Three years ago, in response to an article on vegetarianism that I published in this magazine (“All We Can Eat?” July 13, 2007), Andrew Linzey sent me an e-mail with the subject “Disappointment” and the valediction “Yours sorrowfully.” In between, he took me to task for making “the mistake of almost all Catholic moralists” who write on this topic—namely, “of focusing almost entirely [on] the modern secular, philosophical literature for animals…without engaging...the now extensive modern theological discussions of animals.” He also wished that his e-mail “might (in God’s providence) stimulate [me] to look deeper and ponder further.”

Linzey is an Anglican priest and a theologian at Oxford University, where he directs the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He was among the first to open up the field that has come to be called “animal theology” (the title of what is still probably his best book). He has written or edited twenty-three books, all but a handful of which concern animals. The newest of these, Why Animal Suffering Matters, is neither his best nor his most original work, but it is still worth recommending to anyone unfamiliar with his arguments.

At his best, Linzey is an impressively creative theologian. On the one hand, his passion for animals as “fellow-creatures” leads him to be highly critical of much of the Western theological and philosophical tradition. The tone of his criticisms is sometimes dramatically abrupt. In Animal Theology (1994), he offered this judgment of Aquinas’s discussion of animals: “What is so that this great Christian scholar was not quite Christian or scriptural enough.” In Animal Gospel (2004), he writes that John Paul II “will go down in history as the one who made concern for animals officially second-class.... From my own perspective, as a Christian priest, this has to be a day for tears.”

On the other hand, Linzey also brings fresh eyes to the tradition, discovers in it unexpected resources, and breathes new life into doctrines that have come to seem antiquated, such as the fallenness of all creation, not only humankind. (He makes much of Romans 8:22: “We know that the whole of creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”) A theologically minded reader, then, has much to be grateful for and much to learn from Linzey’s work, even if the reader does not find all of his claims and arguments persuasive. For Linzey makes theology matter and, with animals in mind, poses fundamental questions “about the justice of God, the nature of creation, the reality of evil, and the scope of redemption,” as he puts it in Animals on the Agenda (1998).

Why Animal Suffering Matters, which is as much philosophical as theological, focuses on making “the rational case for extending moral solicitude to animals.” It consists of six chapters. The first, which is the most substantial, examines justifications for exploiting animals. It not only finds these justifications wanting, but claims that the reasons traditionally “regarded as the basis for discriminating against animals” are, properly considered, “grounds for discriminating in favor of [animals].” The second chapter asks why it is so difficult to change people’s perceptions of, and behavior toward, animals. Linzey’s answer is that animal abuse has become “institutionalized”: in our ordinary language, in which animals figure as “beasts” and “brutes”; in our philosophy, in which animals figure as soulless automata; in our economy, in which vast sums are invested in the production and consumption of animals; and in our medical-industrial complex, which uses and destroys countless animals for experimentation. Chapters 3 through 5, drawing from the theoretical considerations of the opening chapters, criticize fox hunting, “fur farming,” and commercial sealing. I find Linzey’s criticisms of these practices utterly convincing. Finally, chapter 6 focuses on a claim that is made here and there throughout the book: namely, that “the very rational considerations” that ground moral concern for young children should likewise “ground solicitude to animals.”

Because the well-known utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer is associated with this claim, Linzey helpfully contrasts his thinking with that of Singer. For Singer, some nonhuman animals—a pig, for example—have a greater claim to moral consideration than do some human beings—a severely disabled infant, for example. According to Linzey, Singer is guilty of “adultism”—that is, of granting people and animals moral standing only “insofar as they get closer to being mature, human adults.” A problem with Singer’s approach, from Linzey’s point of view, is that “it gives the impression that the cause of sentient animals can be advanced by minimizing our obligations to sentient humans” and thereby “confirms the worst slander on animal advocates—that our cause represents not an expansion but a narrowing of human sympathy.”

Linzey’s alternative to Singer’s utilitarianism is made clear in the opening chapter of Why Animal Suffering Matters, and his argument here deserves serious consideration. Justifications for exploiting animals typically turn on some alleged difference between human beings and animals. The question to consider is whether this or that difference is morally significant, whether it is the sort of difference that could justify (for example) our eating animals but not other human beings. One alleged difference is that nonhuman animals lack language. Another is that, because it does not make sense to hold nonhuman animals morally responsible for this or that action, they are not moral agents. And a third, which is theological in nature, is that, according to Genesis (1:26–27), only humans are made in the divine image.

In response to each of these claims, Linzey says not only “So what?” but, more originally, “So much the better for nonhuman animals!” For if they do not share language with us, they obviously cannot consent to being “sacrificed” for research, butchered for food, caged for spectacle, and so forth. The twentieth century saw the development—and eventually the triumph—of the principle of informed consent. According to Linzey, because animals are incapable of giving informed consent, we human beings have a special obligation to make sure that animals’ interests are taken into account and respected. This is what the strong owe the vulnerable—and what most of us think adults owe children: not less consideration but more.

As for the claim that animals are not moral agents, what follows from this, according to Linzey, is not that they may be treated with moral indifference but that they are “morally innocent or blameless” and therefore never deserve to be made to suffer. Again, a parallel may be drawn with young children. They, too, are not moral agents. What follows, however, is not that we adults may treat them however we want to, but instead that it would be a moral outrage to inflict suffering on a colicky baby, for example, as if the baby were morally responsible for being so thoughtlessly noisy.

Finally, the conclusion that Linzey draws from the claim that only human beings bear the imago Dei is that it then falls to human beings to be like God, who in the incarnation identifies with all creatures of flesh and blood and is revealed by Jesus to have special regard for the weak and powerless. In other words, “the divine image only warrants a more careful, diffident, and conscientious stewardship of creation”—children and animals in particular. Such is the “good news” that Linzey proclaims.

Linzey’s animal gospel, to use his own term, has found resonance among other thinkers. For example, John Sniegock, a moral theologian at Xavier University, made very similar arguments in his September 14, 2007 letter about my Commonweal article on vegetarianism (“The Responsible Choice”). Others, however, found reason to disagree. Robert P. Heaney, a professor of medicine at Creighton University who focuses on osteoporosis and has contributed to research on nutrition, claimed in his letter (“A Biological Approach”) that, while “clearly we should avoid cruelty in our use of animals”—fox hunting, fur-farming, and commercial sealing are surely good examples of such cruelty—“equally clearly, we need to eat animals—not for convenience, not because we have dominion over them, but because they provide what is essential for our health.” Heaney noted in particular our need for vitamin B12 and observed that “the fact that we need [it] but can’t make it for ourselves is simply a reflection of the fact that our physiologies evolved in the context of a diet that included meat,” which is therefore “a part of our heritage.” Admittedly, artificial supplements can be taken, but, as food writer Nina Planck has observed, “animal proteins and fats...contain all the essential amino acids needed for life in the right ratio” (see Planck’s “Death by Veganism,” New York Times, May 21, 2007). In brief, one justification for eating meat is that we are naturally constituted to benefit enormously from it, especially before birth and during pregnancy, and that there are cumulative risks from abstaining. Here the interests of children and those of animals appear to diverge.

In Animal Theology, Linzey takes up the question of what to make of the fact that nature really is “red in tooth and claw.” He does not claim that we ought to prevent carnivores from eating the meat that they need to survive; his claim is that, with modern technology and science, we human beings both can and ought to approximate the peaceable kingdom envisioned in Isaiah 11:6–9 (the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid, the lion eating straw)—a passage that he takes remarkably literally. On Linzey’s reading, Jesus’ so-called nature miracles are signs that in him “is a birth of new possibilities for all creation” (Animal Theology). According to Linzey, one of those new possibilities has been realized in our own time: we can live healthily as vegetarians, as the first human beings were enjoined to do before the flood (see Genesis 1:29–30 and 9:1–4).

But the question of why creation is as it is cannot be so readily dispatched. We need to ask, more precisely, why God has allowed creation to unfold according to the principle of natural selection. What does natural selection suggest about God? Is it to be understood as a consequence of creation’s “fallenness”? Is the way creation currently works to be lamented and resisted, or is it a mystery, which may make us uneasy but must be acknowledged and lived with, even in our own diets? Linzey will probably not be happy to hear me say this (again), but it seems to me that theology still has much work to do before it can adequately answer these questions.


Read more: Letters, August 13 and September 10, 2010

Published in the 2010-07-16 issue: 

Bernard G. Prusak is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

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