The Moderation Conversation: Reflections on RM’s Interview with Fordham’s Charles Camosy

This is the second installment of “The Moderation Conversation,” an RM feature in which Chris and I record ourselves having a discussion, type up a transcript, and then scrap the result and rewrite everything to make ourselves sound more eloquent than we really are. The following is a lightly edited pretty heavily edited transcript of a recent chat we had about our interview with Charles Camosy, Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University.

Talking to Christians about Animals

Matt: So we’re here talking about the interview we did with Fordham University’s Charles Camosy a couple months ago… or actually, about a month ago, right? Beginning of December.

Chris: Yeah.

M: Camosy is the author of a couple books, but his latest is called For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action. The main thesis of the book is that Christians should take seriously the idea that animals are proper objects of our moral concern. Camosy has another, earlier book called Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, where he writes about Christian ethics and the ethics of the secular philosopher Peter Singer and tries to show that there is more overlap than is commonly thought.

So I guess a good place to start might be with a discussion that Camosy has in the book about writing on morally charged subjects. He says that whenever you’re writing about a subject that potentially involves some serious injustice, there’s a tension between wanting to be specific enough to convince people of the gravity of the problem and being so graphic that you come off as just looking like you’re trying to emotionally manipulate your audience. And I wanted to get your take on how you think Camosy balances those two things in the book. Do you think that he comes off as a hack? Do you think that he comes off as persuasive? Do you think he does a good job making his argument?

C: I definitely think he does not come off as a hack, and I appreciate the fact that he makes this point in the book and acknowledges that he is trying to be as objective as possible despite his clear position on the issues. But I think he does a very good job of presenting an emotional case for why factory farming and killing animals or eating animals is problematic, as well as a very clear and rational case for it. The chapter on factory farming is really the most graphic part of the book, and in no way does it come off as sensational or overly manipulative. What do you think?

M: Yeah. I mean, I definitely understand the tension, but at the same time I don’t think that the responsibility lies only with the author – in this case I don’t think the responsibility lies only with Camosy.  An author at some point just has to make the presumption that people will assume that they’re writing in good faith and, you know, there’s a point – you can change your style up to a point, but there’s a point at which you just have to trust that your readers will trust you. And I think, for the most part, Camosy is even-handed enough of a writer to engender that trust in his readers. And I also think that his readers are sort of a self-selected audience. I think the kind of people who are going to be reading his book are the kind of people who are open to thinking about somewhat controversial topics in a very level-headed way.

C: So that’s a good jumping-off point for talking about the form of the book. You’ve read both Peter Singer and Christian Ethics and For Love of Animals now –

M: Yes.

C: – and we both note that For Love of Animals is much shorter, much more focused in scope than the other book. What benefits do you think this has? Does the form or length detract from any of his arguments? Does it prevent him from making a fuller case for treating animals fairly?

M: Well, I think Peter Singer and Christian Ethics is written for an academic audience. It reads somewhat more like a textbook, whereas For Love of Animals is more of a popular piece of nonfiction and a brief primer on the subject rather than an in-depth academic investigation.

So I think it’s effective in that the people who have previously been writing about the issues of animal rights and animal ethics are by and large secularists.  Peter Singer is considered to be the father of the animal welfare movement, and he’s an avowed atheist and a critic of religion. His other ethical positions are very controversial in religious circles. So I think that it’s important that we have a book like For Love of Animals even though it obviously could have been more substantial and could have looked at some of these topics in greater depth.

I think that Camosy is making an important contribution by writing a book that is targeted at Christians, at Catholics, that is written by a Catholic and that deals with these same issues. Because the people that Camosy is trying to reach out to are not people who would necessarily be open to entertaining arguments from Peter Singer, who many Catholics consider to be, you know, an “enemy of the Church”.

C: I think it’s a good thing that he is providing a book that gets at the heart of the issue in a relatively compact form. It fulfills its purpose pretty well. It would be a good volume for people who haven’t really considered these issues in the past. At the same time, I think Camosy’s a good enough writer and his arguments are strong enough that this could have been expanded beyond what’s in here now, and it could have been an even more compelling case for why animals should be treated fairly, beyond some of the topics discussed.

M: He’s filling a niche that had previously been empty, and so I don’t think that there’s anything stopping him from writing another book someday about some of these same issues, with maybe a little bit more depth. Once he’s proven that there’s an audience for this type of writing, I could see him or others making further contributions in this area.

C: Let’s hope that’s the case. I mean, I’d love to get an even fuller volume on this in the future.

M: Maybe he’ll just keep spinning off the different chapters of Peter Singer and Christian Ethics into short tractates [one of the chapters of Peter Singer considers the question of animal welfare and introduces many of the same arguments deployed in For Love of Animals].

C: [Laughs] “Tractates”? “Tractates”? Oh, my goodness.


“Pro-Animal, Pro-Life”?

M: So, one thing I know we had talked about a little bit was the fact that the book establishes a clear connection between the cause of alleviating animal suffering and the pro-life movement right off the bat. Obviously the book is aimed at Christians, aimed at Catholics, but it focuses a lot on the fact that Camosy sees moral concern for animals as being intimately tied to being pro-life. In fact, the very first chapter of the book opens with the line, “If you are pro-life, chances are you are familiar with the following story…” And then he goes on to recount awkward conversations he’s had with people where he’s had to defend his pro-life views and compares them to awkward conversations he’s had where he has to defend his vegetarianism.

C: Yeah, the book is immediately framed from a pro-life perspective. It assumes the reader shares those views.

M: Right, and the second paragraph of the first chapter says – he has the line, “About ten years ago I became convinced that if I wanted to be authentically and consistently pro-life I should give up eating meat.” So I wanted to get your thoughts on whether you think that’s an effective rhetorical device, to tie the animal issue to the abortion issue so clearly and so immediately.

C: I think it has its benefits, but there are also possible causes for concern. Given the audience that we were just talking about, it makes a lot of sense, right? That he’s going to be framing this book for people who might not have considered animal issues before, who might not have even thought about any of the things he brings up. And in that sense, tying it to a subject that they will be more familiar with – the pro-life movement – is something that will immediately get them to understand what’s at stake here. It provides an immediate reference point.

At the same time, I worry that there is a sense of false equivalence that goes into the arguments that he’s making. I understand the core case that he’s advancing, but I think there are differences between the pro-life movement and the animal movement that he’s overlooking.  You worry that trying to compare the two is not really possible.

M: Well, I would say two things to that. The first is that I don’t think he is engaging in false equivalence. He came under some fire recently – there was a piece published at Public Discourse criticizing him on exactly those grounds, saying that he was sort of cheapening the abortion issue by comparing it to moral concern for animals and putting animals on equal footing with humans. And he responded very eloquently saying that that was explicitly not what he was doing. He doesn’t think that animals are owed more moral concern than humans, but he thinks that people who are morally serious should be taking seriously the plight of animals in modern society.

The other thing I would say is that I don’t necessarily think it’s a problem – given what we’ve already said about the audience for this book – to focus so heavily on the pro-life issue. Yeah, of course it’s the case that people who are pro-choice might be turned off by that kind of framing, but those people can already get the argument about animal rights or animal welfare from people like Singer. There are plenty of other writers who are already trying to engage people that are operating from a secular standpoint. And so, yeah, I think maybe it’s the case that some people will be turned off by this, but I think that, again, Camosy is trying to occupy a hitherto empty niche.

C: I shouldn’t say that I think he is creating false equivalence, I guess. I just worry that there are nuances in each case that, unless they’re more fully considered beyond the scope of what he has in the book, that some people would – and I guess this would be more the case for people not operating within a Christian worldview – dismiss his case for animal rights because of his direct linkage to abortion.

M: I see.

C: But given that most people who are reading this are probably Catholic or Christian, then that I guess that isn’t really a serious concern.


Philosophical Frames

M: Okay. So you wanted to ask me something about Camosy’s response to our question about animal liberation and animal rights.

C: Yes. So Camosy says “animals certainly need to be liberated,” but he does not go so far as to say that they are deserving of any sort of specific set of rights. What do you think about that? Do you agree that they need to be liberated? And to what degree? Do you think that there should be any guaranteed set of rights for animals?

M: I guess I agree with Camosy’s response in that I think that maybe we’ve been sort of focusing on these abstract issues – these abstract philosophical issues – at the expense of doing something about the things that everybody can really agree are problems if people are given enough information. So, you know, Camosy is talking about the fact that there is a lot of antagonism between Christians and people like Singer because they seem to disagree a lot about first principles. And I think Camosy is trying to tell us that we don’t need to be engaged in these arguments that are going to be, as he puts it, “contributing to an already horrifically polarized discussion.” We should just be focusing on “changing our social structures, behaviors, and habits.”

C: Mhm.

M: So yeah, I don’t know. I’m still kind of on the fence about what I think is the best way of thinking about this issue. I’m not so sure I like the framing of “animal rights.” I am persuaded by a lot of Camosy’s discussion of the harms that result from the way that animals are treated in modern industrial agriculture, like antibiotic resistance or environmental degradation, and those arguments have led me to examine some of my own choices vis a vis eating animal products and whatnot. But I don’t necessarily buy that it is always and everywhere intrinsically wrong to raise animals for food. And so I don’t know that I would agree with the animal rights frame, and I’m also on the fence about the animal liberation frame.

C: You had a point about small farms, as opposed to large-scale CAFO’s or factory farms. So what distinction would you make there? Would you say that smaller farms, which don’t have the machinery to process animals like goods, are more justified? Is that your rationale?

M: Well, we asked Camosy about this. We asked him if he thought that it was wrong to kill animals that are not raised on factory farms and/or that are treated well while they’re alive. And his response was that, while in some sense it was still wrong, the people who eat meat that comes from small farms or from farms where animals are treated well “participate in a lesser evil” than people who purchase meat from factory farms.

I do think that the animal rights activists who focus on trying to convert people to veganism or on trying to get people to stop using animal products altogether are essentially making the perfect the enemy of the good.  To that end, I think it would be worthwhile to focus on small steps – encouraging small-scale agriculture, ensuring animal welfare – rather than trying to eliminate all agricultural use of animals.

C: So perhaps not a specific set of rights but a general set of goals that we should pursue.

M: Sure. I think there should be much stricter regulation of how many animals can be confined in a given space. I think measures like the bill that was debated in New Jersey last year to ban confinement of pigs during pregnancy are things that we should be looking at. But I’m not persuaded that it is intrinsically immoral to eat meat, and I don’t think that Camosy is persuaded of that either.

C: One sympathizes with those who are pushing for much quicker and faster change for animals.

M: Sure, the change certainly has been very slow.

C: And, like you say, there is a risk of making the perfect the enemy of the good even though the perfect might be what we’re working towards. It’s an iterative process which has its definite downsides. But this book is a key piece in that continual process of making people aware of what’s going on. Then they change their habits, and then at some point you introduce a new step, additional measures they could take to further reduce the harm being done to animals.

M: Yeah, and people like us have a tendency to want to get deep into the philosophical weeds and try to find out what Camosy’s opinions are on all of these things. But I think we do have to accept that, at some point, maybe we don’t have to have a final answer to everything. We just have to a view of how to make things better.


Hunting for Animals… and Interviewees

M: So you and I had talked about the last part of the book where Camosy discusses some other issues of animal treatment aside from the raising of animals for food. He talks about hunting, he talks about medical testing on animals. And you had said that you felt that he is somewhat equivocal in this part of the book.

C: Right.  So I thought his chapter on factory farming was very, very strong. It makes a compelling case and it’s emphatic that factory farming is an inherent moral evil and needs to be stopped. For the three issues he discusses in Chapter 9 – having pets, using animals for medical testing, and hunting – I was less convinced by what Camosy was saying.

His main point was that he wanted to bring these three cases up for people to consider since they’re all things that people generally deal with in their everyday lives. In the case of hunting, I think he could have been more emphatic against it. He says that hunting animals for food is potentially morally justified, but he doesn’t make a strong case against hunting in general. He cites examples of friends who, through hunting, potentially prevented animals from having more painful deaths in the wild through attacks.

M: Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily problematic. One of the questions we asked him was about the fact that it seems like there are a lot of caveats in the arguments that he’s making, and we worried that it would be difficult to convince people to behave in a consistently more ethical way toward animals if they were given the sense that there is always an exception that can be made. And his response was that the Catholic Church for its part doesn’t believe that killing animals is intrinsically evil, and so their position is necessarily going to have some gray area and uncertainty. And so I think that, in the case of hunting, there are sort of competing goods, and I don’t find it problematic that he doesn’t have a more categorical position on that.

C: My concern with what he’s proposing here is that it seems to suggest humans have a sort of responsibility towards animals, particularly wild animals, that goes beyond just caring for them.  It seemed to me that he was suggesting the possibility that humans have an expanded obligation to giving all animals, including wild animals, more humane ways to die. He says that shooting a given wild animal might be actually saving it from greater pain than if it was killed by another animal. And I see what he’s saying. At the same time, that seems to really expand on what humans owe animals and how we should interact with them. And there’s no real follow-up to that, including what our responsibilities would be.

To clarify, Camosy does not make these arguments explicit in the text, and instead suggests that it’s important for people to consider the nuances of our responsibilities to animals.  But if the book is framed as an introduction to the primary concerns facing animals, I worry that this suggestion of a higher obligation will encourage people to dismiss his other arguments, since the implied commitment to animal welfare is so much more expansive.

M: So you’re worried that that opens the door to telling people that we not only have a responsibility to not cause animals to suffer or die but that we have a – I should say, we not only have a negative responsibility to not cause animals to suffer and die ourselves, but we also have a positive responsibility to mitigate animal suffering out there in nature?

C: Correct. And I think that’s certainly something that’s worth working towards in certain cases, but if the aim of this book is to get people to consider specific things they can do to benefit the animals they encounter in their lives or to change the processes that they use that involve animals… this is something that seems to go beyond that. And it might be a step that’s further down the road. Hunting for food is one thing, but hunting to prevent animal pain inflicted by other animals seems to be on a totally different plane.

M: Mhm.

Well, okay! I think we’ve covered a lot of ground here. Again, I think it was really great that Professor Camosy was willing to take the time to respond to our questions. I think both of us really appreciate that.

C: Absolutely, yeah. Thanks very much to him for doing that. It was great to read his responses too, to get some follow-up for things that we thought of when we were reading the book.

M: Sure. Hopefully he will not be the last person we’re able to interview.

C: Mhm.

M: If you’re out there and you want us to interview you, let us know.

C: [Laughs]


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