Farm Animals and Christian Ethics

Are there any moral considerations associated with keeping livestock, and if so, what are they?  Are there any moral considerations due to the farm animals themselves?  Presumably these questions are as old as animal agriculture itself.  With the dramatic changes in agriculture that have occurred over the past few decades, however, and particularly in light of the development of concentrated animal feeding operations, it seems reasonable to consider whether traditional ethical and moral considerations are still relevant.  On the philosophical extremes stand the positions of animal rights activist Tom Regan, who contends that keeping farm animals is immoral per se and should be banned, and of Immanuel Kant, who contends that there are no moral considerations at all due to the animals themselves.  This post will examine those positions and compare them to ethical practices and considerations derived from the Bible and Judeo-Christian tradition.  I will argue that from a Christian ethical perspective, while it is clearly not immoral to keep farm animals, the animals are entitled to moral consideration independently of material human interests and that the treatment of them is constrained by Christian moral principles.  I will suggest that although Christian ethics do not require vegetarianism, they do require that Christians be mindful of how the animals they eat were raised.

Humans first began domesticating animals as livestock approximately ten thousand years ago.1 During the centuries which followed, the vast majority of humans lived in agricultural societies, where animal husbandry was part of everyday life—an essential aspect of nearly everyone’s vocation.  The moral considerations associated with keeping animals as livestock were largely addressed in the context of religious beliefs.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, the Bible generally assumes familiarity with agriculture and animal husbandry and provides moral and religious guidance on how farm animals should be treated.

Agricultural practices have, however, changed dramatically over the past few decades.  No longer do most families in America keep a small flock of chickens, a couple of milk cows and a few hogs.  The keeping of livestock on a small scale has been essentially replaced by large non-diversified commercial operations containing thousands of cattle, pigs or chickens.2  Even as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) grow larger and more dominant, many consumers are increasingly concerned about whether such practices are “unnatural,” cruel or immoral. 

On one extreme there is a call to ban entirely the keeping of farm animals.  This is the position taken by such organizations as the Animal Liberation Front, PETA, the Farm Sanctuary and the Farm Animal Rights Movement.  These organizations, which oppose keeping farm animals even in traditional ways, implicitly or explicitly call for humans to become uniformly vegan, thus discounting completely any moral considerations associated with the utility of farm animals as human food.  The philosopher Tom Regan is probably the best-known voice of the extreme animal rights position.  Regan argues that animals are rights-bearers, and that an animal may therefore be no more kept for agricultural use than could a human being.3  He makes no distinction between traditional animal agriculture and contemporary large scale practices, arguing instead that all animal agriculture is immoral and should be banned.4

On the other extreme are those who argue that there can be nothing inherently immoral about how farm animals are treated.  The animals, they contend, have no moral rights or interests of their own, and exist merely as a food source for humans.  The only relevant consideration is how best to maximize their utility as food and any human concern over the welfare of the animals is mere irrational sentimentality.  To the extent those holding this position have a philosophical foundation for doing so, it probably rests in the writings of Immanuel Kant, who argued that only rational beings have moral value and that there are therefore no moral considerations due to animals per se.5  Kant allowed, of course, that humans may choose to treat animals well, but doing so would be entirely to benefit the humans, there being no moral duty owed to the animals themselves.  Although it is possible to agree with Kant’s analysis and nevertheless advocate humane treatment of farm animals, it is also possible to use Kant’s analysis to defend any treatment of farm animals that tends to maximize food production at the minimum cost, regardless of whether that entails arguably cruel treatment of farm animals.

Christians should, I submit, reject both of these positions. 

Regan’s position, which equates the rights and moral standing of humans and farm animals, accords equal moral value to a farmer’s chicken and a farmer’s child.  Aside from the substantial and compelling weight of the purely secular objections to Regan’s philosophical claim6, his position is inconsistent with the Christian understanding of humans as divine image-bearers, to whom non-human animals are in some sense subordinate.  While the Bible tells us that God cares for sparrows, for example, it also tells us that God cares more for humans.7  Moreover, while individual Christians may certainly choose to be vegetarians and to avoid harming animals in any way, Scripture undeniably endorses animal agriculture and offers no support for an argument that humans should be forced to be vegans.

Likewise, the argument that the only moral relevance to the treatment of farm animals is with respect to how that treatment affects humans disregards the inherent value of all creatures and humans’ role as stewards of creation.  The Bible specifically calls on humans to care for their animals, flocks and herds.8 Jesus compared himself to a “good shepherd,” who would risk his own life to protect his sheep.9 Those who look to the Bible for their guiding ethical principles will find strong support for the notion that humans have a moral obligation to treat farm animals humanely.  There is no Biblical support, on the other hand, for an argument that there are absolutely no moral constraints on the treatment of animals.  Animals are, of course, part of God’s creation, which he declared to be “very good.”10 The Psalmist says animals praise God, along with the rest of creation.11  As John Wesley put it, “he directs us to be tender of even the meaner creatures; to show mercy to those also.”12 Cruelty to animals, therefore, seems simply inconsistent with Christian ethics.

If Christians should neither elevate farm animals to the status of humans nor diminish them to the status of inanimate objects, then what are the ethical considerations due to the animals?  As an initial matter, any ethical position must be mindful of the fact that farm animals do, in fact, exist at least in part for the ultimate benefit of humans.  Humans will consume their eggs, their milk and their flesh.  But the benefits from the relationship between humans and farm animals need not be unilaterally in favor of humans.  When animals are raised humanely, they too benefit from the relationship. To return to the Biblical analogy, sheep without a shepherd are “harassed and helpless.”13   If animals are well and properly fed, protected from disease and predators, given secure and comfortable shelter, permitted to reproduce and live naturally, and free from unnecessary pain and distress, then they are also beneficiaries of the relationship. 

Conversely, however, it is difficult to see a benefit accruing to farm animals kept in the conditions typical of modern CAFOs.  Consider egg production on a typical large-scale chicken “farm.”  The hens are confined to cages within which they can barely move.  Often their beaks are removed to prevent them from pecking the hens in the adjoining cages.  The birds are fed a formulated feed designed to maximize egg production and minimize cost.  The hens are kept in a large metal building illuminated continuously to simulate sunlight and maximize laying.14  When Jesus compared himself to a hen15, it is fair to say he did not have such hens as these in mind.

Large scale hog and meat chicken CAFOs employ similar practices.  The animals are confined in cages leaving little room to move.  They never see sunlight, and are fattened to slaughter weight as quickly as possible, on food they would never eat in nature.  Their feed is supplemented with antibiotics, not for therapeutic reasons, but because antibiotics stimulate growth.16 Such practices are inherently cruel and are in no sense animal husbandry.

I submit that Christians who consume the products of farm animals should be mindful of how those animals were raised.  Further, Christian responsibility for the treatment of farm animals should not end with the farmer.  As Wendell Berry has written, “Eating is an agricultural act.”17 Because all people eat, all people are involved in agriculture.   Christians might reasonably refuse, on ethical grounds, to eat the meat of animals that have been raised or fattened in CAFOs, for example.  As Berry puts it, “Though I am by no means a vegetarian, I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.”18 

A Christian ethical perspective would neither prohibit the keeping of farm animals, nor condone keeping them in cruel and inhumane conditions.  To discharge their ethical responsibility for the compassionate treatment of farm animals, Christian consumers, like Wendell Berry, might continue to eat meat, but refrain from eating the meat of animals that have not been raised humanely.  A Christian ethic that refuses to follow the lead of either industrial agriculture or the animal-rights extremists would be consistent with Biblical teachings and thousands of years of sustainable agricultural practices. 

Endnotes

1     http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab57 
2     See Paul K. Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm (Lexington KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 152.
3     Tom Regan, “The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights,” in Environmental Ethics:  Readings in Theory and Application, ed. Louis J. Pojman and Paul Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008), 88.
4     Ibid., 83
5     Immanuel Kant, “Rational Beings Alone Have Moral Worth,” in Environmental Ethics:  Readings in Theory and Application, ed. Louis J. Pojman and Paul Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008), 64.
6     See e.g. Mary Anne Warren, “A Critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory,” in Environmental Ethics:  Readings in Theory and Application, ed. Louis J. Pojman and Paul Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008), 90.
7     Matthew 10: 29-31
8     Proverbs 12:10 (“A righteous man cares for the needs of his animals…”), 27:23 (“Be sure you know the condition of your flocks.  Give careful attention to your herds.”)
9     John 10:  11-16
10  Genesis 1: 31
11  Psalm 148: 7-10
12  John Wesley, Sermon 60, “The General Deliverance,” viewed at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/60/
13  Matthew 9: 36
14  See e.g. http://www.wesleyan.edu/wsa/warn/eon/batteryfarming/hens.html  
15  Luke 13:34
16  See e.g. http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/factoryfarming/ 
17  Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990), 143.
18  Ibid. at 151.

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