Animals, Rights of

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Catholic tradition distinguishes between positive or legal rights and natural or moral rights. While the former are properly the concern of jurists, the latterrights grounded in the natural orderfall within the sphere of moral theology. Human rights are moral rights of this sort: according to the Second Vatican Council, in virtue of their unique nature humans possess "universal and inviolable" rights to everything necessary "for leading a life that is truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one's own conscience, to protection of privacy and to rightful freedom in matters religious" [Gaudium et spes 26].

Proponents of animal rights have prompted consideration of the extent to which similar moral claims might be made on behalf of animals. At issue is the morality of human practices ranging from meat-eating and animal experimentation to recreational hunting, blood sports, and the marketing of furs. From the standpoint of Catholic tradition, the question posed by these practices is, strictly speaking, not so much whether animals have rights per se; it is rather what, if any, moral constraints apply to humans in their treatment of animals. This question turns on a deeper issue regarding the nature and ontological basis of the distinction between humans and animals.

Moral philosophers defending strong human obligations toward animals argue that the radical moral distinction traditionally assumed to exist between humans and animals is ultimately without warrant. Inspired by the utilitarianism of Bentham, Peter Singer (1975), a prominent activist on behalf of animals, holds that the capacity of sentient animals to experience suffering and enjoyment entitles them to equal consideration of their interests. Tom Regan (1983), following the lead of H. S. Salt's classic Animals' Rights (1894), couches his argument in the language of rights: because some animals possess consciousness, they, like the very young or deranged, should be considered moral "patients" (as distinct from agents) who have inherent value and hence a valid claim, i.e., a right, to respectful treatment. An Aristotelian conception of the good life as one based on the virtue of sharing in the lives of other beings, including animals, is commended by Stephen Clark (1977). These philosophers are united in their endeavor to include at least some animals within the sphere of moral community.

Catholic teaching conjoins an affirmation of the distinctive worth of humans with an endorsement of the need to treat animals with respect. Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium vitae (EV) describes the human being as "a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory" (34). The Vatican II statement that the human person is endowed with a "spiritual and immortal" soul and is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake" (GS 23) is echoed in the catechism of the catholic church (CCC) number 1703. CCC adds that in the "hierarchy of creatures" humans represent "the summit of the Creator's work" (34243). Animals, for their part, are "by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity" (2415). Accordingly, as set forth in Genesis 1.28, humans enjoy "dominion over the earth and over every living creature" (EV 42).

This dominion, however, "is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to 'use and misuse,' or to dispose of things as one pleases" [Sollicitudo rei socialis 34]. It is limited by a "specific responsibility" toward the "creation which God has put at the service" of human dignity (EV 42); indeed it "requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation" (CCC 2415). It follows that each animal, as a creature which, "willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness," deserves kindness and respect (CCC 339). In light of the fact that creatures "exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other," humans are enjoined to exercise their dominion in terms of "stewardship" (CCC 340; 2417). This notion allows for the use of animals for food and clothing, for the domestication of animals, and, within limits, for experimentation on animals in the interest of caring for or saving human lives. However, "it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly" (CCC 2418). By spelling out the obligations of humans toward their fellow creatures in this way, Catholic tradition, without endorsing the notion that animals possess rights, nonetheless provides a basis for moral constraints on the treatment of animals.

Bibliography: j. m. jasper and d. nelkin, The Animal Rights Crusade: The Growth of a Moral Protest (New York 1992). a. linzey, Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment of Man's Treatment of Animals (London 1976). m. midgley, Animals and Why They Matter (Athens, GA 1984). c. murphy, At Home on Earth: Foundations for a Catholic Ethic of the Environment (New York 1989). j. passmore, Man's Responsibility for Nature (New York 1974). p. singer, Animal Liberation (New York 1975). t. regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley 1983). l. g. regenstein, Replenish the Earth: A History of Organized Religion's Treatment of Animals and Nature (New York 1991). b. e. rollin, Animal Rights and Human Morality (rev. ed. Buffalo, NY 1992). s. r. l. clark, Animals and Their Moral Standing (London 1997). d. degrazia, Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status (Cambridge 1996). r. sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (London 1993).

[w. a. barbieri]

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Animals, Rights of

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