What does it mean to assert that animals have rights? Can Christians consume meat? How concerned should Christians be about the treatment of animals? In this episode, Sean and Scott discuss these questions, and many more, as they review the influential book by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer: Animal Liberation Now.
Book mentioned by Scott: God, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe by Robert N. Wennberg.
Sean: What does it mean to assert that animals have rights? And if they have rights, what does that say about consuming meat for food? If animals do not have rights, how do we justify laws that prevent cruelty to animals? We're going to discuss these and much more around a revision of a very influential book by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer called “Animal Liberation Now.” I'm your host Sean McDowell.
Scott: I'm your co-host Scott Rae.
Sean: This is Think Biblically, both an audio and a YouTube version of our typical conversation. This book absolutely fascinated me, Scott. I know your expertise is in ethics and you've studied this for a while, so I want to lean on you for your insights in this. But he wrote this 25 years ago. Maybe give our audience some context of who Peter Singer is and how significant the first book is and his contribution is to the idea of animal rights.
Scott: Yeah, I'd say the one thing that changed between the first and the second edition is the addition of the red letter now.
Sean: Now. Okay.
Scott: So, there's a sense of urgency to it that was not in the first one. Peter Singer's an Australian philosopher who's had a long time endowed chair at Princeton. It’s a very controversial appointment; and he's a very controversial philosopher. This has not been the main part of his academic career. Although, I think it evolved to be more a part of it more recently. He's most known for his pretty radical views on bioethics. And you can tell that his views on animal rights do connect with that in various places which will spell out. But he was one of the first, I think, reputable philosophers to insist that infanticide is okay up to…maybe two, three months after birth. It was really before infanticide took on a degree of academic respectability that it has today. He's also one of the pioneers of the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Not just for people who are terminally ill with no hope, but also for people who have severe dementia, who are in vegetative states, things like that. They're not imminently dying, but their quality of life is so poor that he said the best way to reduce suffering is to allow for euthanasia. And he advocated this when it was pretty far out of the mainstream and he was a lone voice. That's particularly true with his view of animal rights. In the mid 1970s when this came out, he was considered a fringe figure in the discussion of animal rights. And the notion that animals would have some sort of interest that required being taken into consideration for how human beings consume them for food was a pretty radical idea. I'd call him, initially, he was a lone voice crying in the wilderness.
Sean: So, he's kind of a prophet in a sense for animal rights.
Scott: Very much so. And what he cites in here is I think the influence that the original version of this book started.
Sean: He does, yeah.
Scott: Because a lot of the countries around the world, especially in Europe, Australia, New Zealand have adopted many of the things that he was recommending back in the 70s and has reaffirmed those in this second edition.
Sean: Okay. So you and I would take serious issue with some of his views on euthanasia. Obviously his views on infanticide and lurking behind this is a certain utilitarian and Darwinian atheistic worldview.
Scott: Also correct.
Sean: That aside, can we look at this and say, you know what? He's brought a lot of good to the focus on animal rights. And in some ways there should have been some Christians speaking up on this issue. Is that fair?
Scott: I think that is fair. And I think there have been some Christians speaking up—not too many. I think my impression is that most Christians who have thought of, who just considered this, basically have concluded that Jesus ate meat, therefore it's okay. End of story.
Sean: All right.
Scott: And it doesn't go into a lot more detail than that. Theologically, I think there's a lot to this. And I think what I read initially when this came out and what I reread, updated on the things that are done to animals in factory farming and some of the experiments that are done on animals for research purposes—there's no other way to describe it, but it just chilled my soul.
Sean: It's harrowing.
Scott: It really is. It's terrible. And so, I think calling to our attention how much of what we do with animals causes unnecessary suffering for them. And I think it was really helpful. And I commend him for that. And changing some of our practices, I think has got a lot more traction in other parts of the world than it has in the US.
Scott: And, so, I think there's room, I think, to critique the general utilitarian worldview from which he's coming from, which we would say is a huge problem. But I think we would agree on a really on any moral basis that subjecting animals to unnecessary, needless, and pointless suffering which can be prevented, that's a serious moral problem that we have to deal with.
Sean: That's well said. And we'll get into some of that critique. But lurking behind his philosophy, which also gets, you said, in areas of bioethics, infanticide is part of what it means to be human. And then behind that is this idea of speciesism. So, correct me if I'm wrong, but when it comes to things like infanticide you don't really have certain rights to life until a certain cognitive level of development that is present. And that's not present until later. So, it's not being human intrinsically that gives you certain rights. So, therefore, we ought to treat animals and human beings with a lesser level of development, kind of the same. Is that fair?
Scott: Yeah. I think the reality is that viewing this on an evolutionary basis has actually caused us, I think, to treat animals worse, not better.
Scott: Now, where I think that the tension point comes, and I think he does a good job of spelling this out for us, because if we assert that animals have no rights and human beings are special based on some sort of criteria like rationality or potential for relationships or things like that.
Sean: Creativity, yeah.
Scott: Yeah. Then his point is to be consistent with that, we have to assume that certain categories of human beings severely disabled, severely neurologically compromised, and anencephalic infants, for example, would not qualify as persons with rights to life. And there would be some higher forms of animals that would then qualify for the right to life analogous to the way human beings would.
Scott: Now, I think what this illustrates is that the whole enterprise of identifying a human person based on some of these qualities, some of them we would call them capacities that have been actualized or not, is I think problematic right from the start. Because making a person's moral status dependent on those kinds of attributes runs into some pretty straightforward counter examples that I think would strike the average person as just horrendous.
Scott: So, for example, somebody who goes under general anesthesia has none of those attributes, right? But it's temporary. But the person who says that's temporary, really what they're saying is that while you are under anesthesia, you're appealing to something else besides those capacities that maintain your status as a person. And I think that could even hold true for somebody who's in a really deep sleep because you don't have any of those capacities during that time. So, it's usually unnamed, but there's something else that's being appealed to for someone to maintain that moral status when all those capacities are even temporarily absent. And with a fetus or an unborn child, they are temporarily latent as well, but they are latent because that's part of the normal process of maturity and development. They're totally biologically appropriate for the particular stage of development that the unborn child is experiencing.
Sean: Okay, now that's super helpful. Now, at the root of his ethic is what's called speciesism—what is even meant by speciest? Because no one wants to be racist or sexist. Nobody wants to be speciest on the surface. It plays well into the language of how we describe things. But what does he mean by it?
Scott: It's an ist that you want to avoid. Speciest simply means being a racist for your species. Considering that your species is at the top of the pile, whether it's at the top of the pile by virtue of theistic creation or evolutionary development is irrelevant to Singer. It's asserting the superiority of human beings over and above the rest of the animal world, such that the interest—and here's I think the point—the interest of human beings almost always trump the interest of animals.
Scott: Now there's some, I think we quibble about some of the exceptions that are on the fringes, but for the most part it's the human activity that the philosophy of speciesism gives rise to that is the really, that's the problematic thing for Singer.
Sean: Okay. All right. So, the point underneath this, we hit on this a little bit, is this utilitarian ethic in support of speciesism. Here's a couple quotes he has, and I want to know if you think this is a sound ethical principle. He says, "If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration." Another quote he says, "Pain and suffering are in themselves bad and should be prevented or minimized, irrespective of the species of the being who suffers." Now my instinct is to say, I don't want to suffer, therefore I can understand that somebody who experiences pain also doesn't want to suffer. That's intuitive, but this assumes a certain moral obligation and moral duty we have, not only to other human beings, but to other species on the planet. And I don't know where that moral obligation and duty comes from if we don't have some level of intrinsic value and some higher standard of right and wrong given us such duties, that can't come from utilitarianism alone. And he never answers that ethical dilemma, he just assumes it.
Scott: Right, this is what I would call old school utilitarianism. It's the original articulation of it by Jeremy Bentham, more than 150 years ago, where he said pain and pleasure are the two most basic evils and goods. And the utilitarian philosophy was to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. And it was the first attempt to take morality out of the hands of religious people and out of the principled view and make it something that's more measurable so that nothing, really to the strict utilitarian, nothing is intrinsically good or evil. Now, he's asserting here what's called a rule utilitarianism, which basically says that you can have certain moral rules, but they are based on a predictable set of outcomes that they produce, or in his view, a predictable set of pains and pleasures that they will produce. So, it sounds like a moral absolute. That's why he can say pain and suffering are in themselves bad, because they always produce the same level of outcomes. Now, Bentham went a little bit farther and he asserted right at the very beginning that pain and pleasure are intrinsically bad. But that was, I think, more an assumption rather than an assessment after the consideration of the outcomes have been done. Because I think you can make a good argument that there is some pain that's actually quite beneficial.
Scott: And that pain actually serves a really useful preventive measure to keep us from being injured more than we could be. And even before anesthesia came on the scene, the pain involved in a lot of medical treatments was good because it produced a good outcome, it produced healing. So, I think, I would quibble, I think, with the notion that pain and suffering are always in and of themselves bad. Plus, theologically speaking, we know that there's a good bit of suffering that has redemptive purposes to it.
Sean: So, it seems like if we're going to take it a step further and say, okay, what makes pain good and what makes pain bad? Well, you can't just say somebody's desires because somebody could desire a certain kind of pain that everybody will go, yeah, that's not a good level of pain—
Scott: That's why we have masks.
Sean: And recognize that. Right? So, that's not going to do it. Right. But you're going to have to appeal to some kind of design within human beings or intrinsic purpose to how human beings are supposed to function, which can't come from utilitarianism alone.
Scott: That's right. That's a really good insight. And Singer would resist vigorously the notion that human beings have an end or a telos to them because atheism simply won't allow that.
Sean: That's right.
Scott: And Bentham, I think, actually, I think he had more theological underpinnings that went unexpressed than he ever admitted. So, Bentham was a reason, I think, he was borrowing from the Judeo-Christian theology that assumed that human beings did have an end and pain and suffering were things that thwarted the achievement of those ends.
Sean: So, we've offered a beginning of a critique of his underlying ethic. How should we view animal rights theologically or biblically? How does a Christian come to this now?
Scott: Well, the one thing I would commend Singer for is he's really deliberately not using the language of rights. He's talking about animals having interests. And I think that's a helpful distinction, actually, because rights, for the most part, this is a bit oversimplified, but for the most part, rights can't be trumped. I mean, if I have a right to something, nothing can override that. There's rare exceptions to this. And some of the things where we think rights conflict, like with abortion debate, for example, we can debate whether certain rights that are being claimed are actually rights in reality. But for the most part, rights, if I have a right to free speech, that can't be trumped. If I have a right to conscience, nobody can say that something weighs more heavily than that. Interests, by contrast, are things that I think are not only capable, but it's appropriate to say my interests can be subordinated to other interests that we deem weightier and more important. So, animals, I think, it's fair to say that animals have interests. Now ,Singer would say what distinguishes a person is that a person can actually, hang in there with us on this, a person can have an interest in their interests, which is just another capacity that would distinguish human beings from animals. But I think Singer was also—
Sean: Does that mean we have an awareness of those interests and can reflect upon those interests?
Scott: That's correct.
Sean: Animals just have them without awareness that they even have them. It's more instinctual.
Scott: So, theologically, at creation, Adam and Eve were vegetarians. I don't think there's much debate over that. After the fall, animals were killed for the first time to clothe them in animal skins. And after the fall, there were certain types of animals that were permitted to be eaten and used in the sacrificial system. Certain types of animals, mainly pork and shellfish, because they ate garbage for food and were considered unclean, after the coming of Christ, all animals, all unclean foods were declared clean. The interesting thing on this, and this may be somewhat controversial, is I think you can make a plausible case—I probably wouldn't go to the stake for this—but a plausible case that when the kingdom comes in its fullness after the Lord returns, there's a lot of things that will happen in the kingdom when it comes in its fullness that is recreating the values of creation that were lost at the fall. One of those is that the prophets tell us that the imagery they use is that the lion will lie down with a lamb and the wolf will lie down with a young calf, something like that, which suggests to me that the relationship between predator and prey will no longer be a thing. Now, one of the implications of that could be, and I realize our viewers and listeners may not particularly care for this conclusion, but one of the implications of that may be that when the kingdom comes in its fullness, we will revert back to the vegetarianism pre-fall. Now again, what that would suggest is that in the meantime, we have certain things that we would call kingdom foretaste. How we love our neighbors, for example, is a kingdom foretaste of what our relationships with our neighbors will be like when the kingdom comes in its fullness. The justice that we achieve in this life is a kingdom foretaste of the just society that we'll have when the kingdom comes in its fullness. And I think being more careful about how we consume meat will be, it could be a kingdom for taste of what life will be like when the Lord returns. Now, again, I'm not going to the stake for this, but I think it's a plausible case. Now, there are a couple of other things that relate to this—
Sean: Now, before you get to the other couple of things, this is definitely debated. So, our friend and not Biola colleague, but apologist, philosopher, colleague Paul Copan makes an argument that there was death in animals and farming before the time of creation and the time of Noah. Animals were built like sharks with teeth to consume and the fall in Genesis 3 doesn't have the creative capacity to allow an animal to then, you know—the digestive system and everything was built to kill. So, we're not going to enter into that. We're just making that point for now and how it might relate to this, but keep going.
Scott: And I admit, you know, this has a bit of hopefully, at least moderately sanctified speculation about what life will be like when the kingdom comes.
Sean: Fair enough.
Scott: I think there's a lot of speculation on that just in general. The other part I think that comes out of the Mosaic law is that animals were given a Sabbath just like human beings were. And it was to prevent animals from being abused and from being taken advantage of. Now, animals were also killed humanely as part of the sacrificial system. And I'm not aware of any specific part of the Mosaic law that required the 100% humane treatment of animals. But I think that the notion that they were entitled to the same sort of Sabbath rest and protection that human beings are tilts pretty strongly in that direction. And the other part of this is that, throughout the Psalms, God acknowledges that the predator-prey relationship is one of the means by which he feeds and takes care of his creation. So, it's hard, I think, to say that there's something intrinsically wrong with that since God clearly sanctioned that, at least for Old Testament Israel. And it is true that Jesus ate meat apparently without any moral compunction. And that at least suggests that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat and there's no violation of animal interest since I don't think it's quite fair to say that animals have rights because if they do, then they obviously have the most basic right, which is the right to life. But in the Scriptures, they clearly don't. And so, I don't see where there's any biblical requirement to say that animals have rights. What I would say is that animals have interests and the reason we have laws protecting animals from cruelty is, yes, to protect animals from the wanton infliction of harm, but also as something that's good for human beings. It's more a virtue-based approach to seeing the interests of animals being taken seriously. Because I think, for example, it's well known that one of the things that most serial killers have in common is early on in their childhood or adolescence a history of inflicting cruelty on animals.
Sean: Of course, the question would be what's correlative and what's causative and that would be hard to unravel.
Scott: Right, but the point is there's something deeply troubling about our character if we are inflicting needless wanton cruelty on animals.
Sean:I think people naturally recognize that intuitively for the most part.
Scott: I think that's true.
Scott: I think that makes sense. One of the things that I did enjoy about his book, I appreciated about his book, is that he walks through this chapter on the mistreatment of animals. There was a moment like, "Holy cow, I had not seen this. I was not aware of this. This is just troubling me and drawing certain ethical violations to my mind that I had simply missed." He gives examples of experiments done on animals, like even monkeys that are treated in a certain way to kind of drive them insane, so to speak. Those are some of the harrowing examples. Some of these do, not all of them, some of them seemingly have a benefit to mankind such as reducing disease. Some of them clearly don't. From a biblical perspective, when are experiments on animals justified and when are they not justified?
Scott: I think we have to ground that going back to Genesis 1. In that, God gave creation to human beings to use principally for their benefit. It also involved a stewardship over the environment in general, which prevented human beings from adopting this sort of rape and pillage view of the environment just to satisfy our own selfish desires. I think the use of animals is similar to that. We were given dominion over the animal kingdom to use for our benefit but also to care for and to steward as trustees. I found, historically, the notion that it's a stewardship is kind of a foreign concept. In fact, one of the most insightful criticisms of the early environmental movement for all that it said that was good basically pointed the finger at Christian faith for encouraging this dominion unchecked view of our use of the environment and of animals. The idea that there would be a responsibility to take that seriously was, I think, not always universally recognized, which we take that for a given today. I think there are certain medical experiments that I think are necessary. Most of the experiments that provide FDA approval for drugs and surgical procedures are tested on animals first. Some of the ones I think are used methodologies that are unnecessary and they are used simply to increase our knowledge about certain diseases which don't really have any particular cure in view. I think some are just to satisfy our curiosity about things. But I think for the most part, the experiments on animals that are entirely necessary for treatments that are going to benefit human beings to treat diseases, I think are morally acceptable. The ones that are not aimed at that and I think fall more under the heading of the infliction of needless suffering on animals. Part of it depends on, too, the type of animal that's being used. Most early experiments are done on rats and mice. I would give less consideration to rats and mice because in the wild, they are some of the primary carriers of all sorts of diseases in ways that other animals are not. I think we also have to just be honest and say that the more developed the animal is, the more they appear to be like a human being, the more we tend to connect with them. The harder, I think, the more difficult time we have just on an emotional basis. Whether that translates to a moral basis is not always clear.
Sean: Okay, wow. Let's take this step further. Singer suggests that we should feel the same horror at animal abuse as we do the gladiator games. I read that and I paused because I thought, "Gosh, this seems over the top to say that we should have the same horror as a mistreatment of a human being, as a mistreatment of an animal." On the other hand, there is something that's a horror about a mistreatment of animals that we can't miss. I saw a bull fight when I was a kid and it felt like given the culture I was in, I was supposed to enjoy it and appreciate it and it just left me unsettled. I didn't like it, it actually kind of bothered me. So, although it would have bothered me a lot more if that was a human being running out there and they were treating it that way. So, how should we make sense of that example he gives?
Scott: Well, we sent Michael Vick to jail for dog fighting. Most people recoiled at that. Now, probably not quite in the same way as gladiators. I think we should recognize that it was largely Christian faith that eliminated the gladiator contest in the first and second century. The singer would say, "Well, where's your Christian faith related to animal cruelty, too?" And I think the idea that we would pit animals against each other for sport, in my view, is unconscionable. And I think somebody who sanctions or is involved in dog fighting, for example, shows serious moral deficits.
Sean: I agree.
Scott: Cock fighting would be the same way. And I think I would have the same reaction to bull fighting. I think bullfighting is inherently inhumane. And the bull really never has a chance—
Sean: Yeah, that's not going to happen.
Scott: Because they are crippled before they are killed. And that's just part of the spectacle. So, I'd share your reaction over the top. But there's a reason that those strike the kind of revulsion in us that they do. And usually when we feel repugnance about something, there's something to it. And I think there's something to that here. So, I would say the intentional infliction of harm on animals simply for the sport and entertainment of human beings is morally wrong.
Sean: That's fair. That's well said. I think you're right that the more mistreatment of animals, that natural repugnance goes away. And it leads to arguably greater mistreatment of animals and can translate potentially to mistreatment of human beings is a really interesting connection to explore. Now, you and I have talked about on this show a number of times: capitalism. And have made the case that although it's not a perfect economic system to alleviate, to move more people away from poverty, economic freedom, rights, there is no system that has been more successful doing this historically than capitalism. Singer pushes back. He says, "Everyone knows how to stop the suffering of chickens, but it continues because it is profitable." In other words, he seems to be saying there's something built into the nature of capitalism that trumps any concern for how chickens are mistreated. Is this a problem inherent to capitalism?
Scott: No. What he's describing here is a human problem, not an economic one. And the human problem is greed. Now, greed manifests itself in market systems, but it also manifests itself in non-market systems. I mean, there was just as much greed under communism in Eastern Europe than there is in capitalism in the West. It's just that capitalism turned out to be a much more productive way to channel people's greed than in communism. But it's a human problem, not an economic one. And I think he's right. It is more profitable to stuff dozens and dozens of chickens in a cage where they can't move and dozens of pigs in pens where they can't move and overfeed them both. It is more profitable. Yeah, that's true. But there's where I think the moral conundrum comes because we always have moral limits that we put on profit. I mean, profit going unchecked would be disastrous. I mean, we would alienate virtually everyone that we deal with if we really pursued our self-interest completely unchecked by moral values. And Adam Smith did not support that. I mean, he wrote, as we pointed out in the past, he wrote the theory of moral sentiments before he wrote “the wealth of nations.” And that was intentional because it was to provide moral boundaries for the pursuit of self-interest. And I think the intentional infliction of suffering on animals is an appropriate moral principle that can check or help curb the pursuit of profit.
Sean: It seems like you could argue that even within the capitalistic system, there still is a role of government to protect certain rights, right? And that's a good role of government. I've been up in Sequoia National Forest and you walk through the Sequoia Graveyard where all these are chopped down. It's kind of harrowing and unfortunate. Well, the government made an edict and protected them. That's a positive role. But also within capitalism is what he's doing is certain rights and certain freedoms to draw attention to this, to rely upon people's moral consciences. You make progress within capitalism itself, so to speak.
Scott: Right. And generally, we rely on the government when moral persuasion fails and it's always better to rely on moral persuasion when it works. And I think there is much greater awareness of this today. Now he takes it down some roads that I'm not willing to go down. But I think that the fact that, especially with the way chickens and pigs are raised in most of the US, constitutes an unjustifiable infliction of suffering on them. Which I actually think Singer is right. We know how to fix this. So, for example, I buy in the grocery store now, I will buy cage free eggs, which means assuming that information is correct and it's not just a marketing ploy—
Sean: Yep, fair enough.
Scott: But I don't have anything else to go on besides that. Sure. Which is showing us that chickens were raised not stuffed together in pens, being unable to move. I think free range chicken is another good alternative. And so I'm trying to do just a little bit more to consume less meat. Because I think he's got a point that if we don't at least think a little bit about how the animals were raised, that we are consuming. We are, I'd say, a bit complicit in their mistreatment.
Sean: So, one of the things we can do, and we're going to get more to this, is intentional decisions and even sacrifice upon our part to minimize the suffering of animals. That's one thing we can be more intentional about. So let me ask you this question. He asked a really interesting question here. Specifically, he says, what can Christians eat? What should Christians eat? And I thought, well, that's fascinating. It applies to Christians. So, I'll get more specific. Is it moral to eat meat? Because he says, quote, "It is difficult to be consistent in one's concern for non-human animals while continuing to dine on them." Now, I notice he doesn't say it's impossible. He said, "It's difficult to be consistent in one's concern for non-human animals while continuing to dine on them." So can a Christian eat meat?
Scott: Yes. Yes, you can. And there are, I think, there are meat producers that have humane treatment of animals. My understanding is that cattle are killed humanely. They are allowed to roam for the most part. I think he's probably overstating some of this, that animals experience terror and dread when their death is forthcoming. I'm not so sure about that. I do have a problem with the production of veal. For example, the way that's produced. I think that is inhumane in the way they separate calves immediately from their mothers.
Sean: And so this just took, I didn't even know what this was until like two years ago. I just missed it. It's a young calf who's separated from mother, raised in a certain way that seems to typically inflict certain pain upon the calf to have a more kind of lean meat that is favored by certain restaurants.
Scott: That's correct. So, I don't ever eat veal and won't because of that.
Sean: So, the question is not, is it in principle to eat meat? How are the animals treated is more superior morally for the Christian, whether they eat meat or not? That's the root of the question.
Scott: Yeah. And the reason for that is because, theologically, I don't think you can say that animals have rights. Now they have interests. They have interest in being protected from cruelty. And I think again, what grounds that I think ultimately is a virtue based approach based on the character of human beings that's displayed when that's exhibited. So, I think you can and I don't think this is something that we ought to have a lot of guilt over, but I think having some awareness of how some meats are produced. I think it's not unreasonable to say I don't want to be a part of that.
Sean: Okay. So, is it morally superior then to be a vegan? Because you said a moment ago, you said cage free in so far as I can control, which means there's a chance that we're being deceived in eating certain eggs, which means there could be the chance that we're being deceived with a production of certain meat. Why not err on the side of just not eating meat, not eating eggs? Is that a morally superior position for a Christian?
Scott: I wouldn't say it's morally necessary. And I don't think it's necessarily morally superior. And the reason for that is because of the view we previously suggested, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Now, I think it is morally preferable not to be complicit with evil when it's in your power to do so. Now in my view, it's not really in my power to explore all of the justifications for the labels and whether that's the real thing or not, whether it's marketing or not. My hunch, I don't know this for sure, my hunch is that the USDA has pretty clear requirements that you can't say cage free if it's actually not. So, I think this is a very appropriate role for government to enforce those standards that make producers actually mean what they say about their products. So, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's morally superior. I think some people are vegans and vegetarians strictly for health reasons that have nothing to do with how animals are raised. I respect that, but I would call that morally neutral and there's nothing intrinsically superior or inferior about that.
Sean: So, you mentioned Jesus eating meat, which for a Christian would be the trump card. We know he ate fish. Is meat at the Passover meal? Where did Jesus distinctly eat meat beyond fish? Or do we just have the evidence that he ate fish and we assume if he ate fish which is meat that would apply to the rest?
Sean: It's the latter. And I think we know that the priests ate meat for sure because the animals that were sacrificed were harvested for part of the priest's diet. That was part of their compensation for being priests. So that's probably as close as we can come to that. I don't think there's any place where the gospel accounts are crystal clear that Jesus ate meat other than fish. In the story in Luke, of course.
Sean: All right, fair enough. So, Singer concedes that the Old Testament provides a basis and kindness for animals as you described earlier, such as the Sabbath. But he argues that the New Testament is completely lacking in any injunction against cruelty to animals. It's a recommendation to consider their interests. Part of me says, well, you can't divorce these two. Part of the New Testament is that Jesus is fulfilling and carrying through much of the Old Testament. And there's no reason to think that the in-principle care for animals is lost in the New Covenant. That's the kind of argument that I would make. Is he onto something though? I mean, he talks about the 2000 pigs, which I'm not sure how much we can derive common treatment of animals from that instance. I think something deeper was going on more there. But your thoughts on the New Testament Jesus treatment towards animals.
Scott: Well, it's an argument from silence. Okay. And I don't put my stock in arguments from silence. And usually, as you've pointed out, usually the reason the New Testament doesn't touch on something is because it was crystal clear in the Old Testament and didn't need repeating. I think there are a lot of things that the New Testament didn't fully lay out that we take for granted. So, I wouldn't put much stock in Singer's point on that because he doesn't really explore much of what the reasons could be for why there is no injunction for that in the New Testament.
Sean: Okay. All right. Fair enough. I've got a couple more for you. I thought this was an interesting defense on his part. He asks if we should eliminate suffering in nature. So he's talked about the animals have interests. And thus, when we see the interests, we should try to prevent suffering of animals. But then it seems to follow as we look out in nature, predator and prey, should we protect prey from the predator since it's in the interests of the prey to do so? His answer is no because such efforts disrupt the balance of the environment. Curious if you find that convincing.
Scott: Not particularly. And the reason for that is that on an evolutionary basis, there's no reason not to consider that just part of the natural order of things. And if there's a relationship between predator and prey, and we include human beings in the evolutionary chain of things, then there's no good reason why human beings can't also be predators in a manner of speaking.
Sean: Oh, that's interesting.
Scott: And animals can be prey. Because if Singer's point on this is true, that we're all simply part of one, you know, through one evolutionary scheme, then he doesn't want to elevate human beings over the rest of the animal world, which he seems to be doing here. Then there's no reason not to include human beings in that as well.
Sean: That's an interesting argument to think about because humans have obviously evolved differently. You can't say in a more superior fashion. Some animals are bigger, some animals are faster, etc. Some reproduce more, whatever. But humans have certain cognitive capacities. If we're also a part of nature, and we see nature, predator, and prey for their ends, then why can't humans use theirs? Seems to be a fair question. And if he says, "Well, humans uniquely have certain responsibilities that animals don't," that does assume something different about the nature of human beings and moral responsibilities that we have. Yeah, he sees that there are differences between human beings and animals, but none of which in his view would justify speciesism. So, I think he would hold that it's okay to recognize those things, but to hold those as morally determinative that human beings now have obligations that animals do not, I think is taking it a little bit further than the evidence will let him go.
Sean: Okay. A couple last questions for you. Given all the issues that are taking place in the world, this is where I think we're going to differ from Singer pretty significantly. The opening, not the preface, but the introduction was jarring to me. So this is not by Singer, but it was by Yuval Noah Harari. He writes, "Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history." I read that and thought, "Holy cow, the worst crime in history." Now, from a speciest standpoint and an evolutionary naturalistic worldview, I could see you could come to that conclusion. From a Christian standpoint, there's other things like sex trafficking, poverty, pro-life and the unborn, immigration that we would say, and obviously, well, in terms of a crime, obviously the Holocaust that we would say are higher, but where should we place care for animals in the metric of important ethical issues for consideration?
Scott: Well, I think to the degree that it reflects on the character of human beings. Now, Singer would say, of course, that's a speciesist rationale.
Sean: Of course.
Scott: But so be it. And I think we should be clear too, the Bible is unabashedly speciesist, right? Because human beings are the only part of creation that is distinctly made in the image of God. There's some parts of Scripture that suggest that animals may have an immaterial part to them. Ecclesiastes tells us that animals have spirits, whether that's the same thing as a human soul or not, obviously not. Just a consciousness and a self, so to speak. Right. Well, they have an internal defining essence that sort of governs their biological development similar to human beings. But I'm really reluctant to say that the treatment of animals is right up there with the treatment of the unborn, for example, or the treatment of the vulnerable elderly. Because to mistreat a human person is to do damage to the image of God in a way that I think to do damage to treat animals, I think is terrible because of their vulnerability, but is not quite the same moral injury that it is when human beings are mistreated. So, I wouldn't put mistreatment of animals on the same level as human sex trafficking, for example, because I think that does far more damage to the image of God. So, yeah, but does that mean we should be callous to the unnecessary wanton infliction of suffering on animals? I think the answer to that is no, we shouldn't be indifferent to that. And I think that probably should say something about the foods that we consume.
Sean: It seems to me a lot of these debates can't be solved just on the level of talking about do animals have rights? How should we treat animal species until we get to the deeper underlying worldview considerations? So we've compared and contrasted this evolutionary Darwinian worldview, one incarnation of it and what it looks like in this species approach with Christianity. But to solve those, we're going to have to go to the deeper questions. Is there a God? Is there evidence for design? That's how we settle the difference between these two. And of course, we haven't gone into that today. That's a separate conversation. In fact, we actually had Peter Singer on campus about 15 years ago debating the existence of God, which is the underlying question before you get to these. And actually in conjunction with that, I just used to remind him of it. I moderated a debate between Singer and Nigel Cameron about the sanctity of life.
Sean: Oh, that’s interesting. Okay.
Scott: Anyway, very interesting. And Singer, I will admit, was treated very poorly. Really? And disrespectfully by the audience. Nigel, that was not true for Nigel. Nigel treated him very respectfully and he had a relationship with him. This was not at Biola. This was obviously somewhere else.
Scott: No, this was somewhere else.
Sean: We wouldn't tolerate that nonsense. And I finally had to tell certain people who were asking really hostile questions to sit down and shut up and you just lost the floor.
Scott: It was a little discouraging actually.
Sean: That's unfortunate. I hate to hear that. So, last question for you. Are you aware of some Christians doing this well in terms of how they're running their business or…? So, for my grandmother-in-law's 90th birthday, I think it was, we went to this—I don't even know what they called it, it wasn't a zoo. But it was this organization committed to rescuing abused animals, treating them rightly. And then you could come see tigers and bears and a lot—like it was beautiful. It was amazing. There's something inside of me that's like, I wonder what the faith commitment is of this person. And it felt like a Christian kind of thing to do. Are you aware of some specific things or just examples of Christians doing this well?
Scott: In terms of business owners, not off the top of my head. But I do know several good friends and family members who have decided to curb certain types of meat that they eat based on the factory farming consideration that Singer brings up. And I'm not sure they read this particular book, but they became aware of some of those things. One's a very close philosophical colleague of ours who is vegetarian because he just doesn't want to be complicit in what he considers to be immoral practices. I'm not aware of any people who claim the name of Jesus who are in the meat production industries or family farms. I suspect—I could be wrong about this—but I suspect there are some folks in Europe who are doing this well. And in part because government forces them to do it well.
Scott: And in Australia, New Zealand, there are probably others. But I'm not aware of any, I'm sure they're out there. So, my apologies if you're one of those people who is out there doing it right and we don't know about you.
Sean: I'm sure you'll get some emails now, which is great. We would love to know.
Scott: I hope we do. But my apologies for not recognizing you.
Sean: Fair enough. Maybe we'll follow up with this. But obviously there's huge differences with Peter Singer on this, but I thought it was insightful. I thought it was well researched. I thought for the most part, it was a fair book. And for those who want to read and understand where the debate's at, obviously they've listened to this if they're still with us, check out this book. Are you aware of, again, I didn't ask you this question at the time, are you aware of a book where a Christian writes a book kind of on the other side of this from a Christian perspective, or is this something that you've written on?
Scott: I have, there's a section in Moral Choices on this. But the one thing I'm not sure that—we'll put the title in the notes here—about Bob Winberg, who was a longtime philosopher at Westmont, who's retired now, did a very insightful book on animal welfare, animal interests. So. I don't recall the title right off the top of my head, but we'll put it in the notes that when we post the podcast, people can get access to that.
Sean: Fair enough. Scott, this is so interesting. This is a newer topic to me. I wish I was aware of it a long time ago because it has practical implications for the meat that I buy, the eggs that I buy, thinking about this Christianly. But I appreciate your continued work on this. Great insights. Those of you watching, make sure you hit subscribe to the Think Biblically Podcast, or if you see this on my YouTube channel, make sure you subscribe there as well. Thanks for listening, and this is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. We'd love to have you think about joining us there. We'll see you next time. [MUSIC]