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    two pigs looking through a fence

    Is Your Life Worth More than a Pig’s?

    Supporting animal welfare is one of the best ways to demonstrate human exceptionalism.

    By Joshua L. Sohn

    July 1, 2024
    • Raf Brown

      An unconvincing statement. Why are anabaptists so obsessed with human exceptionalism? The so called lower orders of life wage no destructive wars nor beshit God's Creation! I am through with the whining.

    • Scott Prosser

      Excellent article! Thanks Josh! Proverbs 12:10 ​"A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal,But even the compassion of the wicked is cruel." NASB

    “Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being,” the bioethicist Peter Singer wrote in 2016. “On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being?” The Christian belief in human exceptionalism, Singer’s reasoning suggests, rests on an irrational preference for our own species: what he calls, in his recently republished book Animal Liberation, “speciesism.” This is, he argues, as immoral as discrimination on the grounds of race or sex.

    Animal Liberation has been hailed as the bible of the modern animal rights movement, and Singer’s case enjoys growing public sympathy: in one 2015 poll, 32 percent of Americans supported granting animals the same rights as humans “to be free from harm and exploitation.” Studies suggest this trend – and the connected rise of veganism amongst younger intellectuals – correlates with the rising number of those who, like Singer, reject belief in God.

    One 2011 study found that frequent church attendance is correlated with less concern for animal welfare in the food industry. Another 2006 study found that, even among veterinary professors, higher religiosity correlates with lower regard for farm animal welfare. And one 2019 poll found that more than 70 percent of US vegans are atheist or agnostic, suggesting that Christians are vastly underrepresented among this group.

    In some sense this is unsurprising. Singer’s case for radical equity between animal and human life stands in contradiction to the theological and scriptural core of Christianity. Human exceptionalism is present in scripture right from Genesis chapter one: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let him have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.” The stewardship of humans over animals is anything but a relation of equals.

    But it would be a mistake if Christians’ belief in human exceptionalism led us to resist support for animal welfare. Properly understood, human exceptionalism is perfectly compatible with working to reduce animal suffering. In fact, supporting animal welfare is one of the best ways to demonstrate human exceptionalism.

    Compassion as Human Exceptionalism

    There are few things more characteristically – even exceptionally – human than concern for the suffering of beings unlike us. Compassion toward other species is rare in the animal world. To be sure, there are examples of “mutual altruism” where both species benefit – for example, cleaner fish that remove parasites from larger fish and obtain a meal for themselves in the process. But this is not compassion; both fish get something out of it. Only rarely will an animal sacrifice a resource or opportunity to help an individual of another species. It occasionally happens – there are remarkable anecdotes of sperm whales nurturing disabled dolphins or leopard mothers adopting baby baboons. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

    Beyond a lack of empathy for other forms of life, interspecies relations in the animal world are replete with acts that seem close to sadism. Many cat owners are familiar with the spectacle of their well-fed cats killing small rodents and birds, often slowly and painfully. Orcas have been documented torturing sea turtles and seals. Other species engage in “surplus killing” – killing more prey than they can eat. The general rule of the jungle seems to be: exploit other species however you can, and pay no regard to their suffering.

    Human Exceptionalism and Animal Welfare

    Against this backdrop, consider modern factory farms, which produce the vast majority of meat and eggs in this country. Animals in factory farms experience immense suffering throughout their lives. But factory-farmed animal products taste OK, and the brutal economies of scale in factory farming make them relatively cheap. According to the rule of the jungle, humans should embrace this cheap source of protein without regard for the suffering of the animals that produce it. This sort of self-interest is precisely how we would expect animals to behave.

    But human exceptionalism teaches that we are not animals. We hold ourselves to a higher moral standard. So while animals may exploit other species without regard for their suffering, humans should not. This suggests that human exceptionalists should oppose the pitiless logic of factory farming. Pushing back against animal suffering in factory farms demonstrates just how different we are from animals, because animals would not practice this sort of moral grace.

    People can practice this moral grace several ways. One way is to become vegan or vegetarian, as some prominent Christian intellectuals have done. Another way is to selectively reduce one’s consumption of animal products, particularly when the epicurean cost is low. For example, plant-based meat substitutes have gotten good enough that you could probably slip one into your Bolognese sauce or Mexican enchiladas without your family even tasting the difference. Ingenious new animal-free ice creams, in which scientists coax bacteria to make the dairy proteins normally made by cows, are said to taste like traditional ice cream.

    People can also express their compassion by spending a bit of extra effort and money to purchase humanely raised animal products. On the lower end of the scale, some supermarkets offer humane-certified meat (just check the labels), while others offer pasture-raised eggs alongside “conventional” eggs from hens raised in battery cages. On the higher end of the scale, many farmer’s markets offer meat, eggs, and milk from small-scale family farmers who treat their animals with great compassion.

    two pigs looking through a fence

    Photograph by scott / Adobe Stock.

    Finally, people practice this grace by supporting bills and ballot measures to end the worst abuses of factory farming. Our laws are the expression of our morality, and instituting a code of compassion toward other species is a distinctly human endeavor. There may be no better way of showing that we, unlike other species, are made in God’s image.

    There is precedent for people to change their behavior and laws out of concern for animal suffering. Once-popular pastimes like cat-burning and bear-baiting became obsolete and outlawed once people decided that their entertainment value wasn’t worth the suffering they caused. And while nutrition is a basic human need unlike entertainment, these strategies don’t compromise our ability to feed ourselves. Just as strict vegans need to plan their diet to maintain a healthy nutritional balance, so should proponents of animal welfare bills in the food industry be willing to increase aid to people vulnerable to the higher food costs those measures might create. One study found that, after California banned battery cages for egg production, average household food costs increased by twelve to fifteen dollars over twenty-two months, or about sixty cents per month. Many Americans – indeed, many Christians – would agree this is a small price to pay to reduce suffering.

    If you prefer images to numbers, consider two different agricultural scenes. First, a family farm where a few dozen pigs spend their days moving between barn and pasture, wallowing in the mud and dozing in the sun. Now picture a windowless warehouse where ten thousand pigs live and die crammed into tiny metal stalls, unable to turn around. Now ask yourself: which scene feels more human?

    Wesley J. Smith, a champion of human exceptionalism, put it nicely, “as moral creatures, as empathetic experiencers, we promote animal welfare … simply because we are human.” So with apologies to Peter Singer, go ahead and be “speciesist.” Live out your human exceptionalism – consciousness of our stewardship over creation, and compassionate to the animals we steward.

    Contributed By JoshuaLSohn Joshua L. Sohn

    Joshua L. Sohn is a lawyer and author in Washington, DC.

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