Kesler and Mac Donald on Natural Law and Moral Progress

The latest installment of the Claremont Review of Books’ interview series “The American Mind” features a wide-ranging conversation between Review editor Charles Kesler and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald that covers everything from literary deconstructionism to Rudy Giuliani. The interview is posted as six segments of about fifteen minutes each, so there’s quite a lot to digest. (The kitschy opening sequence, a montage of America’s founding documents and a bust of Thomas Jefferson set to classical music, may be better left undigested.)

The part that most interested me was an exchange between Kesler and Mac Donald about the concept of “natural law,” and the relationship between religion and conservative moral precepts. Mac Donald, co-founder of the blog Secular Right, is an unusual political creature. Known for her ardent support of New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy and her restrictionist stance on immigration, she is also an avowed atheist whose writing has appeared at and who has sparred with Ross Douthat about the problem of evil.

In the penultimate segment of the Claremont interview, Kesler observes that Mac Donald, who is often sharply critical of American academia, rarely launches any William Buckley-esque attacks on the secularism of the ivory tower. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange that follows (starting at around 3:46 in the video below):

Kesler: I wonder whether you don’t agree that there is a kind of rational morality that is not strictly dependent on God, which is, I think, the position of natural law thinkers of many schools.

Mac Donald: Yes, absolutely. Parents understand this instinctively, that you inculcate in your child a sense of “you don’t beat up your little sister,” a) because it is going to lead to household chaos and there’s an innate need for order, but b) because your little sister has feelings like you do, and you want to have reciprocal moral behavior. And what moral education is about is widening that sphere of understanding and empathy to greater and greater distance in human interaction…

K: Right. No, well I bring up the question the way that I do because it’s you who say [quoting from an essay by Mac Donald]: “Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order… valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or natural law.” End quote.

But I mean, mystical precepts and natural law are two very different things, as you say just a few sentences later: “They do not need – skeptical conservatives do not need – God or the Christian Bible to discover the Golden Rule and see themselves in others.” I think that’s absolutely true, but I think many religious conservatives would concede that, that the natural law or rational morality is a source of the Golden Rule…

M: I just, I’m not persuaded that very different tribal cultures that have not achieved our civilizational advance… they may differ on things in significant ways.

K: They do, and I’m not sure that admission has anything to do with the notion of natural law as a rational morality, though. I mean, just because tribes don’t understand the Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t mean that it’s not true, right? I guess all I’m saying, gently, is that you may be committing natural law without realizing it, insofar as you do think that the Golden Rule, for example, is something true or something that appeals to – seeing ourselves in others is not a merely cultural thing.

M: Yeah, I just see… slavery was justified by the Christian Bible and by natural law, it’s just a fact. There were also people who argued against slavery based on Christianity and natural law.

K: It was justified on secular grounds and rational grounds too, of course.

M: Completely. Absolutely. But I’ve yet to see universal agreement on what natural law is. If I could see that, then I would know that it is truly something innate to all human beings. And what I see is, rather, evolution…

I am not offended that the Founders did not think of having females vote. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. Nevertheless, that is a pretty radical difference. Nobody today, if they were to create the American Constitution from scratch, would think of limiting suffrage to males. That would be assumed as almost a part of natural law, that males and females should be voting. So I see something that we like to invoke – transcendent universal ideals – but I [also] see culture evolving.

[End of clip]

On the one hand, Mac Donald agrees with Kesler that there is a “rational morality,” and that “moral education” is something possible and worthwhile. Yet she also speaks of cultural evolution and uses the example of the framers of the Constitution limiting suffrage to males to show how ethical judgments can change over time, and how we shouldn’t fault our forebears for having held what we might now consider to be grossly unenlightened views.

But Mac Donald is confusing ethical judgments with ethical realities. Kesler’s reference to the Pythagorean Theorem is apt: to say that moral truths can be arrived at by rational inquiry is not necessarily to say that our current understanding of morality is adequate or complete, just as to say that science deals in objective facts about the universe is not necessarily to say that we have reached the pinnacle of scientific knowledge. Ignorance of the Pythagorean Theorem does not render the Pythagorean Theorem untrue, and ignorance of the moral obligation of a democracy to extend the franchise to both men and women does not nullify that obligation.

Mac Donald is worried that holding to the existence of an objective morality would lead us to have to dismiss the Founding Fathers as bigots, when really the cultural patrimony available to them at the time was not such that they could have understood sexism as we do today. This is not so. After all, believing in the validity of mathematical reasoning need not lead us to condemn as stupid “tribal cultures” that have not yet groped their way to certain insights about triangles. People can engage in behavior that we later recognize to be wrong without necessarily having been guilty of deliberate wrongdoing at that particular moment in history.

Mac Donald seems not to have fully considered the fact that a theory of moral evolution or moral progress is not the same thing as the idea that morality can change. One can believe that morality is in fact not a reality independent of human beings’ preferences, and that all of our talk about right and wrong is culturally contingent, etc. But one can also believe that morality is an independent reality, and that we discover moral truths over time by thinking hard about how to properly “widen our sphere of understanding and empathy.”

Kesler is quite right to draw a distinction between “natural law” and “mystical precepts,” which Mac Donald appears to treat as one and the same. Her misunderstanding, it seems to me, stems from the fact that “natural law” is a term inextricably bound up with religious philosophy, and in particular with Catholicism and certain branches of Protestant Christianity. It is not so much the method offered by natural law that she rejects, but specific conclusions that have historically been associated with it (e.g. support of slavery, disenfranchisement of women, etc.).

Incidentally, self-identified proponents of natural law thinking sometimes fall into a similar trap. In preparation for this fall’s Synod on the Family in Rome – about which Chris and I hope to have more to say relatively soon – the Vatican released an instrumentum laboris or working paper synthesizing the results of a worldwide process of consultation with bishops, priests, and laity about challenges to families in the modern world. One section deals with the question of how contemporary Catholics understand (or don’t understand) the concept of a natural law:

In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all…

The responses and observations also show that the adjective ‘natural’ often is understood by people as meaning ‘spontaneous’ or ‘what comes naturally’… The underlying anthropological concepts, on the one hand, look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things [emphasis added], and, on the other hand, every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply understood as the realization of personal desires. Consequently, the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. (21-22)

The document goes on to lament evidence of widespread nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on a host of controversial questions, mostly related to marriage and bioethics. But nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on particular issues does not imply nonacceptance of the idea that there is “an objective [moral] order in the nature of things.” Clearly, denial of such an objective order is a sufficient condition for rejecting many of the Church’s positions, but it is not a necessary one. You can believe in right and wrong and yet still maintain that the hierarchy is mistaken about what is right and wrong in certain situations. The authors of the instrumentum laboris, like Mac Donald, are mixing up method and results.

To their credit, they do concede later on that “[t]he language traditionally used in explaining the term ‘natural law’ should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner.” The term “natural law” obviously has the potential to frustrate rather than facilitate conversations about ethics, and to cause confusion about what exactly is being talked about. Its enthusiasts should consider finding different ways of expressing their view that morality, like science, is something that can be discussed objectively. The folks at might not be pleased, but Heather Mac Donald and the pope may be able to agree on something yet.

“Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk”

Last Monday after work I made what I was surprised to learn is a very long trek from lower Manhattan to Fordham University in the Bronx to attend a talk by Daniel K. Finn, an economic ethicist at the University of Saint John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. The lecture, sponsored by Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, was entitled “Building Better Economies: Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk,” and marked the kickoff of a planned two-year series of events to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s economic encyclical Rerum Novarum.

The main objectives of Finn’s talk were a) to encourage economists and theologians/ethicists, particularly within the Catholic academy, to engage in more interdisciplinary discussion, and b) to critique the tendency within academia for different subject areas to self-segregate into inward-looking cliques (he accompanied his introduction of this idea with a nice illustration of silos). As promised by his title, Finn made a compelling case for why popes and economists need to talk, but I had been hoping that he would deal more extensively with what practical steps might be taken to further promote and even institutionalize this kind of dialogue.

In the first half of the lecture, Finn summarized studies from a subfield known as behavioral economics that have sought to illuminate the psychological impacts of poverty. He focused in particular on an observation from the literature that the stress associated with a chronic lack of basic necessities leads to “reduced mental bandwidth,” and to shortsighted decision-making, poor impulse control, and weaker problem-solving abilities. This in turn can generate self-defeating patterns of behavior that can keep someone from rising out of poverty.

Such an empirical finding can have clear implications for public policy. Finn argued, for example, that accepting this understanding of why poverty persists would militate against imposing a fixed lifetime limit on the amount of welfare benefits that can be collected by a given individual, since this sort of restriction misunderstands the nature of “poverty-induced tunneling.” In other words, the intended incentive effects of such a limit will tend to be attenuated by the fact that the poor are focused not on making plans for far in the future, but on short-term subsistence. A better alternative might be to institute a cap on what can be collected during a given spell of poverty or unemployment (e.g. to allow a maximum of X dollars to be collected every Y months).

Although he didn’t deal explicitly with how “popes” might assimilate the fruits of such research into Church teaching, Finn did mention that Pope John Paul II is known to have consulted with economists when writing Centesimus Annus, his landmark social encyclical. At a more practical level, a better understanding of how to break cycles of poverty can assist Church-affiliated organizations like Catholic Relief Services in designing more effective strategies for promoting growth and development.

The latter half of the talk dealt with the contributions that popes and other churchmen, theologians, and ethicists can make to the dialogue with economists. In addition to simply reminding economists that their research ought always to be conducted with an eye toward fostering the common good, the exhortations of Church leaders can contribute to a deeper, more fundamental rethinking of what is possible in the realm of political economy. Finn quoted liberally from Benedict XVI’s 2009 treatise on the global economic order, Caritas in Veritate, to show what form this kind of rethinking might take. We can see hints of the Benedictine (and Franciscan!) vision of “commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends” in organizations like credit unions or grocery co-ops or health insurance co-ops, but these types of arrangements remain exceptions to the basic order of capitalism.

As Finn concluded his remarks, I was left wondering about what might actually be done to further the sort of dialogue he believes is necessary. Sure, popes have consulted with economists when they want to write about economics; have economists consulted with popes when they want to write about ethics? Do economists ever want to write about ethics? I approached Finn after the talk and asked him what he made of this asymmetry and how he thought it should be addressed. He acknowledged that this was a problem, and offered a few examples of forums and conferences that have modeled the kind of interaction wants to see become more widespread. Yet his examples were events that were sponsored by the Church! My point still stood.

The 2010 documentary Inside Job, in which Matt Damon explains the financial crisis, features a discussion about the uncomfortably close ties between the financial industry and business school/econ department faculty, and the ways in which these ties can distort and bias economic research. I personally am fortunate enough to work with morally upstanding economists on a daily basis, but the near-universal lack of ethical training as a component of degree programs in business and economics is something that worries me.

As insistent as recent popes have been that their social teaching is generally applicable to the whole of humanity, and rises above the level of ecclesiastical law binding only on Catholics, the Church will nevertheless have to build coalitions with those outside of Catholicism if it hopes to overcome the perception that its forays into discussions about political and economic concerns are driven by narrow sectarian interests.

I think that Finn and others like him have started in a logical place by zeroing in on Catholic universities, though. Kenneth Garcia, in a book called Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University, argues that Catholic colleges ought to focus more on recruiting intellectuals who are well-trained in both their own particular subject area and the broader philosophical and ethical tradition of the Church. This is a tall order, and at least one reviewer expressed skepticism that there are very many of these strange beasts out there to be recruited (not to mention that previous attempts to accomplish something similar, even at Garcia’s own university, have not necessarily ended well). But if Finn’s exercise in silo-breaking is to succeed, it would seem that these are the places where it will have to get off the ground first.

A day or two after Dan Finn’s talk, I read a review by Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter of a forthcoming book by Andrew Abela and Joseph Capizzi entitled A Catechism for Business, which attempts to offer practical advice for Catholics seeking to integrate their moral principles with their professional work. Although Winters is critical of the free-market sympathies of its authors, one a moral theologian at Catholic University of America and the other the dean of CUA’s business school, he nevertheless believes that the book makes a unique contribution:

A Catechism for Business consists of quotes drawn from the Church’s teaching on issues of business and economics and one can only hope that many Catholic businesspeople will better acquaint themselves with that teaching via this medium. They certainly would be inclined to change some of their business practices and, what is more important, the whole way business is conceived in our hyper-commercial U.S. culture…

This Catechism is a worthwhile project and I hope it will be widely distributed and read. And, I believe the conversation between traditional advocates of Catholic social teaching and economists like Abela should continue, if only to convert him from his evident devotion to the fuzzy free-market thinking we associate with the Austrians not the Apostles. But, Abela is sincere, not sinister and his collaboration with Capizzi in producing this Catechism has yielded a fine compendium of Church teachings which, if taken seriously by the business community, could result in a far more humane economy than the one those businessmen have erected on their own.

Winters seems to equivocate about precisely how broad an audience the book might be able to attract, writing first that he hopes it will be read by “many Catholic businesspeople,” but then later that it would be wonderful to see it “taken seriously by the business community [in general].”

My own sense is that a book by two academics at CUA replete with quotations from papal documents will struggle to get a hearing outside of the Church. But in the age of Francis, who knows? People like Finn, Abela, and Capizzi are doing important work, but they should be cognizant of the fact that they may need to use different language when talking to different audiences. A multiplicity of approaches will be required if we really want to “build better economies.”

Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and The Ethics of Debate

I finally got around to listening to a recording of the evolution-creation debate in which onetime Dancing with the Stars contestant (oh, and Science Guy) Bill Nye faced off against Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham. The event was held at Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky on February 4th, and was essentially what I and everyone else expected it would be. Ham gave an impressive-sounding yet fact-free performance, and Nye made an earnest – if less silver-tongued – effort to explain how we can be quite sure that the Earth is not 6,000 years old.

Nye’s decision to participate in such an exchange attracted a great deal of criticism before it even took place. University of Chicago professor and New Republic contributor Jerry Coyne argued, along with many others, that having a well-known scientist appear at an event like this would only perpetuate the false impression that the controversy over creation and evolution is actually a live one among mainstream scientists, and that there are good arguments on both sides.

The notion that some ideas are sufficiently preposterous that one shouldn’t even engage their proponents in public is one that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, belief in a “young” Earth is in fact ludicrous, and giving people the sense that such a belief constitutes a serious scientific hypothesis is intellectual malpractice. According to the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, nearly half of Americans believe that the world and human beings were created in their present form within the last ten millennia; the last thing we need to be doing is signaling that science is on the fence about the truth of such a claim.

On the other hand, that nearly half of Americans believe such a thing is an indication that there really is a live controversy here – not among scientists, but certainly in the broader culture. And if mainstream scientists want more people to accept that evolution by natural selection is the most compelling account of the origin of mankind and of all present life on Earth, then they’re going to have to think of new and creative ways to explain the evidence and convince them to change their minds (and to reassure them that modern science does not conflict with most of the world’s major religious traditions). Importantly, they’re going to have to do a better job of talking about evolution in forums where those most skeptical of the theory are most likely to hear them. Refusing to engage creationists at all will only further convince them that they are victims of a hostile secular culture intent on suppressing their freedom to express themselves.

But when it comes to debating fringe ideas, there’s a line to be drawn somewhere, right? Would it be acceptable to debate a neo-Nazi? A racial segregationist? These are difficult questions, but it seems to me that a good rule of thumb ought to be whether the position in question is reasonably widespread among the general population. If it is, then those who are sincerely convinced of its wrongness have a duty to do what they can to combat it, and if that involves walking into the belly of the beast, so be it. In such a situation, the benefit of broadcasting one’s message more widely most likely outweighs the potential cost of lending credibility to the other side.

In any case, the Nye/Ham debate is worth watching even if, like me, you’re already convinced that creationism is based on a category mistake. Nye strikes a wonderful balance between being forceful and polite, assertively pressing the case for evolution while maintaining a corny sense of humor throughout. His tone is one of mild-mannered incredulity rather than raw condescension; he refers to Ken Ham’s arguments about Noah’s Ark as “really extraordinary claims,” for instance, sounding all the while as if he were genuinely a bit surprised to hear what Ham believes about the Great Flood. Feel free to skip the first twelve minutes or so of the YouTube version though, which feature a clock counting down to the start of the event (this video appears to have been less than intelligently designed).

I would have liked to see the two men delve more deeply into the relationship of science and theism/agnosticism/atheism beyond merely reciting their talking points, which for Ham consisted of repeatedly mentioning that the inventor of the MRI is a young earth creationist, and for Nye that billions of religious people accept the theory of evolution, as if a headcount alone could definitively settle the question of whether and how reason and faith are compatible.

But really, the debate just made me nostalgic for the good ol’ days of messing with creationists on Conservapedia. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of having your account blocked for “liberal bias” (e.g. observing that there is no evidence humans coexisted with dinosaurs), then you’ve been missing out.

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]

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!

Camosy and Singer at Rutgers

I’ve written previously on this blog about my admiration for the work of Fordham’s Charlie Camosy, in particular his book Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, which systematically compares and contrasts the views of “Singerites” and Christians/Catholics across several controversial areas of moral inquiry. As Chris noted on our Twitter a couple of weeks ago – you should follow us on Twitter, by the way – Camosy has a new book out entitled For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action about the status of non-human animals in the Christian ethical tradition, which we have purchased and hope to dissect here at RM in the near future.

Camosy and Singer seem to have struck up an intellectual and pedagogical partnership akin to the partnership-that-never-was between Singer and fellow Princeton professor Robert P. George. The two held a public forum at Rutgers University last month that Chris and I had hoped to go to but were ultimately unable to attend. Fortunately, a recording is now available online! It’s quite long, but well worth watching. (Warning: it’s even longer than those Blankenhorn videos I’ve been plugging.)

One of the most important points that Camosy makes is that one should always aim to engage his opponents in a spirit of “intellectual solidarity,” trusting that their arguments are made in good faith and that both parties share a genuine interest in discovering the truth. He explains that he originally studied Singer’s work in an attempt to refute it, but over time found that, despite still disagreeing strongly with various conclusions of Singer’s philosophy, the differences between them were smaller than he had imagined. He came to realize that each could nudge the other to consider ethical questions that he might previously have ignored.

The discussion offers a model for how people with sharply different worldviews can come to engage one another productively. The moderator, Rutgers philosophy professor Jeff McMahan, not only does a great job steering the conversation but is also literally a moderating influence, stepping in at one point to defuse an awkward exchange with an outraged audience member and to reiterate a rule against ad hominems.

There’s a lot more to be said about Singer, Camosy, and the surprising areas of overlap in their ostensibly divergent worldviews, but for now we’ll just let you digest this video while we finish reading For Love of Animals. Hopefully it’ll get you amped for whatever we might drop when we’re done.