Book Review

Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics by Andrew Linzey. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009; 224 pages, ISBN 987-0-19-537977-8, hardback, $29.95.

Do we have an obligation to protect those who are weaker, more vulnerable, and unable to represent their own interests or give consent?  Theologian Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and professor at Oxford University, maintains that this is very much the case.  He argues that as sentient beings, animals lie on a continuum with small children, infants, and the disabled, pointing out that the similarities in these inarticulate groups' needs for protection from cruelty and abuse have long been recognized in humanitarian reform efforts.  

In making a rational case against cruelty toward animals, Dr Linzey addresses six of the differences often put forward in the West to justify or trivialize their exploitation and suffering: that they are naturally slaves; non-rational beings; linguistically deficient; not moral agents; soulless; and devoid of the divine image. Some of these points are philosophical, others theological, and most are of long standing, some going back to the ancient Greeks and Hebrews.  Although not accepting these views, he doesn't argue against them.  Rather he shows that these differences in themselves should make us more protective of animals and cause us to take their suffering more seriously, not less. He states his purpose this way:

the appeal (perhaps even the originality) of this book is the way in which it takes the usual differences (still widely accepted) about animals, and shows that they cannot bear the weight of the usual negative interpretations.  It is an attempt to meet people where they are – and take them further. . . .  It doesn't ask people to begin with a concept of rights, nor does it ask people to revise the commonly held differences between animals and humans, nor does it depend upon some privileged access to new scientific findings.  I fully accept that the case for animals may, and probably will, be buttressed by the further questioning of at least some of the differences that are now widely accepted.  Be that as it may, accepting the existence of sentience . . ., a robust case for animals can now be made even within the confines of our existing mental furniture.  The case, even and especially dependent only on traditional formulations, is strong enough to deserve a hearing now, and should result in major changes to the way we treat animals. p. 165

After making the case that our treatment of animals is a rational rather than solely an emotional issue and dealing with these widely-held points one by one, he examines three specific examples of animal cruelty that are now beginning to be regulated: hunting with dogs, fur farming, and commercial sealing.  In the concluding chapter he argues for re-establishing animals and children as a common cause and addresses several possible objections to his approach.

Through this book Linzey is seeking to bring about a

change of perception – or insight – [that] can be stated quite simply: it is the move away from ideas that animals are machines, tools, things, commodities, resources here for us, to the idea that animals have their own value – what we may call an "intrinsic value." . . .  It is when we make the moral discovery that animals matter in themselves, that they have value in themselves, and that their suffering is as important to them as ours is to us.  We need to recognize that there are still human beings out there who just have not had this insight.  They do not think that animals matter, or that there are other creatures of value in the world.  They think that human beings matter, but that the rest is just "the environment," a theatrical backdrop to what really matters, namely, themselves. – p. 56

This insight into animals' innate worth is resisted because acknowledging it would mean changes in lifestyle direct and profound enough that most people, let alone many commercial enterprises, would rather not have to make them. Cruelty to animals is deeply institutionalized and backed by many habits and vested interests.  This book makes a strong case for our responsibility to protect animals just as we now in the West protect children, the infirm, and those people physically or mentally unable to represent their own interests. – Sally Dougherty (August 2009)

Book Reviews