A biblical view of animals

Sarah Sawicki ended her post on 8/1/15 with the questions “How can I address injustices toward animals without promoting logic that excludes some people from personhood? Is it possible to balance these two causes, or must one fall in favor of the other?” I think she is correct in her concern about the use of a capacity definition of personhood to establish the personhood of chimpanzees in order to protect them from what is seen to be abuse. I think that a biblical view of animals gives us a foundation for protecting animals while still maintaining a distinction between human beings who have personhood and animals that are not persons, but still have value and who we should care for responsibly.

Biblical Christianity has a long history of supporting the responsible care and treatment of animals while still maintaining the distinction between human beings and animals. One of the things that William Wilberforce and his friends fought for in England in addition to the end of the slave trade was an end to the cruel treatment of animals.

The Bible clearly states that animals are a part of what was good about creation. They are distinct from human beings who have been created in the image of God, but they are still a valuable part of creation. There is a difference between the value of human life and the value of animal life, but both have value. Human beings were created to have a role of being stewards of God’s creation which includes responsible care of animals. Due to our fallen sinful nature we have not done that very well and animals have suffered from the result of our sin. That is something that Christians need to address.

The Humane Society of the US has been working with some evangelical Christian leaders to produce an Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals which is scheduled to be released in late September. The statement will address in more detail the biblical foundation for how we should view animal life and care for animals responsibly. The Center for Ethics at Taylor University will be hosting a discussion of that statement on October 6 to talk about the responsibility that Christians have to care for animals.

On Animal Welfare and Professional Consensus

The original reason I become involved with organized veterinary medicine, first the local association and then the state, was because I had become a solo practitioner in a start-up practice. This is a lonely business, where you can’t bounce ideas off colleagues within your own practice and where the struggles of being a veterinarian can only be recognized by others who live a similar professional life, people who you don’t see a lot as a solo doc.  Thus came an entry into the veterinary political process, the innocuous-sounding “Member-at-Large” position in the local association. I would seek out relationships with my colleagues, and work together to strengthen my profession. Since relatively few seek out such spots anymore, and with a modicum of competence in my role, an ascent was assured. On to the state association!

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is a group that has struggled mightily to make statements of substance on a wide variety of issues that reflect a remarkably disparate group of veterinarians in a very diverse profession. It is, pardon the pun, herding cats.  Their job is not enviable, and they seek to hold us all together as a kumbaya group of animal medical professionals.  So the result of this has been a philosophical foray into the gradations of vanilla, with position statements that have the strength of a triple A battery.

The states are the laboratories of democracy in the political process, and incubators of thought in the taking of positions. In my state of Indiana, we are not blessed with or burdened by the same forces that make public policy in California or Vermont or Alabama. We are Hoosiers, people who live and work in a hotbed of practicality in the epicenter of common sense. And I am a member of the Animal Welfare Committee for the state association, the perfect place for an ethics dilettante like myself to engage the big issues. It was our task to arrive at a consensus statement about animal welfare that captured Hoosier values and I was excited about the chance to help shape things.

Yes, this is a bit “tongue-in-cheek.” I am actually quite pleased with the abilities to engage bioethical issues that my education has afforded, so I am not altogether a dilettante. My ability to address issues of animal rights and appropriate stewardship ethics has come from the expert teaching I received in my degree program. As I worked (on a fast deadline) to offer up an introductory statement that sought to secure the rights (or at least “interests”) of all human beings to be considered distinct from animals—a view under increasing attack from the Singers and Regans, the PETAs and the HSUSAs that are gaining traction, I consulted with Trinity faculty and others who helped crystallize my thoughts. Here is what I submitted to others on the committee, themselves bright and thoughtful veterinarians in small animal and swine and equine and regulatory medicine practice. It isn’t perfect (and actually was not even completely vetted by those who I wanted to have read it before the deadline), but here it is nonetheless:

“Human beings, in their essence as a species and in the degree of sophistication of their various capacities, should be considered to have rights, and maintain a significance of moral status and moral agency, that non-human animals cannot possess. However, humans have great power toward animals for compassion and harm alike, and therefore bear a unique responsibility for wise stewardship of animals, particularly for those animals that have been domesticated. This relates to how we care for the environment we share with wildlife, and to the husbandry of domestic animals used for food, clothing, and companionship.

Many issues of human welfare should be considered separately from animals, because they are different kinds of beings. But there are significant areas of overlap in the welfare of humans and animals that necessitate a focus on the latter, in knowledge that to be good stewards of animal welfare is also to provide benefits to human health and flourishing.

To the extent that animals may be considered sentient beings, there is variation between species. The level of mental, neurologic, emotional, and social sophistication ranges widely, and must be considered in how welfare can be optimized in a practical way and to an appropriate degree toward different species. These considerations should be based on the best science available, not on sweeping generalizations or sentimentality. They should also reflect the unique ability of human beings to process and comprehend the available data from biology, behavioral science, and other disciplines, and to make legitimate welfare determinations for animals.”

This began one of the most fascinating back-and-forth electronic conversations in which I have ever been privileged to find myself included. Comments ranged from “too long, too philosophical” to the conclusion that “humans have what they deem to be moral agency only because they happen to be the dominant species (at least vertebrate mammalian) on the planet presently.” Consensus is not so certain, even in the Midwest.

After much chatter, and upon review and acceptance from the full Board, this was the final result for the introductory statement:
 “Humans have a unique responsibility to be wise stewards of animals. This relates to how we care for the environment we share with wildlife and to the husbandry of domestic animals used for food, fiber and companionship. The best science available from the fields of biology, behavioral science and other disciplines should be used to make legitimate welfare determinations for animals.”

Yes, this is a significant paring-down of the prose I offered. But it’s also has some key items that I think are important. Among those, the fact that an introductory statement even survived is notable. The idea that humans have a stewardship role over animals is significant, and that we have the ability to determine animal welfare is not to be assumed in all philosophical contexts today.

I’ll share the rest of what points followed in our full statement soon. But there is a lot to be learned here. Achieving consensus from those who aren’t part of the philosophical (or theological) “home team” may mean some small, but hopefully substantive, victories. And, I dare say, putting out what may be contentious words in a pluralistic society may lead to review from others that may be made by scalpel or hatchet, but is (hopefully) worth the effort nonetheless.

One Welfare, Part 2

Last week, I mentioned the framework of “One Welfare” that has been used to link the interconnected concepts of human and animal well-being within the ecology and societal contexts we share on this Earth. I generally find this to be a workable model for discussion, one that safely incorporates disparate groups under one large umbrella, and am cautiously optimistic that it will provide some success. I never seem to go past a level of guardedness when I talk about these issues because the train goes off the rails so often when it comes to animal welfare, or even human or societal welfare for that matter, but particularly when all of them are placed into the same arena, where they must, of necessity, often compete. Are we to assume we are all given an equal “voice” (particularly since animals cannot articulate theirs)?

And that IS the caution. It is well and good to speak of the strong relationship that welfare of animals shares with human flourishing; cruelty to animals and wanton misuse of the resources they provide damage our culture and our souls. My cardiologist friend and Trinity bioethics alumnus, Dr. Jay Hollman, has committed a lot of thought to (and written on) the impact on the general overall and (specifically) cardiovascular health of human beings, as well as the environment and climate, that comes from our consumption of meat. Our excesses don’t just negatively impact the welfare of animals and the planet but our own as well. But what can we do, in a tangible way, to change that? Are we to become vegetarians or vegans? A look at a great number of people in the world, who I consider to be excellent stewards of the livestock resources that the Lord provides, doesn’t seem to suggest that this is the only “moral” answer, and it certainly won’t convince the meat-hungry developing world to change their collective mind. Animals provide much of our food and clothing and our companionship and pleasure and (in times past) our transportation. We have vested interests in keeping them in good condition and spirits; our welfare really DOES depend upon theirs.

But sometimes there seems no way to make “One Welfare” possible. I remember a story (based on a real account) in a Vilhelm Moberg novel of Swedish immigrants that spoke of a father and daughter caught in a sudden Minnesota snowstorm as they traveled with their ox. Faced with death from hypothermia, the father slaughtered the ox, and the humans huddled within the warm carcass of the animal that had served them so fully over its life—and beyond, and they survived. Human welfare trumped that of the animal, and most would feel that the choice to kill the animal was an ethical one. But there was a winner and a loser, and human beings were the winners.

Dallas Willard, in the modern classic “Spirit of the Disciplines”, places the position of human beings into proper context. He describes the “nature of our conscious life that separates us from other creatures.” In the Genesis account of the appearance of human beings:
“…our creation process is strikingly different from all that preceded…Humans are made to govern—to rule over the zoological realm as God rules over all things. The imago Dei, the likeness to God, consists, accordingly, of all those powers and activities required for fulfilling this job description, this rule to which we were appointed. And of course it includes the very rule itself.”
Yes we are indeed rulers, and rulers always hold sway when interests are in conflict. But Willard goes on to say:
“But in light of the immensity of the task, God also gave humankind another very important ability—the ability to live in right relationships to God and to other human beings. Only in those relationships, in the communication needed to keep those relationships healthy and thriving, could everything be found that was required to succeed at the work assigned.
It is still true today that the greatest and most admirable power of humans over animals is not found in those who slaughter or abuse them, but in those who can govern their behavior by speaking to them—by communicating with them…Anyone with a gun can blow the head off a cobra, but to charm it into quiescence with a flute is quite another thing.”

So the notion of “One Welfare” reminds us that this dominion, this “trump” status, is a nuanced position. We have power, but that power in endowed with the mark of our Creator. It is our very difference in essence from the rest of God’s creation that lets us seek out “right relationships” with God and other human beings (and, if I may add to Willard, to God’s very creation). Seeking to meet all the wants and desires of human beings is not in the best interest of human and societal welfare and flourishing, as the excesses of the modern world reveal with increasing clarity. There are consequences, tangible, psychic and spiritual, when we ignore the welfare of animals in domestication and throughout the ecosystem. “One Welfare” cannot exist apart from right anthropology and an understanding that the fearsome, wonderful role we have to communicate the love and justice of God over all His creation is ours alone, and that our welfare is never tangential to the welfare of anything else within it.

One Welfare

Among the hats I wear is my “participate in organized veterinary medicine” hat, which currently involves my role as Vice President of my state Veterinary Medical Association. In a recent board meeting, we identified and strategized goals for the year. With each passing year, I find my own ambitions for the association become somewhat less sweeping, tempered by realism and some battle-weariness. But veterinarians are generally an idealistic lot, and so we often dream big dreams. Our “breakout” sessions start to tackle these things, breaking our idealism into manageable heaps. One such group, in which I participated, was dedicated to issues of animal welfare. A member of our team was a public health veterinarian, which meant he was quite bright and terribly earnest, and was inclined to read the more cerebral, “big issues” sections of our journals, while we practitioners were skipping over those to read up on the best ways to treat chronic urinary tract infections or mast cell tumors. Based on his reading of a commentary published in the February 1, 2013 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), he felt our best move was to advocate for a “one welfare” concept that was elaborated by the authors of that article, Tristan Colonius, DVM and Rosemary Earley, DVM. Even though I hadn’t read it, and therefore didn’t quite know what he meant, I intuitively and wholeheartedly supported that effort.

Fortunately (and, perhaps, uncharacteristically) I think my intuition was right. The authors derive their idea from the “one health” concept that has been used in epidemiology and public health circles. The latter they define as acknowledging “the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health and the necessity for an interdisciplinary approach in these fields.” “One welfare,” by distinction, reflects a confluence of the otherwise distinct disciplines of animal, human and public welfare. At first glance, this would raise the eyebrows of those of us who wish to champion human dignity as a distinct reflection of the Divine Creator in embodied humanity. Do these welfare disciplines represent moral equivalencies? But I think in reality it addresses the inter-connectedness of life on Earth, and the consequences that arise when we seek to improve the welfare of one “group” while disregarding another. This reflection can occur while still defending human dignity.

To stress the impact of grouping human, social, and animal welfare under one umbrella, the authors cite the statistic that, “at the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, humans and domesticated animals comprised approximately 0.1% of the vertebrate mass on land. Today, that figure is closer to 98%.” For better or worse, humans and domesticated animals run this place, and so we are inextricably linked with the ecological health of the planet we inhabit. Increased globalization means that the choices of one nation will impact multiple others. The authors further acknowledge that the “known and supposed tradeoffs in human and animal welfare create contentious problems.” Indeed.

The idea of animal welfare is not particularly controversial, with most veterinarians cheerily using the language of welfare and avoiding the more unpalatable notions of rights and liberation. Much surprised are we to discover that disciples of Peter Singer and Tom Regan have seemed to stealthily integrate themselves into the various animal welfare forums and literature while we weren’t looking. An idea of “one welfare,” frankly, helps ground the more radical elements within this group. In my own sphere, I deplore the numbers of animals that are surrendered to animal shelters when cute puppies grow up to be big dogs, or manageable behavioral issues cause pet owners to give up without a second thought. But I also realize that not every pet is adoptable and that public health is ill-served by packs of stray dogs roaming about, or that human and environmental well-being suffers when colonies of feral cats decimate songbird populations. It is humans that can impact animal welfare, and humans alone, so to ignore our own welfare while working to improve that of domesticated animals is foolhardy. It’s also impractical to animals. It might be wonderful to have all our meat originate from “free-range” sources, but there is nowhere close to the pasture land available on Earth to meet the needs of the increasingly meat-hungry population of the world. Horse-slaughter, whereby horse meat could be sold to receptive markets in France, is now gone from the United States, a victim of troubling aesthetics. A concomitant increase in the population of starving and abandoned horses has accompanied this ostensible act of kindness. A focus on animal welfare in a vacuum creates myriad consequences, some adverse to the very animals whose welfare we seek; a “one welfare” approach tempers this.

But human welfare may also be interpreted as complete satisfaction of human desire, however wrong that interpretation. Our desires to eat so much meat, well beyond what has ever been seen historically, has led to profound deforestation to create grazing space, and has increased levels of greenhouse gases. It is well-noted that flatulent cattle may have a more deleterious effect on our environment than American SUVs. Industrialized and suburbanized, prosperous nations are now so far removed from the sources of our food that we don’t give a second thought to how or where it was produced, or the welfare of the animals who give their lives as food for us. I have spoken before of the awesome powers and responsibilities God grants human beings in the “dominion” mandate over animals. Our welfare, personal and public, must not neglect the welfare of these animals, but must balance the consequences of our choices on the welfare of all.

So much of what we do with animals and our environment speak to us as human beings, and to the human condition. That, and some cautions associated with the “one welfare” concept, is something that I will explore, Lord-willing, in a next blog entry.

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.