On Humanitarianism and Animal Rights

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 14, 2006

I was reading a collection of sailing stories the other day (have I mentioned that I enjoy sailing?), one of which was written by the late Cleveland Amory. The introduction described Amory as a “famed humanitarian” because he “devoted much of his life to animal rights.” What? Let me read that again. Yes, it said Amory founded The Fund for Animals, which makes him a humanitarian.

Cultural Confusion

The career of Cleveland Amory is interesting, and we will return to it in a moment. But the confusion in our culture over animals is even more interesting. It is no doubt representative of our culture to have an editor assert that someone is a humanitarian because he devotes himself to the well-being of animals. But it doesn’t make very much sense. I don’t mean that it doesn’t make sense to anyone at all, for it would make perfect sense to Princeton philosopher Peter Singer who believes that, after all, animals are people too.

But it doesn’t make sense for anyone with an otherwise undarkened mind. Animals, in fact, are not persons. They lack intellect and will and are completely incapable of entering into personal relationships. This doesn’t mean that they can’t become attached to those who take care of them (or, more significantly, that pet owners can’t become attached to their pets). But animal affection, where it exists, operates at the level of sense perception. Animals cannot think about love and commit themselves to it by an act of will.

Love and Relationship

As the nature of love is something which also confuses our culture, we tend to forget that love in the most complete sense is not mere affection but an act of the will. If all our relationships are based on physical attraction and convenience, they will be essentially animal relationships which, because they are not ultimately satisfying to real persons, will not even last as long as they would among animals. The ability to understand what something is and to engage oneself with it in the proper way—that is, the ability to employ both intellect and will—constitutes the unique relational ability of persons. This relational ability reaches its summit in authentic, self-giving love. Only God, angels and human beings are capable of it.

In other words, only God, angels and human beings are persons. Everything else in creation is what we call a “thing”, and persons have been given dominion over things, both by God’s prescription and by the order of nature. Though it may sometimes be hard to admit, our favorite dog is a thing, as we know perfectly well when we refer to it, on certain occasions, as “that damn dog”. For most of us the distinction between things and persons becomes immediately clear when we reflect on the fact that we are morally free to buy or sell our dog, or even exchange it for a parakeet. We are not morally free to buy, sell or trade persons.


Of course, this does not mean that we have no reason to think about how to behave toward animals. As stewards of creation, we have every reason to give careful consideration to our management of living things that are not persons, as well as non-living things. But the issues must be considered in relation to those whom we serve as stewards, and our stewardship is more important for what it says about ourselves than for what it means to the animals. For example, there are reasons not to be cruel to an animal, but they have little to do with the final disposition of the animal itself. Animals cannot have rights, because rights inhere only in persons. Animal management is a question of stewardship only.

A proper understanding of stewardship will certainly include an understanding that higher animals can experience pain, that they can both feel and express emotion, and that they are therefore capable of a certain level of affection. Appropriate treatment of animals in proportion to these capacities (and their degree of development by association with humans in particular cases) is rightly considered “humane”, not from the animal’s point of view, but from the point of view of what it means for the human person to act in a knowledgeable and responsible manner which both evinces and enhances moral integrity. Stewardship implies a responsibility to know well the objects of one’s stewardship, and to make one’s dispositions for the general and particular good of persons, that is, for man.

Cleveland Amory

To return now to Cleveland Amory, it is unfortunate that his alleged humanitarianism did not extend to those who understood what I have explained above. For example, he publicly described hunters as “blood thirsty nuts” exhibiting “an antiquated expression of macho self-aggrandizement, with no place in a civilized society.” Personally, I have no interest in hunting and very little in fishing (which is a matter of personal taste) but it is at least typical of hunters and fishermen that they understand the difference between persons and things. Now, admittedly, not everyone who understands this distinction is a humanitarian, but one cannot possibly be a humanitarian without it.

Cleveland Amory's accomplishments were numerous. After working in military intelligence in World War II, he wrote a trilogy of classic social history studies beginning with The Proper Bostonians (1947). He edited and wrote extensively for such publications as The Saturday Evening Post, TV Guide, Saturday Review and Parade. In 1974, his book Man Kind? Our Incredible War on Wildlife sparked America's anti-hunting movement. He did social commentary on The Today Show and his daily radio essay was called Curmudgeon at Large.

Presumably, Amory never squashed a bug that chanced to stray across his desk. Undoubtedly, he never dined on steak. Along with these very modest deficiencies of character, occasional invective towards others may perhaps be tolerated in a man who was both a self-proclaimed curmudgeon and, in fact, a humorist. In addition to his frequently-humorous commentary, Amory wrote many imaginative and whimsical stories, and not all about animals, as the opening of this column attests. However, his most famous tales, written in his seventies, featured his cat (remember The Cat Who Came for Christmas?).

In any case, animal rights were for Amory not a passing whim but a long-term cause. He launched The Fund for Animals in 1967, and he served as its president without pay for 31 years until his death in 1998 at the age of 81. So he was intelligent, funny and capable of commitment. The evidence shows that Cleveland Amory was, well, a person.

But he was not a humanitarian.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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