Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"Praise God who Saves Both Man and Beast":Reconciling Human Responsibility and Animal Ethics

{ Audio of this Essay @ 2.27MB 20min } Why should an individual Christian hold an environmental ethic? Or, more generally, why should the community of Christians value the creation? It is sometimes claimed that certain members within the biosphere other than human beings have intrinsic moral value, and should thus be afforded certain protections--namely, that those members should be protected from being killed. If this is correct, then the theologian should construct a Christian environmental ethic which can justify this claim. I do, in fact, think it correct that certain members within the biosphere other than humans have intrinsic moral value; therefore, in this essay I will lay a foundation for such a construction. I will first discuss what constitutes 'the image of God' in humans and when that image applies to a human fetus. Next, I will argue how some species of animals gain the same type of value as does a human fetus. Finally, I will show why this value affords these species the same protections we afford a fetus, which is essential to constructing a Christian environmental ethic, and which is consistent with John Wesley's oft quoted phrase, "Praise God who saves both man and beast"[1]


My first foray into this matter concerns an argument regarding the preservation of the human species. By destroying plants and animals, I grant that we might be destroying resources which we shall need to preserve our own species in the future. This preservation may be of our quality of life, or in more dire cases, of our quantity of life--i.e., that there are a number or suitable number of humans in existence at all. Preservation of human species is taken to be the highest value. Therefore, we are concerned to care for our bio-environment because of its utilitarian value for our own survival.

This position can be questioned on several grounds. It assumes that any action which is a means of preserving human existence is of value. This leads one to review why human existence has value all. The Christian answers that any creature made in the image of God has intrinsic value. Humans are made in God's image; hence, they have intrinsic value.

But why should one think that humans have more intrinsic value than animals? After all, God created them both. One might worry that anything God creates has intrinsic value. God created the animals; such as the Platypus, the Cobra, and the Tarantula; therefore, these too, and likewise all the other animals have intrinsic value.

The Christian answers that all creatures made in the image of God are creatures with more value than those not made in the image of God. Humans are made in the image of God. Hence, humans are creatures with more value than those not made in the image of God. In contrast, animals are not made in the image of God. Hence, humans have more value than animals.

A worrisome issue is what constitutes 'the image of God.' Theologians disagree on this. The Christian can respond generally that whatever 'the image of God' refers to, it is what separates us from animals. In this essay, I will be committed to the following for identifying the image of God in a creature: I will hold that a creature's having both freewill and consciousness is necessary and sufficient for a creature having the image of God. I am aware that these have been separately argued. For example, one of a somewhat Calvinistic bent might find freewill to be an unnecessary component of any creature manifesting the image of God. I acknowledge the depth and power of such arguments, but the freewill/determinism problem is still an open one. Thus, by my own intuition and within the greater Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, it is not unreasonable to hold that humans are free and that this is part and parcel of the image of God. Wesley himself notes that "God's image upon man consists in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness."[2] Consciousness and freewill are essential for these higher order attributes, especially the last two "value" attributes. Furthermore, just as consciousness and freedom can come in degrees, it looks like Wesley allows the image of God to admit of degrees as well.[3] Taken together, both freedom and consciousness stand as very important concerns of most Wesleyan thinkers, and neither are they logically incompatible. The application of these components, however, does have its troublesome side.

One pivotal point in the debate on abortion concerns whether or not one murders a creature made in the image of God. Clearly, after just a few weeks of pregnancy, one kills a human being--that is, kills a creature of the biological species of Homo Sapiens. However, it is not the case that all Homo Sapiens manifest the image of God, since one subset of Homo Sapiens--I am speaking in this case of a very, early stage fetus before instantiation of brainwave activity--has none of the properties which I have heretofore claimed constitute the image of God; that is, has neither freedom nor consciousness.

A troublesome issue arises here. If we have no reason to justify a belief that a creature instantiates the image of God, then it would appear that we are not morally accountable to that creature. In the case of a very early stage fetus, we note a lack of consciousness and freedom. Thus, for some, it might appear that we are not morally accountable to a fetus, this being its status. Hence, the argument goes, we may treat the fetus as we would any other resource. So one would apply this to what was stated earlier in the essay. As earlier, one understands that creatures made in the image of God have more value than those not made in the image of God. A fetus is not made in the image of God, so a person, as a Homo Sapiens manifesting the image of God, has more value than a fetus, a Homo Sapiens which does not manifest the image of God.


We are rightfully concerned and impassioned about such arguments. It is a straightforward claim that an otherwise healthy fetus, even if currently not instantiating the image of God, is on a teleological trajectory (in the biological sense, not Aristotelian sense) to fully actualize said, unless that trajectory is interfered with. The Christian position is that we have a responsibility to protect this trajectory, though recently there has arisen fierce Church debate on the extent and practice of this responsibility.

There are a host of approaches and issues in analyzing the responsibilities of a community to its unborn members. Some debates are concerned with whether and under what conditions it is permissible to end the life of the innocent, the unborn being among this class. Other debates on the subject center around property ownership, labor investment, and genetic contribution. Yet other debates are concerned with freedom of movement and the lack of or priority of rights among those accounted members of the community. While these are all vibrant and ongoing approaches to investigating a community's responsibilities to its unborn members, let me develop an approach which uses a concept compatible with what we have earlier noted constitutes the image of God (i.e., freedom and consciousness).

Earlier, I had reviewed a position whereby it was concluded that a person, as a Homo Sapiens manifesting the image of God, has more value than a fetus, a Homo Sapiens which does not manifest the image of God. It would be incomprehensible to hold a very early term fetus responsible for making decisions and acting upon them, if for no other reason than that in the early embryonic developmental stages there is at best only a spinal stem and certainly no neuro-brainwave activity. Does this show that from an image of God standpoint there is no moral responsibility to the fetus?

Allow me to draw a distinction here. There are both micro and macro trajectories in biology. A micro trajectory is interfered with just when an individual member of a species dies before physical maturation, such as when a fetus is aborted, or such as when a natural disaster causes fetal death in utero. A macro trajectory is interfered with just when there are no members of a species left to reproduce, such as when an asteroid hit the earth millions of years ago and, fortunately for current dwellers in Montana,[4] the Tyrannosaurus Rex died off.

Let us consider the micro trajectory case in order to answer the question concerning our moral responsibility to a fetus. At the very least, an early stage individual fetus potentially instantiates the image of God. An individual animal, at any stage, does not instantiate the image of God.[5] Something has intrinsic moral value just when it potentially or actually instantiates the image of God.[6] The importance of affirming this position is that we can immediately see why an individual fetus has intrinsic value and why an individual (non human) animal does not. When we interfere with the micro trajectory of a fetus, we interfere with the image of God actualizing itself in history. (Hegel would be proud of such talk.) No one should interfere with--indeed, one should actively assist to maximize the image of God, and hence the Kingdom of God, breaking into history. Interfering with the micro trajectory of an unborn child subverts this gracious process of God; hence, no one should interfere with the micro trajectory of a fetus-at least not in as much as doing so would justifiably impede God's work.

The above argument for why the fetus should not be aborted is an argument about a micro trajectory. We also make such arguments about when it is right or wrong to interfere with the micro trajectories of juveniles, such as when police actions or criminal penalties have capital consequences.[7] Thus, just as we make decisions on when to halt the biological trajectories of human beings, so we also make decisions on when to halt the biological trajectories of animals. In the case of humans, interference with even micro trajectories has moral import. But what of the case for animals? What shall we make of interference in their micro and macro trajectories?


Without argument, I am willing to assert that it is morally permissible for persons to interfere with the micro trajectory of animals. We do research on them, for example, and use them as means to our ends under many different circumstances, whether for food, fun, or pharmaceuticals. I think we do have a responsibility not to treat animals cruelly, though this is an indirect duty, for this responsibility is justified by the tendency of cruelty to animals to lead to mistreatment of humans. The link between animal behavior and human valuation seems to be recognized even in the Old Testament where a bull which has killed a human is commanded to be put to death.[8] Furthermore, Wesley himself lodges our duty to treat animals with mercy as a reflection of how God directs mercy:

Nothing is more sure, than that as "the Lord is loving to every man," so "his mercy is over all his works;" all that have sense, all that are capable of pleasure or pain, of happiness or misery.... And, suitably to this, he directs us to be tender of even the meaner creatures; to show mercy to these also.[9]

In one sense, I am not an animal rights advocate, for I am not arguing for individual animals as having intrinsic value and for our moral accountability to them on this basis. In another sense, however, I am an animal rights advocate, for I will argue for whole species as having intrinsic value and for our moral accountability to them on that basis. After all, these are two very different positions, and it would be fallacious to argue, for example, that since I do not have moral accountability to any given individual of a species, I therefore do not have moral accountability to the whole species.[10]

Wesley held that only humans are "capable of God" and that "this is the specific difference between man and brute; the great gulf which they cannot pass over." But he seems to base his position on the following evidence: "We have no ground to believe that they are, in any degree, capable of knowing, loving, or obeying God."[11] In considering the micro trajectories of animals, this evidence seems incontrovertible. They have not been found so capable. But in considering their macro trajectories, the matter is not so clear.

Why then do Christians justifiably have a responsibility to whole species? Here is why--because of what evolutionary processes in biology have already led to. Over the course of time, a class of primates, which were not persons, evolved into persons; selective pressures within the creation, pressures designed and implemented by God, I hasten to note, led to creatures made in the image of God in at least one known instance--ours. God wants us to protect and value creation on the macro trajectory level, because these selective pressures are still active. I find this view to be a coherent and natural extension of what Wesley holds God's ecological place to be:

He is the Source of the lowest species of life, that of vegetables, as being the Source of all the motion on which vegetation depends. He is the Fountain of the life of animals; the Power by which the heart beats, and the circulating juices flow. He is the Fountain of all the life which man possesses in common with other animals. And if we distinguish the rational from the animal life, he is the Source of this also.[12]

We have seen where the fountain of God's action in the biological processes have lead in one instance-to Homo Sapiens. Other species are still in the process, and could eventually evolve into creatures likewise manifesting the image of God. These species need not evolve just into Homo Sapiens, of course, but into creatures whose neural anatomy could, nevertheless, support personhood. This is analogous to the case of the human fetus, except on a species level. Just as we see a micro trajectory moving toward personhood in a human fetus, we can also detect a macro trajectory moving toward personhood in animal species; or, at the very least, we have some biological evidence that such macro trajectories are operant in God's creation.

We see clues of this macro trajectory in the Biblical text itself. Animals are included in metaphorical descriptions of the eschaton, because they are fellow creatures moving toward the image of God. Very much to Wesley's credit, even he recognizes this as a live possibility:

May I be permitted to mention here a conjecture concerning the brute creation? What, if it should then please the all-wise, the all-gracious Creator to raise them higher in the scale of beings? What, if it should please him, when he makes us "equal to angels," to make them what we are now, -- creatures capable of God; capable of knowing and loving and enjoying the Author of their being? If it should be so, ought our eye to be evil because he is good? However this be, he will certainly do what will be most for his own glory.[13]

The whole creation groans, to use the biblical metaphor, because humanity has lost its accountability towards protecting and enhancing this process. Creation suffers a slowdown toward its telos (in both the biological and theological sense) because we do not recognize our own role in this process; indeed, we actually impede it by our inaction. We are now beginning to learn what we can do to manipulate, thus guide or destroy this process through genetic engineering.[14] But through reason and scripture, and indeed through our own Wesleyan tradition, we are now also able to see what we should do. Our importance as the first born among conscious creatures is in our being cultivators of personhood for species other than our own, in our being midwives for further manifestations of the image of God in the world, in our being administrators for individual instances of God's spirit breaking into history. This, then, is how to reconcile human responsibility and animal ethics. This pictures again Adam's supremely important role in the garden and his husbandry toward all organic creation.

Let us take stock. The advantage of this position solves three problems: First it acknowledges what the vast majority within Christian tradition has maintained, that abortion is morally wrong. Second, it accounts for our moral latitude in using animals as a means toward our end, but limits that latitude from using whole species as means to our end. Finally, it can give us interpretive advantages in dealing with otherwise vexing Biblical passages which present animals as present at the eschaton. I close with one such passage here from Isaiah:

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard will lie down with the kid,
And the calf and the young lion and the yearling together;
And a little boy will lead them.
Also the cow and the bear will graze;
Their young will lie down together;
And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra,
And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper's den.
They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.[15]

Of course the Homo Sapiens children are not afraid! In the very distant future, and with love and fellowship, it will be said of those children, "they come from the ancient species of shepherds."


[image] public domain

1. This phrase is sprinkled throughout Wesley's Journal. All quotations from John Wesley are taken from The Wesley Center of Applied Theology (Northwest Nazarene University)

2. John Wesley's Notes on the Bible - Genesis.

3. As Wesley writes, "Yet his government of himself by the freedom of his will, has in it more of God's image, than his government of the creatures" [italics added for emphasis]. John Wesley's Notes on the Bible - Genesis.

4. Paleontology Museum of the Rockies. (Bozeman, MT)

5. Again I point out that Wesley allows of the image of God to come in degrees. (See above note) I am rendering the issue in discrete packets, that animals either have God's image or not, and assuming the worst case, rather than rendering the issue as a continuous spectrum. The latter is a more optimistic view, and perhaps friendlier to Wesley's position. If it turns out that animals do have some degree of the image of God in them, this makes my argument for a certain type of responsibility to them even easier to make.

6. We will also allow that God instantiates his own image, just as we allow that any set counts as a subset of itself.

7. Victor L. Streib "The Juvenile Death Penalty Today: Death Sentences and Executions for Juvenile Crimes", January 1, 1973 - June 30, 2000 (Ohio Northern University)

8. Exodus 21:28-32.

9. The General Deliverance - Rom. 8:19-22.

10. This is known as the informal fallacy of composition.

11. The General Deliverance - Rom. 8:19-22.

12. Spiritual Worship - 1 John 5:20.

13. The General Deliverance - Rom. 8:19-22.

14. Technological advancement might also lead us to wonder if the creation of artificially intelligent sentients would further maximizes God's image in creation, and thus entail a further husbandry responsibility on our part.

15. Isaiah 11:6-9. NASB (with "yearling" from NIV)


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At 8:27 PM, Anonymous josh mccullock said...

started reading...realized the ghastly length...decided to listen. Thanks for including the audio, I would have given up if I actually had to read it.

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eichorn: I love it when you write interesting stuff, you should do it more often. I'm sorry, that was uncalled for. Seriously, though, you make a really interesting argument here; it's been a while since I've read one of those, I wasn't exactly sure how to react. It was like everything else I've read about Abortion and our responsibility to creation... except reasonable. Your blog is a great service and I, if no one else, owe you a debt of gratitude for it. Hoser.

At 8:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eichorn: By the way, was that a little eschatology in there? I thought you stayed out of that wasteland.

At 8:29 PM, Blogger brinticus said...

Yes, it was a bit of eschatology blabble. I lost my head there for a moment during religious ecstasy. But I took a Prozac and it went away just fine.

At 11:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eichorn: I attempted to share your essay with my wife (who is now three months along carrying my child) and it did not go over well. I've decided it is impossible to have any sort of rational discussion, especially, ESPECIALLY, about abortion with a pregnant woman.

"Hormones! Making good women crazy since, well, forever I guess."

At 3:06 PM, Anonymous w0lph said...


While it seems likely that premising an ethics on the existence of God gives a sort of "refuge" to hid one's own rational intrest in preservation, it is not neccessary. Firstly, one can eliminate God out of the argument altogether by eliminating this idea of "intrinsic". As you used to say "what does 'intrinsic' mean anyway?" creatures- whether beast or man- have NO intrinsic value. They are, as they stand, creatures that operate with maximal freedom of movemnet (i.e. no governmant sanctions to push natives into lower regions of a land mass, or joe-the-crazed-okie knifing a boar because he's bored).

Simplifying the arguemnt thus and removing the following statement:

I know that God exists.

(btw, the above statment is for all practical purposes epistemologically confusing and thus ontologically moot) affords us thus:

All creatures whether beast or man are equal in maximal freedom of movement.

Now, I define Maximal freedom of movement as simply a creature may operate upon his evironment as needed with only practical limitations (i.e. a wildebeast cannot fly or swim). Since both beast and man have this capability, we therefore conclude that they are both equal.

Secondly, since all creatures are equal -in my opinoin, the only thing that truely matters- in freedom, there will be eventually competition between all creatures. This competition arises not out of some angry desire to eliminate the other, or due to some bleeding heart opression story, or even because some false idea of community (which is simply a way of dealing with the stark reality of individualism) but because all creatures have interests. That is, due to thier fundamental designs, they eat, sleep and fuck (which produces sub-functions as well). Thease interests often conflict with one another, resulting in either negotiation or war. (time prohibits a creative example.)

If there is negotiation, there is usually a trade of resources and even other creatures that are less powerful due to design (say, pig vs. human.

If however, there is war, then the ofending party is taken captive (their freedom is drastically restricted) and either used in service of the greater creature (i.e. cheap labour) or they are eaten (i.e. the OTHER white meat).

Now, it is dificult to suggest that there was a war between pigs and man (I just finished reading 'The Lord of the Flies', forgive me) but the concept is still the same: trade or domination.

Thirdly, not all interests serve true. Some interest we may define as rational or irrational. For example, it is irrational to brutalize the eyeballs of cows because that would reduce effeciency and thus more humans would starve. It is also irrational to kill off the first structures of a new human being because that would dminish the population (considering we have devised adoption). Thus, rational interests are those that give the greatest possible advantage to the creatures respective. and irrational interests are those that give the least possible advantage to the creatures respective.

therefore, We can build our ethics of other creatures around the simple concept of rational self-interest. It is rational to not abort our own kind in the face of a better option and it is rational to not waste time on killing uncessarily.

Moral of the story:
The only kinds of ethics (and really how the real world operates) are those of rational self-interest. We operate on them whether we desire to or not.

Hope to see you around, Brint.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger brinticus said...

w0lph, you noted that "The only kinds of ethics (and really how the real world operates) are those of rational self-interest. We operate on them whether we desire to or not."

I believe this is *often* true, and perhaps *usually* true, but not always; since, some people will sacrifice their lives for others, and since there is no self-interest calculus when there is no longer a self to reap the rewards of said calculus.

It is at these times we must ask what other factor is influencing the actions of someone. Perhaps -- and this is just conjecture -- that "other factor" is where an animal ethics argument *might* get off the ground.

At 12:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this to be wholly and unnecessarily elaborate.

"I will hold that a creature's having both freewill and consciousness is necessary and sufficient for a creature having the image of God."

Myopic, at best.

Truth-seeking should drive you to question the basis for human existence, the extension of the value of all "creation", and the interdependencies that are often overlooked as a result of anthropomorphic-ish arguments like this--not establish a hierarchy of significance based on a pre-positive assumption and use of "creature."

Many "creatures" have extict-ti-fied themselves, starved, suffered or caused others the same through a similar, albeit less elaborate assumption of inherent traits of certain "creatures."

You speak as though freedom is a existential commodity. Is not 'freedom' often a circumstance and/or consequence of geography? Even in the most philosophical sense of the word, freedom constitutes about .0356% of what differentiates the inherent value of plants and animals.

And then you mentioned "God!"

I am going to watch American Idol now...

At 2:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I re-ead your argument and I compliment your thoughtfulness. But,, you could have and should have started your blog with something like "I am against cruetly." That would have made the elaboration more powerful. Go to NPR and search for Tuesday's "I Believe" entry--it is informative for what you are saying.


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