Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics

Elisa Aaltola is left with no doubt that humans have a moral obligation not to cause animals pain

October 29, 2009

The moral status of animals has become an established point of societal debate. Much of this debate is taking place in academic books directed towards the general audience, and here Andrew Linzey plays an important part. What separates Linzey from other authors in the field of "animal ethics" is that, as a theologian, he has a Christian perspective on the issue.

Why Animal Suffering Matters sets out to show us that anthropogenic animal suffering is both real and morally relevant. First, the emphasis is on theory, as Linzey works through common arguments presented against the notion of animal rights (such as the claim that only moral beings deserve moral consideration) and in a concise manner shows why they fail. He also lists methods by which concern for animals is unduly marginalised (including the "gastrocentric" denial of animal subjectivity). He combines arguments familiar in animal ethics with his own viewpoints - a mixture that provides an alluring introduction to the topic.

Linzey's main argument is distinct: he claims that it is precisely human-animal differences that form the ground for including animals in the moral sphere. In particular, it is animals' inability to give or withhold consent, to verbalise their interests or to understand our motives, together with their innocence and vulnerability, that offer the basis for stronger (rather than weaker) responsibilities toward animals.

Here the author's theological viewpoint becomes relevant. Humans should reflect God's attributes and since these include love, mercy and compassion, there is little justification for subjecting animals to suffering. Moreover, he argues, God has given us power in order that we may serve Her and her creation, rather than that we merely serve the "human benefit".

The second part of the book concentrates on specific forms of animal cruelty. First, Linzey examines foxhunting from the viewpoint of governmental decision-making. He places particular emphasis on the tactics used to obfuscate questions concerning animal welfare and ethics, and the use of factual errors (such as the claim that foxhunting is needed in order to control fox populations). According to Linzey, ethics concerning hunting is clear: infliction of suffering in the name of sport cannot be morally justified. Linzey also criticises fur farming and seal hunting, which studies have shown to cause immense suffering. He supports his criticism of these activities by arguing that animals' aforementioned inabilities render their suffering particularly acute, for they cannot intellectually escape, explain or communicate their suffering.

Although a theologian, Linzey is clearly learned in moral philosophy. This ensures that a non-religious reader (such as myself) does not feel excluded: in fact, theological reflection is restricted to a handful of pages. He is willing to search far and wide for different perspectives, even employing the views of Noam Chomsky (perhaps an unorthodox name in theology circles) on media and propaganda to make his case.

The book is greatly enhanced by Linzey's lucid style of writing. Such lucidity is much needed in the contemporary society that tends to approach animals via what has been called "moral schizophrenia", within which essentially similar animals are treated in radically different ways based on their use-category (thus, pet dogs are members of the family, while cognitively similar pigs are food). Consistency and clarity rarely enter the picture, perhaps the most acute sign of which is the manner in which sentient beings are treated as if they were material resources. Linzey offers us a convincing alternative.

One criticism is that Linzey does not shed more light on agriculture. The world consumes more than 50 billion animals a year in the form of animal flesh and suffering is inevitably intense within the agricultural industry. Still, it must be noted that he does offer some justification for his choice of case studies and (as a supporter of animal rights) is critical of all animal industries.

Linzey's book provides a fine introduction to why animal suffering matters. It could, and arguably should, be utilised by universities, schools and laypeople alike.

Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics

By Andrew Linzey

Oxford University Press

220pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780195379778

Published 17 September 2009

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