Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Tutu and Me on Animal Responsibility

The South African Anglican Church is noted as being different from almost all the rest in the African continent for its inclusive attitude towards gay people, at a time of dreadful legislation and moves towards oppression in places like Nigeria and Uganda.

This is in no small measure due to the influence of people like the former Archbishop Desmond Tutu who could see the connection between justice and inclusion when working against apartheid and other issues of justice and inclusion.

Now he has extended that call. He has said,

"I have spent my life fighting discrimination and injustice, whether the victims are blacks, women, or gays and lesbians. No human being should be the target of prejudice or the object of vilification or be denied his or her basic rights.

"But there are other issues of justice - not only for human beings but also for the world's other sentient creatures. The matter of the abuse and cruelty we inflict on other animals has to fight for our attention in what sometimes seems an already overfull moral agenda. It is vital, however, that these instances of injustice not be overlooked.

"I have seen firsthand how injustice gets overlooked when the victims are powerless or vulnerable, when they have no one to speak up for them and no means of representing themselves to a higher authority. Animals are in precisely that position. Unless we are mindful of their interests and speak out loudly on their behalf, abuse and cruelty go unchallenged."

He makes this statement in a foreword to The Global Guide to Animal Protection just published by the University of Illinois.

He further justifies the matter in Christian terms that dominion over animals is not despotism, and that humankind is made in the image of God in terms of being "holy, loving and just."

"If it is true that we are the most exalted species in creation, it is equally true that we can be the most debased and sinful.  This realization should give us pause … There is something Christ-like about caring for suffering creatures, whether they are humans or animals."

His call is that: "Churches should lead the way by making clear that all cruelty - to other animals as well as human beings - is an affront to civilized living and a sin before God."

I wonder myself what a less specifically Christian approach can be to this matter. Evolution is based on death, a food chain that results in species diversity as genes are passed on. We see insects that can organise and specialise, and higher animals acting tribally that can be quite 'authoritarian' within. We see 'redundancy' where some less efficient genes are protected within a species because, at times of environmental upheaval, these genes may be the ones to survive. Clever survival is adaptable: it is practical as well as simply ethical to look after the weak and the different.

But as the highest of the animals in terms of language and keeping a library, and thus historical culture, we have built up technology that largely protects us from natural selection (until the terrible disease or asteroid comes). What comes with self-consciousness is a developed ability to empathise, especially about pain in the other, especially pain in the unknowing creature as regards the future. The ethic must be to minimise the pain and to increase the beneficial experience of living itself. So this brings about responsibility, responsibility to research the sentience of animals and to treat sentient life with respect - to extend the principle of do as you would have done to you, the ethical golden rule, but with regards to what is a food chain when left to itself.

Although some animal ethicists are vegans, the ethical position starts with agriculture itself and how that technology of humans is used in husbandry - a husbandry that can allow some animals not to look over their shoulders at predators. It may be that the better ethical position is possible with technology. Most animal ethicists are practical, and however far they would like human behaviour to go, they want issues of justice to apply in the world in which we do live. You have to start from where we are.

These are my opinions.

Living in this world and being practical is how I understand Andrew Linzey's repeat call for an international court to try cases of animal cruelty and with a stress on the culpability of governments. It's not about regarding any animal husbandry as cruel, as I understand it, as might be claimed by some vegans, for example, in their vanguard of ethical claims. This in a world that sadly sees the likes of Syria where there is a distinct lack of empathy regarding human beings including children, never mind animals.

The Global Guide to Animal Protection does not just look at human indifference and cruelty toward animals, or exploitation, but also looks at individuals who have challenged and sought to change exploitative practices.

The volume is edited by Oxford theologian Professor Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. See for more information and the ethical position held. The Global Guide to Animal Protection is available from priced USD95 (cloth) and  USD27 (paper).

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