A Case for the Moral Consideration of Animals

National Review Online | Published on October 21, 2013

By Mary Eberstadt

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is the introduction to Charles Camosy’s For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action, and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

Every once in a while, a book comes along that does something few books ever do, which is to change something fundamental about the way you live your life. For some people reading these words, theologian Charles Camosy’s For Love of Animals will be that book.

And for good reason: because its subjects — the rights and wrongs of our modern treatment of animals, especially though not only mammals, and especially though not only the creatures of factory farms — are simultaneously morally urgent and widely ignored by many people, including and inexplicably by many well-meaning but under-informed Christians.

Professor Camosy has now remedied that defect with this lively, thoughtful, and utterly original book. It ranges widely but with a teacherly touch over subjects as diverse as the history of Christian vegetarianism; papal and other pronouncements about creation; the development of Christian theology concerning nonhuman persons, such as angels; the morality of dog-fighting; the relevance of laws against child labor; the question of pets; the truth about factory farming; and much more. Throughout, the author aptly convinces the reader both that our culture’s treatment of defenseless creatures is morally indefensible much of the time; and also that “those of us who follow Jesus Christ,” in particular, “should give animals special moral consideration and attention.”

For Love of Animals applies the specific lens of Catholic teaching about social justice, pointing out among other details that the Catechism itself says that animals are owed moral treatment. Its author is surely right to attribute the horrors of factory farming, in particular, to an ethic of feckless consumption according to which more is better, all the time. It is rampant and unexamined Western consumerism, more than anything else, that “disconnect[s] us from the process by which pig meat gets on our plate.” I would add to that analysis the friendly amendment that this same consumerism encourages the formation of a habit that is suspect wherever and whenever it appears, but that chronically gets a pass where animals are involved: i.e., a practiced desire to remain ignorant of those things about which we wish not to know.

Of course reasonable and good people will disagree about some of what’s discussed in these pages. Moreover, as the author emphasizes, fundamental cultural change takes time — lots of it. But surely every reader, Christian or otherwise, will agree upon putting down this book that in the matter of animals, lines ought to be drawn and distinctions ought to be made that aren’t currently part of our Western moral topography — and need to be.

The map toward a better kind of stewardship has many and varied roads, some of them personal. Like the author, I also gave up eating mammals and birds some time back after decades of itinerant vegetarianism; and for me, too, this was a gradual and parallel effort toward becoming “more authentically and consistently pro-life,” as he puts it in describing his own path.

In my own case, as it turned out, that change had less to do with philosophical questions about social justice than with more visceral things. In particular, I simply could not get around a question raised vividly in Matthew Scully’s seminal and perennially powerful 2002 book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy: If I was unwilling to kill these creatures with my own bare hands (as I surely was, and am), then by what right or moral standard could I possibly delegate the brutal act of killing to others — especially to those poorer and darker and more desperate “others” who man America’s squealing slaughterhouses and shovel out its reeking chicken factories?

It took years and a number of other questions after that, but ultimately reading Dominion ended up having a decisive effect on my life; and the same will be true for other people in the wake of For Love of Animals.

In addition to being merciful, this book is also a mercifully good read. It can and should be paged with profit by anyone from high-school age on up. Readers seeking a thoughtful presentation to family or friends of their own reasons for abstaining from meat will find in it an especially useful primer; and readers who are nowhere near convinced will nonetheless find that it opens their eyes.

It would be gratifying if the book were also to start a serious and overdue discussion in Christian religious quarters. One wonders, for example, whether vegetarianism for some believers might be a unique “sign of contradiction” in its own right — particularly in a time of relative plenty marked by rampant consumerism, and particularly given what Blessed John Paul II decried as an accompanying “culture of death.” Wanton cruelty to animals, of the sort that is now pitiably routine, is arguably part and parcel of that same culture, and it further deadens the general moral sense at a time when it’s needed most.

As a vegetarian named Leo Tolstoy once put it, in a powerful 1909 essay that he wrote about a slaughterhouse: “We cannot pretend that we do not know this. We are not ostriches, and cannot believe that if we refuse to look at what we do not wish to see, it will not exist.”

One also wonders after reading this book when, if ever, pro-life and pro-animal advocates will figure out how much they have in common and make common cause. To observe as much is hardly to posit moral equivalence. It’s rather to make the point that those who labor to protect unborn human life have more in common with many animal sympathizers than either side has yet understood, as some people reading these pages are about to find out. Similarly, readers might note the almost preternatural serendipity of this book’s appearance during the pontificate of a pope named Francis I, named for the greatest animal lover of all time — one more sign suggesting that the moment for a fair hearing of Professor Camosy’s argument is ripe.

In sum, whether you are a Catholic or an atheist, liberal or conservative, progressive or traditionalist, the pages ahead will give you much to think about. And you won’t be alone. Every year, more Western men and women are being driven to understand that solicitude for human animals and solicitude for other animals are not mutually exclusive expenditures of moral energy. More and more can now agree that stewardship is a call to clemency and mercy, not to ruthless exploitation; and that all life, including animal life, is too precious to be cavalierly and cruelly and routinely trashed.

The community of people now struggling to understand as much, and to do right by creatures both great and small, is in the process of constructing a wholly new big tent. Thanks to Professor Camosy’s welcome and auspiciously timed new book, it just got noticeably bigger.

Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of  How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press).