Christian Obligation for the Liberation of Nature

by L. Charles Birch

Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith.

This essay originally appeared as chapter 5, pp. 57-71 in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christians must offer practical, workable guidelines for the value of some lives over others. The interests of different organisms are often in conflict.

Like Albert Schweitzer, and like Daly and Regan in this book, Charles Birch would have ethics extended to all life. Spealdng as a Christian and as a biologist, Birch argues that the Christian obligation to work for the liberation of the oppressed includes an obligation to work for the liberation of the nonhuman oppressed. Birch argues that a life-centered ethic while seeking to maximize the well-being of all life -- must recognize that the Interests of different organisms often conflict, and that humans often must decide between competing interests. In order to help make such decisions Birch suggests that Christians distinguish between "degrees of intrinsic value" based on different organisms’ Capacities for sentience. From Birch’s perspective contemporary Christians seeking to develop ecologically sensitive theologies must simultaneously recognize the intrinsic value of all life and, at the same time, offer practical, workable guidelines for valuing some lives over others.

Ethics is the infinitely extended responsibility toward all life

Albert Schweitzer.

We need a cosmology that attributes intrinsic value to life, mind, and the cosmos as a whole if we are to have an appropriate environmental ethic flowing out of it

John Haught.

I establish my covenant with you . . . also with every living creature . . . the birds, the cattle and every beast of the earth

Gen 9:10

Christians see themselves as having an obligation to work for the liberation of the oppressed. Yet there is one group that has caused little concern among Christians, who seem to have left the task of this particular liberation to secular movements. Nonhuman animals are an oppressed group. We treat them as if they were things to be used as we please rather than as beings with lives of their own. We oppress animals in factory farming when we deny them such elementary freedoms as space in which to walk or stretch their limbs, in cruel animal experimentation, and in the destruction of habitats. This latter is the main cause of the present-day extinction of whole populations. Some forms of so-called development are so oppressive that species themselves are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. In the process there is much suffering and misery. A conservative estimate of the current rate of extinction is one thousand species a year. By the 1990s the figure could easily rise to ten thousand species a year (one species an hour). These and other instances of the oppression of animals have been documented in great detail in numerous books and treatises, especially in the last decade (see Singer, 1985). Yet the churches remain largely unmoved by this particular holocaust. Within Western society in general the predominant moral injunctions are concerned to promote the welfare of human beings, treating the welfare of anything else as a matter of moral indifference. Yet it can be argued that animal liberation will require greater altruism on our part than any other liberation movement, since the animals themselves are incapable of demanding it for themselves or of protesting against their exploitation by votes, demonstrations, or bombs. Gustafson argues for the extension of the meaning of justice from "the right relations between persons to the right relations between human activity and the rest of the world" (Gustafson, 1983, 503).

Why, then, this serious neglect by the churches? There is the fear that concern for the plight of animals would detract from the concern for the plight of oppressed humans. One billion people live in poverty. Some forty thousand die each day from hunger and related causes. Countless others live under political oppression that removes most human freedoms from their lives. We don’t seem to be doing much of a job in redressing the human plight, why add to that another gigantic problem for our concern? The question indicates not only the narrow horizon of our concern but our misunderstanding of that plight as well. Is our one and only objective to be healthy and free people, and if so do we really believe we can achieve that without concern for the rest of the living world? This is not a case of either/ or but both/and. There is another objective with a wider horizon: healthy (whole) people in a healthy (whole) environment with healthy relations to that environment, an environment that necessarily includes other living creatures. By contrast, the modern world has a lot of unhealthy people unable to fulfill their lives in an unhealthy environment in which little concern is given to the other living creatures that share the planet with us. In the long run we look after ourselves by looking after the environment and its inhabitants because they look after us.

There is this empirical reason for being concerned about nonhuman lives. It is very often the main argument of conservationists. It is not sufficient.

A second reason why our concern for oppression does not include non-human animals is that we give them no more than this instrumental value.

If we do decide to look after them it is only because they look after us. In other words, we treat them as means and not ends in themselves. We see them as objects and not as subjects. This is to deny them any intrinsic value to themselves and for that matter to God. This is a secular view of nonhuman animals. For example, in arguing for experimentation on animals Michael A. Fox gratuitously assumes that animals lack intrinsic value on the unsupported proposition that only beings capable of assigning value can have intrinsic value (see Fox).

Animals as Ends as Well as Means

Intrinsic value resides in the experiencing of value. Only feeling confers intrinsic value. We recognize intrinsic value in humans because they are experiencing entities. They are not simply objects but subjects. They are not simply means but ends in themselves. My experiences are the most real thing about me.

They are of value to me. Why the tremendous urge to live, even in the face of enormous suffering? We want to live. The fundamental urge to live is what life is. This urge to live is also a feature of the lives of nonhuman animals. Perhaps it is the most central feature of life. A theocentric ethic affirms that each life -- human and nonhuman -- has value not only to the one who experiences that life but also to God. Intrinsic value means value in itself for the creature who experiences value and to God who experiences all value.

No one can have my experiences. Nevertheless I attribute experience to the other. There is just as much reason to recognize experience and feelings of joy and suffering in chimpanzees and dogs and cats -- and why not also frogs and snakes -- as there is to recognize experience in other human beings besides myself. Hence the revelation of the question Voltaire posed to the vivisector:

You discover in it all the same organs of feeling that are in yourself. Answer me, machinist, has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animal so that it may not feel? (Voltaire, quoted in Regan and Singer, 68).

Most people are willing to grant that their pets experience joy and suffering. Responsible owners of pets do their best to enhance the quality of life of their pets. But why draw the line with those animals we know best? Bird lovers include birds as sensate creatures. ‘Wherever we find a nervous system we may suppose there is something akin to what we call feeling. The intensity of feeling and therefore the degree of richness of experience of life may well be related to the complexity of the nervous system. Any ranking based on this would put humans higher and jellyfish lower in a hierarchy. There is neurophysical evidence to support pan-experientialism. For example, the anti-anxiety agents benzodiazepines have a similar effect on nonhuman animals as on humans. Furthermore, sensory receptors for these chemicals have been found in all vertebrates except cartilaginous fishes such as sharks. This would suggest that a wide range of vertebrates may experience some sort of suffering akin to anxiety in humans. A wide variety of vertebrates also are known to have "reward circuits" in their brains.

These are pathways of nerves involved in feelings of pleasure given by a reward. But why limit experience to those creatures that have a nervous system? Why draw the line there? There are good reasons (given below) for saying that no line can be drawn between feeling entities and non-feeling entities as we go down the hierarchy of natural entities. The importance of all this is that the recognition of intrinsic value in creatures besides ourselves makes an ethical claim upon us to recognize our obligation toward them. In this sense we can speak of animals having rights that we should recognize and work to uphold (see Birch and Cobb, 1981, 153-62).

The Need for a Metaphysical Foundation for a Biocentric Ethic

Whether or not we regard animals as subjects with feelings akin to our own depends also upon our general vision of the world. Therefore how we treat them will depend upon our metaphysical, theological, and philosophical views about life. A strong case has been made for a biocentered ethic based on process theology and process philosophy (Armstrong-Buck). A materialistic view of life is unlikely to sustain a deeply ethical concern for all life. An anthropomorphic view of life often fails to sustain any deep concern for nonhuman life. Christians, in particular, have a clear-cut responsibility to develop, promote, and act upon a nonanthropomorphic or biocentric ethical concern. I believe we might also call this a theocentric ethic, because I believe that God is concerned about all life and not only human life. If human life in its intrinsic value is of value to God, it follows that wherever there is intrinsic value there is value to God. Process theology recognizes this in two senses. On the one hand, God is the source of all value, and second, God is the recipient of all experienced value. God not only gives to the world, God also receives from the world as God feels the joys and sufferings of the creation. The world in this sense is appropriately called God’s body (Hartshorne, 185; McFague, 69; Jantzen). Hence McFague argues that when we put the world at risk with our unbridled exploitation of nature, God, the God who is incarnate within the creation, is at risk in human hands. The Christian obligation becomes a caring for God’s body -- the world!

The intrinsic value of a life is a function of richness of experience of that life. The appropriate attitude toward life is respect. "Behold the lilies of the field" is not merely saying "look at those lilies." The word behold implies a respect, a kind of tenderness, which suggests that living things have a life akin to ours and an intrinsic value to themselves and to God. To behold means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life that does not walk through the world of non-self with arrogance and unconcern. To behold implies a relationship of the creature beheld, to others, and to God. It is to respect that relationship. When we break that relationship of integrity we do evil.

The sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver in 1985 called for a program on justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. The phrase integrity of creation was not then spelled out. The phrase needs to be given precise meaning. Integrity of creation should refer to the recognition of the integrity of the intrinsic value of every living creature and the maintenance of the integrity of the relations of each creature to its environment. In other words, it calls us to respect the life of kangaroos and elephants and the relations they have with their environments so as to enhance their lives.

A great deal of human activity today is destructive of the life and relations of nonhuman creation. Restoration is the task before us. The appropriate word for restoration of a broken relationship is salvation. Salvation is an ecological word because it is about restoring a right relationship that has been corrupted. After I had addressed the fifth Assembly of the WCC in Nairobi in 1975 on these and related matters, the conference newspaper had as its headline the next day, "Salvation for Elephants." That was appropriate. I find a similar evaluation in the Zen teaching that says "we save all beings by including them." In an address on this subject Joseph Sittler quoted St. Thomas: "Gratia non tollet naturam, sed perficit" -- "Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it." A theology that addresses humanity only and leaves the rest of the cosmos unaddressed is an incomplete theology. Yet for biblical and early Christianity, salvation is basically a cosmic matter: the world is saved (McFague). Basil the Great composed a prayer for animals: "And for these also, 0 Lord, the humble beasts, who bear with us the heat and burden of the day, we beg thee to extend thy great kindness of heart, for thou hast promised to save both man and beast, and great is thy loving kindness, 0 Master." In quoting this prayer John Passmore comments, "Note that Basil thinks of God as having promised to save both man and beast" (Passmore, 198).

In the history of the Christian churches there has been no unanimous attitude to animals and how we should treat them. Views have been as various as Basil who pleaded for the beasts and Augustine, who said that since beasts lacked reason and therefore have no rights, we need not concern ourselves with their suffering (Passmore; Santmire). Lynn Wbite, in raising the question of whether compassion should be extended to nature, says that scripture warrants any of three human attitudes to nature. The overwhelming and dominant one in Western Christian thinking is the assumption of our absolute rule over the rest of nature. It assumes that all things were created for our use and for no other purpose. A second attitude is that man is a trustee responsible to God for the care of our fellow creatures. Adam is placed as a gardener in Eden "to dress it and to keep it." Third is the attitude adopted by St. Francis that man is a fellow companion of other creatures all of whom rejoice in the beneficence of God (White, 105).

In the Western world today Christian churches have not been in the forefront of movements to promote concern for nonhumans. The dominant tendency has been to see nature as none other than the stage on which the drama of human life is performed. Nonhuman creatures are merely props, having no value other than their value to us; intrinsic value resides in humans alone. This view has often been taken as biblical. It is not. In the Genesis account of nature God finds goodness in things before and quite apart from the creation of Adam. Jesus expressed the divine concern for the sparrows, even the grasses of the field. If man is worth many sparrows then a sparrow’s worth is not zero.

Theologians as well as the churches in our time have been slow to appreciate this. Notable exceptions have been process theologians and philosophers such as John Cobb, Charles Hartshorne, David Griffin, and Jay McDaniel. Joseph Sittler’s "Called to Unity," his address to the third Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi in 1961, was notable for putting Christian unity in the larger setting of the value of nature. But it was largely ignored. Jurgen Moltmann promotes a view similar to that of process theology when he says

According to the anthropocentric world view, heaven and earth were made for the sake of human beings, and the human being is the crown of creation; and this is certainly what is claimed by both its supporters and its critics as "biblical tradition." But it is unbiblical So if Christian theology wants to find the wisdom in dealing with creation which accords with belief in creation, it must free that belief from the modern anthropocentric view of the world (Moltmann, 31).

Likewise James Gustafson affirms that the universe does not exist for the sake of human beings and God does not order it solely for us. He too widens the ethical context from the human individual to human communities and then to all sentient life. "Humankind is not the exclusive or ultimate center of value in creation" he writes.

Our capacities enable us to participate in the cultivation and sustenance of many values that are proper to ourselves, and we rightly value things in relation to our proper interests. But our interdependence qualifies our tendencies to anthropocentrism. We can be sure that if many aspects of the natural world could speak and claim rights they would say that the activities of many are frequently detrimental to them and their world (Gustafson, 1984, 284).

I have argued that in our culture there has been a dominant presumption that all things exist for the sake of man, and that this has been backed by Christian theology as well as other beliefs. On the basis of this presumption all that is "below" man can be put to the service of man; it can be used for human ends regardless of the consequences for other aspects of life in the world. What is good for human beings has determined the evaluation of all other things. This has provided a general rank ordering of values. . . . Ethics from a theocentric perspective raises a serious question about this traditional presumption (Gustafson 1984, 307).

An exception to the general neglect by the churches of a justice that includes concern for the whole creation is the eco-justice movement in the United States. It grew out of concern by staff of the American Baptist Convention that ecological concerns not be emphasized at the expense of justice nor justice at the expense of ecology. Eco-justice is defined as the well-being of all humankind on a thriving earth respectful of the integrity of natural systems and of worth of nonhuman creatures (Hessel). Perhaps what this movement needs most is a strong affirmation about a theology of nature that gives a solid foundation to its program of action.

Toward a Christian Biocentric Ethic

A Christian biocentric ethic takes the neighbor to be all that participates in life. The needs of neighbor stretch beyond human needs, as does the reach of love. It poses a central question to traditional Western ethics:

What values should we seek to maximize in ethical behavior? "Our task," says John Cobb "is to decide which general statement, from among several alternatives, is correct" (Cobb, 312). He proposes the following possibilities:

1. So act as to maximize value for yourself in the present.

2. So act as to maximize value for yourself in the rest of your life.

3. So act as to maximize value for all humanity for the indefinite future.

4. So act as to maximize value in general.

The first is hardly to be viewed as an ethical principle at all. It says eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The second principle is a maxim of selfish prudence. The third is the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But why limit action to human value? This could be a valid ethical principle only if subhuman entities had no intrinsic value. A central argument of this essay is that intrinsic value is not limited to human beings. Man is not the only pebble on the cosmic beach. Therefore only the fourth principle is sufficiently encompassing to be acceptable.

The recognition that the nonhuman animal is an end in itself and not merely a means to human ends explodes the assumption of traditional ethics. What is needed is a biocentric ethic that recognizes in every animal as well as humans, both ends and means. Conservation movements rest on insecure foundations as long as they do not go beyond instrumental ethics for their justification. In a world in which humans are fast annihilating other species a conservation ethic requires that humans reduce their demands on the environment in favor of other species.

Four sorts of instrumental ethics are invoked by conservationists (for a discussion of these sorts of arguments, see Godfrey-Smith, 311). There is the "silo argument," for maintaining the existence of all those organisms useful to us; the "laboratory" argument for maintaining those organisms needed for experimental studies; the "gymnasium" argument of nature for leisure; and the "cathedral" argument of nature for aesthetic pleasure. All these may well be valid arguments. However, when conservationists try to oppose polluters and developers solely with pragmatic arguments about the value to human welfare of, for example, gene pools in rain forests, they have been maneuvered into fighting on the same ground as their opponents. Their pragmatic arguments for the long-term value of species will be weighted against pragmatic arguments for the immediate needs of some human beings. If a judge rules that the arguments of the developers are more compelling and that a flood control dam will provide more tangible benefits to humanity than will endangered species, to whom will the conservationists appeal? To some extent the argument for preservation of whales has reached this point. Most of the products derived from whales can now be produced from other sources just as well and in any case the most economic use of whales, so some have argued, would be to harvest the lot now and thus circumvent the necessity year after year. What then will save the whales? We are left with an appeal to the intrinsic value of whales to themselves and to God.

The central principle of a biocentric ethic is that we deal with living organisms appropriately when we rightly balance their intrinsic value and their instrumental worth. When the state of Rwanda decided that land on which elephants lived was too valuable for elephants and was needed for the cultivation of food for humans, they did not kill the elephants as pests. They airlifted them by helicopter to a reserve in a neighboring state. Their action suggests that, despite their recognition of elephants as pests, they also recognized that elephants had intrinsic value and had a right to live. So far so good. But then comes the rub. How is one to balance intrinsic value and instrumental value? Up to now ethics has not faced up to this issue. We have no rules to go by. Albert Schweitzer’s "reverence for life" and other "egalitarian" ethics, which rate all forms of life of equal value, are not practical guides. Such an ethic could hardly applaud the successful campaign of the World Health Organization to eradicate the smallpox virus or the present campaign to eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes. A human being is worth more than one mosquito. I would be prepared to lengthen the odds to an infinite number of Anopheline mosquitoes. But how to take into account the need for land for humans and also for elephants when there may not be enough for both? Is the elephant to account for zero in that equation?

In 1981 John Cobb and I suggested a criterion for assessing the relative intrinsic value of different creatures, namely their richness of experience (Birch and Cobb). The difficulty, of course, is that we have no experience of even another person’s richness of experience let alone that of an elephant or a kangaroo. It is reasonable to suppose that the inner experience of an animal bears some relation to the complexity of its nervous system. It would then follow that chimpanzees and whales have more intrinsic value than worms and mosquitoes. In other words, it is reasonable to posit a hierarchy of intrinsic value. In a sense we already operate by some such assessment intuitively when we are more concerned about the death of a monkey in space flights than about the death of fruit flies in such experiments. We need to be more conscious of what should be involved in such assessments. We have not yet begun to rethink the basic theories of the economic world so that they incorporate our intuitions.

If we adopt the principle of seeking to maximize all value (not just human value) for all time (not just our lifetime) we are extending the utilitarian principle as it is usually stated. It is true that Bentham and Mill, for example, believed that animals are subjects and that it is inconsistent to exclude them from ethical consideration. But they did not deal with the questions this raises for the utilitarian system. On the other hand, Peter Singer (see Singer, 1976 and 1985) has consistently argued for a utilitarian ethic that includes all animal life. He does not base his ethic on relative richness of experience of different creatures but on capacity to suffer. The ethical task for Singer is to reduce unnecessary suffering in the world. He carries this to the extent of strongly advocating vegetarianism for all on the grounds that eating animals is one of the greater causes of animal suffering in the world today. Laudable as is Singer’s objective, it is not enough. Even if animals in factory-farms were anesthetized, and thus could not suffer, there would still be reason to protest at depriving them of their natural fulfillments. The responsible owner of a cat or a dog is not only unhappy when the pet suffers pain but works to enhance its general enjoyment of life.

Richness of experience is more than reduced suffering. It has a positive component as well. We should seek to be neighbor to nonhumans in a way analogous to the way we seek to be neighbor to our human fellow creatures: to succor those who fall by the wayside and to try to remove the causes of suffering and to provide a room in the inn.

To suit the convenience of owners of pets who cannot take pets on holidays with them and who prefer a new pet on return, a company, Disposapup Ltd., rears and supplies puppies, takes them back and kills them at holiday time, and supplies replacements on demand (Atffield, 172). This is to be condemned as immoral, even if pets are disposed of without suffering. It is immoral to deliberately deprive the puppies of lives of possible pleasure and fulfillment of their canine possibilities. To live and to live abundantly need not be just a human aspiration for humans. It can be a human aspiration for our nonhuman neighbors as well.

I have confined this essay to animals. But what about the rest of creation? An evolutionary perspective leads to the concept of a continuity between all levels of life in evolutionary history. This and other evidence leads process theology to argue for a continuity in nature of all natural entities from the electron type to humans. All natural entities are seen as subjects with some degree of self-determination or freedom and with some degree of sentience or feeling, though the meaning of these words is very different at the level of the human as compared to that of a DNA molecule or an electron. Intrinsic value is thus extended to all natural entities. Since intrinsic value of electrons and atoms must be slight, from all practical points of view and therefore for ethical purposes, it can be ignored. The same is true of "aggregates" of natural entities such as rocks. The intrinsic value of a rock is only the sum of the intrinsic value of the molecules, atoms, electrons, and so on that compose it. Entities of these types may reasonably be treated as means.

A living cell is more than an aggregate. Unlike a stone it has an inherent unity and its own internal relations with its environment. The value of the created universe to God must have become intrinsically greater as evolution proceeded from electrons to atoms to molecules to cells. A world of cells is more valuable than a world without cells. Nevertheless, it is a rare circumstance when the perspective of cells as such would loom large in ethical considerations. Their primary value is instrumental. Some people would make an exception of one cell, the fertilized human ovum. In official Roman Catholic doctrine it is ascribed the intrinsic value of a human being. From the perspective of process theology the fertilized ovum does not have the experience, nor can it have, of a mature human being. It has the potentiality of eventually becoming a creature that may have that experience, but as such its intrinsic value must be very much less than that of a mature human being. Between eighteen and thirty days of fetal development a nervous system can be recognized with the closure of the neural tube forming the spinal cord and the brain. With the further development of the nervous system later in development one may posit the emergence of unified fetal experience. The fertilized ovum can be recognized as having some intrinsic value but less than that of the newly born infant. To apply to the killing of a fetus the same language used for the killing of a human person is an obstacle to reasonable reflection on this contentious subject. It is more reasonable and in line with our biological understanding of development to suppose that the capacity for experience, and therefore intrinsic value, increases with the developing person from the fertilized ovum onward. It follows that intrinsic value will be greatest when experience is rich and fulfilled. With some people whose faculties disappear with advanced age, intrinsic value may be supposed to have reached its peak early in life. This digression about the cell is relevant because of the confusion and contrary views of the intrinsic value of the fertilized human ovum.

Plants come into a category different from that of animals. They do not possess a nervous system, and the unity of the plant is of a nature different than that of the animal. Yet they are not mere aggregates of cells. They are complex societies of many different sorts of cells. Nevertheless the intrinsic value of the plant is probably no more than that of the cells that compose it. Plants are appropriately treated primarily as means and, of course, critically important ones for life on earth.

Some Ethical Guidelines for Practical Problems in the Treatment Of Animals

The guiding principle proposed is that we are morally obliged to reduce suffering and to enhance the quality of life of animals that share the earth with us. The greater obligation is entailed toward those creatures that have more significant experience. This entails detailed consideration of many of the practices that go largely unquestioned, particularly in Western society.


Today over 100 thousand vertebrates are used in research laboratories all over the world. Some eighty-five percent of these are rats and mice. Frogs, pigeons, hamsters, dogs, cats, pigs, and primates constitute almost all the rest. About five percent are used for teaching purposes, another five percent for diagnosis of disease, twenty percent for production of biological substances ("biologicals") and for toxicity testing, thirty percent in development of drugs and their testing, and forty percent for other research activities such as the present work in genetic engineering to increase the size of sheep and pigs. A Dutch survey indicates that fifty percent of all animal experimentation involve a risk of appreciable discomfort to the animals (Tannenbaum and Rowan). Tannenbaum and Rowan recognize six different ethical stances toward experimentation with animals ranging from total acceptance (for example, Adrian) to total rejection (for example, Linzey) with a variety of positions in between. More has been published supporting total rejection than on all the other views. The issues are complex. However, a minimal requirement must be that animal experimentation should not be undertaken without counting the cost to the animals involved. The cost is usually some form of suffering. Or it also may be, as with chimpanzees (now classified as an endangered species), the possible annihilation of the species altogether. In all cases experimentation should not be done unless absolute necessity can be demonstrated and all alternative possibilities have been excluded after serious consideration.

The existence of ethical review committees in many countries today means that some sorts of experimentation done in the past will no longer be permitted. One example is the experimentation of Harry J. Harlow and his colleagues (from 1961 onward) on Rhesus monkeys. This experimentation involved severe maternal and sibling deprivation described by Michael A. Fox as "nightmarish and regrettable experiments" (Fox, 103) and by Mary Midgley as completely unnecessary for the purposes for which they were done (Midgley 1981). The churches should align themselves with watchdog organizations that monitor the treatment of animals in laboratories in their own community. (Some of these organizations may adopt extreme methods -- which is all the more reason why churches should be involved to help make these activities responsible and fair.)


There is a variety of ethical stances on the eating of animals ranging from no objection to total rejection (e.g. Regan 1983). A minimal stance again surely holds that treatment of animals as renewable resources having value only to human interests is immoral. Farm animals should be treated with the respect they are due. It is wrong to maintain animals used as food in a manner that causes them discomfort and denies them the opportunity to live in conditions that are reasonably natural. This consideration renders the battery cage system for hens as immoral. Switzerland and Sweden have passed legislation to phase out this system. The standard method of rearing calves in the United States for the production of luxury veal is extremely cruel. These procedures have already been declared illegal in the state of Victoria in Australia and in Great Britain.

The advocacy of increasing meat consumption in the rich world should be questioned on a number of grounds. First, such consumption multiplies the cruelty of crowded yards, crowded transports, and abattoirs. Second, there are sound health reasons to increase the component of vegetables in the human diet in the rich world. Third, meat production is, in many instances, a wasteful way of producing food. As world population increases more and more people will, of necessity, have less meat and more vegetables in their diet. We should anticipate this change, which is already part of life in poor countries. There are good arguments for vegetarianism. The most important one is that it reduces one major cause of animal suffering.

All animals in the creation story in Genesis are vegetarian. They live on grass, and the humans live on nuts and fruit. It is only when humans in the account become evil that they become enemies of other animals and take them for food. In the book of Isaiah the day is foreseen when paradise is regained, and everyone not only goes back to a nonmeat diet, but the friendliest relations subsist between all species. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and a little child shall lead them! In the book of Job God puts questions to Job that show up human egotism and indicate that nonhuman creation has value other than that determined by human use. Who has made it rain on the land where no man is to cause the tender grass to spring forth? Who has provided food for the wild ass and the wild ox that can’t be domesticated or put to work? The author of Psalm 104 even says that God made Leviathan as a pet, so that God could play with it. In these references God made things for their own sake and for God’s sake.

Genetic Engineering

The successful transplantation of the gene for growth hormone into the fertilized ovum of mice has produced "super mice." This is a model for possible "improvement" of livestock by genetic engineering. The first steps in this have already been accomplished with the transplanting of additional genes for growth hormone into sheep in Australia to produce larger animals and therefore more wool. In the first generation the metabolism of these sheep has been greatly disturbed. It remains to be seen what the offspring of these genetically altered sheep will be like. One might imagine chicken farmers wanting to produce a chicken with four drum sticks instead of a mere two. What sort of alteration of the animal is ethical? By standard procedures of artificial selection we have produced farm animals that are vastly different from their wild progenitors. Are the consequences of genetic engineering on animals different in principle?

Zoos, Circuses, Gladiatorial Shows, and Hunting

We are obliged to question the morality of confining animals for display and entertainment unless the conditions are virtually natural for the animals concerned. The day of wire cages and cement pits should have long passed but hasn’t. What might have been claimed as an educational role of zoos in the past has been superseded by superb wildlife films such as those produced by Sir David Attenborough for the BBC. Zoos have a role for saving threatened species but perhaps little else. There is no role for performing animals in circuses in a biocentric ethic. The same goes for shows of fighting cocks and bullfights, which are legal entertainment in some countries. The emotions to which these so-called sports pander and the morality they condone are akin to those that led people to find entertainment in watching Christians being thrown to lions. Mary Midgley cogently remarks that bull-baiting has not been replaced by bulldozer-baiting because active personal conflict is essential to such "sport" (Midgley 1983, 16). This seems to be regarded as an essential component of hunting also. Greyhound dogs seem to be satisfied with chasing mechanical rabbits in greyhound racing, but some owners do what they can to slip in the benighted live rabbit if they can get away with it. Open seasons for shooting ducks and other wildfowl involve much suffering, some of it in lingering death. The suffering is even more horrific when the hunt is for wild mammals such as kangaroos. Again we may well ask of the churches what they are doing about combating these cruel conventions in their own community?

Animals in the Wild

In some respects this is the most difficult of all the problems we face in our treatment of animals. In every continent now the habitats of wild animals are being encroached upon by agriculture. Wild animals are being displaced by domestic cattle, and their habitats changed mostly to the disadvantage of the wildlife, which sometimes is driven to extinction. There are exceptions. The two most abundant species of kangaroos in eastern Australia have become more common as a result of sheep farming in their habitats. This seems to be because of the increased supplies of water farming brings with it. But the farmer, often without supporting evidence, more often than not regards kangaroos on his property as pests and seeks to destroy them. Because of the abundance of kangaroos on and near farms, farmers are given quotas to kill. This raises great opposition from conservationists. An alternative to killing the kangaroos is turning the farms over to them, since much of the country is marginal for sheep anyway. Sheep don’t thrive there nearly as well as kangaroos. Moreover, kangaroos don’t reduce the habitat to a dust bowl in dry years, as do sheep. But what then happens to the farmer? In some cases the farm could be taken over by the state for national kangaroo parks. Or the kangaroos could be harvested for food and leather instead of sheep. But in this latter case we have the prospect of beloved native mammals being slaughtered like the domesticated mammals they replaced. If we were to put the greatest value on the reduction of suffering then the kangaroo park might be the best solution. But if we put more value on the products from the land, then some form of farming will be chosen, as it has been chosen in the past. In any case a major problem -- certainly in Australia and it seems to be the case elsewhere -- is the conservative attitude of farmers who are not interested in changing age-long habits for newfangled ideas about rights of animals. So education becomes increasingly important. In this the churches have a part to play.


The task of working out a biocentric ethic for our time has yet to be done. Initially we need to discover in our tradition and from an understanding of modern biology some fundamental principles on which to build such an ethic. That includes an appreciation of the continuity between humanity and the rest of nature while at the same time emphasizing the distinctiveness of the human. The development of such an ethic means that values we place high on the human agenda, such as justice, must be extended to include the rest of nature. It involves a recognition of the intrinsic value of creatures besides ourselves and their value not simply to us but to themselves and to God. Taking our biocentric ethic seriously in practice will mean a dramatic change in our behavior toward nature. The ethical task before us is to liberate all life from the constraints of oppression, human insensitivity, and dominion in whatever form they take.

The great achievement of the Enlightenment, says Mary Midgley, was to build a theory of the rights of man that made possible enormous advances towards social justice (Midgley 1983, 51).

A great achievement of our time could be to extend the concepts of rights and justice to all living creatures not only in theory but in the practice of a nonanthropocentric, biocentric ethic.

The Prayer of the Donkey

God who made me

to trudge along the road


to carry heavy loads


and to be beaten always!

Give me great courage and gentleness.

One day let somebody understand me --

that I may no longer want to weep

because I can never say what I mean

and they make fun of me.

Let me find a juicy thistle --

and make them give me time to pick it.

And, Lord, one day, let me find again

my little brother of the Christmas crib.

-- Carmen Bernos de Gasztold



Adrian, Lord. Experiments With Animals. Science in Society Project. London: Association for Science Education, 1986.

Armstrong-Buck, Susan. "Whitehead’s Metaphysical System as a Foundation for Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics 8 (1986):241-59.

Attfield, Robin. The Ethics of Environmental Concern. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Bernos de Gasztold, Carmen. Prayers From the Ark. London: Macmillan, 1963.

Birch, Charles, and John B. Cobb. The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Cobb, John B. "Ecology, Ethics and Theology." Toward a Steady State Economy.

Ed. H. E. Daly. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1973, pp. 307-20.

Fox, Michael A. The Case for Animal Experimentation: An Evolutionary and Ethical Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Godfrey-Smith, W. "The Value of Wilderness." Environmental Ethics 1 (1979): 309-19.

Gustafson, James N. "Ethical Issues in the Human Future." How Humans Adapt: A Biocultural Odyssey. Ed. Donald J. Orther. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1983, pp. 491-515.

-----. Ethics From a Theocentric Perspective. Ethics and Theology. Vol. 2. University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Hartshorne, Charles. Man’s Vision of God. Chicago: Willet Clark and Co., 1941.

Haught, John F. "The Emergent Environment and the Problem of Cosmic Purpose. Environmental Ethics 8 (1986):139-50.

Hessel, Dieter T., ed. For Creation’s Sake: Preaching; Ecology, and Justice. Philadelphia: Geneva Press, 1985.

Jantzen, Grace. God’s World, God’s Body. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984.

Linzey, Andrew. Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment of Man’s Treatment of Animals. London: SCM Press, 1976.

McFague, Sallie. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

Midgley, Mary. "Why Knowledge Matters." Animals in Research. Ed. David Sperlinger. New York: Wiley, 1981, pp. 319-36.

----. Animals and Why They Matter: A Journey Around the Species Barrier. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1983.

Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation. The Gifford Lectures 1984-85. London: SCM Press, 1985.

Passmore, John. "The Treatment of Animals." Journal of the History of Ideas, 36 (1975): 195-218.

Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Regan, Tom, and Peter Singer (eds.). Animal Rights and Human Obligations. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976.

Santmire, H. Paul. The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Schweitzer, Albert. Civilization and Ethics. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1949.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A New Ethic for Our Treatment of Animals. London: Jonathon Cape, 1976.

---- "Ten Years of Animal Liberation." The New York Review of Books 31: nos. 21 and 22 (1985): 46-52.

Tannenbaum, Jerrold, and Andrew N. Rowan. "Rethinking the Morality of Animal Research." Hastings Center Report 15, no. 5 (1985):32-45.

White, Lynn. "The Future of Compassion." Ecumenical Review 30 (1978):100-09.