Brief Review: WHY ANIMAL SUFFERING MATTERS by Andrew Linzey [Vol. 2, #35]

September 4, 2009


A Brief Review of
Why Animal Suffering Matters:
Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics.

Andrew Linzey

Hardback: Oxford University Press, 2009
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia.

Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, Rev. Andrew Linzey is justifiably recognized for developing an “animal theology” that attributes what he calls “theos-rights” to animals.  He has argued that Christians, especially, have a duty to show Christ-like compassion to animals as oppressed and suffering beings.  His new book, Why Animal Suffering Matters, makes a more broadly philosophical argument.  Traditional ethics treats the suffering of nonhuman animals as less morally relevant than human suffering, because animals  differ from humans in ways that humans consider to be morally significant.  Further, traditional ethics considers moral solicitude for animals as an “emotional,” “non-rational” response to a suffering that is qualitatively different from that which humans experience.  But why are the differences between humans and animals morally relevant?  That is, how do they justify differential treatment?  Linzey argues that when some of these allegedly crucial differences are reconfigured, they in fact make a “rational” case for reducing/preventing the suffering of animals.

Linzey highlights six of the most commonly cited differences.  Animals are: “natural slaves” (in the logic of Aristotle and Augustine); non-rational beings; linguistically deficient; not moral agents; soulless; and devoid of the divine image.  He briefly reviews the evidence for each of these assessments and then asks whether the differences are, in any event, morally relevant.  When “reconfigured,” the differences can be seen to mean that animals cannot give or withhold consent to their treatment, they cannot represent or give voice to their own interests, they are morally innocent, and they are vulnerable and defenseless.  They are not unlike infants or comatose adults in these respects, and yet we would not consider the suffering of infants or comatose adults as morally less relevant.   These differences engender greater moral solicitude, not less.

In chapter 2, Linzey addresses the powerful “intellectual mechanisms” that blind us to the moral significance of suffering in animals.  Misdescription is the tendency to use language in a way that denigrates differences, so that what is simply “not” human is conceived as “less than” human.   Animal capacities for sentience, learning, etc. are misrepresented to exaggerate our differences.  Misdirection is used to minimize or obfuscate the moral significance of animal suffering, implying, e.g., that attributions of animal suffering are anthropomorphic (Linzey distinguishes between good and bad anthropomorphism: bad is attributing specifically human needs and feelings to animals; good “accepts as a reasonable assumption that all non-human animals suffer to a greater or lesser extent than we do”).  Misperception literally and figuratively blinds us to the existence of animals as other than “things” or commodities – as, for example, fellow creatures.  Drawing on Orwell’s notion of “thought control” and Chomsky’s concept of “the propaganda system,” Linzey shows how these mechanisms are conditioned and perpetuated in our social institutions.  He then proposes ways to overcome institutional obstacles to change: critically examine the facts; keep the discussion focused on the ethical issues – do not allow diversion; recognize that the media tends to oversimplify issues; develop alternative sources of news and information; institutionalize critical awareness – through protective laws, by the pressure of consumer choice, and through humane education.  In chapters 3, 4 and 5, Linzey shows how these challenges would uncover faulty assumptions and unquestioned traditions in three animal-exploiting “institutions:” sport hunting with dogs, fur farming, and commercial sealing.  In each case his critique leads to a final “rational” conclusion that the institution promotes unjustifiable levels of animal suffering.

Linzey’s final chapter addresses some potential objections to his approach, including his choice of test cases (chapters 3-5), and declares that the book should be “judged” on the basis of whether he is “on the right track” to emphasize “the moral claims of innocent, non-consenting, non-comprehending, vulnerable sentient beings, both animals and humans.”  It seems so, if – as he obviously assumes – we are all in agreement about the weight of those claims.  If so, than these are “rational” conclusions.  If not, he has at least – by “reconfiguring” the difference arguments – forced his interlocutors to clarify their own assumptions.

Despite Linzey’s defense of his choice of test cases, the absence of discussion on factory farming and biomedical testing is surprising, as it would have entailed even more timely and useful critiques.  In his discussion of institutionalization, he notes that it is difficult to “get a serious hearing for animals” because humans “suspect that granting animals moral solicitude will involve major changes to their lifestyles.”  Yes, sport hunting with dogs, fur farming and commercial sealing involve large numbers of animal victims, deeply entrenched traditions, and complex economies.  But that is even truer of factory farming and medical testing.  In addition, it would have been helpful throughout these analyses if Linzey more often, and more explicitly, drew attention back to the (ir)relevance of the six “differences” he introduced in chapter 1, especially as they help to keep discussions focused on the ethical issues.  But a great contribution of Linzey’s approach here is his emphasis on the role institutions play in conditioning human attitudes toward animals.  As he argues, “Ethicists need to give far more attention to the ways in which people are confined (as well as fulfilled) by the institutions they serve.”

On the whole, Why Animal Suffering Matters offers a very readable, concise and important argument with great clarity.