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Why Animal Suffering Matters

Why Animal Suffering Matters by Andrew Linzey

Joel Marks finds Andrew Linzey being kind to animals.

Andrew Linzey is a member of the theology faculty at Oxford and founding director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He is a prolific and pioneering author and editor of many books about animal ethics (among other topics), particularly from a Christian perspective but also from a purely moral one. His most recent is Why Animal Suffering Matters (Oxford University Press, 2009), which brings together and up to date a set of papers and lectures. It is intended as a kind of primer with case studies. The book is excellently done, at least at ‘tree level’, with exhaustive scholarship, meticulous argumentation, and clear organization, making it very suitable as a textbook. I would say, however, there is some difficulty seeing the ‘forest’.

Linzey’s main thesis is that a rational case can be built for protecting nonhuman animals from cruel treatment by human beings, even granting that other animals lack some of the qualities that have historically been taken to ground human superiority. Linzey’s strategy is a kind of jujitsu, using an opponent’s force against him, for, he argues, it is precisely our differences from other animals that establish our moral obligations to them. For example, if we supposed that other animals lacked souls, this would only mean that their time on this Earth was even more precious than our own, who may look forward to an eternal Hereafter, and so should be highly respected by us. A more mundane example – and the reader need not fear excessive attention to purely theological arguments in this book – is that, if other animals lack language, or at least any that we humans have been able to decipher to date, it follows that we must be even more scrupulous about how we treat them since they are never able to give consent.

Linzey is very much the analytic philosopher in the way he employs logic to assist his opponents in being hoisted by their own petards. This is where philosophers typically come into their own, since the premises of an argument often rely on empirical knowledge, which is not our accustomed turf. Linzey must be especially commended, therefore, for the extensive groundwork he has done in researching the factual territory of his case studies (about which below.) Such research is less in evidence, however, when he builds his basic theoretical argument, so the reader – at least this one – is sometimes left uncertain about how Linzey himself feels about the “putative” (p.3) difference in ontological status between human and nonhuman animals.

Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Linzey does see humans as a notch above the other animals (cf “as I do myself” on p.33) in that we are the “stewards” (p.29), albeit of their welfare. But this is not Linzey’s main point; again, the pith and power of his argument is precisely that, even granting to humans some “natural” (p.13) and even “moral” (p.23) superiority over other animals, our treating them as if they were mere property does not follow – in fact, the case for solicitousness towards other animals is only strengthened.

The second half of the book contains three cases studies of the utter “barbarity” (p.163) of human treatment of other sentient beings, namely, foxes (and others) that are hunted with the aid of packs of dogs, minks (and others) that are farmed for fur, and seals that are ‘fished’ for commercial purposes. Linzey goes about his exposition and argument with patience and dispassion, but this only heightens by contrast the horror of what is being exposed. I could imagine a prosecuting attorney at Nuremberg building his case against the Nazis in the same fashion. Linzey’s gut feelings of revulsion are surely also in evidence if only as a bitter undercurrent; but he admirably sticks to his self-appointed task of constructing a rational brief. Furthermore, Linzey is also keenly aware of the necessity of taking practical action, in particular, to institutionalize the proper treatment of animals via legislation.

Now let us step back to the beginning and gaze upon the forest to which I metaphorically alluded. The book intends to answer the question: Why does animal suffering matter? I hope I am not sounding flippant to ask in turn: Why does that question matter? Believe me when I tell you that I ask this question as a fellow practitioner and not just a critic. Like Linzey, although not nearly to his extent, I have spent a deal of my career building a theoretical case for the moral considerability of nonhuman animals. But the more I have been thereby drawn into the matter, the less important that effort has come to seem to me.

Why is that? Because how we treat animals has seemed less important? Quite the contrary. It is that whatever argument might be constructed, its motivating premises would always be stronger than the argument itself! This is a reversal of a well-known fallacy of reasoning known as obscurum per obscurius, by which something obscure is explained by reference to something even more obscure. An example of that has received much critical attention from atheist biologist Richard Dawkins, who is fond of pointing out that the standard theistic ‘explanation’ of the existence of the universe postulates something that would be in even greater need of explanation (if it existed), namely, God. Analogously, if oppositely, I am suggesting that the most effective arguments for caring about other animals are themselves premised on intuitions that, by themselves, clinch the case.

Think of it as like a joke: if it has to be explained to you, you probably aren’t going to ‘get’ it. I had a vivid experience of this phenomenon when exchanging (supposedly) funny stories with a friend from Belgium. When she told me hers I was still waiting for the punch line after she had finished. When she tried to explain to me what was funny, I was still left unlaughing – except about our predicament. (Meanwhile, she thought my story was simply ridiculous, which for me was precisely what was funny about it.)

Just so, but no laughing matter at all, is the way human beings treat most animals used for food, clothing, medical research, ‘sport’ and entertainment, etc. ad inf. If the beating human heart is left unmoved by the sheer actuality of what these animals are put through, then it is not clear how logical arguments and dialectical rebuttals are going to do the trick. Linzey himself makes an analogous point about science: “Those who place their hopes in science might like to reflect that, for some, evidence of whatever kind will never count against their opinions [about, for instance, whether animals suffer]. The issue, as always, is not about science … but about… moral sensibility” (p.53)

As noted, Linzey is quite good at adducing evidence for his arguments. But this raises another question about the particular forest of facts to be found in his book. The case studies all pertain to mammals. Furthermore, although the affected animals count in the millions per annum, altogether they amount to a fraction of the animals that are cruelly used by humans. Curiously, Linzey acknowledges this objection in his book. But a person concerned about animals will hardly be assuaged by his manner of doing so, for he writes, “Of course, these numbers are not huge, if we compare them with, say, the millions, if not billions, of farm animals slaughtered every year.” (p.155) This statement is very disappointing and even confusing coming as it does from a writer as scrupulous as Linzey, for the widely-circulated number of animals consumed by humans ever year is in the range of 50 billion, and that is not even counting marine animals. (It’s true that ‘billion’ used to be reserved in British English for what Americans call ‘trillion,’ but that does not appear to be the case in Linzey’s text.)

Additional circumstantial evidence of an odd indifference to the big picture is the use of the term ‘vegetarian’ throughout the book, with only one or two mentions of veganism. Yet hardly any serious animal activist of the present generation would recognize the slightest difference between the cruel and murderous treatment of animals for meat on one hand and for dairy and eggs on other, as law professor Gary Francione in particular has emphasized. Another unfortunate impression left by the book (as Linzey himself notes and tries to counter) is that suffering eclipses premature death as a moral matter; for example, one of Linzey’s “visions” is that “if animals are to be killed for food, humane … farming is absolutely necessary.” (p.69) All in all, then, this book presents the appearance of discounting or at least being agnostic about the vast majority of animal abuse.

It could be said that this book falls in line with the more traditional anti-cruelty orientation of the animal movement, which would tend towards the protection from manifest mistreatment of those animals with whom humans happen to feel some affinity. True, Linzey seems to deny such a thing when he writes, “Animals have to become humans, or acquire human-like characteristics, in order to merit attention, whereas, in my view, it is the very unlikeness of animals that should, inter alia, arouse our moral and imaginative concern.” (p.52) But in context this might only be alluding to Linzey’s apparent belief that a certain inferiority of the other creatures makes them, so to speak, Homo sapiens’ burden.

Consistent with the latter interpretation is the book’s recommendation that we assimilate our attitude toward nonhuman animals to our attitude toward human children. Both fall into the same category of beings who are ‘innocent’, vulnerable, and unable to give consent, and to whom, Linzey argues, we therefore owe special moral consideration. But while surely a tempting comparison and perhaps historically accurate, it tends to slight the insight of the contemporary animal movement, as portrayed by the likes of activist attorney Lee Hall, that nonhumans should be respected on their own terms. Even the idea of a benign stewardship begs the question of whether other animals might better simply be let alone; for what after all do other animals need the most protection from if not human depredation?

In fairness to Linzey I should acknowledge that all of the pieces of the grand puzzle appear at one point or another in his book, often quite perceptively, articulately, and convincingly. But to revert to my earlier metaphor, all of the trees are not, in my view, brought into coherent focus as a forest by the book as a whole. I suspect this has more to do with scholarly diffidence than with any uncertainty of commitment by an obviously dedicated individual. Still, the book may at times contain outright inconsistencies. For example, forceful criticisms of utilitarian moral philosophy appear several times, but Linzey’s bottom-line about that theory remains ultimately unclear. Thus, at various points he seems to be contrasting morality to utility: “Much more important, it focuses the argument on the utility rather than on the morality of animal testing” (p.61) and “certain actions are intrinsically wrong in themselves” (p.93) But elsewhere it is only the kind of utility that seems to be at issue: “What is at the heart of the [moral] issue of course is what kind of utilitarian calculus is being employed, and by whom …” (p.62)

Moral philosophy itself goes round and round about such things, and Linzey also asserts that “no one ethical theory can do justice to the range and complexity of our obligations to both humans and animals.” (p.162) But might one also conclude that ‘God’ (or animal salvation) does not lie in the details of dialectic? Linzey himself states, “What I have learned from years of exposure to arguments justifying animal suffering is that this intellectual well is never dry … Unfashionable as it may be in a culture that rejects any kind of impermeable moral line, the thesis of this book is that the line should be drawn at the intentional infliction of suffering on innocent and vulnerable subjects.” (p.163) What might better serve the animal cause, I therefore submit, is to pay more attention to educating the public about the reality of animal use behind the scenes of everyday appearances. For it does seem to be true that most people are simply unaware of such things as how factory farming has totally transformed and supplanted the animal agriculture of yore (not that it was ever entirely pretty.)

Let me grant, nevertheless, that education about the facts cannot be the whole of the animal-protection effort. For don’t many people who are not ignorant of the facts continue to ignore them? Thus Linzey’s lament: “it is the sidestepping of the ethical that most confounds discussions of animal issues.” (p.79) Most obviously this would seem to be true of the people doing the direct abusing of animals, but it is also the case for the far greater numbers – the average consumer – who willingly and at least somewhat knowingly abet them by benefiting from that abuse. In addition, then, to enhancing awareness of animal exploitation among the public at large, there is the necessary task of helping people, including professionals and specialists (even animal-regardful ones like conservationists and veterinarians), to draw out its ethical implications.

Linzey also expresses concern about animal advocates who substitute emotional outrage for reasoned discourse. Accordingly he devotes an entire chapter, of great pedagogic usefulness, to explaining how to think critically about the ways animals are portrayed in our language, schools, legal and governmental system, religions, science, the media, and other institutions. He gives examples in his case studies. Linzey doesn’t despise “sheer opportunism to utilise the media to make pro-animal arguments” (p.64), but he himself is true to his own dictum that “there is (in my view) no alternative to patient study.” (p.65) He continues: “Unless one is constantly reading the evidence and sifting the arguments in some depth, it is impossible to counter conventional views …” Therefore one can only welcome Linzey’s latest book, which admirably reinforces why we ought to care enough about animal suffering at human hands to strive to end it.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2010

Joel Marks is our Moral Moments columnist and the author of Ought Implies Kant (Lexington Books, 2009), which offers an original defense of animal rights. He also has a new veganism website:

Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology and Practical Ethics by Andrew Linzey, OUP USA, 2008, 224 pages. hb, £19.99/$29.95.


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