We Should Care For Animals, But They Don’t Have Rights


I like lions. I like whales, cephalopods, glow worms, wildebeests, butterflies, stick insects, frogs and all types of cnidaria (that’s jellyfish, son). I was kind of sad when I saw Cecil the lion got shot. You wouldn’t think it from my professional writing, where human rights violations are my primary interest, but I go helplessly fubsy in the presence of anything four-legged and furry. It’s a chick-thing, I guess.

I think the natural world is terribly, terribly important, and not just because it’s pretty and often weirdly mysterious and amazing, but mainly because I have to live in it for the rest of my life.

I also grew up with the environmentalist ethic deeply embedded into my soul. Unless it is absolutely necessary, I have a visceral revulsion for the cutting of trees. I have protested the captivity of whales in public aquariums. I understand that humans come first, but there is little that can rile my blood to a high boil faster than people abusing helpless animals. (By the way: please don’t eat shark fin soup…ever. Seriously, not ever.)

I’ve never thought that being pro-life and being… well… pro-other kinds of life are incompatible. I object pretty strongly to the implication that because I don’t like what Planned Parenthood does, I must be someone who doesn’t care about other things too.

The whole weird (and dumb) thing with Cecil the Lion reminded me of the story of the guy I met in downtown Toronto one day while he was handing out pamphlets for something like Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Federation. He nabbed me with, “Do you have a moment to talk about the environment?” I was happy to chat, so I grinned mischievously and said, “Sure, if you’ve got a minute for the unborn.”

He looked a little taken aback, but to do him endless credit he didn’t start screeching like Donald Sutherland, but only said calmly that he didn’t understand. I explained what I did, which at that time was Research Director for Canada’s national pro-life lobby. He seemed a bit sad when he said, “Oh, then we are in conflict.” I asked him why, and he said, “Well, reduction of human population is necessary to save the planet.” I asked him how he knew that, and said, “I disagree. I think that setting mankind against the environment – as though he is not part of nature – is what has caused this problem to begin with. I don’t see why we can’t save the humans and the whales.” We had a good chat and parted on very friendly terms, and after that we saw each other on the downtown Toronto streets fairly regularly, and never failed to stop and say hello or wave. Things don’t have to be screechy. They can be explainy instead.

But I can’t ever be “an environmentalist” in the sense it is usually used in the papers. A brief investigation of the environmentalist movement will very quickly reveal a philosophical foundation – materialist utilitarianism mixed with quasi-spiritual New Ageism – that is deeply antithetical not only to Catholic thought but to human beings in general. It’s a funny phenomenon of philosophical history that it was the 18th century atheist political philosopher Jeremy Bentham who first proposed the notion of “animal rights,” the same Jeremy Bentham who invented utilitarianism, the philosophy that has resulted in more human deaths than any other in history. Nazism, Communism, and “abortionism” can all trace their roots there. Scratch a modern environmentalist, and you will find a utilitarian, every time. Today, the world’s leading environutter animal rights guy — Peter Singer — is also the world’s biggest proponent of infanticide and euthanasia for sick people. He was once called “the greatest living philosopher” by someone in the mainstream media.

I became interested in the environment (that we called the “ecology” then) in the 70s when it was all starting. This is the guy who helped to found Greenpeace, and he explains how things have changed since then:

But all is not lost. If you care about the degradation of the environment, you don’t have to give up the Faith, or vice-versa. There is a way of understanding all this that does not require utilitarianism. But the first thing to do is completely jettison the notion that animals have rights.

Rights can only be understood in connection to duties. Only rational beings, that is, humans and angels, can have duties. We rational beings have the right only to those things that make it possible to fulfill our duties. Catholics know that our primary duty is the worship of God, which is why the first three Commandments are first, and only once we get the worship of God out of the way do we start talking about our duties to each other.

Anyone can understand that animals do not have duties in the same sense that we do. Only rational beings are able to make the free, rational choice to obey or not obey God’s commandments  and fulfill his duties in life. To speak of animals having “rights” is to fundamentally misunderstand what rights are. Much of the rhetoric, even at the “highest” levels – like the chamber of the European Parliament and at international rights conferences – simply assume that we all agree on a definition of rights, but it’s an odd fact that that definition is almost never explicitly offered in any of these documents. The meaning of the word is never even mentioned.

Properly understood, therefore, animals do not have rights. But we still have duties to them. This is also something that a non-Christian can understand. We are, as far as anyone knows, the only beings on the planet who have been endowed with that infamous combination of the ability to reason and opposable thumbs. Whether you believe the Genesis creation story or think it came about via random selection, the end result is undeniable. Like it or not, we’re the boss of planet earth, which means we have the responsibility not to abuse the other living things – and the systems that support those things – on it.

Even enlightened self-interest will demonstrate this. One thing that the scientific research into this planet’s interconnected biological, climatic and geological systems has shown us is that if we humans continue to be short-sighted – if we hunt out all the apex predators in a local ecosystem, for instance – we end up creating more and bigger problems than we started with.

I was disappointed, (though not surprised) by the lack of any guidance from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical for Catholics who care about the environment but can’t be environmentalists. We’re still waiting for a comprehensive theology of the environment; to have our duties explained without reference to modern anti-Catholic political ideologies.

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