Posts Tagged ‘Animal rights’

Love for Animals, Danger for Humans

Friday, October 9th, 2015

I had the pleasure of attending a very interesting lecture at Fordham Law School, entitled “The Law, Science, and Ethics Behind the Nonhuman Rights Project and Its Struggle to Achieve Fundamental Legal Rights for Nonhuman Animals”. The principal presenter was an attorney, the leader of that project, who deeply loves animals.  He has brought numerous lawsuits attempting to persuade courts to declare chimpanzees to be legal persons, and thus entitled to rights and protection under the law.

This subject is particularly interesting to me, and I am completely in support of the argument that we have a moral obligation to love and treat animals humanely.  I am a vegetarian, and I have very serious moral objections to the way that industrial farming treats animals.  Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, was very firm in insisting on the immorality of animal cruelty and the duty to treat animals humanely.

But even more important to me is the issue of legal personhood.  In the law, only those entities that are deemed “persons” possess the ability to assert rights, duties, freedoms and immunities that are legally enforceable.  In essence, the law will only recognize you and defend your rights if it considers you to be a “person”.

Under current American law, legal personhood is recognized for human beings (with an important exception I’ll discuss in a second) and entities that are created under the law and called “juridical persons” (e.g., governments, corporations, partnerships, and other associations).  No American law has ever recognized legal personhood in non-human animals.

Unfortunately, the two most notorious Supreme Court decisions in history both specifically denied personhood to a class of human beings.  The Dred Scott decision held that blacks were not persons under the law and thus “they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” — so they could be held as chattel slaves.  The Roe v. Wade decision similarly held that “the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn” — and thus they could be killed with impunity.  An equally appalling New York State Court of Appeals decision, Byrn v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, also specifically denied that unborn human beings are legal persons and thus have no rights that are bound to be respected by those lucky enough to be already born.   

That brings us to the lawsuits that seek to have chimps defined as legal “persons”.  It would be easy to view these actions as ludicrous, and I imagine that most people would dismiss them as such.  As a legal matter, I believe that the cases are meritless.  Their theory rests on the inconsistency of the law recognizing some humans as persons, while denying that status to others — which is true, but irrelevant when it comes to animals, which are, by definition, non-human.  And it relies heavily on an eighteenth-century English case that decided that slavery was not recognized under English common law.  But if you cite the common law as authority, you have to accept it whenever it’s contrary to your position too.  And English and American common law — as well as statutory and constitutional law — have never treated animals as persons, and always considered them to be property.  Wishful thinking and good intentions can’t make the law into something that it has never been.

But an unconvincing legal theory is not the most dangerous thing about these lawsuits, and the entire effort to have animals recognized as legal persons.  The animal personhood effort is premised on the fundamentally flawed idea that there is no relevant moral difference between humans and other animals — a rejection of “human exceptionalism”, which has been an axiom of law and society throughout history.  Instead, they seek to define personhood by reference to characteristics such as whether the animal is “autonomous and self-determining”, or whether they “possess the complex cognitive abilities sufficient for personhood” (to quote from the chimp’s court filings).

But these are inherently arbitrary.  Who decides what is sufficient, and what is not, and by what standard?  Do we draw the line at the “complex cognitive abilities” of chimps, or at dolphins, cats, dogs, chickens, insects, etc.?  Who is to say what degree of  “autonomous and self-determining” is enough to grant rights, and when it is not?  How an anyone tell, without any bright line standard — such as the obvious difference between the human species and an animal species?

Even aside from the legal chaos and arbitrariness that would result, there’s an even greater danger — if that’s the standard for determining personhood for animals, what if the same standard is applied to humans?

We know that the courts have no problem deciding that unborn children aren’t persons.  But what about newborn babies, who clearly are not “autonomous and self-determining” yet, and haven’t developed to the point where they “possess complex cognitive abilities”?  How about those who are in a permanent vegetative state?  Or advanced Alzheimers patients?  Will they be defined as non-persons, so that they have no protection under the law — and they can be treated as property to be mined for their organs,  or killed if they become too expensive to maintain?

This is not an idle set of questions, or a speculative “slippery slope”.  There are people, like the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who would gladly exclude from legal personhood those humans who lack sufficient “complex cognitive abilities” to satisfy his personal standards.

When law is made, laudable motives are not sufficient.  It’s wonderful that the Nonhuman Rights Project loves animals, and we absolutely need to grant greater legal protection to our fellow creatures. But the unintended consequences of legal changes must also be considered.  And the inevitable result of the animal personhood legal theories would be dangerous — and deadly — to humans.

Animals and Christian Discipleship

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

About ten years ago, I decided to give up eating meat.  I didn’t do it for ethical, aesthetics, or health reasons.  I liked meat, so it was a mild sacrifice, as a way of trying to grow spiritually and overcome a particular “thorn in the flesh” (see 2 Cor 12:7).  I viewed it as akin to a life-long Lenten Friday abstinence practice.

As with many ascetical practices, I found that it really bore fruit in my life, and I’ve continued with the practice ever since.  I describe myself generally as a “non-meat-eater” or a “vegetarian”, although I still eat dairy and seafood (occasionally), so the technical term for my diet would be probably be “pesco-vegetarian”.

At the time, I really didn’t have any desire to become an ethical vegetarian.  But I’ve become more curious about the arguments surrounding that philosophy.  I read some of the writings of Peter Singer, the leading animal rights philosopher, and found them deeply disturbing.  Singer and his followers seem to me to be profoundly anti-human, even to the point of advocating grave moral evil, such as the idea that unborn, newborn and handicapped children have no right to life, since they lack certain qualities of consciousness, and thus can be killed by their parents.  As a Christian — and a human being — I find such positions to be abhorrent, and I wouldn’t want to be associated with them in any way.

So it was with great interest that I found a book by Prof. Charles Camosy, an authentically pro-life theologian at Fordham, entitled For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action.  The goal of the book is to examine how Christians should relate to animals, particularly on such issues as factory farming and the use of animals in research.  I had hoped that the book would present a convincing Christian view of the relationship between humans and animals in the plan of God. While there are many aspects of the book that I found to be excellent, I was disappointed in his basic argument.

As with many animal rights arguments, Prof. Camosy’s position seemed to rest on an assumption that there is “speciesism” in the way we treat animals.  That term refers to an unjustifiable and invidious belief that humans are not just different from, but innately superior to animals in God’s plan for creation.  But surely that is the proposition that he should be seeking to prove, not a self-evident principle on which he can base his entire argument.  I found this to be a very unconvincing form of circular reasoning — he begs the question that he should be trying to answer.

I also found his use of Sacred Scripture to be implausible.  There is no doubt that God created animals not just to be used by humanity, but as creatures who have the “breath of life” and are meant to be our companions (see Gen. 1).  Yet there also can be no question that God specifically permitted the use of animals in ritual sacrifice and for food (see generally Leviticus).  Prof. Camosy appears to reject this aspect of Divine Revelation, particularly by suggesting that the practice of ritual sacrifice was a carryover from pagan practices and was not the will of God.  That is just completely unconvincing, and it is inconsistent with the essential role of ritual sacrifice in understanding the mystery of Jesus as the Paschal Sacrifice.

However, I also have to add that I found that Prof. Camosy makes a very compelling argument about the need for Christians to reject the horrors of factory farming.  There is overwhelming evidence that modern methods of factory farming are unspeakably cruel to animals, and they are truly shocking to the conscience.  Prof. Camosy makes a persuasive case that factory farming stems from a moral deficit that is inherent in a consumerist mentality that virtually amounts to an idolatry of profit.  This represents, I think, one of the best argument against the moral legitimacy of eating meat, at least as it is produced by way of this particular structure of sin.

I wish that Prof. Camosy had not begun his argument with the rejection of human exceptionalism in the divine plan, and I wish that he had given proper emphasis to the principle that we are created in the image and likeness of God.  That is actually the best argument for the ethical and humane treatment of animals, and even for the adoption of a vegetarian diet.  If we are made in the image of God, then we must assume some aspect of His relationship with the creation that He loves, and to which he gave the breath of life.  God is the ultimate steward of His gift of creation, and we are thus called to love and serve nature and animals, and to act with self-giving love to them.

I don’t believe that this role as stewards of creation requires us to forego meat in our diet, but it certainly requires us to take seriously our attitude towards our animal friends, and how we treat them.  We are so accustomed to this in our homes.  So many people love their dogs and cats and birds, and intuitively see the breath of life in them, and treat them very well.  As Prof. Camosy points out, we need to extend that attitude of fraternity to the animals we cannot see, particularly those in factory farms and medical research facilities.  That may require a change in lifestyle — and even our diet — but that’s the case with every aspect of our Christian discipleship.