Creation and rights for people and animals

Creation and rights for people and animals

A philosophical and religious argument to mark the 1st anniversary of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si               

18 June 2016

Beulah Thumbadoo

The Catholic Church is open to dialogue with philosophical thought; this has enabled her to produce various syntheses between faith and reason. The development of the Church’s social teaching represents such a synthesis with regard to social issues; this teaching is called to be enriched by taking up new challenges. (Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, p. 46)

The treatment of factory farmed animals everywhere on earth could easily be one challenge that Pope Francis had in mind. It is comparable to the conditions the majority of the South African population had to endure under apartheid. There was restriction of movement (the dompas); gross violation of humane living conditions (The Group Areas Act and restriction to homelands); and the imposition of unnatural lifestyles (migrant labour) to note a few. Even though some find it difficult to believe, we still hear testimony from some white South Africans that they had no idea the extent to which black people’s rights and freedoms were being violated and constrained during apartheid. I believe this state of unawareness to be true of both religious communities and secular society in relation to the plight of the animals consumed today. Nevertheless, this paper does not set out to convince the reader to become vegan or vegetarian despite the strong health and other benefits to the planet of doing so. It is written with the hope that your beliefs on who God and man intended to have rights might be extended and to protect your rights as a consumer: so you are alert to not being complicit in rights violations which might be comparable to those inflicted during apartheid.

Rights are the sort of entity one wants to invoke when one feels personally violated. It might not be natural for everyone to think about how the rights of other people are being violated, but historically there are always people who tend to extend themselves in this way: white people who fought against slavery and apartheid and straight people who align with the struggles and rights of the LGBTI community. Che Guevara is an icon in part because of statements like: Above all, try always to be able to feel deeply any injustice committed against any person in any part of the world. It is the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary. (

The Pope’s Encyclical and the consciences of many faith-based and atheist people the globe over, asks that we go beyond feeling just the injustices committed against people, to acting to end the injustices that we inflict on the planet and on animals too.

Wits Lecturer Kai Horsthemke in The Moral Status and Rights of Animals (2010: 244) suggests that, “An evolutionary analysis of the recognition of rights might focus [...] on the consideration that evolution has undermined our belief that human beings are ‘special’*…+ and thereby pave the way for the recognition of the moral rights also of others who are not human.” While the Judeo Christian tradition is a major foundation for humankind’s claim to being special – because we are special to the God of Abraham who sought so hard to be in relationship with us – it is important to note that the Old Testament (OT) God referenced animals with as much reverence and respect as He did people (when He had not lost patience with us) and most often with far more attention to detail. Even a cursory reading of the first books of the Bible with detailed specifications on animal offerings and ample references to animals provides a strong basis from which to draw conclusions about how anguished and angry the OT God would be with industrial intensive factory farming practices which makes mass and excessive consumption of all meat possible. This short analysis cannot do justice to the myriad ways factory farming would be contrary to the message of love of the New Testament. However, it does argue that the struggle for animal emancipation from suffering - a word which appears 175 times in Laudato Si, take its rightful place within a set of interrelated struggles for dignity and freedom and thus strengthens the case for animals to acquire the same basic rights as humans from a Judeo Christian perspective.

The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). (Laudato Si, p. 48)

Horsthemke shows how rights are the sort of entities that in and of themselves draw animals under the banner of their protection. He puts it this way: “I do not pretend to be able to prove that animals have rights. What I think can be shown, however, is that if there are any rights, that is to say, if rights ‘exist’, in the sense of being attributable to humans, then they cannot plausibly be withheld from animals” (p. 247). This analysis underscores the belief that the differences between humans and animals are not morally relevant to their suffering. Since this distinction might be obscure, let me try to clarify. Horsthemke is not claiming to be able to prove that animals have rights. As much as there can be no argument about the value of rights, I do not believe that human beings ‘have’ rights because they are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in the South African Constitution. Rights are legal constructs and only as real as the efficacy of the justice system and the extent to which it is protected and extended by the citizenry in any given country.

However, if rights can be made to exist and operate on behalf of human beings, then they can be made to exist and operate on behalf of animals especially in relation to suffering since the differences between humans and animals cannot be morally relevant to their suffering to people of conscience. People who support this view are not asking for animals to have the sorts of rights attributable to humankind, but we are voting for animals to be freed from lifetimes of oppression and suffering for God’s sake, for their own sakes and because of the karmic implications of such ongoing subjugation for us.

Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. (Laudato Si, p. 30)

Rights discourse attempts to enshrine certain notions as sacred and worthy of protection. Amongst these notions is dignity, the freedom to express the purposes for which one is born, and according to Horsthemke, Thomas Young and John Lawrence revived philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the possibility of animal rights because they argued that, “’Life, intelligence, and sentience necessarily imply rights’, a verdict they took to apply to humans and non-humans alike” (p. 248). Some people believe that animals are moral subjects deserving of rights and many others have written tomes to justify why they are not candidates for the same kind of moral consideration humankind deserves.

Eco-theologian Thomas Berry’s description of the earth community’s “right” to exist is both simple and radical by comparison. Referring to rights in their original (as opposed to legal) sense, Berry equates the having of rights with existence – ‘rights originate where existence originates’ and every member of the Earth Community has the right to be, the right to inhabit and the right to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth Community. The Christian might easily replace the word ‘existence’ with ‘creation’ in this sentence and mean exactly the same thing. Rights originated with Creation and all of creation is entitled to rights, if one part is.

According to Berry, then, just ‘being’ should earn one rights. Evolving over millennia could earn one protection as part of a bio-community, but I am not sure that existence on its own earns rights.

“The idea of rights seems to draw its strength from the existence of adverse conditions [...] moral rights almost always precede institutional rights [emphasis mine]. Once instituted, rights’ function as [...] protective measures in order to prevent previously dominant predicaments from once again becoming the norm” (Horsthemke 2010: 317). In other words rights also exist to prevent humankind from falling back into bigoted practices.

Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. (Laudato Si, p. 151)

In 2016 and into the foreseeable future, the “adverse conditions” mentioned above and which take the form of cruel practices are the daily lot of both people and animals alike. If suffering can be measured in volume, there is more suffering taking place now than ever before because of human population explosion and animal volumes being factory farmed to feed a small percentage of them. ‘Who’ or ‘what’ is doing the suffering should be of little significance to people of conscience and of faith. That we are complicit in supporting extreme suffering presents a moral challenge. While it is understandable to identify more with one’s own grouping or species, it is both un-Christian and unconscionable to deliberately cause lifelong suffering (oppression) to any other group or species. More so if one is inspired by a Pope who works across God’s creation for social justice.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature”, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion. (Laudato Si, p. 56)




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