Speciesism can be likened to racism and sexism—i.e. just as a person’s sex or race is not relevant to whether they get equal moral consideration of their interests, all animals—human and non-human—should also get equal moral consideration of theirs.
The traditional theological idea that humans are made in the image of God—and, consequently, that non-human animals are not—drives much of the speciesism in the Church.
Image provided by Eerdmans Publishing. Used with permission.
We need, then, another Copernican Revolution—this time in ethics, rather than astronomy—which will challenge and remove the theological idea that human beings are at the center of the moral universe, just as we once challenged and removed the theological idea that the Earth is at the center of the physical universe.
OK, so what would we get with this second Copernican Revolution? For starters, far from an outdated religious understanding that animals are mere “things” that can be used however we see fit, we must acknowledge their moral worth and respect the moral claims they make upon us. Creating a torturous existence for such animals—mostly in the name of cheap and tasty food—can only be justified by the most speciesist understanding of animals existing for the mere pleasure of human beings. The pain and suffering of other animals should not be discounted simply because they belong to a different species.
And certain animals should have a very high moral status indeed. If persons are rational and self-aware creatures, then it can only be speciesism which leads us to claim that only human animals count as persons. Many different kinds of animals recognize themselves in a mirror and thus show evidence of being self-aware. Many also demonstrate incredibly sophisticated problem-solving ability, and some understand, use, and even teach hundreds of characters from American Sign Language. It is a raw and immoral speciesism which leads our culture to call human infants persons when they are not rational or self-aware, but denies personhood to rational and self-aware chimps, dolphins, and elephants.
So, yes, on this view, the Church is speciesist.
But from where does that speciesism come? Does it come from our most important theological sources, or does it come from somewhere else? In answering this question, let’s keep in mind that speciesist ideas and practices predate Christian ascendency in the West. Both Aristotle and Cicero, for instance, largely spoke for the Pagan World when they claimed that non-human animals existed for human use. From the standpoint of natural selection, understanding animals this way needs no ideological justification—theological or otherwise—at all. Our oldest Homo sapiens ancestors engaged in speciesist practices because they could gain evolutionary advantages in so doing. Christianity has thus inherited speciesism—both from our ideological processors in the West, but also from natural selection. But I think the tradition has the theological resources necessary to push back against speciesism.
The tradition’s concept of personhood is not speciesist. Going back at least to Boethius in the 6th Century, Christians have claimed that a person is a “substance of a rational nature.” This does not lead to the speciesist claim that “all persons are Homo sapiens.” To give an obvious example: angels, of course, are rational and self-aware creatures, but are not Homo Sapiens.
Some people would say that the idea of hierarchy can do nothing but hurt vulnerable populations like nonhuman animals, but I think—at least in the Christian tradition—the opposite is the case. First of all, human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy. Indeed, we rank below angels. Furthermore, the hierarchy of being actually emphasizes the inherited intrinsic worth of all creatures—and particularly that of non-human animals, who, like humans, also share the breath of life. Jesus does say that God cares about humans more than sparrows, but Jesus is just as clear that God, in fact, cares for sparrows. Though non-human animals work for human animals, both must rest on the Sabbath. Though it is legitimate to kill animals for sacrifice, the blade must be sharp enough so that the animal dies instantly. Though it is legitimate to eat the flesh of other animals, one could not do so if the animal had been strangled or if she had her lifeblood still inside her. And furthermore, the fact that human animals are higher than non-human animals does not imply a kind of power which justifies all the cruel practices of our current day. Far from it. When Christians execute our dominion over the Earth, we should of course imitate Christ—who understood his Lordship as service for the most vulnerable.
So non-speciesist parts of the tradition exist. So what? This really hasn’t changed our behavior, has it? Though I know a few Christians who try to limit their participation in the social sin of factory farming, the vast majority do not. Indeed, even at the various theological conferences I attend, factory farmed meat is served, seemingly without a second thought.
Nevertheless, there are some important contemporary voices which give hope that perhaps all this could be changing. More and more pro-lifers are, for example, starting to realize that to be consistent they must show concern for non-human animals as well as concern for prenatal human beings.
That few Christians take this teaching seriously means that it is probably safe to say that the Church is still speciesist. But, my hope is that a more consistent application of our most important theological principles will push us in a very different direction.
Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics, Fordham University
If you want to dig deeper into the issues Charles raised in this post, then check out his book , For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action. Also, check out the Ask Anything video series, where Charles answers such questions as What would Jesus east? How does the animal soul differ from the human soul? What are the implications of factory farming? And more…