Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Paul Watson, chief of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, reacting to the March 29th maritime death of four seal hunters, declared the death of seals a “greater tragedy.” This same individual, I quickly learned, had not been misquoted but is famous or infamous for comments, such as advocating a population-decimating cap of one billion people in our world, and calling human beings “the AIDS of the Earth.”
Federal and provincial politicians have entered the fray suggesting that the protest against Canada’s annual seal hunt would be less effective if hunters were banned from clubbing animals to death. Apparently most animals are shot but some are killed by blows from large spiked hakapik clubs.
Animals rights groups often use graphic pictures of the clubbing as part of their campaign to ban the hunt altogether as an inhumane exercise.
Sealers argue that the hakapik is a device they use for manoeuvring on the ice and dispatching seals where necessary by “crushing the hemisphere of the skull” to bleed them out.
Humane society representatives argue that removing the hakapik would increase the suffering of seals because seals shot are often only wounded and the sealers will have to cut open live conscious animals.
The politicians' argument is largely cosmetic and economic in nature as a ban might persuade the European Union to ignore the pressure to ban the import of seal products. The seals are hunted for their fur, meat, and oil, which is rich in omega 3 fatty acids.
Regrettably, most of the parties seem to be on parallel tracks and there isn’t much chance of finding common ground until all the parties begin to address the social movement which parades under the heading of “animal rights.”
In his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer states that the basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. This is an important distinction when talking about animal rights. Should animals have rights? Singer simple answers, “Yes!” Animals surely deserve to live their lives free from suffering and exploitation.
Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian moral philosopher, stated that when deciding on a being’s rights, “The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” Bentham points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. All animals have the ability to suffer in the same way and to the same degree that humans do. They feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness, and motherly love. Whenever we consider doing something that would interfere with their needs, we are morally obligated to take them into account.
As PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk has said, “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. Each one values his or her life and fights the knife.”
Nevertheless, it turns out that some animals are more equal than others. One would expect that consistency would demand the condemnation of poisoning babies in the womb with a saline solution or cutting them up with surgical tools but Newkirk and Singer don’t believe that human beings have the ‘right to life.’ For Newkirk, that’s a supremacist perversion. Singer argues that since a pig may be more intelligent than a retarded child, it is all right to have an abortion but not to eat bacon.
Philosophically, we should raise the question: Why should sentience or interest be the basis for a natural right? Why should a being’s desires or interests entail a right to have them satisfied? Why should a being’s capacity to experience pleasure or pain entail a right to have pain alleviated?
The only plausible criterion for acknowledging natural rights is that the being in question has obligations. If I have an obligation to do something, this entails a right that no one prevent me from fulfilling it, and a right to what I need to fulfill it.
Obligations, in turn, imply free choices, and the corresponding ability to deliberate. Animals lack that ability. Human possess it. Human infants and mental defectives possess these abilities potentially; they are essentially rational. Animals are not.
We do have indirect obligations to animals arising from our obligation to act rationally, e.g. not cruelly, to respect how our actions affect other human beings and our obligation to respect all the cosmos.
Theologically, the arguments are much more telling and are based on the integrity of creation and responsible stewardship states:
“Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness... God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.
It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
While we are called to respect all creation and must use it wisely, the key is “we can use it.” Following the principle of stewardship, nothing is intrinsically wrong with using animals wisely for labour, transportation, clothing, food, or other needs.
Wishing you all the best, I remain,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
☩ Frederick Henry