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On AnimalsReview - On Animals
Volume II: Theological Ethics
by David L. Clough
T&T Clark, 2018
Review by Bob Fischer
Aug 13th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 33)

Philosophers are writing a lot about animals these days. Christian theologians generally aren't. And that's a shame, even if you aren't particularly sympathetic to the Christian tradition. After all, there are roughly 2.2 billion Christians in the world today. Some of them are moved by secular moral argumentation, but a lot of them aren't. This isn't because they're unreasonable, but because they recognize that a lot of secular moral argumentation assumes premises that they reject. And if you reject the premises, you don't have any reason to accept the conclusions. The upshot: if you want to convince Christians to care about animals, you had better argue in Christian terms.

Of course, you might not have such an instrumental approach to theologizing about animals. David Clough certainly doesn't. He's a Christian theologian who's convinced that the tradition has largely misunderstood animals, thinking of them as part of the scenery for the real performance: namely, God's work of creating human beings and reconciling them to himself. On Clough's view, however, all animals -- human and nonhuman -- are declared good by God in themselves, and no individual animal exist solely for the purpose of another. Moreover, Clough argues that God intends to redeem animals as well, liberating them from the violence and suffering that they experience in our present disordered world. The picture is one in which animals are indeed fellow creatures, and a sense that we and they are beings created by God, beneficiaries of his grace, and sharers of the new creation that God is building through and for us all. Animals aren't the scenery; they are actors in the play. (For the details, see On Animals, Volume 1; Clough merely summarizes all this in the present volume.)

The bulk of the book is an attempt to set out the implications of this picture for practical ethics, and to that end, Clough explores the many ways in which humans use and abuse animals: for food, for clothing, as workers, as research subjects, as objects of entertainment, and as companions. Moreover, he considers the ways in which we often neglect our impacts on wild animals, whose lives are hard enough as it is. This book is likely the most systematic and thoughtful work of animal ethics in the Christian tradition. There simply isn't anything else like it.

All that said, we should regard this as a kind of first step toward a theological animal ethic, as it leaves many questions unanswered. Consider, for instance, the issue to which Clough devotes the most attention -- namely, using other animals for food. He sums up his position as follows: “Since the vast majority of animal products available are outputs of systems that very obviously fail to allow farmed animals to flourish, Christians have strong faith-based reasons to stop eating the meat, fish, dairy and eggs that are produced in these ways” (71). However, it's striking that Clough spends almost all his efforts defending the first part of that statement -- about the impact of intensive systems on animals -- and almost none explaining why Christians have strong faith-based reasons to change their behavior.

To be clear, it's plausible that Christians have reasons of some strength or other based on Clough's arguments. But do they have strong reasons? Ones that can override all their other reasons to consume animal products? Here, Clough says very little. For instance, he says very little about whether abstaining from animal products makes a difference, or whether difference-making is a thing about which Christian should be concerned. He says almost nothing about why his conclusion is about eating, rather than purchasing (which, presumably, is the thing that sends a signal to producers). He doesn't consider whether his argument generalizes, such that if Christians have strong faith-based reasons to abstain from animal products, they have strong faith-based reasons to abstain from all sorts of things, such that they are awash in reasons to disassociate from evil. He doesn't consider whether, in our nonideal context, it's preferable for the sake of animals to support high welfare farms: not because animals should be farmed, but because they're going to be, and we're much more likely to improve current forms of animal agriculture than we are to replace them with animal-free forms of food production.

These aren't devastating criticisms: they are, rather, invitations to do more work. And at the end of the book Clough readily admits that this is a book on which to build, rather than the last word on the subject. Still, Clough has done an enormous service to the Christian community -- and to animal advocates -- by developing theological objections to the status quo. On Animals is a major accomplishment, and I hope that it gets the attention it deserves.


© 2019 Bob Fischer


Bob Fischer teaches philosophy at Texas State University. He's the editor of The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat (Oxford, 2015; with Ben Bramble) and College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues That Affect You(Oxford, 2017). He's also the author of several essays on animal ethics, moral psychology, and the epistemology of modality.


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