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


On the origins of moral choice

By Paul Johnson

From the Catholic Herald dated Friday, February 9, 1973

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 proposition?
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?
Reproduced with thanks.

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