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ANIMAL RIGHTS, ANIMAL WELFARE, AND ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP

October 21, 2011

Neither Left nor Right but Catholic

ANIMAL RIGHTS, ANIMAL WELFARE, AND ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP

By Stephen M. Krason

            This week’s national news story about how a suicidal man released all his wild animals from his private nature preserve near Zanesville, Ohio—only a few counties west of where I live—brings forth questions about man’s stewardship of the physical environment and what the role of the state should be in animal protection. Callers to a local radio program objected to the fact the so many animals—including lions, tigers, and wolves—had to be killed in order to protect the human population. The confusion among so many in America—nourished, no doubt, by forty years of environmentalist and animal rights propaganda—about the difference between people and animals was disturbingly evident.

            Such an attitude is, of course, an expression of pervasive secularism and philosophical turmoil. The abandonment of a Christian worldview has wrecked much havoc, not the least of which has been the debasement of man. He is no longer understood to be just a little less than the angels and so important that God’s own Son came to save him. Nor is he any longer understood to be a creature with intellect and free will. If man is viewed as nothing more than a superior brute should it be surprising that for some people the brutes take precedence over him?

            Indeed, the wayward underlying philosophical perspective—of both the animal rights movement, and the extreme environmentalism of which it is part—goes deeper than the philosophy of human nature to metaphysics. It is monistic—it is oblivious to the simultaneous sameness and difference of being. Man, animals, and maybe even other things are all viewed as the same. Actually, man seems to be regarded as even less important than the rest of physical creation. We do not observe, for example, many pro-lifers among animal rights activists.

            While it has been typical in American history that interest groups take immoderate positions, it is uncanny that the major animal welfare organizations have for all practical purposes embraced the “animal rights” perspective. A leader of one of them was quoted as saying: “The life of an ant and the life of my child should be granted equal consideration.” The “mainstream” organizations are hard-pressed to criticize even the most extreme animal rights activists—including those who commit criminal acts.

            The animal rights movement betrays another outlook typical of the secularist mind: it is utopian. It sees man and the animal kingdom—in fact, all of nature—as able just to “commune together.” We can forge the correct relationship among man, the animals, and physical natural generally if we just get man to think properly about it—and if we regiment him. So, we see: the tendency to blame man for all the problems of the environment, the belief that somehow even wild animals will be no threat to men if they just treat them the right way (for example, insisting that we scare bears away by clanging pots instead of shooting them, the federal government’s bringing dangerous wolves back into parts of the West, and the criticism of the wild animal killings in Zanesville even though people were clearly threatened), and the ever-more unreasonable laws about animal abuse. As with most utopian schemes, they quickly turn into dystopias.

            In fact, of course, animals have no rights. As Fr. Thomas J. Higgins, S.J., wrote in Man As Man: The Science and Art of Ethics, animals cannot have rights because they have no “moral inviolability.” They are merely material and mortal; they do not possess a spiritual and immortal dimension. Man’s spiritual nature, then, is the basis for his rights. Animal rights activists would object to the charge that their perspective undermines human rights. They have no solid foundation for a notion of human rights, however; their support for human rights is little more than a matter of mere sentiment. It is like people who say that “it seems to them” that marriage should be just between a man and a woman, even while they have long since substantially undercut that conviction by embracing a thoroughgoing contraceptive ethic.

            As Higgins says, animals exist solely for the utility of man, the spiritual creature. Not only is there no such a thing as animal rights, but man has no obligations to animals. What he has is obligations about them. He must treat them in a “becoming way,” he cannot be cruel to them. To do so could lead to his becoming cruel to his fellow men, but it is also wrong in itself because it abuses the bounty of nature that God has entrusted to his care. So, to be concerned about animal welfare is part of the stewardship of the environment that God expects of man. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Blessed Pope John Paul II said that, “The dominion granted to man by the Creator is not a absolute power.” Moral laws must regulate his behavior there, as with other things. (#34).

            Should there be laws to promote animal welfare, forbid animal cruelty, and the like? Perhaps, but since law must promote the common good, those who advocate for them must clearly show how the common good is affected. Laws regulating the details of how animals are treated—such as how rabbits and cattle should be raised—would seem not to measure up. Many of these laws, like child abuse laws, are vague and imprecise. What they mean often is determined by someone making an anonymous complaint and by animal welfare officers or the animal rights-oriented groups that have been deputized by the state to enforce the laws. What, in effect, they become are the activists’ laws. They draft them, vigorously lobby legislatures to pass them (usually with no organized groups to oppose them, and the public not even aware of it), and then someone drawn from their ranks enforces them. Then, there is the question of whether the criminal law is the appropriate vehicle for this: Should people who don’t provide adequate care for their pets or horses be thrown in jail with hard-nosed criminals who mistreated humans? Is this not another example of saying that humans are no more important than animals? In the Zanesville case, the authorities had been called to the preserve many times to investigate allegations of animal cruelty—not the dangers from the animals perceived by the people nearby. Much ideology and little debate, or even reflection, has gone into forging these laws.

            The treatment of animals is one more area in America and the Western world in which convoluted thinking has led to immoderate, foolish, and even dangerous public policy.

Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

 

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