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Readings in Theology and Animal Ethics

October 11, 2011 3 comments

I am currently working on a research paper discussing the question of the moral status of animals within Christian theology. Much of my research revolves around essays and articles by Andrew Linzey, as his work arguably represents the most extensive theological engagement with the moral issue of human-animal relationships (Although there are voices from a “Christian-feminist” perspectives, critiques from evangelical perspectives, as well as some work from other theologians that I plan to include as well).

Not everything that Linzey says do I agree with. Many theologians have taken issue, for instance, with his use of the language of “rights” which, I would agree, is theologically debatable. Nevertheless, since his work is really the first to engage the question of what place, if any, animals might occupy within Christian ethics, I think the notion is valuable, if for no other reason than that it provides a starting place for Christians to approach the ethical issues surrounding human-animal relationships.

Here is a discussion of two articles of his I’ve recently read:

In the essay “Theology as if Animals Mattered”, Linzey touches on some of the challenges that the issue of animal welfare poses for Christians in particular. Christian theology, he argues, has been slow to engage with the growing concern for animal welfare, often marginalizing the plight of animals as a non-issue. As the case for the moral significance of animal welfare gains an increasingly strong rational basis in philosophical ethics, for Christians the issue of animals and their moral status remains “at a stage somewhat similar to the feminist issue forty years ago”, that is, when many Christians were openly critical of equal rights for women (Linzey 10). Linzey laments the anthropocentricity in much of Christian ethics as a myopia which, through it’s long history, has become so deeply ingrained in our thought that many now find it difficult to think of animals as existing for any purpose other than the utility of humans (Linzey 11). Linzey takes particular issue with two facile assumptions about Christian theology: First, that the bible lends support to human “supremacy,” and second, that it endorses the view that animals are here for our use. Citing a number of biblical passages, he shows that the assumption of human supremacy can only be considered as biblical in a “highly qualified way”, and that the second claim, that animals are made for human use, is flat out un-biblical. Linzey suggests that to the degree that Christians seek to be biblical in their theology they ought to supplant their anthropocentric conception of animals with a theocentric (i.e., God-centered) one.

Here, Linzey provides a decent entry-level primer for thinking theologically about animals. Nevertheless, this particular essay seems too casual, and brief. The essay seems to lack the clear, point-by-point, presentation of a definite case. Moreover, there is not much room given to detailed discussion of more fine-grained evidence. This article may provide some useful insights to help orient readers unaquainted with thew issues involved, but it will certainly need to be supplemented by more careful discussion of relevant data (e.g., deeper biblical exegesis, inclusion of major voices within the theological tradition etc.) if it is to be of any value in the larger debate.

In chapter one of his book Why Animal Suffering Matters, Linzey spells out his case for the moral significance of animal suffering. He notes that “those who wish to justify or minimize animal suffering rarely argue that animals do not suffer. Rather they argue that animal suffering matters less, if at all, because animals are different than human beings” (Linzey 10). Of course it is obvious that there are many important differences both within species as well as between them. The important question is whether the cited differences are morally relevant. Linzey considers in turn, the six differences most often cited as the basis for disregarding animal suffering, showing how, contrary the conclusions drawn by their proponents, such differences actually form a strong case for treating animals with the heightened care and concern we would extend to the weak and vulnerable. First he discusses the view, of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, that animals are “naturally slaves” (Linzey 12), based on the view that nature consists of a hierarchy, whereby the inferior exist for the superior. He then considers arguments from animals’ lack of certain capacities or characteristics such as rationality, language, moral agency, their “soullessness”, as well as their lack of the “divine image” (or imago dei). In each case Linzey shows how the premises do not support the intended conclusion. Moreover, he argues that such grounds, in fact, provide good reasons for seeing animals as especially vulnerable to human exploitation. Their lack of language, for instance, means that they can never give or withhold consent to their treatment, or articulate their own vital interests. Linzey’s discussion of the meaning of the biblical declaration of humans as the imago dei is especially relevant to a theological engagement of human-animal relations, and provides a strong religious motivation for extending care and protection to animals.

Here, Linzey provides not only a great argument against those who claim that it is permissible to discount animal suffering as morally unimportant, he provides a unique and powerful method of argumentation. He uses, what one reviewer aptly refers to as “a kind of jujitsu, using an opponent’s force against him” (Marks, Joel. “Why Animal Suffering Matters by Andrew Linzey.” Philosophy Now. Philosophy Now. 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.). This chapter, while still brief, provides an excellent assessment of some of the most influential and pervasive arguments against the ethical importance of animals. It includes an extensive bibliography incorporating a number of important scholarly figures from theologians and biblical scholars to philosophers as well. Furthermore, the major thrust of the argument (i.e., that we ought look after the weak, rather than exploit their weakness) is congenial to a Christian ethic based on the model of Christ.

Some other works I am anxious to get my hands on (Thank you InterLibrary Loan!) include: David L. Clough’s On Animals: Systematic Theology, Andrew Linzey’s Animals & Christianity: A Book of Readings, and Animal Gospel. I am aso awaiting a copy of Daniel MIller’s Animal Ethics and Theology: The Lens of the Good Samaritan. Should be some good readin’!

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Linzey, Andrew. “Theology as if Animals Mattered.” Creatures of the Same God. Ed. Andrew Linzey. NY: Lantern Books, 2009. 9-19. Print.

Linzey, Andrew. Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology and Practical Ethics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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Rev. Andrew Linzey and Vegetarianism

September 21, 2011 2 comments

This really is a shoddy video. I’m only posting it because I have a profound appreciation for work of Rev. Andrew Linzey. The project of Animal Theology is still in it’s infancy in many ways and there are not a lot of videos out there in the internets that address the subject. So I’m posting this here for your viewing.

A foray into the ethics of eating animals

I can appreciate that there are legitimate debates to be had over the ethics of eating animals. The use of animals as food is a widespread – transcultural and transhistorical – practice. To present reasons that challenge this practice, to say nothing of arguing for it’s reform or abolition, is to argue for a seachange. I understand that there are serious arguments to be made by both defenders and detractors, and that there are certain issues – for instance, whether or not animals feel pain, and to what degree – that require serious critical thinking, and deep consideration of the views on all sides. It’s somewhat disturbing then to encounter “arguments” that not only don’t consider the other side, but which don’t even consider the seriousness of their own stance. Perhaps the strangest arguments in favor of the consumption of animals are those that imply that gustation trumps morality. Obviously taste is a type of aesthetic experience, and gustatory concerns are aesthetic concerns. Unless we hold to some metaethical theory that regards ethical concerns as absolutely illusory, and thus, that there can be in principle no ethical evaluation of our actions – if we take seriously whatever obligations ethics may place upon us and our behavior – then it is not clear how aesthetic concerns trump ethical concerns. Specifically, it is not clear how, if indeed ethics does place certain demands upon my behavior, how the attainment of some aesthetic pleasure can morally justify my acting in some way that is unethical. The undesirable consequences of placing pleasure before morality should be obvious. Now obviously, whether or not this applies to the consumption of animals depends on whether or not eating animals is unethical. The upshot of this, however is that the non-argument of the one who says, “meat tastes good, so it must be okay” begs the question against whether or not eating animals is ethically defensible.

…To be continued..