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Respecting Your God-Given Species-Being

I haven't written much about animal rights lately, but Joe Carter prompts an interesting observation. Here's how Richard Mouw, who Carter quotes approvingly, puts a Christian case for opposition to factory farming:

The Bible says that God created every animal 'after its own kind.' Chickens aren't people, but neither are they nothing but hunks of meat. Chickens are chickens, and they deserve to be treated like chickens! This means that we have to give each chicken the space to strut its stuff in front of other chickens. ... [The farmer] sensed an obligation to treat his chickens with dignity-not human dignity, mind you, but chicken dignity.

I found this argument interesting because it sheds light on one of the standard "radical" cases for moral consideration, not just of animals, but of plants and ecosystems too. Both the radical argument and the Christian argument are "perfectionist" moral theories. That is, they assert that each category of beings* has a way of life proper to it, and moral harm consists in interfering with a being's pursuit of its proper way of life (or in some cases failing to aid it in that pursuit). Certainly Christians and radicals would disagree on the basis for those proper ways of life -- Christians would say that they're defined by the Creator's purposes, while radicals derive them from "nature," that is, the normal unimpeded course of development. And Carter certainly draws a far more narrow practical conclusion. But they both pursue the same form of argument, and would probably agree to quite an extent on the content of the proper way of life for most species.

I think both attempts to establish a perfectionist account of moral obligation fail. I simply don't agree with the type of obligation-creating purpose-laden creation that's required in the Christian perfectionist argument. On the other hand, the radical perfectionist argument makes too many questionable assumptions about what counts as normal and non-interference (since the development of any entity is an interaction between its internal propensities and its external environment). Further, all perfectionist theories enact a problematic "lumping," assigning beings a good life based on (debatably arbitrary) category membership.

The alternative to a perfectionist theory of consideration for animals would be a "liberal" one. Liberal theories focus on the self-determination of individual entities, either directly promoting it (e.g. utilitarianism) or defining and defending certain procedural prerequisites (e.g. rights-based and Kantian theories). To a liberal, the problem with Mouw's chickens is not that they can't do the kinds of things that chickens are supposed to do, but rather that they can't do the kinds of things that those particular chickens would want to do.

Note that perfectionist theories are likely to be more expansive in the number of beings they extend moral consideration to -- after all, the definitions of a God- or nature-based good life would seem to extend to anything that was created by God or exists in nature, whereas liberal theories end wherever the capacity for that theory's relevant type of self-determination ends. However, this doesn't mean that perfectionist theories are necessarily more radical in their practical implications -- for example, it's much easier to imagine that eating an animal could be consistent with its proper form of existence than to imagine it's compatible with respecting its self-determination.

(Carter would seem to confuse the issue by going on to talk about how he's in favor of animal welfare rather than animal rights -- implying a utilitarian basis for his concern. But with respect to the animal issue, welfare vs rights is actually a code for how radical your policy conclusions are, with the dividing line typically drawn at willingness to endorse vegetarianism.)

*Generally the species is taken to be the morally relevant level of categorization, though Christians often further divide each species, particularly humans, by gender.


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