Books by Rev Andrew Linzey PhD
Animal Rights: A Christian Perspective (London: SCM Press, 1976);
Christianity and the Rights of Animals (London: SPCK and New York: Crossroad, 1987 and 1989);
(edited with Tom Regan), Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings (London: SPCK and New York: Crossroad, 1989 and 1990);
(edited with P.A.B. Clarke) Political Theory and Animal Rights (London: Pluto Press, 1990);
Animal Theology (London: SCM Press and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994 and 1996);
(co-authored with Dan Cohn-Sherbok) After Noah: Animals and the Liberation of Theology (London: Mowbray, now Continuum, 1997);
(co-edited with Dorothy Yamamoto) Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics (London: SCM Press and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998 and 1999);
Animal Gospel: Christian Faith as If Animals Mattered (London: Hodder and Stougton, and Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1999 and 2000),
Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care (London: SCM Press and Cleveland: Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1999 and 2001).
He is also co-editor of the Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society published by Routledge in 1995.
Animals in Christianity
The Theos-Rights of Animals
by Rev Andrew Linzey
For Catholic theology, steeped as it is in scholasticism, animals have no moral status. If we have any duties to them, they are indirect, owing to some human interest involved. Animals are not rational like human beings and therefore cannot possess immortal souls. Even the most hard-boiled scholastic would now probably admit that animals feel some pain but, if so, their pain is not regarded as morally relevant or truly analogous to human pain. In consequence, animals have no rights. ‘Zoophilists often lose sight of the end for which animals, irrational creatures were created by God, viz., the service and use of man,’ argues the Dictionary of Moral Theology. ‘In fact, Catholic moral doctrine teaches that animals have no rights on the part of man.’1
It is in this context that we have to understand the present discussion, both philosophical and theological, about animal rights. It is the persistence of scholastic Catholicism which inevitably makes rights the issue it is. When one considers the wealth of positive insight and prescription within the Christian tradition about animals, it is surely disconcerting that these negative influences should have held, and continue to hold, such prominence. The issue of animal rights is not some concession to secular thinking within theological circles, but simply the latest stage of a debate that began hundreds of years ago. John Foster, writing in 1856 (against William Wyndham’s opposition to early animal welfare legislation), complains of our being taught... from our very infancy, that the pleasurable and painful sensations of animals are not worth our care; that it is not of the smallest consequence what they are made to suffer, so that they are not rendered less serviceable to us by their suffering … that in short they have no rights as sentient beings, existing for their own sakes as well as for ours.’2
If today people concerned for animals prefer the term ‘animal rights’ to ‘animal lovers’ or ‘animal welfare,’ they are, consciously or unconsciously, linking themselves to a historic debate which is by no means concluded. It is not without significance that the ‘National Catholic Society for Animal Welfare’ in the United States has now become the ‘International Society for Animal Rights.’3
The argument that Christians should continue to utilise rights language and extend its use to animals needs to be subject to three qualifications. The first is that Christians should not claim that rights theory is the only theory of moral obligation. To the objection that rights theory may in some ways be deficient or inadequate, we have to reply that no one theory can possibly do justice to the complete range of themes and insights from within the Christian tradition. If this sounds like something less than a complete endorsement of rights, then it needs to be considered whether any moral theory, either of divine command or human duty, can claim to be the only possible one from a theological perspective. What we are characterising in Christian moral theology is nothing less than the will of God. Divine will is indubitably complex, even subtle and possibly developing. When we opt for the language of theos-rights, we do it with necessary reserve and caution, not because this theory is necessarily more difficult than any other, but because all moral theory is theologically problematic. Whenever we move from straightforward identification of God’s will with a particular imperative in a specific situation to the work of characterisation, that is, to characterising and systematising God’s will in general terms, then we are faced with the continual danger of over-simplification. Of course God’s will can be simple, but it can also be remarkably mysterious. Even Karl Barth, that robust defender of divine commands, accepts that it is not an easy task for Christian ethics to tell us what God’s will is. By our intellect and language we are always, through characterisation, approximating God’s will for his or her creation. Though theos-rights may be the best way of characterising the divine imperative, it does not follow that we must hold that such theory is in every way adequate or that in God’s good time some new form of theo-moral characterisation may not better it. Doubtless our own moral reasoning, however inspired, is, like the rest of creaturely life itself, in need of redemption.
The second qualification is that rights language cannot claim to be comprehensive. I mean by this that it cannot exclude other forms of moral language and insight. Talk of generosity, respect, duty, sacrifice and mercy as well as rights is essential. It may be that animal rightists have so stressed the importance of rights as a concept that they have neglected talk of compassion and respect. It may be, but for Christians my hope is that we can take such language for granted. One function of rights language is to provide checks and markers en route to living a less exploitative way of life with other creatures. This is surely a valuable function, but by itself does not provide a wholistic or sufficiently positive interpretation of the divine imperative. In other words, Christian ethics is not simply about preventing the worst but promoting the good. For the elaboration, definition and pursuit of the good with animals we require more terms than rights language can provide. It may be in some situations that we should accord animals more than that which rights theory may strictly give them, and err, if we do, on the generous side. For generosity is surely an important notion and rights language must be careful not to limit it even if we cannot persuade ourselves that it has the status of a declared ‘ought.’ To those who feel that we should not just respect the rights of say, sparrows, but actually seek loving, caring relationships with them, the rights view offers no obstacle. To those who feel called to especially heroic acts of mercy and self-sacrifice towards particular kinds of animals, the rights view again advances no objection. There will always be people, inspired by the life of Christ and the many saints, who feel moved to morally heroic, sacrificial acts. But, of course, it is not to these people that rights language is normally directed. In short: in fighting for the positive good of animals and humans, Christians will need to utilise a varied vocabulary. All that is claimed here is that rights language should be part of the necessary armoury.
Thirdly, we need to reiterate that the rights of which we speak are properly and solely God’s rights. God alone wills that givenness of life which make them possible; God alone charges us with the stewardship of them; and God alone can in the end properly guarantee them. One conclusion follows from this: as our knowledge of God increases by the power of the Spirit, so may our knowledge of the nature of God’s own will and therefore our understanding of God’s own rights. Some theologians regard rights terminology as far too static a way of describing God’s relationship with what is, after all, a dynamic and open creation. But theos-rights are not necessarily as static as may be their secular counterparts. The possibility of change is inherent in the fact that our understanding of God develops, whether for better or worse. It may be that God’s Spirit will move us to a new understanding of our place in the universe such as to make previous controversies about individual salvation in the Reformation period appear trivial by comparison. It may be or may not be. In either case it is our responsibility to recognise God’s rights in creation and to champion them.
The question may not unreasonably be posed: What then is the overwhelming advantage of rights theory which justifies it in spite of these serious qualifications? The answer may be obvious. Rights language insists that we envisage the claims of animals in analogous terms to those of other, human, beings. This is why some, perhaps many, hesitate or reject animal rights: they deny that the claims of other Spirit-filled breathing beings can be in any real sense analogous to human claims. In the issue of animal rights, perhaps more than any other, Christians confront the limitations of their own scholastic history. Scholasticism has for centuries regarded animals as ‘things.' The consequence is unsurprising: animals have been treated as things. For all the intellectual sophistication of the arguments against animal rights, one quite practical consideration is frequently dominant. To accept that animals have rights must involve accepting that they should be treated differently from the way most of them are treated at present. Explicitly acknowledging that animals have rights involves accepting that they have a fundamental moral status. If they have no such status, they cannot make claims; and if they have no claims, they can have no rights. Perhaps in the light of their tradition, it is easier for Christians to see the historic significance of the debate about rights than many of their secular contemporaries. Those who deny rights to the non-human do well to ponder the history of what rightlessness has meant for animals; if the opposing arguments do not convince, it is invariably because they do not want to accept that most animals are treated unjustly.
Here is the rub. To grant animal rights is to accept that they can be wronged. According to theos-rights what we do to animals is not simply a matter of taste or convenience or philanthropy. When we speak of animal rights we conceptualise what is objectively owed to animals as a matter of justice by virtue of their Creator’s right. Animals can be wronged because their Creator’s own creation can be wronged. Some philosophers are still adamant that it is possible to provide a theoretical framework for the better treatment of animals without recourse to the notion of rights. It may be possible in this way to provide for something better, but how much remains historically open. Perhaps through utilitarian calculation it may be possible to prevent some of the worst possible from happening to animals, but will their status be fundamentally changed thereby? Language and history are against those who want the better treatment of animals and who also want to deny the legitimacy of the language of rights. For how can we reverse centuries of scholastic tradition if we still accept the cornerstone of that tradition, namely that all but humans are morally rightless? If the foregoing appears to invoke the dubious need for penitence in formulating ethical theory, it can only be replied that repentance is a cardinal duty for Christians. If calculation of the consequences is to be allowed some say in moral assessments, then we have to accept that Christians have good reason for looking at what their own theology has created and, in the light of this, theologising afresh.
But apart from this obvious practical need to reverse centuries of neglect, theos-rights makes sense of a whole range of crucial theological insights — three in particular. The first is the sheer giveness of created reality. Unless God is really indifferent to creation, those beings whose lives are filled with God’s Spirit have special value and therefore require special protection. The second is the need to witness to the electing power of God in the covenant relationship. Humans and animals form a moral community, not only because of their common origin, but because God elects them within a special relationship with him/herself. Catholic scholasticism has denied the possibility of a moral community with brutes. ‘Nothing irrational can be the object of the Christian virtue of neighbourly love, charity,’ writes Bernard Häring. ‘Nothing irrational,’ he tells us, ‘is capable of the beautifying friendship with God.’4 What scholasticism here neglects or disputes, theos-rights assumes. Because humans and animals are elected by God, we form one covenanted community of Spirit-filled beings. Thirdly, the perspective of theos-rights gives meaning to the long tradition of rating humanity’s God-like powers in creation. According to theos-rights, humans must exercise power, but only towards God’s end. The unique significance of humanity in this respect consists in its capacity to perceive God’s will and to actualise it. Humanity is ‘to commit himself to the divine task,’ argues Edward Carpenter, ‘of lifting up creation, redeeming those orders of which [it] forms part, and directing them towards their end.’5
Those who deny theos-rights to animals need to show how it is that they can give sufficient reality to these insights without participating in the moral neglect of the non-human which still characterises continuing elements within the Christian tradition.
1. Dictionary of Moral Theology, ed. P. Palazzini, comp. By F. Roberti, trans by H. J. Yannone (Burns and Oates 1962), p. 73.
2. J. Foster, ‘On Cruelty to Animals’ in J. E. Ryland (ed.), Critical Essays Contributed to the Eclectic Review (Henry G. Bohn 1856), vol. 1, p. 440, his italics. I am grateful to Peter Wexler for this reference.
3. The International Society for Animal Rightshttp://www.isaronline.org, (421 South State Street, Clarks Summit, Philadelphia 18411, USA) is now one of the major animal rights organisations.
4. Bernard Häring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Clergy and Laity, vol. 2 (Mercier Press 1963), pp. 361-2.
5. Edward Carpenter, ‘Christian Faith and the Moral Aspect of Hunting’ in Patrick Moore (ed.), Against Hunting: A Symposium (Gollancz 1965), p. 136.
From Andrew Linzey, Christianity and the Rights of Animals, (c) copyright, Andrew Linzey, 1987, and reproduced with permission. Subsequently published in Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan (eds), Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings, Wipf and Stock, 2007. See
The Revd Professor Andrew Linzey is an Anglican priest and Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics (www.oxfordanimalethics.com) and author of the new book Why Animal Suffering Matters published by Oxford University Press