollution of water and atmosphere and the disappearance of hundreds of species of animals and plants. There is no doubt that numerous movements defending ecology have come into existence in all nations. There is no doubt that movements exist, such as the Franciscan Order, which, following the spirit of its Founder, promote justice and peace and above all, respect for Nature.

I would like our Catholic Church to guide these movements. May I be allowed to suggest with all due respect to the Holy Father that, as he taught us to defend human life, in the same way he may teach us to respect every form of life existing on earth. May he give us a pontifical document, addressed to all men of good will, furnishing a doctrinal foundation of love and respect for life existing on the earth. Also, a document that promotes, in our naturalistic and secularized society, the knowledge and contemplation of God in the beauty and in the goodness of creatures.

It may be that Bishop Luzuriaga only had in mind such ‘respect’ as might be owed to species or habitats or ecosystems, rather than to individual creatures. ‘Environmentalism’ and ‘animal liberation’ have not always been firm friends. As long as there are creatures, for example, to maintain ‘deer life’, or even the habitat in which deer live, environmentalists feel no particular concern for individual deer – and may even resist humanitarian efforts to protect their lives and welfare. That is an issue which I shall not address directly. John Paul II, in any case, has not yet produced a document to deal with either area of concern, though there are hints that he might approve a broadly ‘environmentalist’ respect for the natural world. As for individual animals, it seems that he holds to the mainstream Catholic position, that only human beings are created as ‘ends in themselves’. Thus, in the Letter to Families in 1994, he writes that ‘no living being on earth except man was created "in the image and likeness of God"’, and follows the Second Vatican Council in declaring flatly that man is ‘the only creature on earth whom God willed for its own sake’.

God "wills" man as a being similar to himself, as a person. This man, every man, is created by God "for his own sake". That is true of all persons, including those born with sicknesses or disabilities. Inscribed in the personal constitution of every human being is the will of God, who wills that man should be, in a certain sense, an end unto himself. God hands man over to himself, entrusting him both to his family and to society as their responsibility. Parents, in contemplating a new human being, are, or ought to be, fully aware of the fact that God "wills" this individual "for his own sake".

John Paul went on to warn of the dangers in ‘materialist’ accounts of humanity:

The separation of spirit and body in man has led to a growing tendency to consider the human body, not in accordance with the categories of its specific likeness to God, but rather on the basis of its similarity to all the other bodies present in the world of nature, bodies which man uses as raw material in his efforts to produce goods for consumption. But everyone can immediately realize what enormous dangers lurk behind the application of such criteria to man. When the human body, considered apart from spirit and thought, comes to be used as raw material in the same way that the bodies of animals are used and this actually occurs for example in experimentation on embryos and fetuses we will inevitably arrive at a dreadful ethical defeat.

Here he seems to assume that man not only does use non-human bodies just as material, but is entitled to do so. If only human beings exist ‘for their own sake’, then everything else exists for some extrinsic purpose which at least allows us to use it for our purposes. This is not to say that all those purposes are good ones. Those who use animals to practise and perfect sadistic cruelty are harming their own souls. Those who use up ‘natural resources’ for the sake of immediate luxuries are likely to be robbing the poor, and all future generations of humanity, of what they need. Those who can see cattle only as ‘beef on the hoof’, or pigs as locomotive meals with souls instead of salt to keep them fresh, may be culpably blind to beauty. In Evangelium Vitae John Paul insists that our ‘dominion is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to "use and misuse", or to dispose of things as one pleases. The limitation imposed from the beginning by the Creator himself and expressed symbolically by the prohibition not to "eat of the fruit of the tree" (cf. Genesis 2:16-17) shows clearly enough that, when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to biological laws but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity’. But moral philosophers and theologians have usually believed that there were ‘good’ purposes which entitled us to use non-human animals as mere material (without regard to any purposes of their own), and even that human virtue was best exercised in just such use. Good shepherds care for their sheep – but their aim is to provide wool, milk and meat for human use.

Questions about our proper attitude to non-human animals involve a variety of disciplines, and often raise fundamental questions about the proper basis for moral reasoning in general, or the scope of legislation. Answers to all these questions are often entangled in wider, ‘political’ concerns. It is widely assumed, for example, that opponents of ‘blood sports’, vivisection and intensive husbandry are politically ‘left-wing’, motivated either by an exaggerated sympathy for ‘the oppressed’, an unfocused hatred of established power, or an unacknowledged wish to impose their own way of life on everyone. Alternatively, such ‘zoophiles’ are reckoned to be ‘right-wing’: denying the poor their pleasures, and themselves identifying with ‘the world of nature’ in a way that has, historically, been possible only for those insulated from many of the more brutal effects of nature. On the one hand, experimentalists of the more brutal and unembarrassed sort are often likened to Nazis (since the doctors of the Nazi Reich did indeed treat other human beings as experimental material, with a similar arrogance). On the other, the only putatively ‘green’ party ever to win political power was, exactly, the National Socialist. Peter Singer, a philosopher who has done a great deal to put the animal issue on the philosophical and political agenda, is also widely known to defend selective abortion and infanticide, and has been repeatedly attacked (especially in Germany and the United States) as seeming to defend exactly what the Nazis did. Both sides, that is, are easily convinced that the other is entirely evil. Each side entertains a vision of moral decency that precludes attention to the actual arguments and visions of the other.

Go on to Part B: Species-Loyalty and Betrayal

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