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Do animals have rights?

Thursday 7th April 2011

Do animals have rights?

Conservation and religion


A friend of mine pointed out some years ago that the Catholic Church (or any Protestant Church) had never taken an official stance on conservation, biodiversity, and the increasing tempo of species extinction. As I am not particularly affianced to any religion, I could not come up with any answer then as to why this should be the case, but the question stayed with me. It is interesting to examine the possible reasons why this should be, as the Church does acknowledge the wonders of creation – indeed, animals are still referred to as creatures (from the Latin creatus, creare).

 In the Book of Genesis, God said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let him have “dominion” over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Scholars spend considerable time interpreting meanings of words and passages in the Bible, and the word “dominion” can be interpreted in many ways, including “dominance” “sovereignty (rule over)”, and perhaps even “stewardship”. A few passages later, the message is repeated - God said “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

 Genesis makes the point again when Noah disembarked – “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you” (Genesis 9:3), but also “Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth” (Genesis 8:17).

 So the message of Genesis is confused, really. On the one hand, “dominion” is open to interpretation. On the other, all animals are there to be “meat”. But then again, the ark was emptied so that animals could abound and be fruitful and multiply.

 In the New Testament, however, you can find this:

 Ecclesiastes 3:19 “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”

 Philosophy and animals

 There has been a long-standing debate about a religious philosophical dilemma: do animals have souls? Are animals inferior as they lack reason, language, an individual moral identity? If animals do not have souls, is that a religious justification for humans (who do), to subject animals to eternal servitude? The ensuing debate over the centuries on this matter is too long and complicated to follow here, but I will list a few high (or low) points.

 Rene Descartes said in 1641 non-humans are nothing but “automata” without souls, minds, or reason. Animals were therefore not conscious, and could not suffer or feel pain. In that same year, however, in Massachusetts, the Puritans passed a law that nobody could exercise cruelty “toward any bruite creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use”. In England, Cromwell and English Puritans interpreted “dominion” as stewardship, and opposed blood sports, only to see their interpretation overturned when Charles II was returned to the throne. 

In 1754, Rousseau argued that because animals are sentient, they have natural rights as being part of natural law – “as they partake, however, in some measure of our nature, in consequence of the sensibility with which they are endowed, they ought to partake of natural right so that mankind is subjected to a kind of obligation even toward the brutes”. Immanuel Kant, however, while opposed to cruelty, was quoted as saying in 1785: “Animals are there merely as a means to and end. That end is man.”
Jeremy Bentham in 1789 argued that it was the ability to suffer, above all, which prescribed how we should treat animals. It was not until 1822 that Richard Martin succeeded in UK Parliament to prevent cruel treatment to horses and cattle – the first legislative action over a continuing debate of sentience, souls, and human domination. Martin was ridiculed, but his Bill passed, and led to the formation of the RSPCA followed by the American SPCA.

 Along came Schopenhauer, who basically said in 1839 we should have outgrown the concept that that the animal kingdom came into existence solely for the benefit and pleasure of man. Along came Henry Salt, who stated in 1894 that we must recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood.

 And along came the Nazi Party, which passed in 1933 a highly comprehensive set of animal protection laws – while at the same time designing a hierarchy of their own – Aryans on top, then lots of animals like wolves and eagles, and then Jews and rats at the bottom. In 1934, no more hunting of animals was allowed in Germany, but with the new politically determined hierarchy, persecution of Jews, homosexuals, and mentally retarded individuals was encouraged.

 After the war, considerable opposition formed to the increasingly commercialized use of animals, especially for large-scale farming and use of laboratory animals, and led to the formation of the Animal Rights movement, including grassroots activists whose actions were at times extremely violent.

 Philosophy versus individual responsibility

 The philosophical debate continues today, and to my mind is making little progress. While there is a general agreement that animals should not be made to needlessly suffer, current philosophers discuss ethics, not the underlying and more prickly issue of whether humans should maintain their rights to an utilitarian approach to animals – they were created for us to be used by us. That said, two philosophers on the subject, Tom Regan at North Carolina State University and Gary Francione at Rutgers School of Law, argue that animals have moral rights as they are capable of cognition, learning, and assimilation of experience. Animals are therefore sentient, and whether such sentience parallels ours is immaterial.

 But where does this leave the concept of conservation? While the Catholic Church should decry the loss of biodiversity as it is destructive of creation, at the same time it could argue that man was given dominion – ours to do with what we like. A strongly utilitarian concept of wildlife still pervades  – wildlife must be “useful” to us, otherwise there is no basis for its existence. Such usefulness comes in many ways – humans must be able to enjoy nature, humans must be able to go on safaris, humans should be allowed to hunt, humans should be able to determine where, in what quantities, and under what conditions wildlife exists, and humans should be allowed to use dolphins and killer whales at Sea World for our entertainment.

 The Year of Biodiversity was a flop because we only value biodiversity as a benefit to ourselves and base conservation decisions on simplistic questions like “What if our grandchildren cannot see a panda except in a zoo?”. The panda does not give a hoot for our grandchildren, but that is how its existence is largely being valued. It all comes back to the old question – “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a noise?” – we interpret the world through human experience as if nothing else matters.

 Practically, wildlife must be given a value, and not only an anthropocentric one. Dominion must be seen as a stewardship concept, not an utilitarian permission without consequence. Wildlife conservation will require a sea change in attitudes to make it work, and hopefully we can do so by being sapient, cognizant, and sufficiently assimilative of past mistakes to keep earning our status as moral beings.



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Posted by Pieter Kat at 12:58

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