Animal Rights – Part 3

So now that I have titled this whole series of blogs “Animal Rights,” and have already said that I don’t think the notion of rights for animals is very useful, I need to explain what I think is the better way to address animal welfare. I think it is entirely consistent within a Christian worldview to attribute a high moral status to animals (higher than the church has historically done) while stopping short of the establishment of rights. Much of this originates at the very beginning of Scripture, in Genesis 1:27 and 28. Here God has made clear that human beings are made in His image and grants them DOMINION over the Earth, including animals. It’s difficult to say which passages in Scripture have been most abused when put into practice, but this must be one of them. The idea of dominion has been used to justify wholesale destruction of the environment and cruel treatment of animals.

But the Hebrew word for “dominion” implies both power and responsibility. Andrew Linzey, a leading Christian supporter of animal rights, gets plenty wrong (in my estimation) in support of rights, but correctly says that human dominion is “inescapably fraught with moral responsibility.” God remains sovereign over creation, including animals, but we are His stewards. Animal cruelty is an affront to the God who has entrusted us to care for the animals He has placed in our lives.

Matthew Scully, an evangelical and former George W. Bush speechwriter who also famously penned Sarah Palin’s Vice Presidential nomination acceptance speech in 2008 (and, at this writing, will be co-author of Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech), wrote a provocative book entitled “Dominion: The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.” In it he stops short of the extension of rights to animals, but makes the case that it is this very lack of rights that should make us all the more aware of our responsibility to look after their welfare:

“We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us. Animals are so easily overlooked, their interests so easily brushed aside. Whenever we humans enter the world, from our farms, to the local animal shelter to the African savanna, we enter as lords of the earth bearing strange powers of terror and mercy alike.”

The idea of responsible stewardship of God’s animals, I think, should be foundational to an ethic for animals. We should care because God cares: the Mosaic Law makes special provisions for animals and they are (at least by implication) part of the new Heaven and new Earth at the time of the consummation of all things. Wise stewards will make responsible choices about the livestock humans use for food, clothing, and work, about the pets we have as companions, and about the wild animals in nature and confined in zoos and preserves.

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Erik Clary
7 years ago

Jerry,

I’ve enjoyed reading your blog series concerning animal rights. Animal rights/liberation (ARL) is antithetical in its ideology and ultimate aim to a biblical view of the creation order. It does, however, draw from a fundamental truth – specifically, that animals are properly objects of moral concern.

Unfortunately, the veterinary medical profession has largely treated the animal rights/welfare issue as if it were merely a scientific question – the morality of animal usage is generally assumed and rarely, if ever, defended. In response to ARL, the profession has mostly focused on delineating natural behaviors and needs of animals and then designing environmental systems and handling methods to match, all the while assuming the moral legitimacy of animal usage.

The profession’s reticence to engage the moral argument being raised by ARL may, in large measure, simply reflect a general opinion to the effect that ARL advocates have yet to establish a convincing case. In the not-too-distant past, non-engagement was easier to justify as the ARL movement was blatantly radical. Who would of thought forty years ago that ARL would enter the mainstream? But it has, largely through the efforts of more pragmatic advocates who have employed an incrementalist strategy that disavows violent tactics and radical speech (e.g., “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”). The present ARL movement is adept at employing public sentiment to restrict animal usage and move us closer to the ultimate aim of animal non-usage.

The veterinary profession’s non-engagement of ARL on the moral question may also reflect the fact that there are few veterinarians comfortable with the language and methods of ethical discourse. By and large, the veterinary community has farmed out the ethical reflection to a cadre of philosophers all too happy to comply. Consequently, one will occasionally find articles in the veterinary journals written by philosophers that tout animal rights as the “intelligent” approach. These treatments often reduce to frank silliness. One recent example is an article from Bernie Rollin (co-authored with Tim Blackwell) that implored veterinarians to adopt animal rights by appeal to the absurd notion of an “Ancient Contract” between humans and animals. The profession, and society more generally, needs a dose of right thinking on the animal rights/welfare issue. We would be fools to think it will come from secular philosophy. And so, I am glad to see you active in the debate, Jerry, reminding folks of the relevant truths affirmed in Scripture.