Symposium Introduction

I first encountered David Clough’s work while on a treasure hunt for books discussing animals and theology. There weren’t many books about animal ethics, and, apart from the various approaches that look at how animals are honored in indigenous spiritualities, there weren’t many considerations of how animals fit within any particular theology.

In On Animals: Volume I, Clough considers where animals fit within Christian theology as a precursor to thinking about animals from a moral perspective. He understands that a sound theological framework interpreting a place for animals within Christian theology is necessary in order to move Christians towards a praxis of care for animals. He frames theology as the starting point for offering a response to oppression and suffering. As a womanist theologian, I am aware of the importance of a theology that does not perpetuate the cultural production of evil played out in various forms of systemic oppression and suffering experienced by all of creation – including humanity, nature, and animals.

I quickly discovered the importance of questions in ethics in my quest to explicate the struggle to provide a hermeneutic of suspicion even within my own liberationist ethic of care for black women in society. How does human consumption of animals, hunting animals for sport, and killing of animals for consumer products limit our love for Christ? On Animals: Volume II: Theological Ethics is the first monograph of its kind systematically confronting theological ethics concerning animals. It reveals the many ways our fallen world inhibits us from seeing how we limit our love while refusing to limit evil.

Clough does not write with the objective to “flatten hierarchy” and accommodate the unrealistic desire for clearly delineated moral categories. Clough instead emphasizes that it is best that we consider our priorities and reflect on how we might perpetuate the same exact perspectives and characteristics we seem to commit our lives to dismantling. How do our tyrannical views line up with God’s commandment that we are to care for the earth and that we are made in the imago Dei? On Animals: Volume II is an excellent book that helps readers reckon with traditional ways of thinking about our relationship with non-human animals. It seeks to foster a robust ethic of care meant to improve both human and non-human welfare. The summation of Clough’s efforts is that “acknowledging that Christian animal ethics takes place in the context of a fallen creation means that ethical action in this realm – as well as others – will be provisional and partial, seeking to act responsibly in relation to animal creatures while recognizing that our relationship with them this side of the new creation will always be broken” (237).

What I enjoy most about On Animals: Vol. II is Clough’s graciousness as he engages the reader with chapters reviewing topics that are often far removed from the argument of animal cruelty or just scenarios necessary for human evolution: using other animals for food (ch.2), using other animals for clothing and textiles (ch. 3), using other animals for labour (ch. 4), using other animals for research, medicine and education (ch. 5), using other animals for sport and entertainment (ch. 6), other animals as companions and pets (ch. 7), human impacts on wild animals (ch. 8).

I first had the pleasure of encountering the responses by María Teresa (MT) Dávila, Jennifer Herdt, Darryl Trimiew, and Eric Gregory when they were originally given at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in Louisville, Kentucky. Syndicate is making those responses available along with responses Dr. Clough has written for this symposium.

In the first essay, Davila focuses on how our conduct toward animals shapes us as persons. She engages Clough’s arguments about the consumption of animals for food and clothing, noting especially the challenge of reshaping our desires manipulated by corporate spending. (For example, McDonald’s spending on marketing rates at 1/6th of all marketing dollars around the world.) In the second essay, Herdt looks more deeply into questions about the justice of “owning” animals as pets. She concludes by suggesting three possible routes to discussing animals as “property” in our society. The third essay uses the Johannine story of Jesus cooking and eating fish after his resurrection to challenge aspects of Clough’s arguments. Tremiew shows how such a text might not only resonate with personal experience, but also challenge cherished childhood memories. One of his favorite memories of his father was the regular fishing excursion every Sunday afternoon. Tremiew’s response to Clough appreciates Clough’s concerns but asks whether it attends sufficiently to “the nature and place of death as a part of life,” to natural selection, and to concerns about limiting human population. Finally, Gregory’s assessment of the text admires Clough’s ability and ease in “showing rather than theorizing what ethics might look like when it takes theology seriously and what theology might look like when it takes ethics seriously.” Gregory asks broad questions about method, about hierarchy, about eschatology, and about compromise.

M.T. Dávila

Response

“Irreconcilable Conflicts”

Moral Lessons for Humans from Clough’s Animalia

Introduction

While I don’t personally work on animal ethics, I bring three foci that I think engage constructively with David Clough’s On Animals. First, I cannot do ethics that doesn’t stem from personal stories. And, after reading a number of vignettes about Cough’s family cat, and his encounter with different animals throughout the volume, I am clear that engaging a discussion on the ethics of some really troubling contemporary practices with respect to the treatment of nonhuman animals requires engaging with personal stories. Second, engaging in ethical reflection I often move from these personal stories to family and community life. Very honestly, I do Christian ethics from the perspective of a Christian mother trying to raise a Christian family. So all ethics has to make sense to me in that context. Third, this grounding on personal stories and the context of a Christian family means that I care deeply about consumption: of clothing, of natural resources, of political capital, of food, of medical resources, etc. I have studied and written about consumption in the United States for some time, and I think there are some interesting points of intersection between these studies and Clough’s central claims in his volume. And, finally, I am committed to writing and supporting the articulated goals of the New Pro-Life Movement, which seeks to address issues typically included in the “seamless garment of life,” and specifically elective abortions, through different language, strategies, and arguments than the traditional pro-life movement.1 I think some of Clough’s key theological and ethical arguments regarding what humans owe nonhuman animals can serve the purpose of transforming some of the conversations around what constitute pro-life issues, especially as we attempt to make a bold call for including things like climate change and mass migrations as key contemporary life issues.

For my discussion I would like to draw from Clough’s overall theological claim that other animals were “created, reconciled, and redeemed by a God who wills them to flourish, and in so doing glorify their Creator,” a claim that serves as the foundation for reviewing theological ethics on the basis of the ways in which human animals do or do not honor this holy created purpose of nonhuman animals. I will especially draw from what I think is one of Clough’s most keen ethical insights in the volume, that of irreconcilable conflicts as a category that helps us ponder where Christians ought to stand with respect to animal rights in general, but that I think is helpful in pushing Christian ethics to be more intentional about the grey areas of ethical conflicts, and on which perhaps we too easily yield to polarized and absolute conclusions. In the end, while Clough and I come to the same conclusions on the kinds of decisions Christians ought to make with respect to the treatment of nonhuman animals in food production, clothing, and research, I do not agree with his central premise that this is ultimately because of what we owe these creatures on the basis of their standing before God. This is not because it is not true theologically, but because I find it ineffective in ultimately shaping human behavior. Our best chance to achieve any sort of attitudinal change with respect to our patterns of consumption—which ultimately have to do with how we behave toward nonhuman animals—will require a human teleological argument about the kinds of persons we want to become, and how much blood we are willing to carry in our hands, or wear on our feet, or eat on our plates.

Can stories bring us a little closer to knowing who we want to become?

My stories, or really short vignettes, span from the more personal to the familiar. The first, I’ll call Bear, as this is the name of my dog—or perhaps taking a cue from Clough I should speak about him as the fur-bearing creature that currently resides in my home (xxiii). Bear and I talk a lot, and it’s quite easy with domestic animals dear to us to anthropomorphize their features and behaviors. It is no mystery to me, or my children, that Bear has a calming effect on me, therapeutic even, and that I for one am a much better human being to the non-fur-bearing creatures in the household because of the furry one’s presence. A recent discovery is that Bear actually wants to hear what I have to say to him. On occasion I’ve taken to whispering to him, quite low, and have found him drawing near to me, bringing his ear nearer to my mouth to hear whatever gibberish I am saying. Why would an animal that doesn’t understand draw closer to a whispering interlocutor, unless the animal sees it as a sign of friendship, that is, that they want to be able to make out whatever the friend is saying, even when it doesn’t make sense?

The second story is Blu. Blu is an emaciated cat that my children found in, of all places, Cancun, Mexico, two years ago. My oldest daughter heard mewing in the parking lot of our hotel, and she did not stop until she found the sad sac of bones that was trying to pass for a kitten. Clough brings up precisely this example in his book: the paradigmatic emaciated kitty (xx). The children took in Blu, feeding it cream containers from the coffee station, trying to hydrate it, as we searched the internet and consulted with vets in the United States as to what it would take to bring a cat across the border. Well, the experiment was brief, as that very day we were moving to the next location of our vacation to meet other families, and we worried about how we would explain to them that hosting us now also included a cat that might die at any moment, and who would definitely impinge on plans to leave to enjoy the sights for prolonged periods of time. In the end we convinced ourselves that Blu was a kind of Artful Dodger (if you recall from Oliver Twist), who looking famished would swindle unsuspecting and compassionate vacationers out of their cream packets or even more substantial morsels, only to return to its lair at the end of the day. And so we let him go.

The last vignette is really more of a shift that occurred this year in my home. I have been vegetarian for over twenty years now, moderately so I suppose, but have not made the entire household vegetarian. I have been ok with this until last year when it became clear to me that I was using the fact that I was buying “free range” eggs, and organic and other “free range” meats as an excuse to offer nonhuman animal related food at almost every single meal. The shift occurred when the mantra “we do not have to kill an animal every time we eat” took shape in my head whenever I went shopping or when I planned menus for the day or the week. This mantra is now said aloud periodically during the week, and seems to silence my family’s complaints when they see the crockpot and beans come out more periodically than they used to. “We do not have to kill an animal every time we eat.” No discussion, no protesting.

I take the luxury of sharing these vignettes with you because one element that is important throughout Clough’s book in addition to the theological claim of nonhuman animals being co-participants in Christ’s redemptive and reconciling work, is the role of emotions in our relationship with these creatures. All three vignettes play on human emotions (and perhaps nonhuman as well). Our fur-bearing residents become like friends wanting to share in our most intimate moments—even our whispering. An emaciated cat’s meowing tugs at our heartstrings to the point of forgetting all our plans for the day, making us care about this cat, at this time. And a shift in language—from calling a meal “vegetarian” to calling it a “no kill” meal—clarifies the moral import of the decisions we make when we eat.

To entertain Clough’s vivid descriptions of the treatment of nonhuman animals in food and clothing productions, and animal experimentation requires becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. Indeed, his ethical claims on what is owed to animals heavily relies on the emotive effect of dark and gruesome stories of factory animal farming in order to make their case (for example, in his discussion on the conditions of factory farming for food, 35–48, or farming for clothing, 95–99). There is a manipulation of sorts that takes place in every chapter—completely justified—that primes the reader to be convicted, using the full meaning of the word, with the argument that animals ought to be able to lead lives of flourishing as part of God’s plan. Personal stories that connect people’s emotional core with the moral compass have a distinctively important role to play in our conversations about animal ethics that Clough doesn’t necessarily admit to in the volume, but which is very much already at play in its pages.

What’s ultimately at stake in consuming animals for textiles and clothing?

With respect to consumption of nonhuman animals for food and clothing Clough’s argument involves a two-prong approach. Theologically, he has made the case in volume 1 that we are to see animals as co-sharers in the promises of redemption witnessed to in the Bible. I had initially faulted Clough for flattening whatever creaturely hierarchy was available in the Bible that witnesses to human priority in the order of a redeemed creation (and said as much in a conference panel responding to the book). Upon closer consideration, I realize that Clough is not advocating for the flattening of creaturely hierarchies (as diverse as there are eschatological visions in Christian theology). Clough more specifically wishes to broaden visions of creaturely reconciliation and redemption that more honestly respond to the biblical witness. In turn these demand that we ask ourselves what we might owe other creatures by virtue of being beloved by the creator and made participants of the central promises of the Christian faith. This does not represent a flattening of priorities or hierarchies (if one wishes to sustain an Augustinian or Thomistic understanding of a hierarchy of created beings). It begs the question of whether sattisfying human needs must involve the killing of these co-sharers in the kingdom.

The second prong of Clough’s argument stems from the first, is there currently any real need to kill in order to satisfy our need for food or clothing. Clough’s meticulous descriptive work makes it clear that clothing humans no longer requires the skin of our nonhuman brethren in Christ, and neither is their flesh required to attend to humanity’s nutritional needs. To apply Clough’s ethical principle, there is no intractable or irreconcilable conflict of goals that would have us accept the tragic and massive use of animals for food or clothing. Synthetic and plant alternatives abound, with, according to Clough, quite similar (and in some cases less harmful) environmental impacts on water and ground resources. In this case I ought to expand my mantra “there is no need to kill an animal for this meal” to include “there is no need to kill an animal to clothe this body.”

But on both food and clothing fronts Clough only briefly addresses the market-driven dynamics of higher production with the highest profit. For all the detailed analysis of industrial farming for food and clothing, Clough doesn’t attend to analysis of why market forces and the shaping of desire (and even awareness) of capitalism push human beings to tolerate ever-increasing levels of cruelty to both human and nonhuman animals alike.2 I would push Clough to consider beyond market dynamics to truly analyze consumption as a social and moral phenomenon of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Consumption is a theological problem, one that shapes desire toward inordinate acquisition of goods. This includes clothing and food, among other consumer goods. And the shaping of desire, the multi-billion-dollar industry of advertising and marketing, benefits particular elements of our society. It purposely establishes barriers between the production of goods (workers, how raw materials are sourced, transportation of goods) and the consumer making it nearly impossible for consumers to easily access this information in order to apply their ethical values to their consumer choices. Production of goods and the market forces that shape entire industries and consumption patterns are not morally neutral, and have deep impacts for human well-being, and, add Clough’s argument, for all creatures. Just imagine that in the United States one out of every six advertising dollars in the restaurant industry is spent by McDonald’s.3 A sixth of all restaurant advertising. To be honest I thought this figure would be more. In the UK McDonald’s spends eighty-six million pounds in advertising.4 Animal and worker welfare and environmental concerns are not considerations in these companies’ bottom lines, let alone whether we might owe nonhuman animals some measure of protection for their flourishing (to use Clough’s language) due to their identity before a redeeming and reconciling God.

Deeper systems theory analysis of consumption would, I think, supplement Clough’s arguments, but also provide more balance as to how to make the fullest theological argument possible about not just the identity of all creatures before a reconciling and redeeming God who shares a plan of salvation for all creation, but of how profoundly sin impacts our ability to live into this eschatological vision, often in ways unbeknownst to us. Considerations of animals as “the poor” in the preferential option for the poor, for example, require that we understand the systemic forces that impact people’s lives, particularly consumption, who historically have benefited from these dynamics and systems, and who systemically get consumed.

Things we tolerate

We have come to tolerate a great many things as a society: child labor, abortion on demand, resource extraction at massive and irreplaceable scale, the gassing of humans at the border (between the United States and Mexico, but also along other contentious borders, such as Hungary’s). Any situation that threatens the systems set up by global capitalism (such as during the Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter movements) is met with deep resistance by the powers that benefit from these systems, often employing legal and political avenues to block access to knowledge about their industry (such as gag laws protecting industrial farming) and the arm of the law to interrupt the momentum of these movements critical of networks of global capitalism.

The moral toleration of the cruelty and killing we enact on our brethren creatures, participants in the covenant of salvation according to Clough, is in part manufactured. And yet, it is one of the most powerful forces dominating the morality of consumption. It is not only that we ought to stop consuming animals for clothing and food, but that we ought to consider why we are consuming so much to begin with. Here is where a focus on the subject of consumption seems to me to be a first step, prior to theological reflection on the ontological nature of animals. Focus on a human subject ethics of animal care—about who we become as humans who consume—more readily asks the question of inordinate consumption than an animal ethic based on the identity of animals before God. The latter does not force us to question the role and hold consumption has in defining who we are.

But Clough is talking first and foremost to Christians. That conversation must admit that “the flourishing of animals matters to God, and Christians are called to conform their love to God’s love, and to care for those God cares for” (2). I especially appreciate the language Clough provides for negotiating seemingly irreconcilable conflicts among God’s beloved creatures, a key question in discussions on end of life ethics. Specifically, Clough proposes that “the place of animal creatures on God’s gracious acts of creation, reconciliation, and redemption, and the vocation of Christians to live lives that respond to this divine initiative, provide prima facie reasons to avoid causing harm to fellow animal creatures and to promote their flourishing” (9). “To avoid causing harm” to God’s beloved creatures reminds Christians that all are in a complex web of life—and, yes, death—intimitaly bonded to divine life. I am hopeful and excited about the possibilities that this conversation focusing on animal rights and flourishing can bring to the conversation on the flourishing of the life of unborn humans, as well as that of women in crisis pregnancies, people in various stages of terminal and challenging illnesses, and physical and mental impairments. These are conversations that in Christian circles have been stagnant for some time, made intractable by their political weight, that could greatly benefit from an infusion of new theological and ethical language that promotes the flourishing of all. Clough places the moral question of the consumption of animals beyond the irreconcilable conflict of requiring animals for clothing or food. Modern technology and agriculture allow this level of reflection. Conversely, his reflection could promote conversations on contentious end of (human) life ethics that had previously not been possible, and that consider what is owed to all life worthy of God’s creative, reconciling, and redemptive action. In my estimation this conversation becomes most fruitful when we begin and end with a discussion of the types of creatures we want to become, and the level of true harm and suffering we are willing to cause to other creatures beloved by God.


  1. https://thenewprolifemovement.com/.

  2. Authors such as William Cavanaugh, Daniel Bell, Keri Day, Willie Jennings, and myself have developed different arguments of how capitalism shapes desire in ways that alter our moral compas with respect to cruelty, violence, and the dehumanizing impacts of consumption on consumers, workers, and the environment. See, e.g., Bell, Liberation Theology at the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering (New York: Routledge, 2001), and The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012); Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008); Maria Teresa Dávila, “The CHuck-E-Cheese CHallenge (Simple Living),” in Encountering the Sacred: Feminist Reflections on Women’s Lives, edited by Grace Kao and Rebecca Todd Peters (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018); and Day, Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

  3. Kim Bhasin, “How Much McDonald’s Tries to Entrench Itself in Everybody’s Minds,” BusinessInsider.com, March 14, 2012.

  4. Megan Tatum, “McDonald’s Is New No. 1 in UK Food and Drink Ad Spend,” TheGrocer.co.uk, March 31, 2017.

  • David Clough

    David Clough

    Reply

    Telling Animal Tales

    I’m grateful for M. T. Davila’s response, which helps me both to recognize the significance of some of what I’ve done and see some of what more needs to be done.

    Let’s start with the question of eating animals, which the book argues is the priority for action in a Christian animal ethics. I appreciate your mantra “we do not have to kill an animal every time we eat,” which captures two aspects of the book’s argument: a prima facie concern about killing as such in a Christian context, and the attitude to changing practice that starts from where we are rather than an ideal position. The mantra is an excellent example of a way to challenge the manufactured toleration of animal cruelty and killing you name so clearly in the context of our ordinary and everyday living captured in your stories. Here’s hoping the mantra finds devotees beyond your home.

    That brings us to stories. You have a much clearer grasp than I about the place of story in your ethics. Stories were not prominent in the theological ethics I was taught and studied, and I have not reflected much on how they function in my current work. One reason for the stories in On Animals volume 2 is that I had the strong gut feeling approaching the project that it would be improper and even irresponsible to attempt to write about human practice in relation to other animals without having seen it first-hand. I therefore determined to supplement the knowledge I acquired through researching the academic literature with visits to different farms, broiler chicken sheds, slaughterhouses, research laboratories, and racehorse stables. I didn’t have—and still don’t have—a good way of describing this research practice in the context of empirical research methodology, but having made these visits it was clear to me that my descriptions of practice needed to include some firsthand narratives in which I witnessed to what I had seen.

    Another reason for the stories in On Animals is my experience of being interrupted by the need to attend to other animals. Our cat Mitsy is now eleven years old, which is about the same age as the book project. I remember clearly the first time she came into my study while I was writing On Animals. I was grumpy about being distracted from my work, but quickly realized the absurdity of trying to write about attending to animals while being inattentive to this fellow animal creature. A little later I recognized that I should not merely allow Mitsy to interrupt my work, but that these interruptions needed to be written into the text in order to do justice to my subject. This happened once in volume I, but more frequently in volume 2, as I got used to the idea. When you are interrupted to stroke the tummy of a cat in the middle of writing about how we treat “fur-bearing animals” it would be strange indeed for that fur-bearing animal to be absent from the text. It’s not just Mitsy, either: the buzzing protest of a fly caught by a spider in my study window was another interruption that found its way into the text of volume 2. Your stories of Bear and Blu make clear the embedding of your response in your relationships with other animals in a similar way. For me, the relationship between writing about animals and attending to them is not just a one-way street: I’m convinced that in the decade I have been writing about animals I’ve become more attentive to the ones I meet.

    You note that one aspect of the impact of stories is that they evoke emotion, and that the way I tell stories in volume 2 is a sort of justified manipulation priming the reader to be convicted that other animals ought to be able to lead lives of flourishing. I think this is worth attending to. I have lost count of the number of times, explicitly or implicitly, I have been told that ethical arguments about animals in papers or lectures are rationally convincing, but that my interlocutors do not intend to do anything about it. I used to interpret that response as a lack of moral seriousness, but I’m increasingly seeing it as identifying an inadequacy in my argumentation. This makes me want to take on the challenge of what it would take to shift attitudes and practice, rather than merely construct valid rational arguments, and my increasing use of stories is significantly a response to that. When people say that they’ve been convinced by something I’ve said or written to change their practice, I’ll often ask them what it was that convinced them, and it’s often a story that comes first to their mind. The kind of ethics I’m interested in seeks to change attitudes and practice, so can’t ignore the role of stories and emotion in that process. As you say, I don’t admit to the strategy in the book, primarily because it has been an evolving writing practice, rather than a considered methodological move, but your highlighting my use of story encourages me to reflect further on the issue, both in my practice and for the methodology of Christian ethics in general.

    You note the need to go further than I do to recognize the way in which consumption of animal products is part of a much bigger consumption problem: the shaping of desire toward inordinate acquisition of goods. I readily agree: our treatment and mistreatment of other animals is connected in every direction with wider structures of our dealings with other humans and our environment. Situating our reflection on consuming animals in this broader context, as you suggest, enables us to recognize the systems and structures built to resist our becoming aware of the consequences of our consumption for fellow creatures, human and more-than-human, and the way in which consumption of nonhuman animals is connected to ways in which the poor are also consumed by economic systems. This is a further example of the additional detail and engagement with complexity that is required at every point to supplement the high-level survey of Christian animal ethics I’ve provided.

    Finally, you draw attention to the way that attending to irreconcilable conflicts between humans and other animals may also be fruitful for wider engagements with the flourishing of unborn humans, women in crisis pregnancies, people in terminal and challenging illnesses, and those with physical and mental impairments. I agree that we need to think well across species boundaries in all these areas, attentive to both commonality and difference. I’ll be delighted if the theological work I’ve done in attending to other-than-human animals turns out to be fruitful for human ones too. My framing of humans as fellow creatures with other animals leads me to expect this to be the case. Since completing On Animals volume 2 I’ve begun thinking, writing, and speaking more directly at the intersection between theology, race, and animals, which seems to me a crucial task. Beyond that, I’d like to give further consideration of how the theological and ethical tools I’ve developed for this project might be applicable to Christian ethics more generally, and I’m grateful for your help in that direction.

    • M.T. Dávila

      M.T. Dávila

      Reply

      Further thoughts

      David, thank you for your careful consideration of my reflection. This symposium comes at a particularly auspicious and urgent time coinciding with the anniversary of the release of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home (2015) on June 18, the most recent warning by Climate Change scientists alarmingly dates the decay of conditions sustaining human life to 2050, and the recent publication of a statement on the urgency of climate change by Ethicists Without Borders. The context in which you call us to reflect about the place of care for fellow creatures beloved and redeemed by God in the life of Christians is nothing short than apocalyptic.
      With this in mind, I consider that this conversation – and the actions that ought to follow – frustratingly swings between the poised and considered theological and ethical arguments made in On Animals Vol. II, and the fire-in-the-pants (and in the plains and valleys!) considerations of the imminence of the catastrophic impact of climate change. Lengthy sentence. A central task of On Animals is to push Christians to consider the implications of seeing God’s redeeming plans as revealed in Scripture as inclusive of all creatures. You navigate this with extensive responsibility, curiosity, faithfulness, and intellectual depth. And, as you mention in passing in your response, this journey has taken about 10-11 years.
      So, in a context where time is becoming much more precious than riches, when urgency must be the mode of churches, governments, civic groups, and pretty much all residents of this blue ball, how do we move this conversation into the realm of a requirement for people of faith, rather than an invitation to begin to move toward the kinds of practices you suggest? How do we make these theological and ethical insights, and the critiques of contemporary practices of consumption that accompany them, inform a truly Christian response at such a time as this?
      I guess what I’m admitting to right now is that I find myself in a place where theological and ethical reflection – the bread and butter of our careers – is running VERY short of time. I think St. Augustine felt this way too. So did Bonhoeffer, and so many others trying to inspire and impel the church into what was required of them in faith in a new age. How do we articular an animal care ethic in this urgent time? David, I’m taking this space to declare that I am both urgently terrified to say and do something of consequence, as well as absolutely stuck as to how and what.

    • David Clough

      David Clough

      Reply

      Do we have time for animal ethics, or academic work at all?

      Thanks MT. I feel deeply the force of this challenge. I contributed to the drafting of the Ethicists Without Borders statement making the case that Christians have cause to join the direct action challenging the status quo leading us to catastrophic changes in our climate, with its devastating consequences for most of God’s living creatures on earth. I support the work of Extinction Rebellion and Christian Climate Action to this end. I’ve been arrested and risked arrest in the past in Christian direct actions against nuclear weapons. But in the last few months instead of joining the Extinction Rebellion protests I’ve been spending time writing and lecturing seeking to persuade fellow Christians to attend to animal ethics.

      I think there are two questions here:

      First, do we have time for animal ethics? That’s a question I’ve confronted directly in my current speaking tour. I think the answer is yes, because what we’re doing to animals is a major cause of climate crisis and threatens human wellbeing, as well as being bad for farmed and wild animals. (This blog for ABC Religion and Ethics outlines the case: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/should-christians-eat-animals/11175238)

      Second, do we have time for academic work? Or given the climate emergency, is downing tools and sitting in the streets the best thing that academics can do? I think academics should be joining the protests, but I also think that all of us should also be using our particular knowledge, skills, and expertise in the cause of motivating wider action. That’s more direct in some disciplines than others. But for Christian ethicists like us, I can’t conceive of a more urgently needed task than seeking to make the case to fellow Christians as well as we can that urgent action in response to impending climate catastrophe is now a demand of faithful discipleship.

      I think this vocation means we shouldn’t just write books and articles and speak at academic conferences. That’s why I’m taking every opportunity I can for getting out and talking to Christian audiences outside the academy. That’s why I set up the CreatureKind project (http://becreaturekind.org) three years ago to engage Christians with animals as a faith issue. We all have limits on our time, of course, but engaging fellow Christians with action related in response to climate crisis must be something we all need to consider seriously.

      But in addition to our public engagement, this also has implications for our day-to-day academic work. We also need to be part of enabling the sustaining of Christian community in days like these, capable of reading the signs of the times. That means good theological education, which engages climate crisis, and working on issues related to the climate crisis from our academic specialisms.

      What do you think?

    • M.T. Dávila

      M.T. Dávila

      Reply

      The Non-Killing of Animals as Part of Urgent Climate Action

      Great response, David. Reflecting a little bit after posting, I think I was able to sharpen my thoughts a bit more. The key question is not “Is there time for an animal ethic in an era of climate urgency?”; but, rather, the statement (not the question) “The non-killing of animals is an essential element of urgent climate action.”

      I think about the descriptions of the early Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles and in some of Paul’s letters, certainly in Hebrews and the gospel of Mark, where urgency and imminence of the end times demands an ethic particular to that time. In these writings followers of Christ are called to transform their daily lives in ways previously unheard of, because of the urgency of the times.

      What we are suggesting now is no different. Predictions of climate catastrophes in the not too distant future posit that Christians ought to live in very different ways than what has been accustomed until now. For me this is the place for the intersection of an ethic of the non-killing of animals in relation to the level of urgency of our current times.

      CreatureKind and other projects do a great job in establishing the links between the behaviors, patterns, cultural assumptions, and consumption practices that fuel the killing of animals on a massive scale and the current climate emergency. I think a challenge for me is more specifically to hone my tools of reflection, and expand the fora in which I share ideas, to include the kinds of rhetorical shifts I point out above, from questioning whether the non-killing of animals fits into reflection on the current climate crisis, to unequivocally stating that one is an essential part of the other.

    • David Clough

      David Clough

      Reply

      Citizen resistance to industrial animal agriculture

      Thanks MT. I’m just at the end of a week in New Zealand as part of a speaking tour. One of the most striking features of animal agriculture here is the shocking rise of dairy production, up 110% in the past 30 years and now causing serious problems for water quality. Animal agriculture now represents a whopping 50% of NZ greenhouse gas emissions. But speaking out against dairy is very costly here, because of the power of animal agriculture to silence dissent on the basis of their 45% contribution to export earnings. (I’ve written more on this here: https://www.facebook.com/652977591/posts/10156284274062592?s=652977591&sfns=mo)

      New Zealand dairy is a case-study of why the growth of animal agriculture is tolerated internationally. It’s making money for its owners, investors, and its contribution to national GDP means politicians prefer to ignore its problems.

      In response to your question: yes, we need to ensure that citizen resistance to industrial animal agriculture is a non-negotiable component of the rebellion movement Christians need quickly to join to make clear that business as usual is disastrous for creaturely life on earth. Who’s in?

Jennifer Herdt

Response

Companion Animals and the Question of Ownership

Human existence is deadly for our fellow animals, and needlessly so. The litany of our offenses, so patiently detailed by David Clough in chapter after chapter of this book, makes one redden with shame at our collective way of life, and the many ways in which it is predicated on killing and cruelty. It comes almost at a shock, arriving at chapter 7, to be reminded that alongside eating animals, dressing ourselves in their skins, and using them in many other ways as mere instruments for our own flourishing and amusement, we also live in intimate communion with them. We bring them into our homes and into our hearts, lavish care and attention on them, rearrange our lives around their needs, and grieve them when they are gone.

Reflecting on fellow animals as companions and pets offers a context in which the strengths of Clough’s approach are fully on display. Clough understands all creatures to have been created good in their own right, gifted with being through which they may glorify God in participating in God’s triune life. This theology of creation yields two core questions that must be brought to bear on our practices. The first, broadly Aristotelian question, asks about how various human practices support, or fail to support, the flourishing of our fellow animals. This requires attending to what it means to flourish as a member of a particular life form, with its characteristic capacities and vulnerabilities. The second question, yielded by a Christian understanding of animal life within the arc of creation, fall, redemption, and eschatological consummation, understands communion as creation’s eschatological destination. It holds current human practices up against fellowship with God and one another as the end for which we were created. For much of the book, this eschatological destiny is rather remote. When we attend to our forms of shared life with companion animals, however, it draws near. We have here, albeit in broken, slanted ways, to do not just with fostering the flourishing of our fellows, but with anticipating the shalom to which we are called.

This yields a robust yet flexible structure for thinking about human practices with regard to companion animals. Most fundamentally, it offers a reason to affirm in general the impulse to share our lives with fellow nonhuman animals, against those who insist that such relations are always forms of domination, with nonhuman animals made wholly dependent on human beings and subject to human whims. Clough rightly holds that any proper response to such concerns must begin by considering what it is to flourish as a particular life form. It is not sufficient to point to human affection for pets; affection can nonetheless be exploitative. More significantly, domesticated animals, most evidently dogs, can flourish in properly ordered communities of human and nonhuman members. Not only do dogs amply return the affection lavished on them, they enjoy mutual play as a form of rule-based encounter, and enjoy, too, working together toward with human partners toward shared forms of excellence, as in agility training. Wild animals typically cannot flourish in community with human beings, since their way of life is so other than human modes of existence that these cannot be brought together harmoniously: some creatures are naturally solitary, or require vast areas in which to roam. Yet against those who see in the practice of keeping companion animals of any kind, under any conditions, an impermissible exercise of power, Clough argues that these relationships provide a context for forms of mutuality and shared excellence that are genuinely good and that anticipate eschatological communion.

How, then, are we to differentiate between foretastes of the Peaceable Kingdom and vicious forms of overrealized eschatology? First and foremost, by attending to conditions for the possibility of flourishing as a member of a particular form of life. Forms of shared life that violate those conditions are to be rejected; it is not for us to transform carnivorous hunters into herbivores, or force companionship on the solitary. But let us linger a bit longer over one particular aspect of human relationships with companion animals that might seem to rule them out altogether: the fact that they are property relationships.

Clough argues against breeding practices that are harmful to animals, either because of the characteristics that are selected or because of the effects of inbreeding. He also notes that commercial facilities that supply pet shops rarely allow for creaturely flourishing, and condemns the capture of wild animals on the basis of the suffering and deprivations involved. He does not, though, himself examine the question of the ethical status of human ownership of companion animals as such, even though he mentions the fact that some do object to this relationship.

Is it permissible for human beings to own, and to be able to buy and sell, nonhuman animals as companions? Property rights have often been understood as absolute, that is, as granting permission to the owner to dispose of—to use, even to destroy—the property at whim. There are competing notions of property. Catholic social teaching, for instance, insists on the universal destination of goods; property rights are not absolute but are justified because property is an institution that better serves the common good.1 Property owners thus have a responsibility to keep the common good, the conditions for the flourishing of each member of society, in view. On this view, property ownership comes along with a special burden of responsibility. Yet the responsibility here is construed as responsibility to the common good. If the universal destination of goods is construed as a destination to the good of humankind alone, as it often is, then the responsibilities of animal owners are not to their animals but to their fellow humans. The ownership of some human beings by others was finally rejected as incompatible with the dignity of human nature, however mild and beneficent the form of ownership.

One might of course insist that property relationships give us ways of holding owners responsible for those creatures in their care. If I discover a house full of neglected and half-starved cats, I need to know who is to be charged with neglect. It is their owner who is responsible for their treatment. Yet much the same is true in the case of neglected or abused children. We do not, though, say that they are owned by their parents. We have other ways of tracking human responsibility relationships legally and socially, through the role of “guardian.” Seen through this lens, the language of “adopting” companion animals from shelters gains new resonance. To be sure, our legal system does not differentiate between companion animals who have been adopted and those who have been purchased; both are treated as property. Yet the language of “adoption” substantially reframes the relationship. One is not purchasing an item that might fail to live up to expectations and thus be returned for a refund; one is inviting an individual into one’s family. The role is that of guardian, not that of owner. An individual one adopts is a member of the community whose individual and communal flourishing is to be tended, not something to be merely used well in the pursuit of that end.

Clough argues, in this respect making common cause with animal rights approaches, that “something is due, morally, to non-human animals that have a sense of themselves as subjects of their own life” (11). Such creatures can be treated unjustly, not simply unkindly; they ought never merely be treated as means to the ends of others. These are not the only creatures that matter, morally, since “the source of the ethical demand is the status of animal creatures in God’s creative, reconciling, and redeeming purposes” (15), but he seems to concede that these sorts of animals lay us under a particular set of requirements of justice.

Of course, to insist that we stand in relations of justice with these creatures does not mean that they are bearers of the same set of rights as human beings. A right to vote makes no sense for a cat. A right to an adequately stimulating environment does. The development of a sound account of the rights of animals must attend to the particular capacities and vulnerabilities characteristic of their life form. We are thus returned to the question of what it means to flourish as an instance of this particular sort of creature. Children provide an illuminating basis of comparison, given that like companion animals, they cannot choose to live in human families, nor do they choose the particular families they have. While children are generally regarded, as affirmed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), as having the same fundamental human rights as adults, some of these, such as the right to marry or vote, are dormant, and children have special rights that articulate what is owed to them as vulnerable and immature human beings, such as the right to be raised by parents in a family or cultural setting, insofar as this is compatible with the best interests of the child.2 Children are treated unjustly when they are treated as adults. They are also treated unjustly when they are not treated as on the way to adulthood. Defining the specific rights that they possess allows us collectively to articulate what is owed to them in support of their flourishing now and their path to flourishing in maturity. While children have a right to be cared for and a right to have their preferences taken into account, they do not have a right to personal liberty, a right to run away from home.

Companion animals, like human children, are vulnerable and dependent on our care. Unless they are capable of making a knowing, informed choice of life in the wild over life in human care, it does not make sense to regard them as having such a right of choice. When we go out in search of runaway companion animals, we are not violating their right to liberty but are recognizing our responsibility to care for those in our charge, ill-equipped to fend for themselves in an environment that most often is far from “wild,” and incapable of informed consent or dissent. It is we who have the responsibility to determine whether a life in companionship with human beings can be a genuinely flourishing one for these creatures, or whether they can flourish only when able to direct their own lives more fully.

I see three possible routes here for Clough when it comes to animals as property. The first would maintain the permissibility of property relationships while insisting on the responsibilities that attend ownership; property ownership is finally a form of stewardship; all that we own we hold in trust, to serve God’s purposes. The second would go farther, insisting that the property relation is impermissible when it comes to members of certain animal kinds, those who are characterized by having a sense of themselves as subjects of their own lives. The third option would go farther yet, insisting that no animals may rightly be reduced to property, since the source of the ethical demand lies not in animals’ own subjectivity but in God’s purposes. Since Clough does not articulate a stance against ownership, I assume that he comes down closest to the first option. We might defend it by arguing that the distinction between a responsible property relationship and a responsible guardianship is abstract; since nonhuman animals are not able to differentiate between the two, there are not (unlike human beings) harmed or violated merely by being owned. What matters is how they are treated. The right not to be owned is, on this view, a bit like the right to vote; granting it to nonhuman animals makes little sense. Yet the ownership relationship sits uneasily with the notion that anything is owed to that which is one’s property. Affirming that members of animal kinds that have a sense of themselves as subjects of their own lives may not be owned may be the only way to treat these creatures justly. Given a legal system that treats all domesticated animals as property, one is complicit in an unjust set of social practices. One may refuse complicity with this injustice by refusing to have companion animals, or one might choose to inhabit these practices in a transformative way. Arguably, the employment of the language of “adoption” by animal shelters is engaging in a small way in this sort of transformation of our collective imaginations and consciences.

Clough’s project is aimed at moving human practices in relation to our fellow animals in a positive direction, one in greater harmony with God’s purposes for creation. It is not aimed at resolving every refined and rarified question. Insofar as naming the fact that our moral concepts are ill equipped to work across the species divide can easily result in paralysis that effectively perpetuates the status quo, his approach is obviously the right one. I am hopeful that it will have a significant impact. Yet there is also a place for puzzling through the remaining theoretical difficulties, particularly since they bear on important practical questions—questions such as the legitimacy of owning animals, which I have taken up here, but also practices of euthanizing animals, of breeding animals who are members of threatened and endangered species, and more. We have our work cut out for us. Thanks to Clough’s On Animals, which so winningly invites us to find our proper place in the glorious creaturely chorus, we are well on our way.


  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church III.2.2.7, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a7.htm.

  2. United Nations Treaty Collection, Convention on the Rights of the Child, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Treaties/1990/09/19900902 03-14 AM/Ch_IV_11p.pdf.

  • David Clough

    David Clough

    Reply

    Owning a Concern for Animals

    Thanks to Jennifer Herdt for this considered and careful response. I want to start where you do, with the recognition that human existence is needlessly deadly for our fellow animals, causing us to redden with shame at the ways in which our ways of life are predicated on killing and cruelty. My sense of this scandal; my lack of sense that this scandal is well-appreciated by fellow Christians, fellow theologians, or even fellow Christian ethicists; and my desire to prompt Christians to think and do differently in response to the scandal was my primary motivation in taking on the two-volume project of On Animals. One way of characterizing its object is to lay out as clearly and patiently as I’m able the case that Christians have strong reasons for being concerned about our mistreatment of fellow animal creatures and for changing their practice in response. I’m therefore delighted that you as one of its first readers share my conviction that I’ve succeeded in identifying a topic that matters, and that the book makes a helpful start in that task.

    I’m grateful for your framing of my project as driven by two core questions: the broadly Aristotelian one about how far our practice enables or prevents the flourishing of fellow animals, and the Christian one, holding up current practice against the standard of “fellowship with God and one another as the end for which we were created.” I think I’d prefer to characterize these as questions driven by the doctrines of creation and redemption, rather than naming the divide as Aristotelian and Christian, but I recognize the strong congruity of the way I frame the former with Aristotelian traditions. I hadn’t seen these two complementary questions so clearly before, and agree that they are fundamental to my ethical analysis and argument.

    And then there’s our relationship with pets and companion animals, the focus of your response. Early in the drafting of volume 2, I confess I had the anxiety that the topical chapters might turn out to be a little monotonous, as I churned through the task of evaluating particular areas of our practice in relation to other animals in the light of the Christian understanding of animals set out in volume 1. My experience in writing was quite the reverse: the work of trying to provide a good account of how we make use of other animals for food, textiles, labour, research experimentation, sport and entertainment, as pets and companions, and our impacts on wild animals, made clear to me the significant differences between these areas of practice, many of which are highly material to a Christian ethical analysis. There are concerns about our dealings with other animals that are applicable to domestication as a whole, but we very clearly need to think differently about what we’re doing when we raise a pig for food and raise a kitten in our homes.

    Animal ethicists sometimes try to get traction on the problems of farmed animal welfare on the basis of our affection for the animals we share our homes with. I’m not averse to all arguments of this kind, but it seems in danger of missing the profundity of the familial bonds of affection we develop with pets and companion animals. The reason we care for these cats, or dogs, or other creatures is not primarily because of their species characteristics but because they are members of our families. Suggesting that we should care as much about any other animal with a similar degree of sentience is as foolish as suggesting we should care as much about any human being as much as our nearest and dearest.

    I’m very aware that the high-level survey of our practice in relation to other animals in this book is in need of further work at every point, and I very much hope the book helps stimulate such work. The reflections you provide concerning how the concept of property relates to our keeping of companion animals, and how the comparison of guardianship of children and children’s right may be helpful, is an excellent example of where further work is obviously required. Gary Francione begins his animal ethics from the contention that animals are not property, and his radical challenge to current practice is derived entirely from that foundation. As you note, however, I don’t take a position on the question. You helpfully lay out three options: retaining the idea of property rights over animals interpreted as stewardship to serve God’s purposes, judging that property relations are impermissible when animals are subjects of their own lives (Tom Regan’s category), or holding that no animals may be considered property because the ethical demand lies in God’s purposes rather than their subjectivity. You interpret my lack of an articulated position on the question as support for the first stewardship position, but note that “the ownership relation sits uneasily with the notion that anything is owed to that which is one’s property.”

    You helpfully observe that in Catholic social teaching property rights are not absolute, but are justified as an institution that serves the common good, often conceived only in relationship to human good. A first remedial step in the context of my argument is that we would need to expand an account of the common good in this context to the good of all creaturely life. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si provides some useful foundations for such a move. We would then need to ask whether human property rights over other animals did in fact serve the common good of creatures. My initial judgment here is that this would be hard to answer positively, especially if the alternative was not the abolition of all relationships of humans and domesticated animals but the move to a relationship of adoption and guardianship you propose. The abolition of property rights and their replacement with guardianship responsibilities seems obviously desirable in the case of pets and companion animals. It would transform them, and would impose higher burdens of care on those choosing to keep companion animals, but this seems entirely appropriate to me.

    Beyond the context of pets and companion animals, the abolition of property rights in favour of guardianship responsibilities would clearly be much more radical. What kind of guardian raises their human charges to be killed for the benefit of others? Katzuo Ishiguru’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is a superb depiction of exactly this scenario. We need to take seriously the reality of the all-too-similar plight of many children in modern child slavery, but such practice is obviously unjustifiable within the context of Christian ethics. It is, however, the norm when we raise other animals for food or research experimentation. Perhaps if property rights were replaced by guardianship responsibilities in these and other contexts, we would be quickly led to the right kind of questions about whether these practices were compatible with guardianship of fellow creatures of God. This certainly seems to me a line of thought well worth pursuing further, and I’m grateful to you for the provocation to do so.

    • Jennifer Herdt

      Jennifer Herdt

      Reply

      Response to Clough

      David, I appreciate your willingness to think out loud with me about the question of the legitimacy of human ownership of animals.  I think that you are right—the first alternative I offered you proves to be unstable as soon as the common good is broadened to include the flourishing not just of human beings, but of non-human animals as well.  Since you have clearly argued in favor of this broadened conception of the common good, defending the ownership of animals must meet the high bar of serving their flourishing, not simply our flourishing.  Guardianship seems much more likely to do so, as you agree.

      It isn’t surprising that our current practices come closest to conforming to this vision when it comes to companion animals, for whom we care, as you say, “because they are members of our families.”  And yet, the fact that other animals are not members of our families doesn’t seem adequate justification for owning them, when their flourishing is so much more fully respected and promoted by a relationship of guardianship.  So I take it that the logic of your argument does naturally lead you to favor a truly radical stance, the abolition of human-non-human property relations, albeit perhaps only in a gradualist way—property relationships may be our only way at present of holding humans responsible for their treatment of their animal charges.  Further, whether adoptive or guardianship relationships would be appropriate to sustain in relation to animals formerly owned and used for labor would depend on whether they could truly flourish in our care—even as we bear responsibility for having destroyed natural habitats in ways that make it impossible for some animals ever to return to the wild.

      As we enter the Anthropocene, are we guardians of the whole earth, not just those animals who have become members of our families?  How are we to foster the flourishing of each and of all?  Even to contemplate the task seems an act of hubris, even as it is also a responsibility we cannot shirk.  Life feeds off death; carnivores need meat to thrive, even if human omnivores do not.  Preserving one sort of habitat may preclude preserving another.  As your exchanges with M.T. have already highlighted, we can’t focus simply on curtailing cruelty to animals and improving animal welfare; we must think about these challenges in tandem with thinking ecologically, thinking about populations and ecosystems and all of the intricate relationships that hang in the balance.  The wisdom of your book lies in its willingness to accept both that the way back to Eden is barred from us, and that we nevertheless can and must act—take baby steps forward, identifying immediate, manageable steps that will begin to remedy the scandalous character of our present ways of relating to our fellow creatures.

    • David Clough

      David Clough

      Reply

      From owners to guardians

      Thanks again, Jennifer. Yes: I think you’re right that I’m committed to the radical position of the abolition of human-non-human property relations, but a gradualist path towards it that recognizes that property relations may be the least-worse option in many current contexts.

      I think your challenge to think beyond this to consider what it might be to accept guardianship of all fellow creatures is an important one. Yes: it risks hubris but given the devastating scope of human impacts on fellow creaturely life, we seem to be confronted with the choice of being tyrants or guardians in relation to fellow creatures. There is no option to absent ourselves from relationship with fellow creatures: the only question is what kind of relationship we will have with them. The relationship is inevitably asymmetric in power, so my frequent recourse to describing the relationship as among ‘fellow creatures’ needs supplement in order to make clear the power imbalance, which otherwise might mask our responsibility.

      The problem with ‘guardian’ language, is that we are all too well aware in the intrahuman context that guardians often abuse their charges. Human guardians are all too apt to use the power asymmetry acknowledged in the term as opportunity to exploit those in their charge, rather than act genuinely in their interest. So taking up the term ‘guardian’ risks signalling effective permission for exploitation despite our best intentions. This seems to me closely associated with the literature objecting to ‘stewardship’ in ecotheological circles. It also relates to my concerns about using ‘Anthropocene’, which feels to me to have a shadow side that retains a heroic human role. I’m sure it’s this sense of risk that’s made me prefer a term like ‘fellow creature’ despite its failure to denote asymmetry in power.

      What do you think? Is guardianship the best we can find, so we just work on guarding it against misapplication? Or might other terms be more helpful in communicating the demanding asymmetrical responsibility for care of other creatures we seem to be agreed is required?

Darryl Trimiew

Response

June 26, 2019, 1:00 am

Eric Gregory

Response

July 3, 2019, 1:00 am

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