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Chapter 10: Work, Subhuman Realities, and Property

Question C: How Should People Treat Nonrational Animals?

The general norms for dealing with other subpersonal realities apply in dealing with nonrational animals, but animals’ special characteristics and human persons’ special feelings toward them also require some specific norms.

1. Animals Themselves Do Not Have Rights

Some philosophers argue that animals have rights just as people do. As it is most commonly explained, the position is that humans have rights because they have interests which others’ actions can fulfill (leading to satisfaction) or frustrate (leading to pain); but animals in various degrees—higher animals more, lower ones less—also have interests whose fulfillment or frustration causes them pleasure or pain; so, animals too have rights.47

Ascribing rights to animals leads directly to showing them deference even to the detriment of humans, for instance, some proponents of animal rights have interfered with the use of animals in medical and pharmacological research. Perhaps even more important, the theory of rights presupposed by most animal-rights proponents implies that, while any mature and normal mammal has some rights, unborn and newborn human individuals have none whatsoever.48 Since the theory of animal rights has such implications, it is useful to explain why animals have no rights.

a) Proponents of animal rights reject the Christian view of persons. According to the Christian view, humans differ from subpersonal creation because God creates them in his own image, which includes the capacities of reason and free choice, and calls them to heavenly communion (see GS 12–22). Each human individual’s fundamental rights necessarily flow from this natural and supernatural dignity, and his or her other rights presuppose it (see 6.B.6 and 7.A.2). In other words, the God-given meaning and value of human persons is the source of their fundamental rights and the foundation of any rights they acquire.

Thus, fundamental human rights in no way depend on meaning and value given by humans themselves; while even acquired rights depend on human reasoning and commitments, not on the sort of interests, reducible to sensory awareness and emotional desire, which human beings have in common with animals. According to this Christian view, animals are incapable of having rights, although animals of each kind, like all other subpersonal creatures, do have their specific, God-given inherent value which humans should respect.

Proponents of animal rights at least implicitly reject this entire Christian view.49 They deny that humans are endowed by God with fundamental rights, deny or minimize the significance of the difference between human reason and animal cognition, and hold that any difference between human interests and those of other animals provides, not a reasonable basis for denying rights to the latter, but only a basis for specifying which rights various individuals can have, inasmuch as animals of lower species develop only limited interests.50

b) Proponents of animal rights cannot account for moral obligation. Animal-rights proponents presuppose a theory of human rights and moral obligation which is not self-evident and is vulnerable to philosophical criticism. Even without appealing to their faith, Christians can argue cogently against the notion that animals have rights. If animals had rights, humans would have corresponding duties. However, told that important interests of their own should yield to rights ascribed to animals, people of common sense spontaneously respond: “If rats and skunks have rights, so much the worse for rights!” Thus, proponents of animal rights are challenged to give an account of moral obligation adequate to show why—given their understanding of rights—any moral agent ought to respect anyone else’s rights.

Proponents of animal rights overlook this challenge, for their view of rights, which grounds rights in interests, renders moral obligation as such mysterious. On their view, each agent naturally acts egoistically in accord with his or her own interests, while naturally serving others’ interests only insofar as they coincide with or are embraced in his or her own, as, for example, the interests of friends and family often are.

In this view, however, moral obligation is the demand that agents act altruistically when such a natural motivation is lacking and even when doing so seems to them contrary to their own interests.51 But in that case, why should anyone be moral? Psychological and sociological attempts to account for moral feelings and practices do not begin to answer this question. At best they can explain only why some people in fact feel or think they ought to be altruistic. But the question is: Why should egoists repent and become altruists?

No thinker sharing the general world view of the proponents of animal rights ever has offered a plausible answer. For them, moral obligation remains inexplicable. Often, of course, moral obligation can be taken for granted, since all parties to a particular discussion may agree in presupposing it. But those who advocate animal rights cannot take moral obligation for granted, since they are trying to extend the previously accepted limits of altruism to animals, and that calls moral obligation itself into question.

c) A sound account of moral obligation excludes animal rights. One can account plausibly for moral obligation by reducing it to the first principles of practical reason, which shape human actions toward the basic intelligible human goods; these goods are aspects of the full being of bodily persons, and so they provide ultimate reasons for choosing actions that truly fulfill not only the agent, but other persons as well, in interpersonal communion (see CMP, 5, 7; above, 6.B.6).52 Given an account of moral obligation along these lines, the moral ought is not reducible to anything antecedent, whether individuals’ subjective interests or general characteristics of human nature. Rather, it is an irreducible part of human nature itself, an element of the God-given meaning and value constituting the essential dignity of human persons. Hence, the question, “Why should one be moral?” makes no more sense than the question: “Why are human beings human?”

This account of moral obligation explains why unborn and newborn human babies have rights. Other people have responsibilities toward these persons, not on the basis of anything actual about them beyond their being human individuals, but precisely on the basis of their human potentialities and needs, whose fulfillment depends as much on the love and care of their parents and others as on their own eventual interests. But this account excludes animal rights, since the first principles of practical reason, which underlie all rational motivation and every moral responsibility, direct action only toward intelligible human goods, and lower animals simply cannot be fulfilled by sharing in those goods. Thus, humans’ responsibilities toward animals must be grounded in human goods—either in the good of human friendship with God or in other aspects of integral human fulfillment.

2. Humans Should Treat Animals Kindly and Use Them Reasonably

Although animals have no rights, humans should treat them kindly. While animals can be used in accord with moral norms to serve any basic human good, they often are misused, and all uses of animals can become wrong. Moved by emotion, people often treat animals unreasonably.

a) People should not treat animals cruelly. Because animals are sentient and responsive, people can be tempted to treat them with intentional contempt. Also, animals often are hurt and made to suffer by being used in actions which are morally wrong on other grounds. Either kind of mistreatment involves more or less cruelty—something impossible in dealing with nonsentient creatures. Cruelty to animals should be avoided for two reasons.53

First, as has been explained, subhuman entities should be respected insofar as they are parts of God’s good creation. They should not be disturbed without a good reason; and doing so in the absence of such a reason is irreverent toward God and pointlessly reduces their availability for others’ appreciation and possible use. These considerations apply more strongly to animals than to nonsentient creatures, since animals enjoy greater inherent meaning and value. Cruel treatment of animals, insofar as it harms them without any good reason, violates these norms.

Second, cruelty towards an animal often manifests either unreasonable anger and hatred or a desire to derive satisfaction from the animal’s suffering. Feelings of both kinds are contrary to people’s natural sympathy for animals, and so manifest some disintegrity within the person experiencing them. In acting on such feelings, the underlying disintegrity increases, and so one harms oneself. Since there can be no reason for accepting this harm, it is always wrong to do so.

Cruelty to animals also often predisposes the agent or others to act cruelly toward people. Moreover, to take satisfaction in an animal’s suffering sometimes is part of a sin of sadistic lust or leads to such a sin.

b) People should protect animals and treat them kindly. The two main reasons for avoiding cruelty to animals also are reasons to protect them and treat them compassionately whenever there is no reason for doing otherwise. On this basis, people who can easily provide harmless birds and animals with what they need to survive should do so. Since animals’ lives are not sacred as human life is, and since their suffering cannot have the spiritual and moral meaning human suffering has, they should be killed when necessary to end their misery, unless one has some reason not to do so.

Inasmuch as the members of each species of living thing constitute a special object of human study, appreciation, and other possible future uses, there is a significant reason to protect endangered species. Of course, that reason can be overridden if some human good calls for actions which will cause the extinction of a subhuman species. In the absence of such a countervailing reason, however, one should support and cooperate in measures which are necessary to protect endangered species.

c) People may use animals as they may use other subhuman entities. Since animals are part of the subpersonal creation over which humans have dominion, they may be used in any way which truly and justly serves the basic goods of persons. In principle there is nothing wrong with using animals for human food, clothing, shelter, scientific and medical experimentation, ornamentation, art materials, games and sports, religious sacrifice, and so forth (see S.c.g., 3.112). Provided animals are used for such a human benefit and the act is not morally wrong on some other ground, a person may kill them, harm them, and/or inflict pain on them to the extent either necessary for the purpose or unavoidable without imposing significant burdens on human beings.

However, inefficiency and waste in using animals violate the norm requiring people to protect them, and so are more serious than similar irrationality in the use of nonsentient creatures. It is cruel to cause animals pain by misusing them in activities which serve no basic good of persons, for example, purported experiments which offer no reasonable prospect of advancing scientific knowledge and forms of entertainment which appeal to base passions. Likewise, someone who negligently causes animals to suffer while using them violates the specific norm to treat them kindly.54

Moreover, every nonrational motive which can lead to violations of the general norms for using subhuman entities also can lead to violations of the special norms for using animals. For example, some of the feeding and slaughter of animals for meat misuses them because that meat is not part of a healthy diet and/or because the agricultural capacity used in producing meat could be used more efficiently to provide more people with an adequate vegetarian diet. Again, it is an abuse of animals when a woman wears a fur coat for the sake of vain and ostentatious display rather than for its suitability as clothing or a man hunts and kills wild animals for mere self-magnification, not for food or even for sport involving real skill and, perhaps, fellowship.

3. One Should Not Keep Domestic Animals Unreasonably

Not long ago, most families kept domestic animals in order to meet basic human needs, but few did so, or could afford to do so, apart from need. Hence, classical moral theology did not treat the matter. As urban-industrial economy and culture developed, however, the practice of keeping pets became widespread; in affluent societies, a vast industry promotes and serves this practice. Most people do not think there is any moral issue in having domestic animals, and Christians have accepted the common view uncritically. But the matter calls for a conscientious judgment, which often should be negative.

a) One can have an adequate reason to keep domestic animals. While the main reasons of the past for keeping domestic animals seldom are operative today, even city-dwelling people still can have sufficient reasons to keep animals. Sometimes the use is straightforward: guide dogs lead the blind; guard dogs protect people and property; cats can prevent infestation with rodents; and a tank of tropical fish in a waiting room is decorative and entertaining. Sometimes the animal is a pet, not kept for obvious utility, yet it really serves a human good; for example, parents can use pets to teach children important lessons; people who live alone can derive benefits to their psychological health from having and caring for pets; and hobbyists can develop themselves in various ways by spending leisure time training and caring for animals.

Nevertheless, every nonrational motive which can lead to acquiring and keeping other subhuman things also can motivate one to keep domestic animals. In addition, specific feelings toward animals often lead people to acquire and care for pets despite good reasons for not doing so. For example, some people use a pet as a substitute for the child or friend whom they could and should have or cultivate.

b) Keeping pets without an adequate reason is wrong. To justify keeping a pet, a reason is needed (as distinct from a merely emotional motive), and it must be adequate: such that one can act on it without infringing other responsibilities or being unfair to other people. Keeping a pet without an adequate reason is wrong in at least three ways.

First, although this misuse of an animal usually involves excessive kindness rather than cruelty, it is like any other abuse of a subpersonal entity in its irreverence toward God. The irreverence is especially marked in those who invert God’s order, which subordinates animals to human beings made in God’s image, by substituting concern about animals for concern about people, care of animals for care of people, and psychological bonding with animals for interpersonal communion.

Second, devoting quantities of goods and services to pets is unjustifiable in the absence of an adequate reason for keeping them, since providing these goods and services uses natural resources and human work, and imposes environmental costs. This economic capacity ought to be devoted to promoting and protecting human goods, either in pet owners themselves or others. Thus, while pets seldom compete directly with the poor for food, medical care, and so on, unreasonably keeping pets does contribute indirectly to economic injustice.

Third, this misuse of animals often has a bad environmental impact, not only through the indirect effects of what is done to feed and care for them but also through the direct effects of animals’ natural functions and behavior, for example, defecating and urinating, making noise, posing hazards to human health and safety, and so on.

For anyone who has an adequate reason to keep a pet, doing so is right and good. For anyone without an adequate reason, keeping a pet is wrong, and, considering the significance of the human goods at stake, the wrong seems likely to be a grave matter. However, the Church has not yet considered this issue.

47. See Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York: New York Review of Books, 1990), 6–9, 17–20; basically similar but more nuanced: S. F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987). Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1983), offers a different articulation of the view that animals have rights; he argues (232–65) that at least any normal mammal one year of age or older is like a person (including one who is not a moral agent, such as a one-year-old child) in being a subject of a life, so that all such individuals’ inherent value entitles them to be included in the “others” to whom the Golden Rule applies. However, while Regan convincingly argues that moral agents are not the only bearers of rights, he fails to show that rights flow from the inherent value of every being that is a subject of a life in the sense that this is common to all normal mammals one year of age or older. Moreover, while Regan’s position differs significantly in its philosophical details from the more common, utilitarian view, his argument is developed by dialectic with the more common view and so depends on it; and all theories supporting animal rights have more in common with one another than with any moral theology rooted in Christian faith or any ethical theory compatible with it. Hence, in the present context, Singer’s articulation of the more common view is treated as typical.

48. See Singer, Animal Liberation, 81–82, 236–43. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, 394–98, also is certain that animals’ rights require vegetarianism and the cessation of experiments on mature mammals, but (319–20) he considers the rights of soon-to-be-born and even newborn humans a special problem to which he offers only a tentative solution.

49. The view that animals have rights is not new. The Manichaeans held it, and St. Augustine criticizes it: De civitate Dei 1.20; cf. St. Thomas, S.c.g., 3.112.

50. See Singer, Animal Liberation, 187–98. Regan never mentions any Christian moral theology or natural law theory compatible with Christian faith.

51. The view being criticized is common in the empiricist tradition stemming from Hume. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, proposes a metaethical theory which is not vulnerable to the criticism proposed here. For him, morality is a given; he holds (126–40 and 185–93) that purported moral principles are criticized by logical tests and by comparing them with considered moral intuitions. This approach, however, is equally incapable of answering the radical question: If animals have rights, why should anyone respect others’ rights? Moreover, the thesis that animals have rights is inconsistent with most people’s considered moral intuitions.

52. Inasmuch as the basic human goods are intelligible aspects of the potential fulfillment of humans as bodily persons, the principles of practical reasoning would provide the same basis for promoting and protecting the well-being of bodily persons of other biological species, if such exist, as of biological humans. Hence, if humanoids landed on earth or were encountered elsewhere in the universe, they would have rights. However, it does not follow that nonhuman animals have rights, but only that the community of bodily persons might include diverse biological species. See Germain Grisez, “When Do People Begin?” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 63 (1989): 40–41.

53. St. Thomas, S.c.g., 3.112 (near end), briefly indicates reasons why people should not be cruel to animals; he overlooks the irreverence toward God implicit in mistreating animals, inasmuch as they have inherent goodness as creatures.

54. Since Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium provide no basis for the thesis that vegetarianism is obligatory, arguments for that position originate from other sources. Some arguments begin from true premises but do not validly establish the position. For instance, vegetarians often point out morally indefensible practices in raising, handling, and slaughtering animals, but those practices can be reformed without imposing vegetarianism on human beings. Again, health considerations and the conservation of natural resources support restrictions, perhaps severe ones, on the use of animals for food, but do not exclude it entirely. Other arguments avoid logical fallacies but presuppose animal rights or some other premise at odds with Christian faith as a basis for an absolute norm excluding eating meat.