Santa Clara University

Do animals have rights?

The theological status of animals as moral beings.

Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J.

The conversation about the relative moral status of animals is a vast and complex one. There are many stakeholders in, and much passion about, the dignity and worth of non-human animals. The film "28 Days Later," an otherwise forgettable thriller about plague victims-cum-zombies, opens with a horrifically memorable scene in which animal rights activists break into a research lab and free chimpanzees who are being used as experimental hosts in disease research; the disease jumps species and the storyline begins. While PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) condemns violence of any sort and distances itself from such violent groups as the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), PETA does hold that "animals deserve the most basic rights—consideration of their own best interests regardless of whether they are useful to humans." This stance is based on the notion that animals are "capable of suffering and have an interest in leading their own lives" and therefore cannot be used for "food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other reason."

Some would find the philosophical foundation of PETA’s claims somewhat troubling. It is a fact that animals experience pain and suffering. It is certainly true that animals have instinctual behavior patterns; some species learn about their environments and then use tools to alter their environments for their own better survival. It is a leap, however, to say that animals have "an interest in leading their own lives." The word "interest" comes from the Latin inter (between) and esse (to be) and connotes, in legal thought, participation in advantage and responsibility. In other words, to be able to enjoy certain concrete rights within a social system, a moral agent also has certain duties towards others within that same system. For example, one can claim the right to free speech, yet one is thereby duty bound to protect the freedom of speech for all others. Animals kill and consume living beings (other animals and/or plants) in order to survive, and it is in their "interest" to survive and multiply according to the rule of the "survival of the fittest." In this latter sense, "interest" means simply self-interest, as in an individual advantage or benefit without regard to any accompanying obligations towards all others.

If one brackets theological considerations and adopts a secular, strictly utilitarian view, then one could still claim that animals have, if not rights, at least value—such that animals have a moral standing in human discourse. One could claim that animals (and even plants) as species serve human flourishing and, therefore, ought to be preserved. They have actual ‘market value’ now for the work they do, for the food that they furnish, the drugs that they provide, the enjoyment that they afford human beings, etc. In all these ways they benefit human beings, only who are moral ends in themselves. Animals also have potential value for the relief or satisfaction of not yet existing human needs and wants. Therefore, it is a moral wrong to present and future generations of humans to drive into extinction whole species of animals. This falls under the heading of generational justice—doing no harm to existing or future human beings. This view does not claim that animals have rights; it only holds that human beings have rights which can be infringed by other human beings as a result of the consequences of human decisions and actions.

If, on the other hand, one introduces Christian theological considerations into the question of animal rights, then new possibilities and new difficulties arise. In his seminal study of Catholic participation in the American experiment "We Hold these Truths," John Courtney Murray, S.J. drew a sharp distinction between the conception of rights as proposed by the American Revolution and that of the French: Natural law vs. contract law. The Declaration of Independence called our most basic rights God-given and therefore "inalienable." Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are basic human rights that precede the existence of the state, for a state can only be edified by human persons who by their actions give legitimacy to government, not vice versa. The opposite view would hold that the state determines what is true and just; the state sets the measure of truth and justice, bestowing rights upon some citizens and depriving other citizens of rights according to the interests of the state. Catholic social thought has always opted for the former stance, called it Natural Law, and based it on the theological insight that human persons are created in imago Dei, in the image of God, who thereby imbues human persons with inalienable worth and dignity. Such inherent worth and value means, among other things, that human persons are always ends in themselves and can never be used as merely means to another person’s end (thus, for example, the absolute priority of labor over capital in Catholic social doctrine). A Catholic consideration of animal rights would have to return to the same source that founds a Natural Law conception of human rights in order to consider whether animals, by their very being, enjoy inalienable rights.

In a Judeo-Christian view, animals are creatures, i.e., they exist because God the Creator willed—and still wills—for them to exist. Human beings have an innate sense of the moral value of animals as fellow creatures on an intuitive level: cruelty toward animals is felt to be both a sin and a crime. Why? Why would human beings sense that the imposition of unnecessary suffering on animals for sport or pleasure is morally wrong? It seems that humans recognize that animals suffer pain, and since animals cannot sin or commit crimes (because they lack moral agency and free will), animals are innocent. If the unnecessary suffering of animals is the unnecessary suffering of the innocent, then this per se is bad. Of course, it is sometimes necessary to inflict pain on the innocent for their greater good, as when small children are given inoculations against diseases, but to inflict pain needlessly on the innocent is an act of cruelty; it is a sign of either mental illness or moral deficiency. Further, cruelty towards the innocent is sinful because it is "unnatural"—it is a denial of our nature and that of the victim of our sinful intent and action.

The word "nature" is derived from the Latin root nasci, birth. It refers not only to the ongoing renewal of plant and animal life through the birth-death-regeneration cycle but also to the essential character of nature as "creation." Beyond naming the reality of the world as grace, as gift, the singular word "nature" points to the unity of the totality of creation—"God made everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). The singular pronoun "it" is the key to understanding the Hebrew conception of the created universe: the whole world, including human beings, is ordered by a single author and for a single purpose, to be good. The unity of nature, then, is ordained by God, who sets the laws of nature to this end. At the same time, the authors of Genesis recognize human preeminence over all other creatures and speak of the divine mandate to exercise dominion (Genesis 1:26) over all the other creatures. Dominion is not ownership; God remains king of the universe. Human beings are vice-regents, stewards who must be careful to obey the laws set by God. Indeed, the first "sin" is precisely a violation of a law that God had set in the natural order of the Garden of Eden, a law that regulated what the two humans were to eat and what they were to forego.

The authors of the Genesis account imported a creation story typical of the genre circulating in the ancient Near East and modified it to reflect theological insights unique to the Hebrew tradition about human nature, nature as a whole, and the nature of God. They held, for example, in contrast to many of their neighbors, that the world is good, and that the world’s goodness is dynamic rather than static, i.e., that history is linear rather than circular, and that all of creation is evolving towards its final end, a state of perfection that is more than merely a return to the pristine goodness of the beginning. The Christian tradition built upon this theological inheritance in implicit as well as explicit ways. The Prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1ff) deliberately omits the article in Greek ("In [the] beginning…") because there are no articles in Hebrew. John does so to draw attention to the parallel between the Creation story in Genesis and the pre-existence of the Logos in his Gospel. The Johanine tradition carries forward this belief in the unity, dignity and holy destiny of all of creation to its projected eschaton: salvation history will end not with the passing away of all that was created but by its perfection, ("a new heaven and a new earth" Revelation 21:1ff).

The Christian tradition understands the proleptic ("already but not yet") perfection of nature as figured by the reign of God announced and inaugurated by Jesus Christ. In his incarnation, the Son put on flesh, put on nature, embraced life and gave thereby a second blessing not only to human nature but to creation as a whole. By his resurrection from among the dead, the Son prefigured in himself the destiny of nature—for that which was assumed is redeemed, i.e., by obviating the final effects of death (annihilation), Christ bestowed the quality of infinity (eternal life) on all that is finite (mortal). Thus, while nature (qua creation) and the reign of God are not co-extensive, yet nature is the context and indeed the very condition for the possibility of the in-breaking reign of God. Nature is that which came to be through Christ (creation), that which is redeemed by Christ in its brokenness (resurrection) and that which will come to perfection in Christ at the end of history (parousia).

If nature then, as a whole, plays an essential role in God’s plan, then nature as a whole enjoys a sacred character. Does this sacred character translate into innate and inalienable dignity for non-human reality in a way that is analogous to the case for human reality? Do animals therefore have rights? Is their moral status inherent and therefore recognized and respected, rather than conditionally granted, by human beings? How one answers these questions reveals fundamental premises and basic assumptions about the nature of the universe.

Some would say that all creatures, great and small, are created and therefore loved by God, who holds them in existence. While this may well be true, yet Jesus, who by his death and resurrection freed humankind from ultimate annihilation, never explicitly spoke of the salvation of animals. Yet, as noted above, the fourth evangelist did teach that Jesus reconciled all things in himself. Does this translate to mean that every individual animal has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Few would hold this position, yet the long experience of the Church is that, in any given age, saints are few; holy people are often hidden from view and the handful may well be right.

Some would say that, because God chose to create them within a system that is governed by laws of evolution and natural selection, therefore, animals should exist, as species, for a time. This would not extend rights to individual animals, but it would accord species the right to exist within the span of time allotted to them by the natural history of the world. A further question then arises: since human beings are a part of nature and not "super-natural" beings, then do all our actions and choices constitute "natural" occurrences? For example, does the environmental degradation caused by our life-style choices constitute a natural development, and should the ensuing extinction of species be termed "natural"? Or do we have a moral obligation to preserve species by examining the "double effect" of many of our choices and making sacrifices of self-interest to insure the survival of other species?

In the years to come, with the further industrialization of the planet and the ever increasing burden of the human species on all other living beings, such considerations will only become more necessary and more vexing.

Paul Fitzgerald, S.J., is associate dean of SCU’s College of Arts and Sciences. He joined the faculty in 1997 and teaches undergraduate courses on Catholic theology and spirituality, economic justice, film and religion, and Catholicism in American culture, and graduate courses on the Church and ministries for peace and justice.
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