By Steve Jeffery, 30 May 2017
What does the Bible say about the importance of animal welfare in the human food chain? Should Christians be concerned about only eating free range eggs? How much effort should we take to find "ethically sourced" meat? How much money should we be willing to spend on more expensive "organic" products?
These questions (and the many others like them that you can easily imagine for yourself) are good questions. They're also tricky.
At one level, it's fairly easy to make generalisations. For example, all else being equal, it's a good idea to treat animals as well as we possibly can. God cares about animals, and we should too. (If you're looking for biblical background for this, it's not only a fairly obvious implication of our vocation as stewards of creation, but it's also highlighted explicitly in Jonah 4:11, for example.)
So, if it were a simple choice between "being nice to animals" (free range hens, for example) or "being nasty to animals" (battery hens, for example), then the answer would be simple.
Unfortunately, it's not such a simple choice, because all else is not equal. In fact, it's a classic example of an ethical question that is very difficult once you start getting into the fine details. Here are a few reasons why:
The first couple of points are about approaching the issue, rather than its actual substance:
1. Emotions. For some reason, questions like this seem to provoke very strong emotions. I'm really not sure why. Perhaps it's just that as Christians we're not very good at talking about anything where disagreement might exist, and this is an example where the different opinions are obvious as soon as you sit down to eat together, so the issues can't be avoided. Or perhaps it's because any disagreement on this issue (and others like it, such as how we should educate our children) is taken (wrongly) as an implicit personal criticism of others who take a different view. Or maybe it's because if there's one thing the devil loves more than Christians disagreeing about the fundamentals of the faith it's Christians disagreeing about comparatively trivial issues. I don't know. But strong emotions rarely make for clear heads. That's something to watch out for in ourselves.
2. Proportion. Related to the first issue, it's important to keep this issue (and indeed others) in their proper proportion in relation to other biblical, theological and ethical questions. Of course, even this isn't easy, because one of the ways in which discussions can be derailed is precisely by disagreements not just about the substance of the issue itself, but about how important it is. I should therefore probably just state my own view on this matter: Of all the theological and ethical questions I've been asked in the last year, I think this is probably somewhere in the bottom 10% in order of importance. This doesn't mean it's unimportant; it just means (in my view) that we should be careful not to blow it out of proportion.
Now, getting onto the substance of the issue, here are a few questions that might help to unravel the tangle a little
3. Animals and people. How much more would you be willing to pay for (eg) free range eggs than battery farmed eggs? Assuming you could afford the former without appreciable financial sacrifice, would that amount to a moral obligation to only buy free range? FWIW, I don't think it would, but even if it did, would it follow that someone else with less money would be morally obliged to make the same buying choices? Obviously not, surely. The underlying question is the relative value of animal welfare and human welfare. A single mum struggling to put food on the table for her three kids might not be able to afford free range organic protein, period. And she shouldn't feel bad about this, because God says that people are more valuable than animals (Luke 12:24). But (and here's the key problem) it's very hard to come up with an abstract set of "rules" to guide the conduct of many different people in extremely diverse situations. I'd therefore want to be very cautious about doing so.
4. Different animals. How should we evaluate the relative significance of the comfort of different kinds of animals? Is it OK to keep cows confined in fields? Or chickens confined in cages? Or to set out to kill insects in order to provide cheap carrots for humans? I'm sure there are significant differences here, but I'm not at all sure it's easy to put all animals on some kind of fixed "scale of value".
5. The purpose of animals. Did God give us animals in order that we should kill them and eat them? (There's a fair amount of biblical and theological legwork to do here, but the simple answer is: In part, yes.) If so, how do we deal with the obvious fact that there might not always be enough to go round (at least in some situations), and that some people might be unable to afford as much as others? Here I think we can say something concrete in biblical terms: the instinctive response of many Christians to this kind of situation is state intervention, price controls, higher tax, wealth redistribution, and so on. This is sometimes well-intentioned, but is always mistaken. According to the Bible, the solution to inequality is not to vote for a government that will increase taxes and be "generous" with other people's money; rather, it is for those of us who have more to be generous with our own.
All of which is to say, I'm afraid I don't think there's a simple solution here. If we wanted to make further progress, the discussion would benefit from a healthy does of what John Frame has called the "Three Perspectives" on an ethical action. Because if there were ever a question in which rules alone (abstracted from situational and existential perspectives) were inadequate, this is it.