Readings on Perspectives on Animals

I find that often my readings will reinforce each other in remarkable ways. Sometimes a book that I read just recently will inform the book that I am currently reading, allowing me to see the arguments from a different perspective.

I am currently reading through A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy by Wesley J. Smith. I’ve read Smith’s Culture of Death, and will occasionally read his blog, Second Hand Smoke. Smith is well-known for his work against assisted suicide and euthanasia. However, in reporting on current events, Smith covers everything from stem cells to euthanasia to organ donation to healthcare. In his latest book his addresses the animal rights movement. The underlying theme in is work is the idea of human exceptionalism, or to put it another way, he addresses the cultural trend towards various forms of de-humanization. Smith has done much of his work in the public square engaging in politics, forums, and the media. His writing is meant to be provocative, and can at times put off the academic who is used to reading more tempered (sometimes tempered to a fault) materials. However, I can respect the reason why he writes the way he does, because, in reality, some things should shock us that just don’t anymore.

The byline to A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy is “the Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement.” And, indeed, there is a cost to putting animals’ rights on par with humans’ rights. Contrary what most people believe, this doesn’t elevate animals to a higher moral status as much as it de-elevates humans to a lower moral status. Thus far Smith has made a very clear distinction between animal welfare which is something we should be concerned about, and animal rights, which he contends is a slippery slope towards de-humanization.  Using Biblical language, this is the difference between being stewards over God’s creation and caring for what he has placed under our authority, and denying the image of God in man (and possibly idolizing the created thing rather than the creator).

Interestingly, I had recently read through God in the Dock, a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis on theology and ethics. The book is edited by Walter Hooper who discusses in his preface his diligent efforts of recovering the essays from magazines and publications. Many of these essays were in what Hooper calls “ephemeral publications,” so often the topics are addressing a particular issue of the day. However, I found that these essays provide a wealth of wisdom on topics that are surprisingly relevant to us today in 2010. This is most likely because Lewis was addressing timely issues with timeless truths.

There were several essays that cover topics important to bioethics questions. If you have not had a chance to read them, you can find some of Lewis’ essays here. Two essays that were particularly helpful regarding the moral status of animals and our obligations to them are “The Pains of Animals” and “Vivisection.”

“The Pains of Animals” is an interaction between C.E.M Joad, head of the department of Philosophy at the University of London, and Lewis over his chapter in The Problem of Pain on animal pain.  Joad is trying to reconcile the issue of animal pain before the Fall. He takes issue with Lewis’ explanation that animals have sentience but not consciousness because it does not follow, to Joad, that an all-good God would allow “creatures who are not morally sinful” to experience pain. He also takes issue with the idea that animals do not have a conscience because they seem to have memory. The rest of his essay wrestles with the implications of animals having a soul.

Lewis’ patient response is helpful for framing a Biblical view of the moral worth of animals. His first comment is that if God is good, “then the appearance of divine cruelty in the animal world must be a false appearance.”  He makes no claim to know the reality behind the false appearance.

Lewis then proceeds to patiently and clearly address Joad’s specific issues which I think are helpful in articulating concerns with animal pain, but does not leave it there. He also addresses how we feel when we see animals in pain. He deals with pity for the poor animal and what we do with those feelings of pity.

Lewis’ other essay, “Vivisection” addresses a debate on whether it is appropriate to experiment on live animals, including surgical experimentation. He begins by addressing the rhetoric of pity on both sides of the debate – the poor animal, or relieving human suffering. He criticizes this rhetoric for not really addressing whether the issue is right or wrong as much as competing to see which one is emotionally weightier. Today we see this rhetorical approach used in many areas of bioethics, such as the embryonic stem cell debate and in the current animal rights movements. By identifying this tactic, he is able to move beyond this and approach the topic at hand, is vivisection morally wrong?

For the rest of the essay, Lewis addresses the hinge of the issue: “Now vivisection can only be defended by showing it to be right that one species should suffer in order that another species should be happier.” Lewis essentially addresses the issue from the perspective of virtue ethics.  He comes down hard on the typical vivisectionist because cruelty without pity is morally base, but is careful to outline the Christian perspective that animals are not morally equivalent to man, and refers to the use of animals in sacrifice. He draws a careful balance here that I think is very helpful to think through.

Overall, this book and these essays provide an interesting perspective on animals and our moral responsibility to them. I have not finished A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy, so I may have to post a review once I am done or make an addendum to my statements here, but thus far, I have benefited from reading about the issue from two different authors, with two different tones, from two different backgrounds, writing on current events in two different time periods.

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HeatherMijnheerBob Cranston Recent comment authors
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Bob Cranston
Bob Cranston

Great essay! You grant Smith more grace than I. Some of his rants remind me of the incivility evident in all of politics today–each side losing credibility with its overblown statements and intransigence.

Question: In Lewis’s vivisectionist arguments, does he factor in anesthesia? When I was in undergrad, grad, and med school, we routinely employed general anesthesia on any animals we dissected, or dispatched them quickly prior to the dissection.


You may be interested in this review of Smith’s book:

and in this book, which has much to say about the history of Christian views on animals: