The following is the excerpted “Case Study #1” from my paper Concerning Christianity and Environmental Ethics which was completed for PHIL 3180-Environmental Ethics at the University of Toledo. The full paper, including citations and footnotes for this excerpt can be found here: https://austinholmes.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/christianity-and-environmental-ethics/
Case Study #1: A Christian Ethic for Non-Human Animals
I have mentioned that Christians have an obligation to work for the justice and liberation of the oppressed. One billion people live in poverty. Some forty thousand die each day from hunger and related causes. Many others live under political oppression that removes most basic human freedoms from their lives. We, Christ’s Church and humanity in general, don’t seem to be doing much of a job in addressing these problems, so as I am about introduce another major concern, I feel the weight of redressing human plight. But I think that question, “why add another gigantic problem?” indicates the narrow horizon of our concern and our misunderstanding of that plight as well. Is our only objective to be healthy and free people, and if so do we really believe that can be achieved without concern for the rest of the living world? I have mentioned the union of man and creation earlier in this paper. Clearly from Genesis and from Revelation, God’s original and future intentions for the natural world is one of union, both man with creation, and God with man/creation. If I am a restored image bearer of God, and I am obligated to work for the liberation of the oppressed, why have I and so many before me and like me today felt so unconcerned about this group? I am of course speaking of nonhuman animals.
We treat them as if they were things to be used as we please rather than as beings with lives of their own. We oppress animals in factory farming when we deny them such elementary freedoms as space in which to walk or stretch their limbs, in cruel animal experimentation, and in the destruction of habitats. This latter is the main cause of the present-day extinction of whole populations. Some forms of so-called development are so oppressive that species themselves are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. In the process there is much suffering and misery. A conservative estimate of the current rate of extinction is one thousand species a year–and that was in a treatise from 1976. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.
It seems to me that the main reason so many humans could be so unconcerned about this holocaust is that we assign no more than instrumental value to non-human animals. If we do decide to look after them, it is only because they look after us–means and not ends in themselves. This is a secular view of animals. One writer assumes that animals lack intrinsic value on the proposition that only beings capable of assigning value can have intrinsic value–a claim left unsupported.
A volume of work can and should be done on this issue, but for the sake of time and space, I will seek to diffuse the view mentioned above in support of a view that sees animals as ends as well as means. Firstly, intrinsic value is encapsulated in the experiencing of value. Only feeling confers intrinsic value. We recognize the intrinsic value in humans because they are experiencing entities–more than objects, they are subjects. They are not simply means, but ends in themselves. Alvin Plantinga is a philosopher that has written at length about intrinsic value and theism, and in one particular essay says, “My experiences are the most real thing about me. They are of value to me. Why the tremendous urge to live, even in the face of enormous suffering? We want to live.” This urge to live is also a feature of nonhuman animals. There is much I could say about experience, neurology, feeling, suffering, pleasure, and so on. But the importance of all this is that the recognition of intrinsic value in the creatures besides ourselves makes an ethical claim, an environmental ethical claim, upon us to recognize our obligation towards them. This would lead to a way of talking about animals as having rights that we should uphold.
What is required now is a Christian biocentric ethic, and in reviewing what I’ve written to this point, that certainly seems an appropriate direction. The free-market view is clearly anthropocentric. There could be a case made for an anthropocentric Christian environmental ethic, however, even it would need to pay large attention to the role of human beings as the most esteemed creature. As I have said, that role is chiefly tied up in image bearing, which looks like justice working, which has lead us to this. So in any case, It seems pretty clear that biocentrism is just more fitting. The dominant tendency has been to see nature as none other than the stage on which the drama of human life is performed. Nonhuman creatures are merely props, having no value other than their value to us; intrinsic value resides in humans alone. This view has often been taken as biblical. It is not. In the Genesis account of nature God finds goodness in things before and quite apart from the creation of Adam. Jesus expressed the divine concern for the sparrows, even the grasses of the field. If man is worth multiple sparrows then a sparrow’s worth is not zero.
The recognition that the nonhuman animal is an end in itself and not merely a means to human ends explodes the assumption of traditional ethics. What is needed is a biocentric ethic that recognizes in every animal as well as humans, both ends and means. Conservation movements rest on insecure foundations as long as they do not go beyond instrumental ethics for their justification. In a world in which humans are fast annihilating other species, a conservation ethic requires that humans reduce their demands on the environment in favor of other species.