Ethics of Eating, Part I

I grew up Catholic and have hop-scotched through several major faith traditions during my early adulthood before settling in at my current church home. Curiously, this is the first church where I have experienced the classic all-church “pitch-in” (also called “potlucks” in some circles). Though I am told that, in some parts of America, pitch-ins still include various terrifying incarnations of gelatin molds, I find ours to be entirely agreeable ways to marry the hand of Christian fellowship with the other hand that is fully-occupied with shoveling fried chicken, salads, side dishes and desserts in to my delighted mouth. This heavenly excess seems entirely good, a joyous celebration of breaking bread (or buttered yeast rolls) with my fellow believers.

But imagine that we instead held an “open bar” gathering where we enjoyed the fellowship of roulette and poker (actually, events not far off my earliest church memories…), perhaps punctuated by a luxury shopping spree and a bikini-clad dance competition among single women, judged by the elder board. (I fear I have left out one or more of the classic deadly sins—perhaps I should include a stoning of a sinner to encompass “wrath.”) No reasonable person would think this resembles anything close to the church Christ calls his spotless bride. But why is eating to excess acceptable?

It could be argued that Jesus himself speaks of this bride in terms of a banquet, a lavish, feasting celebration of the consummated love of the bride and her bridegroom. And Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard, though he was neither. No ascetic, that Jesus. Our relationship with God, in the Psalms and the gospels, can be summarized as a celebration meal where we are filled to true satisfaction. So where does “filled” transition into the excess of gluttony?

Dr. James Thobaben from Asbury Seminary has done outstanding work in tracing the history of the church, from the earliest traditions of moderation in all things, including eating, that remained remarkably consistent through the Middle Ages, Reformation, and Enlightenment. The Second Great Awakening, he finds, is where heightened restrictions against alcohol and sensuality ran directly into the tradition of shared meals on the church lawn among evangelicals. As some of the “deadly sins” became well-recognized, restrictions on gluttony were relaxed, as these fellowship meals were sanctified. To this day, maps of obesity in America, county by county, can be reasonably well transposed over maps of the evangelical/ fundamentalist population. The meals on the church lawn may have moved indoors, but we still love to eat together.

Why is this such a big deal?

As pluralism envelops our culture, I genuinely think (however wishfully) that the church’s consistency in ethical issues will not be a quaint throwback, but will be a beacon to those who look for it. And the way we eat is an ethical issue. Whether I drink my liver into cirrhosis or eat my pancreas into diabetes mellitus, I am proving a poor steward of the body God has given me. If I take a wildly disproportionate share of the world’s resources to eat to excess, I do not show a heart for the nations that are lacking.

Americans love meat. Nations in the developing world with rapidly-expanding economies increasingly love it, too. How we use the Earth’s resources, and care for the animals we will eat at restaurants in New York, Rio, Moscow and Beijing, not to mention at my church pitch-in, are ethical issues with which the church will contend under the world’s watching eyes.

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.

Animal Rights – A Sidenote

The recent blog by Dr. Steve Phillips led me to deeper thought (and this excursus) on the idea of moral status and moral agency. While his comments reflected on the significance that blurring the two concepts has had on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, it also has important implications for the idea of animal rights. Dr. Phillips addresses the writings of Mary Anne Warren, whose Moral Status- Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things, dedicated many words to animals.

Warren, a professor at San Francisco State University until her death in 2010, was a champion of the abortion rights cause. But she was also deeply influenced by Peter Singer’s views on animal liberation. She managed to avoid the inevitable outcome that Singer’s views would necessitate, specifically abolitionism of all animal confinement and human use. She has written of a “sliding scale” concept of animal rights that “…depends in part upon their sentience and mental sophistication.” In other words, she seems to use the ability of animals as moral agents to determine their moral status. While it is arguable that even higher non-human primates could be capable of moral agency, the level of mental sophistication of non-human animals seems, intuitively, like a reasonable way to address their level of welfare. I may be entirely unenthusiastic if my son chooses to go deer hunting but fine with a fishing trip. Others might find my distinctions illogical based on their own views, and that is okay. There is an inherent subjectivity to the moral status of animals, because they are, at least in Christian thought, not created in the same fashion as human beings. I daresay that this is a pretty palatable view of animal welfare and is what most people think, without really thinking, when approached with the idea of animal rights. I have, in fact, based the moral status of animals on their capacities, an altogether reasonable thing in the world of animals, while I cannot logically consider them moral agents, which Warren would seem to do. This is where her failure to differentiate the concepts muddies things.

If I lack the biblical distinction of the imago Dei (image of God) that distinguishes humans from non-human animals, don’t differentiate moral agency from moral status, and want to be consistent in the idea of animals as having variable levels of moral status, then I am forced to look at capacity as the basis for this status for everyone. This is the insidious nature of granting rights to animals, even “lesser rights,” however those can be quantified. Absent the imago Dei, I lose intellectual credibility when I say all human beings have the same moral status, but vary in their moral agency, but non-human animals vary in their moral status, and cannot be considered moral agents at all.

How, then, do we intellectually make exceptions for human beings? On this basis, we can’t. At some point, we are forced to make the rights of the human that are not in end-stage dementia, the unborn, and the profoundly mentally-handicapped submit to those of the cognitively superior, to the animals of greater “mental sophistication.”

Dr. Phillips has done a great service in distinguishing the concepts of moral status and moral agency. Be wary of those, like Mary Anne Warren, that do not.

Animal Rights, Part 2

Do animals have rights? If so, what are those rights, and how do they differ from humans? Should a lake trout have the same rights as a dairy cow as a chimpanzee? I mentioned in my previous blog that Christians have found difficulty assigning rights to animals, though many offer reasons with which I disagree. Secularists like Peter Singer (who, as a utilitarian that eschews such language, uses the notion of “rights” only to be a part of the dialogue) and Tom Regan (who considers “normal mammalian animals aged one or more” as possessors of the same intrinsic rights as humans) mount strong offensives in the battle for animal rights. While some of their more “out-there” ideas are met with skepticism by even their supporters, I am convinced that their deeper arguments are winning in the court of popular opinion. Why is this?
Singer’s approach addresses animal PAIN. This issue troubled C.S. Lewis and can bring us to tears in effective television advertisements for the Humane Society of the United States. We hate pain, and we especially hate it when the victims are so innocent. Regan looks at animals as “subjects-of-a-life;” animals have psychological capacities for desires, memories, and other “human” characteristics. Urbanized Western culture, as it becomes more removed from animals as food (I still hold that the beef I buy in shrink-wrap from the grocery is somehow picked from a “meat tree”), associates animals with pets or even the animated animals of film. Never mind that these animals are essentially humans in all but physical form.
I just returned from the World Veterinary Dermatology Congress (yes, there is such an event) in Vancouver. A Swiss veterinarian noted that skin allergies are often more pronounced in North American dogs because there is a more innate neurosis in these pets, creating more reactivity to allergens. They itch more obsessively. Her comment that “these dogs are basically treated as human toddlers” reflects on the humanization that we instill on, AND IN, our pets. It is little wonder that appeals from a utilitarian like Singer that tug at our dislike of all pain, animal or human, and a deontologist like Regan, that says that “higher” animals are really quite like us psychologically, can hold such sway.
I like the rebuttals of people like the University of Michigan’s Carl Cohen, who cuts through much of the intellectual and emotional fog to say that animals are intrinsically different from humans on the basis of personhood, and for whom the idea of rights makes no sense. Rights are of no use to animals because they inhabit a different moral sphere. “To say that rats have rights is to apply the world of rats a concept that makes very good sense when applied to humans, but makes no sense at all when applied to rats.”
In a practical sense, extending the same rights to animals as we extend to humans diminishes both. It means that animal husbandry cannot legitimately exist and that a cougar that attacks a hiker ought to defend her actions in court. Even the efforts of extraordinarily bright and sensitive Christian theologians to use the language of “limited rights” are probably misplaced. I am a proponent of assigning a strong moral status to the animals God has created; I don’t find the language of rights terribly helpful in doing so.

Animal Rights, Part I

I find it rather curious that in my line of work, as a veterinarian in small-animal clinical practice, I have very few conversations that tackle the issue of the rights of my animal patients. Maybe it’s because much of the legal landscape dictates the relationship we have with pets: I am still my dog’s “owner.” Harm that comes to a pet can lead to damages based entirely on the “replacement value” of the pet, not due to pain and suffering, or other subjective factors. Property rights, not moral rights, are where the law speaks.
As I have tried to draw my own conclusions on what rights, if any, animals may have, I largely read books with which I disagree, much to my dismay. Chief among these, of course, are the writings of Peter Singer. His notion of “speciesism,” a pejorative term that equates differentiation of value between humans and non-human animals (heretofore I’ll just call them “animals”) to be a great moral evil akin to racism and sexism, would seem to many to be a crackpot theory from an irrelevant, ivory tower philosophy professor. But the utilitarian idea espoused in Singer’s landmark Animal Liberation that equates the level of moral consideration of an individual, human or animal to be commensurate with the level of pain the creature may feel is probably more accepted in Western society than many of us realize. An entire branch of sociological study is dedicated to the “human-animal bond.” That bond is significant, and often a very positive force for human mental health and animal welfare. But we may have a greater emotional connection with a beloved pet than a dying relative, and unwittingly afford them moral status based on this emotional bond. More troubling, Singer’s radicalism is (surprisingly) fast becoming mainstream as the inherent dignity of human beings is undermined by ethical relativism and limitless personal autonomy.
But, as with many things, the reflexive response is unsatisfying as well. Christians who recoil at the subjugation of human dignity at the altar of animal liberation fail to understand our relationship to the animals God has created (and, indeed, all of creation) by misunderstanding Scripture. Much abuse can be heaped upon the Genesis 1:28 “dominion” mandate. In their view, the moral status of animals is utilitarian, but not Peter Singer’s utilitarianism. Animals were placed here for us, and we should enjoy what they provide for us without much concern for them beyond that.
But that, too, fails to understand the message of “dominion.” We are given power over animals, but that is fraught with responsibility as stewards of creatures that God takes very seriously. Some authors, prominent among them Robert Wennberg, go to lengths to find rights for animals in the Bible, particularly the right not to be eaten as human food. Ultimately, they struggle to find strong scriptural support, rely on extrabiblical sources, and don’t address in a practical way what “dominion” means .
I’ve become convinced that an effective view toward animal rights (one that really holds water) is based on a stewardship ethic that can only be found in Christian thought as put forth in Scripture. This will take some unpacking, and I will attempt to do that over a few blogs.

Reflections While Awaiting the Health Care Verdict

As I write this, Americans are within three days of “The Verdict,” whereby the United States Supreme Court will rule on the provisions of the contentious law variously called “The Affordable Care Act” and “Obamacare.” Whatever the outcome, it offers a stark reminder that issues of bioethical concern, including the way in which our society should best deliver health care to promote the general welfare of our people, exist not only in the rarified air of philosophical academia but in the muck and mire of public policy, legislative bodies and, indeed, the judiciary. Many who genuinely try to formulate health care policy based on Scriptural directives find themselves on opposite sides. Our politics are polarized. This is nothing new, really, but the polemical nature of our debate makes a few things clear to me. I recall J. Budziszewski’s “The Revenge of Conscience,” where he described how both political liberalism and conservatism seemed to suffer the same error that assumes people, whether in government or the private sector, are basically good. The former believe that government will make good choices and implement them fairly to citizens. The latter believe that self-directed individuals will make good choices. But competing political philosophies are populated by fallen human beings, all of whom can make terrible choices. I think that the simple way politics fails us today, frankly, is that we don’t effectively recognize sin. True, our own politics, that advance our righteous agenda (and I really don’t mean that entirely as a pejorative) may address the fashion in which policy will “fix” some societal sin, perhaps perpetrated by our political opponents. But do we, as Christians dedicated to the process of redemption in a fallen world, underestimate the pervasiveness of sin in ourselves? Do we genuinely believe that if “our solution” is chosen, sin will be subdued and goodness abound?
I remember my efforts, as a patient, student, and business owner who watches annual insurance premiums for my staff soar, to research the reasons behind our flawed system. Were health insurance companies greedy and insensitive? Yes. Was government inefficient and prone to fraud? Yes. Did some physicians game the system, perhaps to increase revenue from their own diagnostic facilities? Yes. Did patients, even those given control over how their own health care dollars were spent, often make rotten decisions? Yes. It was discouraging to find that we all, in some sense, play villains in this narrative. Human systems, even with the manifest blessings of common grace and the redemptive work of Christ, are stained by greed and corruption and hatred and pride. Whatever the Court decides on this law, one side will be elated and the other discouraged. No one believes that the health care system will be “fixed” and “done” regardless. I would submit that fertile ground for subsequent reforms should account for what sin has done and will do, however the law is formulated, and that Christians in the arena, in whatever role we play, will be most effective as we begin with genuine repentance.

On Oaths…

There is a joke told among veterinarians that physicians are essentially veterinarians that have limited their practice to a single species. It is true that great similarities exist between humans and animals physiologically, and much medicine overlaps. But there’s a big difference between the ethical practice of veterinary and human medicine. The Veterinarian’s Oath diverges from the Hippocratic Oath in its focus. Physicians are charged within their oath to a primary emphasis on healing and curing disease, the relief of suffering assumed secondary. Veterinarians, instead, are foundationally called to “protect animal health” and relieve suffering through their oath. These are important distinctions.
Nigel Cameron has chronicled the migration that human medicine, with its growing emphasis on the relief of suffering, has made toward the veterinary model. In The New Medicine: Life and Death after Hippocrates, he laments this change, finding the drift to be a source of double-minded tension which pits healing and relief of suffering against each other. Veterinarians must deal with some of this tension, where the cure for a disease process cannot create undue pain and cause substantial detriment to the quality of an animal’s life. For example, some of the stronger chemotherapy drugs, from which human patients may be willing to endure the more difficult side-effects (at a great loss of quality of life, at least temporarily) are not reasonable options for dogs or cats. The default position in veterinary medicine is avoidance of suffering. Additionally, the protection of animal health can entail taking one life for the betterment of another, an accepted fact within a profession that has multiple obligations and must make decisions from among animals and between the “non-equals” of animals and humans. Euthanasia in the face of pain or suffering is entirely consistent with the stated aims of the Veterinarian’s Oath. It is entirely inconsistent with the Hippocrtatic Oath and centuries of tradition in human medicine.
Some eschew the Hippocratic tradition in medicine as they favor an ethic that skews toward radical patient autonomy and perverse avoidance of anything that would be considered a burden or could negatively impact the perception of dignity, all in the name of compassion. Ironically, as some of human medicine migrates toward a veterinary model, veterinarians may be heading the other way. As advancements in drugs and technology intersect a stronger human-animal bond, treatments that would be burdensome to humans are increasingly used in companion animals. Some veterinarians can fall headlong into a vitalism that seeks to prolong animal life at any cost. We may find that physicians are becoming more like veterinarians just as veterinarians seem to become more like physicians, with both groups violating the underlying premises of their respective oaths.
But humans are different from animals. We must understand personhood ontologically, and the distinctions in moral status between humans and animals, to recognize the variation between the two oaths. With these blurred (or maybe even reversed in some cases) the risks to the integrity of human dignity, and the Hippocratic tradition, become great indeed.