A Q&A with Fordham’s Charles Camosy

Chris and I recently finished reading For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action by Charles Camosy, an assistant professor in the theology department at Fordham University. In the book, Camosy makes the case that committed Christians – especially those who consider themselves pro-life – ought to take seriously the idea that non-human animals deserve to be brought within the ambit of our moral concern. After surveying the history of Christian and Catholic thinking on animals (and angels, and aliens!), Camosy turns his attention to some practical questions: should Christians (or anyone else) eat meat? Should they own pets? Visit zoos? Hunt?

Camosy is the author of an earlier book entitled Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, in which he compares and contrasts the secular ethical philosophy of Princeton’s Peter Singer, who is widely considered one of the fathers of the modern animal welfare movement, with the ethical teachings of Christianity and Catholicism. Since that time, he and Singer have held several joint public appearances and have made common cause with one another in trying to persuade people of the moral value of animals.

Camosy was recently featured in a series of video interviews on The Dish, where he offered some helpful elaborations on a number of themes from For Love of Animals. But Reasonably Moderate was curious to hear more about some of what didn’t make it into the book, and so we reached out to Professor Camosy to see if he would be willing to discuss his ideas with us further. He was kind enough to respond to some questions via email, and the following is a lightly edited version of our exchange.

It seems like any comprehensive argument for the consistently just treatment of non-human animals is subject to exceptions, your own included. You say, following the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that killing a non-human animal should be considered immoral… but that there are cases where it is justified, i.e. in situations of great need. You say that animal testing is to be avoided… but that in some cases the benefits may outweigh the costs. How can we establish consistent ethical principles for our interactions with non-human animals when there are so many potential caveats?

I’m not sure that there are “so many caveats.” Any moral principle which doesn’t involve an intrinsically evil act is going to have cases with grey area and uncertainty. In the case of moral concern for animals, the principle that “we may not cause animals to suffer or die except in cases of need” is one which has clear and unambiguous applications in the way that most of us interact with animals. Right now, just getting the moral status and treatment of animals on the radar of most Christians (and others) is the key priority. Let us stop the wanton killing and torture first, and then we can worry about grey areas and tough cases.

On a related point, you maintain in the book that persons – conscious, self-aware beings, or “substances of a rational nature” – have irreducible moral value, and that there is no sort of utilitarian calculus that could be invoked to justify violating or overriding their natural rights.

You also write eloquently in defense of the idea that at least some animals – dolphins, elephants, great apes – are in fact persons. But what about animals that are not persons or not quite persons? Do these creatures also have irreducible value? Even if, lacking subjective experience, they are in many ways no different from unthinking things like trees or rocks?

To be clear, while I write in defense of that argument, I never make the argument myself. I think the best of the Christian tradition means taking such arguments seriously, but I stop short of claiming that any animals are, in fact, non-human persons. That said, your question is a good one, and it doesn’t have an easy answer. One thing that needs doing is distinguishing between those beings who have “irreducible” value and those which have “intrinsic value.” All creation has intrinsic value which comes from it having been made “good” by God in its own right.

This, however, is perfectly consistent with a being also having instrumental value with respect to humans and other creatures. For instance, a tree is good, full stop. However, for a proportionately serious reason, we may still cut down the tree and use it for some other end. The intrinsic value of the tree means that we need to have a good reason to cut it down. Persons, however, are the kinds of things which have irreducible value such that they can never be radically reduced in this way.

I want to consider the possibility that there are some animals who, while perhaps not full persons, come so close that we may need to create a new category for them. Chimps may not be persons, but their traits (self-awareness, vocabulary, rationality, capacity to love, etc.) make them so much more valuable than trees (and even other kinds of creatures, like small fish) that perhaps we need a new category of moral status to give them proper value and protection. The person/non-person binary needs to go away.

You use the phrase “animal liberation” at least a few times throughout For Love of Animals, a phrase that was popularized by Peter Singer when he published his book of the same name back in the 1970’s. Singer is (or was) a preference utilitarian, and as such he doesn’t believe in the idea of “animal rights.” Yet many within the “animal movement” do make use of a rights-based discourse. Do you think that animals have rights? Do they need to be “liberated”? Are either of these philosophical lenses compatible with Catholic teaching?

Animals certainly need to be liberated. Seen within the great traditions of liberationist ethics (now fully on display in the person of Pope Francis), non-human animals – along with prenatal children, the old, the sick, the mentally disabled, and many other kinds of humans – are clearly a vulnerable population which has been violently pushed to the margins by the powerful who find their dignity inconvenient.

This is not to say that animals and human persons have equal value. They don’t. Do animals have rights? I’m not so sure, and in some ways the discussion of animal rights is a distraction which feeds into our already horrifically polarized discussion between liberals and conservatives. The Catechism claims that animals “are owed kindness.” The language of justice is used. Does this mean that animals have a “right” to kindness? Especially given the polarized discussion about this question, I’m not so sure that attempting to answer it is the best use of our attention and time. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that we owe animals kindness, and on what this means in terms of changing our social structures, individual behaviors and habits.

Do you think that it’s wrong to eat animals not raised in factory farms or confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s)? If we treat animals well while they are alive, are we justified in killing them for food? Even if this is not done in a “situation of need”?

The English translation of the Catechism is clear that both (1) causing animals to suffer and (2) killing animals should be done only in situations of need. The Latin translation is less clear about killing, and perhaps with some reason. Those who support the gross structural sin of factory farming participate, it seems to me, in a far more serious evil than those who support smaller farms that treat animals well. That said, I still think it is wrong to cause animals (especially sophisticated animals like pigs and chickens) to die for something other than a very serious reason.

You seem to have struck up a productive intellectual partnership with Peter Singer, and your previous book discussed ways in which your opinions could challenge his and his could challenge yours. His influence on your beliefs about animals is clear; are there any ways in which his thinking about animals has changed as a result of your interactions?

Yes. At a recent public event at which we co-presented, Singer admitted that our interactions have contributed to his changing his mind about how we’ve come to treat animals so terribly in the developed West. In his book Animal Liberation, the main culprit was clearly Christianity and the sanctity-of-life ethic. He now believes that in blaming Christianity this way, the story he told was “one-sided.”

Personally, I hope he goes further and admits that Christianity had virtually nothing to do with how we treat animals. Humans have killed and abused animals for our purposes since before our ancestors had any sense of organized religion at all. It has been, and continues to be, primarily about power. We can torture and kill animals for our benefit, and so we do. If we do want to blame ideas or social structures for the particular way in which we treat animals in factory farms today, however, I think we should lay that blame at the feet of the secular Enlightenment. This, after all, is what produced the structures of capitalism, consumerism and the technological imperative – which, in turn, drives these farms to (literally) idolize the goal of maximizing “protein units per square foot.”

We very much appreciate Professor Camosy’s taking the time to provide such detailed responses to our questions. We hope to be posting some of our own thoughts and reactions to his book in the near future, so stay tuned!

One thought on “A Q&A with Fordham’s Charles Camosy

  1. Pingback: The Moderation Conversation: Reflections on RM’s Interview with Fordham’s Charles Camosy | Reasonably Moderate

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