Animal Rights - A Perspective on the Hunting Debate

James Legge FAITH Magazine January-February 2004

What is our Relationship with Creation?

The question of animal rights is an important one, and is becoming more so. There is a whole range of issues to which Christians must give serious thought; the use of animals for scientific research, for instance, also methods of animal husbandry and how wild mammal populations are to be managed, whether by hunting or other methods. What should man’s relationship be with the rest of creation? What rights, if any, should animals have and what duty of care does mankind have? These are all crucial questions that touch upon the very core of Christian belief, namely that man is created in the image and likeness of God and was redeemed by the death of His Son. Our Lord Himself assures us of our unique worth: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yetyour heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”(Mt 6: 26). These two facts have direct consequences for this current discussion in that they demand an understanding of what it is that makes us like God and therefore something more than simply another animal and what this means for us in our relationship with the rest of the created order. The Christian view of creation is essentially anthropocentric but it is not simply about man’s dominion over nature; it must also involve the question of his stewardship.

Why does man have a unique place in creation? Put most simply it is because we share key attributes with the creator and are called to an eternal destiny. St Thomas Aquinas, after Aristotle, identifies three key characteristics of the human soul; that we enjoy rational powers of memory, will and intellect. We have the power to distinguish good from evil and to make choices for which we can be held accountable. Without such a view sin, redemption and judgement would be incomprehensible. What purpose would the Incarnation have served? Even if we believed that animals had immortal souls, as the German theologian E. Drewermann argues, there is no evidence to suggest that animals enjoy these powers to any degree that would allow the attribution of free will – thus they cannot haveresponsibilities, which are the corollary of rights nor can they be held morally accountable. Animals are governed by instinct, while man has that capacity of will and intellect to override instinct.

The Moral Distrinction Between Man and Animals

We are moral beings as well as social creatures, and in this way the good of society can come before that of the individual, but not at the expense of the absolute rights and dignity of the individual human person. If one animal kills another in the natural struggle for survival this is not considered murder; it is survival of the fittest, the animal cannot be found guilty of an offence. However, if a man kills another in the same struggle he is a murderer. The very concept of society governed by laws that draw upon moral principles, and not simply principles of natural law or instinct, is clear evidence of the distinction between human beings and animals. If you destroy this fundamental distinction between humans and animals and equate the two absolutely the freedom of the individualbecomes subject to an ‘animal’ conception of society. The rejection of a God-based understanding leads to a philosophical understanding of rights that can become the justification for an attack on individual freedom and the fundamentals of a Christian society. The Animal Rights movement that so strongly opposes hunting, for example, fails to make this key philosophical and theological distinction. As such, it distorts the right relationship between us and the rest of creation. This will be discussed in some detail below. It is a dangerous error to separate rights from responsibilities. However, the peculiar dignity and rights that belong to man also imply that he has a responsibility to care for the created world; it is the privilege of our humanity and the accountability for our actionsthat means that our duty of care towards other creatures is all the more significant. It is a duty not just based on utilitarian considerations but also upon an understanding of moral responsibility before God.

Man the Guardian of the Environment

The Church holds that mankind acts as the guardian of the environment, responsible for the environment for future generations. This view is not incompatible with the traditional anthropocentric understanding; instead, the responsibility and duty of care that goes with man’s pre-eminence in creation is emphasised. In 1950 H.H. Pope Pius XII said: “The animal kingdom merits respect and consideration on the part of man.” Pope Paul VI in 1966 declared that: “Laws which punish those who mistreat animals or use brutal methods against them are in perfect harmony with Catholic morality and enjoy the support of the Church”. The current Holy Father has called for respect for all non-human creatures and in 1990 spoke of the need for “peace with the whole of creation.”

Until the 19th century, attitudes to animals were essentially governed by an anthropocentric view of the world in which man held the pre-eminent position. This conception of the created order stemmed largely from the Judeo-Christian understanding of the world drawn from the Old Testament in which man’s dominion is proclaimed as is his distinctness from the beasts of the earth. God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Gen 1: 26) and again God said to Noah: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, andupon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9: 1-6). The anthropocentric view is also to be found in the thought of Enlightenment thinkers such as Spinoza (1631-1677), Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Descartes (1596-1650) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Descartes,for example, adopted an extreme position; an animal was only a machine, a sort of automaton, which could not suffer. It would, however, be wrong to characterise the belief in the ‘lordship’ of man over creation as having only negative consequences for man’s relationship with the world. On the contrary it stimulated the development of science and led to great progress. From this belief in man’s dominion came the ‘duty’ or motivation for man to understand, govern and control his environment using his powers of reason.

The Influence of Jeremy Bentham

One of the first thinkers to argue that man had explicit obligations towards animals was the British philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham is the father of the doctrine of moral utilitarianism, in which the finality of existence lay in the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain – the greatest good for the greatest number. In other words the morality of an action is to be judged not by reference to the divine law but to the purpose served by that action. The judgement from being objectively based becomes one that is subjectively based. By virtue of the principle of universality he included within this number all sensible beings so that, in contrast to Descartes, animals are considered capable of suffering and of being happy. Bentham argued that “thequestion was not: Could they reason? Could they speak? But: Were they able to suffer?”

One of the implications of the moral utilitarianism of Bentham is that the sacrifice of an individual man or animal is permissible if it is capable of improving the level of happiness of man as a whole which is to be understood as the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In a similar way the contemporary Australian thinker, P Singer does not hesitate in attacking the sacredness of life; in his eyes nothing forbids the killing of “biological human beings who are not persons”. He justifies not only abortion, but also euthanasia of the very sick, while at the same time arguing that the death of ‘higher’ animals should be prohibited: “The life of a chimpanzee, a dog, or a pig is of greater value than that of a severely retarded human baby, or an old senile person” - just as an unwantedor sick animal may be put down, so with a human life. This extreme view is forbidden from being taught in Germany because this utilitarian and ‘rights of nature’ approach were the ideological foundations of the horrors associated with the Nazi regime. Man is stripped of his innate higher dignity and subject to the needs of society as a whole, which is governed, by principles of natural selection. Man is equated to an animal and as such, while animals may benefit from that attainment of rights, in distorting the order of creation man becomes subject to the same forces as animals in a struggle for existence.

An extension of this moral utilitarianism of Bentham is found in the philosophy of the contemporary American philosopher Regan who proposes a theory of animal rights based on the postulation that animals share, as of right, the rights of man. He argues that animals cannot be the subject of legal ownership, or the object of exploitation of any kind. As such he condemns hunting, animal experimentation and animal husbandry. These ideas are similar to those of thinkers like Singer, who while supporting abortion espouses not just vegetarianism, but veganism – abstaining from the use of all animal products such as milk, eggs, wool, leather etc.

'Animal Ethics' Applied to Human Society

Part of the ethic of the ‘rights of nature’ is based upon an identification of human societies as being no more than animal groups and thus it legitimates the application of the principle of survival of the fittest to human beings. The application of such a principle to human communities can, in some cases, lead to the acceptance of eugenics, totalitarianism, racism and ethnic purification. In Belgium one far right party rejects the idea that the nation should be governed by parties and a parliament advocating instead rule by the “natural elite”. Regan, Singer, Drewermann and other thinkers who wholly reject the anthropocentric view and who consider that the human species is simply one among many use expressions such as “man and other animals” or “non-human animals”.

It may seem ironic at first sight that the most elaborate legislation ever passed on the subject of the protection of animals was the Tierschutzgestetz passed in Nazi Germany in 1933. This 180 page document reflected Hitler’s own personal beliefs inspired by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) for whom man and animals are identical in substance because they shared in common the will to live, the ability to experience suffering, an ability to perceive the world around them and an intuitive conception of self. The new law covered both domestic and wild animals, those of use to man and also pest species, and endowed animals with intrinsic rights on the basis of a fundamental identification between man and animals. Hitler’s ethic of the ‘rights of nature’ revealed not only hisconcern for animals but also formed the basis of his totalitarian ideals – human beings being stripped of a status distinct from animals were therefore subject to the principles governing the animal world, not the moral imperatives of a Christian society which expresses the distinction between man and animals and which prohibits the elimination of individual rights and personal dignity even for the good of the whole. According to the Christian view it would be unacceptable to kill the old or disabled because they may be a perceived burden on society. It is the absence of this fundamental distinction, which underpins totalitarian regimes.

The Domestic Contract between Man and Animals

Perhaps a more realistic and acceptable approach to the relationship between man and animals is that of the ‘domestic contract’ proposed by C&R Larrere. According to this view the domestication of animals implies a contract between man and animals involving an exchange of services and mutual obligations. Animals provide man with meat, milk, leather, transport etc and man in return provides nourishment, protection from predators, shelter etc. This approach is inspired by older works such as those by Adam Smith (1723-1790), Montaigne (1533-1592) and even Lucretius (98-55BC) who in his work De Rerum Natura wrote that animals receive the care of man “as the price of their services”.

C&R Larrere argue that there is not an equality between man and domestic animals but a reciprocal relationship; the contract imposes on man the requirement not to mistreat animals prior to their death. Beasts are considered as subsidiary members of the human community; their relationship with man is of course hierarchical and unequal, but the contract enables both man and animals to fulfil their proper functions. This analysis does not, however, wholly address the problem of the management of wild animals. Where then does this leave hunting?

Is Hunting Cruel?

On 22nd September hundreds of thousands will come to London for a Liberty and Livelihood March motivated principally by opposition to a ban on hunting with dogs. The current attempt to make hunting a criminal offence has acted as a catalyst bringing together many who are deeply troubled by the problems facing rural Britain and its communities and industries. All those on the march will not simply be there because of their concern for the countryside or for their passionate love of hunting, but because they believe that people should have the right to hunt. Those who oppose hunting say that there can be no right to do something that is inherently cruel, a position with which no one could disagree, including all those involved in hunting. Those who hunt, or support hunting, do so becausethey do not accept that it is cruel - it does not involve the infliction of unnecessary suffering. The moral principle being applied is that in man’s relations with other creatures it is wrong to intentionally inflict unnecessary suffering. Yet quarry species need to be managed and part of that management involves the death of animals. Many of us enjoy watching nature at work on our televisions; we watch animals hunting and the beauty of creation even if we derive no pleasure from the actual killing of one animal by another.

We do however think of it as natural. Those who hunt derive pleasure from not just watching passively but from partaking in this natural process. Mankind uses and refines a natural mechanism and uses it to ensure a proper balance of animal populations. The pleasure is derived from being part of that natural environment, not passively from the armchair but actively and responsibly in the great outdoors. Hunting is a natural, selective and humane way of managing the environment. It also nurtures an understanding and respect between those hunting and the quarry. It is for this reason that the deer herds of the West Country are the finest in Europe.

No Licence to Kill Indiscriminately

Does this mean that mankind has a right to do what he likes with animals? Of course not. Mankind has no right to inflict unnecessary suffering on any of God’s creatures or to abuse his environment. If hunting inflicted unnecessary suffering then it would indeed be wrong for man as a moral creature, with free will, to partake in such an activity. However, the case against hunting has not been made. Nearly four hundred vets, members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons reject the idea that hunting is cruel. Indeed they are of the opinion that: “hunting by hounds is the most natural and humane way of controlling the population of all four quarry species, fox, deer, hare and mink, in the countryside. Humane, since at all times the wild animal remains in its natural environment and therelatively short period of physiological stress that may be suffered in the final phase of the hunt, followed by the almost instantaneous kill is not only acceptable but is the preferred method of culling a wild animal.

Hunting produces no wounded survivors. Hunting is the only method of culling that selectively maintains the health and vigour of a species and which allows the quarry species respite during the breeding season. Hunting is environmentally friendly not only to the quarry species but to other wildlife.” Many clergy of all denominations hunt and support hunting. The evidence in favour of hunting is extensive but there is a more important point at stake—and that is liberty.

A World Turned Upside Down

In the world around us we see the manifestation of God and His wonders but we enjoy a unique position in that order, and have a duty towards, and responsibility for, God’s creation of which we are a part. We must play an active rôle in managing what is now in large part an environment shaped by man. The Animal Rights movement that so strongly opposes hunting distorts the right relationship between us and the rest of creation. In denying man his distinct dignity and misapplying the concept of rights to animals the freedom of the individual is threatened. Abortion, euthanasia are to be permitted but the use by man of a natural mechanism for pest control is considered so morally objectionable that people should be criminalised while the slaughter of the unborn goes on. Modern reproductivescience is closer than most people realise to the eugenics of the 1930’s – the designer baby phenomenon. How did we reach this paradoxical situation? We reached it by losing a proper understanding of what it is to be human, and where rights and responsibilities belong. Human beings have inalienable rights by virtue of our created natures, animals have rights because they are a part of God’s creation and man is accountable for his stewardship of them. They cannot however, have rights in the same sense or to the same degree.

Therefore, if hunting is not cruel, if what would replace hunting as a means of population control could be no better, then there is no conflict between a love and respect for creation and hunting. To ban it, with all the adverse implications this would have for animal welfare and for rural communities and conservation, would be profoundly illiberal and wrong. Once we start banning things simply because we don’t like them, or the idea of them, or simply do not understand them, then as a society all our rights and freedoms are at stake. The combination of prejudice with false, atheistic philosophical principles has led before to the horrors of totalitarianism.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that a ban on hunting is a threat to all our freedoms, but a greater threat still is the victory it would represent for a powerful philosophy that destroys a proper understanding of what it is to be a human being and of our duty towards each other and the rest of creation. Catholics have a duty to oppose human cruelty in all its forms but also to defend the rights of the human person – the faith gives us the right balance between human rights and animal rights; extreme animal rights philosophies destroy that balance and they do so to society’s detriment as history has already shown.

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