Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Problem of Animal Rights

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 15, 2009

In a recent issue of First Things, Mary Eberstadt raises the question of why the pro-animal folks are not more pro-life. She identifies several significant historical and ideological reasons for this divergence of interests, but she also argues that there ought to be a strong correlation between the natural impulse to be concerned about animals and a corresponding impulse to be concerned about babies (“Pro-Animal, Pro-Life”, June/July 2009). In some ways Eberstadt’s analysis is a laudable attempt to find common ground. But in the end, I believe her approach falls into the sentimentality trap.

It seems to me necessary, in any discussion of our concern for animals, to minimize the role of mere sentiment. In fact, I would say the same about our discussion of abortion. While there may be many things that we can do to move this or that person to abhor abortion, what we really want is for people to oppose abortion because they have made a correct moral judgment that abortion is seriously wrong. In contrast, Eberstadt takes the opposite tack, citing the similarity of emotional reactions to the abuse of babies and to the slaughtering of animals. She views these separate reactions as manifestations of a common human intuition which ought to breed allies.

As an example of what she means, Eberstadt cites a revelatory experience about his own convictions recounted by First Things editor Joseph Bottum :

In his case, [a pro-life intuition] came knocking one day when, as a student in the Georgetown library, he sat watching idly through the window as a mother wrestled fruitlessly with her dog, leash, and baby stroller: All the while, as he watched, the baby laughed with delight, “clapping her small hands at the slapstick world into which God and her parents had unexpectedly delivered her…. It was at that moment,” Bottum writes, that there arrived “the sudden, absolute conviction that babies are good…. Always for me it comes back to this touchstone: Anything that participates in the murder of a child…is wrong. All the rest is just a working out of the details.”

Eberstadt likens this to the enlightenment many young vegetarians suddenly experience when they begin to see the connection between meat and animals; recognizing that animals are good, they are suddenly repulsed by the idea of their destruction.

The Mind and the Will

But to preserve Joseph Bottum’s otherwise exemplary intellectual reputation, one must surely suppose that Eberstadt misreads him if she thinks that his “conviction” that babies are good depends on his emotional reaction to the scene he observed. Rather, the emotional reaction—his sharing in an experience of childlike delight—was simply a specific circumstance though which his own understanding of the gift of personhood was more deeply impressed upon his character. It is certainly possible that Bottum was in a certain mood or had received a special grace which made this, for him, just the right psychological and spiritual moment to dramatically reinforce a pro-life intuition. In other circumstances, the whole thing could easily have passed beneath his notice, or even bored him. Moreover, another observer might just as well have been powerfully moved by the mother, or (perhaps more to the point) by the dog.

In the final analysis, we must acknowledge that Bottom’s intuitive flash became a sustained conviction only when his mind and will were sufficiently well-prepared, and his emotions were sufficiently well-disciplined by both his mind and his will. Without these conditions, Bottum’s ultimate response to the scene would have been significantly different. The initial spark of recognition may never have occurred, it may never have made a powerful impact, or it may have been instantaneously and almost instinctively diverted or suppressed. After all, the common problem with those who would, under the same circumstances, first intuit the value of the dog is not that the dog has no value but that their minds, wills and emotions are so often insufficiently well-disciplined to rightly understand the value of the dog in relation to the totality of values represented by the scene.

For this scene cannot be interpreted morally without a great respect for the concept of personhood. Unless we understand the concept of personhood, there is simply no morally intelligible way to differentiate between dog and man or to make coherent distinctions anywhere else along the continuum of being. It is natural, I suppose, for most people to be concerned about dogs more than they are about ants, because dogs are more “like us” and many of us become emotionally attached to them. Peter “Chickens are people” Singer would call this a species-based prejudice, and (for a refreshing change) he would be right. We can see the point immediately if we recognize that most people would not naturally value the ant more than a rose, though the ant is far more like us than the rose. These attachments are primarily about who we are, not about what their objects are. Only with a disciplined mind and will can we make proper moral sense out of such attachments.


Both the baby and the mother in Bottum’s scene have an intrinsically and even infinitely higher moral value than the dog because they are persons. There are various ways to get at what it means to be a person, but all of them depend on the person’s likeness to God. Essentially, every person has both intellect and will and so is at least potentially capable of entering into relationships of love. Note that I do not speak of relationships of “affection”. Love must not be explained either as a feeling or an action motivated by sensory attraction or instinct. Love must be understood as an act of the will based on a proper intellectual valuation of the other, a valuation through which the intellect instructs us to love, that is, to will the other’s good.

Neither a dog, nor a dolphin, nor a chimpanzee, nor any other embodied being besides man is capable of this. Everything these other creatures do can be explained in material terms. They give no evidence either of intellectual analysis or of moral judgment. They have not been made in the image of God; they are not persons. Only man has the ability to know, to morally evaluate, and to love. This is precisely why God Himself gave man dominion over everything else in His material creation, and why Genesis teaches that man alone can name the other creatures (that is, know and evaluate them properly), whereas no other creature can name man.

A proper understanding of personhood is essential to the proper moral valuation of nature, and to the correct moral action that can derive from it alone. This is also the point most often left out of the discussions of the two heated controversies of our time which bear most upon this essay: abortion and, you guessed it, animal rights. The bottom line is that all non-personal being is at man’s disposal in his role of the steward of nature for the God who created it. But no personal being is at man’s disposal. It is the shedding of an innocent man’s blood alone that cries out to heaven for vengeance. If men could kill angels, the same would be true.

Thus it is essential to understand that our emotional responses to the various “scenes” of our life vary widely in their moral relevance. Insofar as we react emotionally to the slaughter of animals for food and choose to become vegetarians, we are free to act in accordance with our emotions. But insofar as we react emotionally and elevate that emotion into a moral principle which evaluates animals as if they have rights, we must discipline our emotions in order to avoid an immense moral error. This error arises either from a disordered intellect or a weak and rebellious will, for persons alone are the subject of rights. To think and act otherwise means that we have not schooled ourselves in the reality of personhood. As a result, we are driven hither and yon not be rich and enduring intuitions that have matured into settled convictions, but merely by how we feel.


It is not my purpose to justify everything anyone wants to do with nature (or creation). Everything we have received is a gift to be used for the glory of the Giver. Thus we are to exercise our dominion over nature in accordance with a proper understanding of our own being as children of God, possessing a destiny which transcends this world and looks forward to the new heaven and the new earth; and with an understanding of all the living and non-living things over which we exercise this dominion. The manner in which we use, conserve and enhance nature tells us a great deal about our own self-understanding, our own recognition of the gifts we have received, and our own commitment to right judgments about the moral order. It also tells us much about whether or not we appreciate that this moral order is rooted in personhood.

The first stage of fruitful dominion, whether with respect to a king and his domain or to man and nature, is to exercise dominion over oneself, to discipline the mind and will so that, among other things, we become emotionally susceptible only to those experiences and insights that correspond to right reason and tend toward right action. Any of us at any time may encounter what Bottom encountered and be powerfully moved by the woman, the child or the dog. Indeed, certain people at certain times could, without fault, be struck most by the stroller or the leash. For a great variety of reasons, such things may at any given moment be of personal, professional or even metaphorical interest.

But only a confused or unjust observer concludes, on the one hand, that the dog should be severely beaten for jumping about excitedly in a very “doggy” way or, on the other, that the dog’s offspring should be protected by law whereas the woman’s should not. And only a confused or unjust observer will even remotely imagine that the first error (the beating of the dog) is more significant than the second (the “restriction” of the woman’s offspring). But our world is full of confused and unjust observers. Indeed, they appear in all kinds of interesting places—at dog-fights on the one hand, on university faculties on the other, mostly in accordance with their position on the social scale. But perhaps that is a story for another day. The point here is that only the confused or the unjust deny the meaning of personhood. Only the confused or unjust seek to put the dog in the stroller, and the child on the leash.

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 See full bio.

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