The concept of rights, in general, is complicated, let alone when complicating the subject by considering how animals fit in. It is terribly easy to reject the idea that a thing, an object, can have a right. Rights clearly belong to the category of personhood. To ascribe rights—a moral category—to a non-moral category such as an inanimate object is clearly nonsense. It would be as irrational as describing ‘thoughtful bricks’ or ‘potatoes tasting purple’, expecting others to take us both literally and seriously.
However, the animals category is a little more complicated. The line between animals and persons is increasingly blurry. For example, we now know that humans are not the only ones who learn through culture. Cats are able to climb out of trees if they are able to observe other cats doing so. But the domesticated house cat usually is not able to learn, because there is no mother cat provide an example. Not all of the knowledge that animals posses can be reduced to innate instinct.
Further, we see that animals even have a code of conduct, a sense of property, at least in the form of territory; dogs have dreams, and who does not recognize that different pets have different personalities?
Although, while the line between non-person and person, the mere creature and the human creature, is blurry we must never make one of the gravest errors of pantheism; the failure to acknowledge that a blurry line is no less of a line because of its blurriness.
So to be sure, there is definitely a person–like character that animals, or at least some animals, tend to display. And so the question sometimes arises, is there a third category in-between ‘person’ and ‘thing’?
Morality can only exist between persons. The category of personhood includes the categories of God, angel, and man (male and female). Yet, we know from Scripture that the righteous man has a regard for his beast, while the cruel man behaves wrongly towards the animals under his care (Prov. 12:10).
There is a way to make sense of this passage without attributing a third category, a quasi-personhood category.
We must reject the ascription of quasi-personhood to animals, for this would mean quasi-morality, and in turn, a quasi-injustice.
In fact, we must reject the ascription of quasi-personhood to animals, for this would mean quasi-morality, and in turn, a quasi-injustice being done. This can’t be. Either a being or an action is moral or not moral. There is no half-way moral category.
When we say that morality does not exist between humans and animals, we mean that it does not intrinsically exist. A moral relationship always entails a second-person relationship of accountability. It is only because I have a moral relationship with other humans, not to mention God, that I can demand others to explain themselves, and they can demand of me that I too give an account. Morality always assumes a kind of equal footing in this way. Animals, however, do not and cannot relate in this ethical fashion.
But this does not mean—as some falsely take it to mean—that a man can do whatever he wants with his animals that God has given him.
It is true that morality is still involved when a man is cruel to the animal. Cruelty, after all, is meaningless suffering and is always an evil. But the ethical nature that does exist between the cruel man and the animal exists in the moral structure that is extrinsic to their relationship, not one to one.
At the risk of redundancy, morality always means being able to give an account; and we do not give an account to the animal, the animal does not demand an account nor do we ask the animal for an accounting. And where there is no moral accountability, that is, where there can be no moral accountability, there can be no moral relationship. Morality entails the ability to answer “Why?” Where there is no possiblity of asking and answering “Why?”, is where moral accountability, and thus morality, ceases to exist.
Where there is no moral accountability, that is, where there can be no moral accountability, there can be no moral relationship.
In short, the question is this: Can we separate personhood from moral agency and vice versa? The Reformed Conservative says, “No.”
I can be irresponsible with my money and my time, my property and my animals, but I never give an account to them for this; I always give an account to another, namely, God. I answer to God for dealing wrongly with my money just as I deal wrongly with my animals, but this does not mean that the animal or the money relates to me in a moral way that is fundamental. No, I am relating to God from an ethical standpoint by my wrong actions with my money or my animals. To be sure, my actions with and towards my money and my animals is still governed by morality, but not inherently so.
Therefore, since an animal is not a person, not subject to the demands of moral accountability, nor able to demand others to give an account, we must conclude that the beast is not a creature that has rights. Rights are, after all, the correlative of duties. And when we fail to fulfill our duty, only then can a person (such as God) call us to account for our failure.
Again, it does not follow, as many fear it does, that a man is then free to do what ever (one word or two?) he likes with his animal.
When the cruel man behaves irresponsibly towards his animals—in the exact same way as when he behaves irresponsibly regarding his time and his money—he has failed in his duty toward God, and gives an account to God.
Animal rights, in short, is an irrational concept that fails to understand that nature of morality and accountability, in general. But it’s one that is remarkably consistent with neo-Pantheism. By more adequately understanding the nature of accountability and morality, the better prepared Christians can be for answering this question when the time comes.
Daniel MasonSee More Essays
Daniel Mason studied theology in his undergrad, and currently pursuing graduate studies, with a particular interest in the Dutch statesman, Groen van Prinsterer. Daniel Mason is the co-founder of The Reformed Conservative.