Faith & Reason: Christians must see Aristotle was wrong on animals' rights

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The Independent Online

The past week has presented us with some disturbing images of our relations with other species. This newspaper carried a report of employees of the US poultry "processor" Pilgrim's Pride stamping on live chickens and twisting their heads off. Then, less shocking, though unwelcome, was the news of Japanese hopes that the International Whaling Commission would allow a resumption of overt commercial hunting. "When I hear people say they don't eat whale," a Tokyo diner was quoted, "I feel sorry for them. It's delicious. I think [whales are] cute too, but so are cows." Meanwhile, in Britain some people feel so strongly about the suffering even of rats that their threats of violence have forced a construction firm to pull out of building an animal research centre at Oxford University.

The past week has presented us with some disturbing images of our relations with other species. This newspaper carried a report of employees of the US poultry "processor" Pilgrim's Pride stamping on live chickens and twisting their heads off. Then, less shocking, though unwelcome, was the news of Japanese hopes that the International Whaling Commission would allow a resumption of overt commercial hunting. "When I hear people say they don't eat whale," a Tokyo diner was quoted, "I feel sorry for them. It's delicious. I think [whales are] cute too, but so are cows." Meanwhile, in Britain some people feel so strongly about the suffering even of rats that their threats of violence have forced a construction firm to pull out of building an animal research centre at Oxford University.

The relationship between humankind and other species is a problematical one, made all the more so by our confusion over some basic principles. How should we weigh our interests against those of whales and rodents? And why should we do so? If we consider ourselves to be "merely animals" ourselves (as evolutionary science might prompt us to think), why shouldn't we behave like other animals? How squeamish, after all, is a killer whale? Or if we infer from our finer feelings - our capacity for sympathy, and what we call conscience - that we are in some sense "above" that, does that very superiority entitle us to sacrifice their interests to ours?

It's ironic that, in the West at least, the assumption of our absolute rights over other species seems to be derived largely from the very world view that evolutionary science has helped to undermine. The conventional Christian view has tended to see the non-human world as something created by God for our benefit and put under our "dominion" and at our disposal. A classic formulation might be that of Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century:

Man is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for Man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, Man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end.

In practice, this view is hardly less anthropocentric than that of modern secular humanism. Its currency means that even the most humane Christians can be reluctant to do or say anything to defend the interests of other species. It seems to many almost a dereliction of Christian duty to expend mental or physical energy on the welfare of "the other things on the face of the earth" when there are so many humans whose lives are ruined by poverty, war or disease. But there is an irony also in this tradition, because its principal source lies not in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures but in ideas that were imported into Christianity rather later. It was a common observation of the ancient world that there is in everything a hierarchy, but it was very much a pagan notion that the purpose of those at the bottom is to serve those at the top, and it was Aristotle in particular who declared that every other species exists to serve humankind.

There is, however, an alternative Christian perspective, and one that can claim to be far more authentically biblical. In this view, the value of whales, for example, is not determined by human perceptions - whether we see them as "cute" or "delicious" - or human requirements, whether for biodiversity, beauty or blubber. The psalmist says that God made "that leviathan . . . to play" in the sea. The Book of Proverbs pictures Wisdom watching the Creator at work and "rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world". The famous chapter that opens the book of Genesis imagines God declaring everything he has made to be "very good".

If a genuinely Christian morality is one that seeks to align our view of the world and our conduct within it with the will of God, we ought to take seriously this suggestion that the rest of creation exists not "to help [Man] in the attainment of his end" but to give delight to God - albeit a delight that human beings are privileged to share. We also need finally to discard the ancient pagan assumption that the function of the weak is to serve the interests of the strong, and to observe instead the biblical principle that the responsibility of the strong is to defend the interests of the weak.

Of course, this still leaves many difficult questions. How hard should we strive to prevent the extinction of individual species? Does it matter whether creatures survive in the wild? Is it right that we are so averse to causing pain when nature itself seems so callous? How far, if at all, are we entitled to use other creatures, for food or for medical research, and when does legitimate use become abuse?

On issues such as these, Christians have been silent too long.

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