Theological Ethics of the Treatment of Animals

Professor David Clough’s new book, On Animals: Theological Ethics was recently published, and he was invited to present on his research at a symposium hosted by Be Creature Kind.

The question at the heart of this exploration is Why should Christians (or anyone) care about the treatment of animals? Especially when there are so many issues of devastation for humanity. Clough pointed out that ethical concern does not need to be a zero sum game. Even though there are many ethical issues worldwide, there is room to make small steps in advocacy for animals. In case, you want to stop reading here, one small change that Professor Clough recommends is to simply eat less meat. For more information on why and how to adjust your eating habits, visit DeafultVeg.

One main reason we should treat animals well is that how we treat animals is a reflection of who we are as humans. When dealing with other living beings, the treatment of those creatures reflects what value there is in life. The ethics of animal treatment relies on this idea of how life is valued. Theological ethics of animal treatment rely on human engagement with how God loves life.

Clough presented various aspects of human-animal interactions. His presentation dealt with animals as food, animals for textiles, animal labor, animal experimentation, animals in sports & entertainment, animals as pets & companions, and human impacts on wild animals. Each has an in-depth study, chapter by chapter, in his book. I have summarized some of his main points below.

Animals for food—Clough’s ethical considerations primarily deal with industrializing animal slaughter for food. In volume, fish make up the most slaughtered animals on the planet. This caught me off guard, though it should not be surprising. Clough drew upon scientific evidence that fish feel the pain of compression and affixation before being slaughtered for food. The next mass of animal slaughter is boiler chickens, raised as a source of meat, followed by hens, raised for egg production. Again, Clough’s study focused on the statistics of stress and pain during the lives of these animals on an industrialized farm compared with the less stressful natural life in the wild. Clough brings perspective to industrialized farming that maximizes pigs, sheep, and cattle as human food sources.

He concludes that an ethical consideration views animals as co-creatures inhabiting God’s creation. As a solution, humans could turn to small-scale animal agriculture and vegetarian food sources. For example, the grains and plant sources used to feed animals in industrialized farming could be used for human consumption, reducing the problems that arise from large-scale animal production (like zoonotic pandemic risk and antibiotic resistance).

Animals for textiles—animals, are slaughtered for leather tanning in many countries around the world. Sheep are mass-sheered for their wool. The fascinating textile relationship that Clough described as silk production. Moth cocoons are harvested by boiling them in mass to kill pupae before gaining the silk. Clough’s thoroughness considers an ethical value for animals that is not dependent on size. Moth pupae take the least of these to an extreme for some, but I am impressed with the consistency of thoughtful reflection upon the value of life. Clough presses the question, “what does it mean to be attentive to the life of creatures, even to the smallest ones?”

Animals for labor—many rats and dogs are used in various fields of science and law enforcement. Recently, a rat named Magawa became famous for his service in detecting mines. You can read about Magawa on BBC News.

Animals for sports & entertainment—Clough brought up the merits of horse racing, which was invented to give men gambling opportunities. The sport has resulted in the ill-treatment of animals and selective breeding.

Animals as pets & companions—Clough’s presentation has encouraged me to reflect on how we can measure our use of animals, even when caring for them as pets. Clough views positive relationships between humans and animals as pets as a reflection of a romantic idea. There is mutual value in relationships with companion animals. However, the pet industry has its dangers, including kill shelters, discriminatory breeding, abandoned animals, and over-supply. These practices need to be reevaluated. We cannot ignore puppy/kitty farms and idealize particular breeds at the expense of caring for animals that need homes.

A Practical Response

How can we respond when met with such a litany of ethical questions about the treatment of animals in our world? Individuals have limited power to affect big corporate decisions about the treatment of animals, but we can support animal welfare when possible and source our food from responsible farms. Creature Kind is developing a DefaultVeg program for encouraging individuals to change eating habits. These are small attempts to shift the norms so there is less demand for animals.

My grandparents used to tell me about their lives in mid-twentieth Century San Francisco. As a young couple with a tiny child, they could afford one pound of beef every week to stretch across their meals as protein. This sounds amazing when, in today’s world, billboards advertise five hamburgers for $5. It is not uncommon for a couple or family to consume a pound of beef in a single meal, multiplied several times per week. This seems excessive.

The emphasis of Clough’s book is theological, meaning it relies on a confessional concern for God’s creation. Clough links it to a fundamental monotheistic confession that God created all things. Humans exist alongside animals as co-creatures. Animal creatures are dependent upon human creatures. Clough points to biblical references, like Psalm 104, which emphasizes how God provides for and sustains all creation, and the words of Jesus, the Christ, who said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (Matt. 10.29, NRSV). He appeals for all Christians to concern themselves with the intentional care of God’s creation.

Clough emphasizes that Christian belief in a fallen world means that creaturely relationships are broken, and animal habitats are unbalanced due to human intervention. His final appeal is that humans prepare themselves to think about a future where animal treatment is thoughtful and intentional. We should think about the implications of the shared labor of humans with animals. Currently, the most effective training of animals (i.e., dogs for military and police work) is achieved through a one-to-one relationship between a single dog and a single handler. This partnership is evidence of mutual respect. Clough cites the precedence of collaborative hunting between early human populations and dogs through mutual need. “A biblical vision is prepared to entertain the possibility of good collaboration between humans and animals.” What does it look like to apply this in a real-world context?

Clough offers that the most important thing we can do is reduce the consumption of animal products. In the last hundred years, the industrialization of animal farming has completely changed the way animals are farmed. We cannot improve animal welfare without changing and reducing meat consumption. Individual families can adjust their grocery and eating habits. Business meetings can shift default meals to vegetarian or vegan, forcing meat as a choice. These are small ways to long-term solutions.

I encourage you to consider Professor Clough’s message and accept the directive to align ourselves with a compassionate God when caring for God’s creation. I have thought a lot about our responsibility for just treatment of animals while recently reading through Leviticus. This might seem like an odd correlation, but the careful descriptions of butchery for particular sacrifices make me think that the task was meant to be so complex that every attempt would be to avoid creating unnecessary sacrifices. I wonder if there is a way to think about animal sacrifices as a deterrent to sinning against oneself or one’s community not to have to slaughter an innocent animal. These thoughts were not in Clough’s presentation, but I am encouraged to think about animal ethics as I consider meaning in the biblical text. For that, I am thankful for the thorough care and planning that Professor Clough put into this project and presentation.

Professor David Clough’s presentation may be found at Be Creature Kind.

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