Essays
May 15, 2024

Blessed are the Merciful: The Case for Animal Welfare

Showing mercy is part of being human

Blessed are the Merciful: The Case for Animal Welfare

At least since René Descartes declared dogs to be no more feeling than machines, and doubled down on his thesis by nailing and burning some of the unlucky automatons alive, people objecting to the misuse of animals have mostly inhabited the losing side. Granted, epic figures have spoken eloquently on the subject: Pythagoras, Saint Francis of Assisi, Leo Tolstoy, William Wilberforce, Mahatma Gandhi. Much of the time, though, run-of-the-mill defenders of animal welfare have ended up with the short straw. Mocked for “sentimentality,” faulted for illicit “anthropomorphizing,” dismissed for engaging in “moral equivalence,” the diverse animal-welfare band has grown accustomed to what Richard John Neuhaus once quipped to pro-lifers: “lose a few, lose a few.”

Even so, the seeming triumph of the notion that “dominion” entitles human beings to do whatever we like to our fellow creatures may yet prove Pyrrhic. If it does, the reason will be science. The explosion of research just since the turn of this century about the fascinating inner workings of animals reveals them to be more like us than has ever been established before. As a result, the disjuncture between what we now know about animals and what we still do to them amounts to a signature and stark moral anomaly.


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