Animal Rights: Another Perspective

Deborah M Jones FAITH Magazine March-April 2004


A Question Of Human Dignity

I applaud James Legge for directing attention towards questions to do with the relationship between animals and man (Faith, January/February 2004). They are, as he says, crucial, especially in enabling us to make morally responsible decisions concerning animals. It is an indisputable fact that, being made in the image of God and redeemed by his Son, man has a unique place in the order of creation. Where I part company with James is in the deductions he draws from that fact, particularly in his conclusion that hunting is a morally legitimate activity, the banning of which would imperil all our freedoms.

As Aquinas observes, the human being is the only mortal creature with the power to make moral choices. We have the power to refrain from harming others. And we should not succumb to pleasures, even if we are at liberty to do so, if they have evil consequences – all of which could lead us too quickly into the area of hunting, so to return to Aquinas.

Aquinas does distinguish between people and animals, but also between animals and plants, and plants and minerals. He even splits the categories into higher and lower, saying that the higher of one is close to the lower of the other, even overlapping, so that there is no break in the hierarchy of being (Summa Contra Gentiles, III 97). Intelligent animals are closer to unintelligent humans than they are to those animals that fall lower down in the scale. Lower animals, such as molluscs, possess instinct alone, but higher ones, like dogs and primates, with memory and emotions, are capable of both “prudence” and of being taught, (Commentary on the Metaphysics, I Lectio 1, n.13), in other words, of voluntary activity. These then “are capable of participating in divine goodness in a moreeminent way than other inferior things” (On Truth, II 3,3 ad 3).

Our Duty of Care Towards Animals

As animals resemble people in much of their abilities (bordering on intellectual cognition), their emotions and their desires, they must surely be accorded treatment closer to that of people than that of mere things. The insights of modern ethology and findings of genetic science point to remarkable convergence in human and animal behaviour and physiology, supporting Aquinas’s thirteenth-century observations. That animals possess the capacity to feel pain (SCG, III pt 2,112) suggest that we should take care not to inflict any, even if our reasons are only those of self-interest, for “If a man practise a pitiful affection for animals, he is all the more disposed to take pity on his fellow-men” (SCG, I-II 99,1).

There are instances in Aquinas which allow for animals to be treated instrumentally – such were taken up enthusiastically by Descartes and other Rationalists – but these are inconsistent with his more important teleological view of nature. This is where all things are created by God for an end, and it is wrong to prevent a living creature from fulfilling its natural end for its own sake. It implies the concept of duty: “A thing is a matter of precept, in so far as it is something due. Now a thing is due in two ways, for its own sake, and for the sake of something else … Now, in every genus, that which is for is own sake takes precedence over that which is for the sake of another” (Summa Theologiae II-II 44,2). Applying this principle to animals, what takes precedence should be that whichis for the animal’s own sake, rather than that which may benefit people.1 The natural end for a fox, for example, is to grow to maturity as a healthy animal, enjoying its life and propagating its species. To it belongs absolute natural rights, (ST II-II 57,3) due to it as to any creature capable of “apprehension” and distinguishing it from mere property. It has the right to pursue its own good, and that, I repeat, has to be taken into account in any treatment of it.

An Argument For Animal Rights From Natural Law

Human beings, of course, have more rights as we live more complicated lives, but these do not abrogate the natural rights of animals. This form of rights is not the “contract” or juridical form where rights of the agent have corollary duties, a form that has to be suspended anyway in situations where human beings themselves cannot discharge duties (being too young, too old, or mentally defective). Natural rights have as their first principle: Do good and avoid evil. We have duties to fulfil to those who have rights, regardless of whether they have duties to us. That is also what lies behind charity: we give to those who cannot give in return. What gives human beings their specific dignity is their ability to transcend their own self-interest and behave in ways more altruistically than anyother creature. Christianity goes further and makes it an obligation to be the servant of others and of creation. There is one other right-holder, so far unmentioned: God – for “God”, in the words of Cardinal Heenan, “has the right to have all his creatures treated with proper respect.” He goes on, “Nobody should therefore carelessly repeat the old saying that animals have no rights. This could easily lead to wanton cruelty.”2

The Value Of Every Creature

All living creatures, not just people, were brought under God’s covenantal care after the Flood (Gen 9:16). They have value for God beyond their relationship with us, even if we have a higher value. If we are the only ones with an eternal destiny, that leaves us with the obligation to enable, to the best of our ability, the other creatures to enjoy to their full potential this their present and only life. However, there is a strong claim that the environment of eternity will also include all that has been created, for St Paul described the “whole creation … eagerly waiting … groaning in one great act of giving birth” when it would “enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God” (Rom 8:19-22). There is even a passage in Aquinas’s Omnia Opera 3 (though the Angelic Doctor’sauthorship is now disputed) in which we are enjoined to care for all God’s creatures, as He does, lest they “bear witness against us in the day of judgement”.

Irenaeus too certainly saw Christ’s work as both redeeming humanity and fulfilling the whole of creation. Because of the incarnation, Irenaeus taught, the fleshly body should be valued and our resurrection will be, like Christ’s, in the body. The telos of all creation is to be found in the kingdom, where the paradisal harmony of Eden will be restored, and predation and death will be no more (cf Isa 11:6-9).

The Gentleness Of Sanctity

This new creation, or restored Eden, is glimpsed in the lives of some of the early saints in episodes which are bound up with animals. Among the legends are stories of the wild beasts refusing to attack the Christian martyrs, and of a long list of desert fathers and Celtic saints whose intimate fellowship with wild beasts demonstrate the blissful state of harmony in nature intended before the Fall and again, restored, at the end of time. Moreover sheer love and compassion is the motivation for these kindly exemplars. A fourth-century Eastern saint, Isaac the Syrian, describes the Christian heart as one which “is burning for love for the whole creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts … a heart which is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering,even the smallest pain being inflicted upon a creature … moved by the infinite pity which reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united with God.” Later saints, most notably Francis of Assisi, but also Philip Neri and Martin de Porres, have been notable for their kindness to animals. The Good Friday sermon preached by John Henry Newman in 1842, included this passionate appeal: “Now what is it that moves our very hearts and sickens us so much as cruelty shown to poor animals? I suppose this first, that they have done no harm; next that they have no power whatsoever of resistance; it is the cowardice and tyranny of which they are the victims which make their sufferings so especially touching.”

Edward Manning, another Cardinal, joined the great Victorian social reformers, Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, in campaigning for animal as well as human welfare, becoming, from its foundation in 1876 until 1891, a vice-president of the Victoria Street Society for the Protection of Animals from Vivisection (now known as the National Anti-Vivisection Society). Just this January, the Times of Malta carried an article by Bishop Nikol Cauchi (17/01/04) in which he has –

“no hesitation in making my opinion clear that human beings do have duties towards animals … Animals deserve our respect because they are living creatures, sharing the same planet. In them as well, the wisdom and power of the Creator is somehow evident and they are a part of his goodness and beauty which is reflected on this earth. Animals are sensible creatures. They experience pain and suffering much in the same way that we do. In some cases this is not just limited to bodily pain but they also have deeper feelings of fear and loneliness. Human beings should spare them suffering. In fact, we have no right to subject animals to hardship just for the sake of our amusement or convenience. It goes without saying that there is a strong case against bullfights, shooting birds, fox hunting andsuch like.”

The Teaching Of the Catechism On Cruelty

Which brings us back to the hunting issue that James Legge was so keen to justify. Let us take it from the view of the specific teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church related to animals, ns 2415-2418. The use of animals by humans “cannot be divorced from moral imperatives”, for our dominion over them “is not absolute”. In fact, on the model of Ss Francis and Philip Neri with their gentleness towards animals, we “owe them kindness”. For “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or to die needlessly.” Now, is hunting the fox doing a kindness to it? Treating it with saintly gentleness? Is it even necessary – or causing it to suffer and to die needlessly?

Of course, supporters of hunting deny that cruelty is involved, affirming that it is “part of the natural process” and is even a “humane” way of managing the environment – all of which Legge argued in his article. But the recent Burns report on hunting preferred the “lamping” method of shooting by trained marksmen with telescopic sights to dispatch selected members of the “quarry” species (fox, deer, hare or mink) humanely. To prevent suffering, a veterinary (but not one of the 400 quoted in Legge’s article who are of the Countryside Alliance’s persuasion) should always be in attendance.

This would prevent the fox’s suffering the stress of being chased for hours and then being set upon by a pack of dogs, with its potential refuges, earths, being blocked by hunt workers beforehand. Some of the fox litters in a hunt’s land are actually recorded and protected, to be used for cubing before the hunting season proper begins.

Barbaric Practices

This activity, to which children are often invited, is used for training the hound pups. Earths are dug out and the young dogs allowed to maul the bewildered five- to six-month-old cubs. Live hares, too, are fed to beagles to give them a taste of blood during their training. Hounds that cannot keep up with the chase, or pups that do not display “nose”, are simply destroyed.

To call animals “quarry” species, or “vermin” and “pests” or any other negatively-charged expression is simply an invention to justify killing them. Foxes could more accurately be called “predatory species”, for their role as part of the wildlife of the countryside is to maintain the balance of nature. Destroy foxes, and rabbits and hares proliferate. (Mink should never have been imported in the first place, fur coats having no place other than on an animal’s back.)

But is it necessary to cull foxes anyway? Natural processes, such as the lack of food supply, or road kill, account for a far higher proportion of fox deaths, while hunting accounts for only 10 - 15 per cent of foxes killed each year. Indeed, the October 2002 issue of Nature reported that a year’s lack of hunting during the foot-and-mouth outbreak resulted in no observable increase in the size of the fox population. A similar situation was reported after the Second World War, when hunting was curtailed.

Challenging Some False Presumptions

Far from effectively reducing numbers, in fact hunting keeps fox and hare numbers up. Huntsmen do not want to see the numbers of quarry reduced. Nothing is more frustrating to them than failing to draw a fox from any of the coverts at a meet, especially with subscribers paying large sums of money for the pleasure of the chase. It is the duty of the Master of Fox Hounds to ensure that there are always foxes to be found in his area for the twice-weekly meets and he goes to great lengths to preserve them.

So foxes are often bred in artificial earths, and imported, or “bagged”, on to hunt land to ensure a sufficient number are available to be hunted. The fact that many clergy support hunting, as Legge claims, is as much a commendation as saying that many clergy [alas] drink to excess. Towards the end of Legge’s article he throws in two bombshells – the argument for “liberty” and the legal permission given to abortion and euthanasia, being for one and against the other. Curiously, the cause of “liberty” is also espoused by those who promote abortion and euthanasia, strange bedfellows! But it is a cheap argument to posit abortion and the ban on hunting on the same side, as if one cannot abhor the unnecessary and cruel deaths of both innocent infants and animals. The rights of human beingsmust, of course be protected – but they must be rights, and not simply pleasures and preferences.

Opposing Cruelty In All Its Forms

There are several simple and humane alternatives to hunting for those who enjoy a rattling good ride across open country – point-to-point racing and chasing volunteers with a scented “drag”. These can skillfully avoid the fields of non-supporting farmers and cottage gardens where owners” pets are otherwise at risk. All that would be missing is the kill. Such barbaric practices as the initiating “blooding” of faces, presenting the fox’s “mask” (face) to the first man at the kill, “brush” (tail) to the first woman, and the four footpads to the first four children, would be relegated to history to join bear-baiting and cock-fighting. Far from being an ancient British tradition, the “sport” is no older than three centuries and has, in the words of one reformed Master of Hounds, RobertChurchward of the South Shropshire Hunt, “absolutely no justification – moral or otherwise”.

As Catholics, let us take up our duty, as Legge declares, “to oppose human cruelty in all its forms” and defend not only “the rights of the human person” but human dignity too, which is seriously compromised by the legal perpetuation of the unnecessary and barbaric pursuit of hunting.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2004