Friday, September 15, 2006

On Humanitarianism and Animal Rights

I don't believe that I have ever read anything about Animal Rights in any of the thousands of posts that have been generated by the members of St Blog's Parish. One just came flying over my keyboard and I thought it was quite good and deserving of further distribution.

Many of us love animals, mostly dogs and cats, but strange things like geckoes and pigeons, too. I guess those last two aren't "animals" in the way scientists use the term, but you know what I mean. I love them too, and I love dogs enough to know that I wouldn't take very good care of them so I haven't owned one as an adult.

Dr. Jeffrey Mirus, not a Vet nor a Pediatrician nor a Dentist, but a Catholic Educator, has some good thougths on love and relationship with animals and the responsibilities of stewardship. He makes his point that being kind to animals does not qualify one as a humanitarian, because animals are not human.

[snip] The confusion in our culture over animals is interesting. It is no doubt representative of our culture to have an editor assert that someone is a humanitarian because he devotes himself to the well-being of animals. But it doesn’t make very much sense. I don’t mean that it doesn’t make sense to anyone at all, for it would make perfect sense to Princeton philosopher Peter Singer [the idiot who believe in infanticide before and after birth as long as somebody else does the killing] who believes that, after all, animals are people too.

But it doesn’t make sense for anyone with an otherwise undarkened mind. Animals, in fact, are not persons. They lack intellect and will and are completely incapable of entering into personal relationships. This doesn’t mean that they can’t become attached to those who take care of them (or, more significantly, that pet owners can’t become attached to their pets). But animal affection, where it exists, operates at the level of sense perception. Animals cannot think about love and commit themselves to it by an act of will.

Love and Relationship

As the nature of love is something which also confuses our culture, we tend to forget that love in the most complete sense is not mere affection but an act of the will. If all our relationships are based on physical attraction and convenience, they will be essentially animal relationships which, because they are not ultimately satisfying to real persons, will not even last as long as they would among animals. The ability to understand what something is and to engage oneself with it in the proper way—that is, the ability to employ both intellect and will—constitutes the unique relational ability of persons. This relational ability reaches its summit in authentic, self-giving love. Only God, angels and human beings are capable of it.

In other words, only God, angels and human beings are persons. Everything else in creation is what we call a “thing”, and persons have been given dominion over things, both by God’s prescription and by the order of nature. Though it may sometimes be hard to admit, our favorite dog is a thing, as we know perfectly well when we refer to it, on certain occasions, as “that damn dog”. For most of us the distinction between things and persons becomes immediately clear when we reflect on the fact that we are morally free to buy or sell our dog, or even exchange it for a parakeet. We are not morally free to buy, sell or trade persons.


Of course, this does not mean that we have no reason to think about how to behave toward animals. As stewards of creation, we have every reason to give careful consideration to our management of living things that are not persons, as well as non-living things. But the issues must be considered in relation to those whom we serve as stewards, and our stewardship is more important for what it says about ourselves than for what it means to the animals. For example, there are reasons not to be cruel to an animal, but they have little to do with the final disposition of the animal itself. Animals cannot have rights, because rights inhere only in persons. Animal management is a question of stewardship only.

A proper understanding of stewardship will certainly include an understanding that higher animals can experience pain, that they can both feel and express emotion, and that they are therefore capable of a certain level of affection. Appropriate treatment of animals in proportion to these capacities (and their degree of development by association with humans in particular cases) is rightly considered “humane”, not from the animal’s point of view, but from the point of view of what it means for the human person to act in a knowledgeable and responsible manner which both evinces and enhances moral integrity. Stewardship implies a responsibility to know well the objects of one’s stewardship, and to make one’s dispositions for the general and particular good of persons, that is, for man. [snip] Catholic Culture

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