What is the moral status of animals?

by | Aug 10, 2022 | Creation, Current Events, Science & Technology

One evening, during a relaxed dinner conversation with a friend and his family, the topic of dog meat came up. Tom’s brother had gotten sick while traveling through Southeast Asia and his illness was attributed to dog meat which purportedly overwhelmed the American digestive system. While discussing dog meat, my friend refused to say dog but instead spelled out the word D O G every time he wished to say dog meat. I was flummoxed. Why was dog meat a taboo when everyone was gorging on pork chops at that very moment? My friend explained that he did not want to upset his three-year-old daughter who adored their sweet black lab, Carolina.

Perhaps, we think of a three-year-old as a sentimental simpleton who gets upset when people talk about dog meat because she thinks dogs are cute, playful, and loving. However, as an adult, I too was upset that people were eating animal flesh in front of me because I too considered animals to be cute, playful, loving, and morally significant. One is not like the others in the preceding list of animal descriptions. Many think animals are cute, playful, and loving. The billions of dollars Americans spend on pet food and supplies is a testament to their love of animals. However, do Americans think that animals are morally significant? If so, how are we to treat morally significant creatures?

We can begin with a thought experiment. What do you see when a dog trots up with its tail wagging? Do you see another of God’s creatures created to praise Him? Do you think of the dog as someone’s property? Or, do you see meat that will satisfy one’s gastronomic desires?

Most of us agree that a dog does not have the same value as a human as we can see from what society accepts as fair treatment of dogs as compared to humans. The basis for this discrepancy is that dogs are not the same species as humans, and so do not have a claim to human rights. However, that does not mean that a dog has no value at all. For instance, when I kick a rock or a tree, I do not stop and apologize. I do not feel guilt for kicking an inanimate entity. On the other hand, a dog yelps in pain when kicked, and I immediately feel apologetic for being the cause of pain in a sentient being. In some places, I could even be accused of a criminal act for willfully harming a dog. It appears that we owe a dog fair treatment because the dog has some moral significance due to its consciousness and ability to experience pain. We know that a dog is conscious and has a mind, memory, and character traits of its own.

We understand that animals are conscious because our consciousness can recognize the consciousness in an animal’s body. We feel sympathy when we see them in pain, and joy when they appear happy. This recognition of emotion in animals creates a sense of kinship with animals. Conversely, animals recognize human emotions and respond accordingly. For instance, dogs are known to comfort their distressed human companions. I believe that this consciousness of animals gives them a higher moral significance than non-conscious and non-sentient entities.

If we accept this higher moral significance of animals, we need to examine what kind of treatment they are owed. When we love God and His creation, we ask what is good for each of God’s creatures. Furthermore, we need to examine how we can assist in bringing about this good as far as possible. Love for God’s creation applies to all things, sentient and non-sentient. However, there is an added imperative to consider the good for sentient beings because of their capacities to experience joy and suffering. We need to examine what is good for animals, and how we can respect the telos of each animal.

When we are invited to love God’s creation, we can think of love as willing the good of the other. A simple good for an animal would be to avoid causing it intentional pain. Some may deny that animals feel pain at all. However, a quick reflection leads one to accept that poking a cat with a red hot iron causes immense pain to the cat. Or, we can all agree that slitting the throat of a dog causes it suffering. While this level of cruelty may seem shocking, we need to remember that farms animals are branded and slaughtered as part of normal farming operations. The idea that animals do not feel pain has never satisfied anyone without something to gain. The Catholic Church corroborates that animals feel pain when she teaches (CCC #2418). “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” If animals did not feel pain, there would be no reason to talk about their needless suffering.

I have argued that animals have a higher moral significance than trees or rocks due to their consciousness and that causing intentional suffering to animals is not coherent with our love for God and His creation.

If animals have a right to life and freedom from intentional pain, our desire for the taste of their flesh cannot outweigh the good of their very lives. Or for those with a great love for their pets, it is incoherent to find it repugnant to torture a kitten to death for the pleasure of experiencing power, but to willingly accept, and even celebrate, the pleasure of chewing on a juicy steak obtained by killing cows.

We intentionally cause direct suffering to billions of animals by treating them brutally at farms, and slaughterhouses. In addition to being intentional, this suffering is also unnecessary because we do not need animal-based foods for healthy lives. Most humans are perfectly capable of flourishing solely on plant-based foods. We eat animal-based foods for pleasure or convenience, not out of necessity. Some may argue that most of us are not torturing animals, but are merely consuming the products of the torturous treatment of animals. These people need to remember philosopher Immanuel Kant’s maxim, “he who wills the ends also wills the means.” If one wills the eating of meat, one also wills the killing of animals. The only thing worse than cruelty is delegated cruelty. By outsourcing the sordid business of animal torture and slaughter to poor farmworkers, we sin against God’s people by ignoring the good of these workers as well.

If one is still uncertain about whether animals feel pain, one can look at it through the lens of taking a gamble in an uncertain situation. One could take a risk and enjoy the momentary pleasure of meat with the possibility of an eternity of guilt from having knowingly caused suffering in sentient creatures. Or one could forgo meat for now with the possibility of later learning that animals are non-sentient and that one had given up meat for no good reason. One needs to ask which of these scenarios is more likely to turn out true, and which one will leave you worse off if true. In these terms, betting on the former option appears to be a poor choice.

I have argued that animals have moral significance and can suffer when mistreated. Furthermore, animal farming causes them suffering and death. Consequently, because we do not need animal-based foods, we are unnecessarily causing suffering and death in sentient beings.

When people say they cannot give up animal-based foods despite all the evidence of animal cruelty associated with these foods, they are perverting God’s gifts of free will and reason. Matthew Scully, in his book Dominion, writes, “When people say, for example, that they like their veal or hot dogs just too much to give them up, and yeah it is sad about the farms but that’s just the way it is, reason hears in that the voice of gluttony.” Gluttony, combined with apathy, is far from a Christian way of life. We need to use reason to discern the good, and use free will to act towards the discerned good.

Acknowledging the moral significance of animals leads to the inconvenient conclusion that unnecessary meat consumption is immoral, a bitter pill to swallow for meat lovers. However, Matthew Scully believes that we can take heart knowing that “human excellence is achieved exactly when the things that make us animals are governed by the things that make us human”. Humans have the God-given capacity to override their instincts and desires for the sake of higher goods. And excellence is achieved by exercising our human capacities.

With animal products so ingrained in our culture, change to a plant-based diet can seem daunting, and even unattainable. However, God calls us to rise above the facile and pleasurable. When one is tempted to surrender to one’s base desires, one needs to ask God for His grace to persevere in pursuing the good and the truth. After all, it is He who has given us reason to discern good choices, and a will to act toward the good.

In a world that sees a constant battle between the forces of light and darkness, the line between good and evil passes right through our hearts and plates. The power to make moral choices could not be nearer and more obvious than deciding what to chew on multiple times a day. Such power to choose between good and evil can be exhilarating if you see it as a chance to do something right every day. Living the Catholic Church’s teaching of standing up for the oppressed and voiceless can be as easy as eating chickpeas instead of chicken. 

In our journey towards care for all of God’s creatures, Christ will be our guide and our strength, for he preached, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” And he assured us that he will be with us in our quest for righteousness and mercy until the end of the age.


Daniel Mascarenhas, SJ

dmascarenhassj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Daniel