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PETA: An example of extreme rationality

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 24 May 2005

The Australian wool growing community finds itself in continuing conflict with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) over the practice of mulesing, the removal of skin from the hind parts of the sheep to stop fly strike. It is obvious from PETA’s website that this group disapproves of the use of any animal whether for meat, skin, milk or eggs. In other words, we are all to be extreme vegans. Their motto is:

PETA believes that animals have rights and deserve to have their best interests taken into consideration, regardless of whether they are useful to humans. Like you, they are capable of suffering and have an interest in leading their own lives; therefore, they are not ours to use - for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other reason.

We have here a reordering of traditional ways of understanding the significance of animal and human life held by all people since the beginning of culture. PETA’s statement is based on two primary assumptions, the first of which is that there is no difference between human beings and animals. This is an extension to the animal world of that equalitarian mood that levels all human differences, like the difference between the adult and the child. The second assumption rests on the first: that since there can be no distinction between human beings and animals, and human beings are endowed with rights (courtesy of John Locke), animals too must have rights. We should therefore treat animals the same way we would treat human beings.


On the face of it this all seems very reasonable and indeed gathers support from the views of Peter Singer (pdf file 192KB), who is, surprisingly, professor of ethics at no less than Princeton University. However, while rationality is essential in the formation of an ethical view, it requires certain fundamental assumptions that cannot be conjured out of logic. Ethical views require that we understand the nature of the beings involved in our deliberations. When ethics are to do with human beings our discourse will depend upon how deep and accurate our anthropology is. Similarly, when they are to do with our treatment of animals we must have more than a superficial or ideological understanding of their nature. If we do not have this understanding and rely on the fashion of equalitarianism and the idea of rights, then we will arrive at absurd conclusions.

As with so much of modern thought, ethics is increasingly divorced from the past, as if we have newly arrived on the planet and must start from scratch. Admittedly, the Greeks, especially Aristotle, are sometimes consulted, but the Judeo-Christian tradition has been ruled inadmissible. The reason for this is political rather than philosophical (see The Secular Revolution). We have been sold the line that secularisation in an inherent part of the evolution of societies rather than the political propaganda that it is.

What would animal or human ethics derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition look like?

If we take the two creation narratives found in the opening chapters of the Bible as accurate descriptions, not of the causality by which the universe came into being, but of the metaphysics of human beings in the world, then we find a basis for just such an ethics.

The first creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:3, the priestly account of creation in seven days, makes a distinction between the creation of the heavens and the earth, plants, animals and human beings. The former are called into being when God says “let there be…”. We here encounter, in the first book of the Bible, the creative Word of God. However, when it comes to making human beings the formula changes to “and God said ‘let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air ...’”

Whereas modern thought seeks to erase this distinction, the priestly writer is intent on making distinction, of dividing the waters from the dry land, the day from the night and the creatures from human beings. So we have in this story the essential dividing and ordering of the creation that serves as a moral foundation. God is separate from the creation, human beings are creatures along with the other creatures yet different in bearing the image of the creator. Out of the waters of chaos order is formed.


What being made in the image of God means has been bandied around in theology for centuries. The most compelling account I have read comes from Vladimir Lossky. He makes a distinction between the individual and the person. The individual is that being which may have personality traits as measured by modern psychology, will carry his or her unique genetic load, will come from a certain race or culture and so on. This is to be distinguished from the idea of “personal”. Rather than conforming to his or her psychology or genetics or culture, the individual who becomes a person, in Lossky’s sense of the word, is the one who transcends his individual traits or his nature.

The individual who is dominated by ego, follows his instincts and lives out his socialisation is the one who is least personable. On the other hand, the one who allows himself to be put to death (as in baptism), who knows himself to the extent that he may live in a way that is not determined by his proclivities, is the most personable. The biblical metaphor of the resurrection of the dead serves to indicate the transition from non-person to person, from being determined to the life of freedom.

Lossky draws some interesting analogies with the way orthodox theology understands the persons of the trinity; as persons they are essentially unknowable. The individual who lacks personhood is, on the contrary, knowable because he is determined by his individual traits. Thus personhood is different from what psychology would label personality; it is a unity and cannot be split up into different traits, just as the three persons of the Trinity cannot be split up into tritheism. As the three persons of the Trinity are unknowable, so too is the person who has transcended his personality traits. The person is the “other” because they are a mystery to us, we cannot predict what they will do or think.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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