On Aquinas' Anti-Vegan Take on Animal Rights. By Dr. Chapman Chen
Abstract: Thomas Aquinas thinks that it is not a sin to kill animals because, firstly, animals have no reason and thus no fellowship with us; secondly, by virtue of nature where the imperfect are for the perfect and by Divine Providence (Genesis 9:3), animals exist for human use; thirdly, animals are human property without a moral status. In rebuttal, this article argues that firstly, it is debatable whether animals are really irrational and it is unloving to use this pretext to abuse innocent beloved creatures of God; secondly, there's nothing natural about factory farming and Genesis 9:3 is immediately followed by God's prohibition on eating animals with life and blood; thirdly, the view of animals as human property comes straight from an anthropocentric misinterpretation of the word "dominion" in Geneses 1:28. Deplorably, Aquinas' view is typical of mainstream churches.
1. Who's Thomas Aquinas?
Thomas Aquinas OP (1225 – 1274) was an Italian Dominican friar and priest, an influential philosopher and theologian, and a jurist in the tradition of scholasticism from the county of Aquino in the Kingdom of Sicily, Italy.
Thomas was a prominent proponent of natural theology and the father of a school of thought known as Thomism. He argued that God is the source of the light of natural reason and the light of faith. He embraced several ideas put forward by Aristotle and attempted to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity. He has been described as "the most influential thinker of the medieval period" (Wippel 1995:36) and "the greatest of the medieval philosopher-theologians" (Broadie 1999:43).
2. Are Animals Really Dumb?
First of all, Aquinas thinks that animals are irrational and they therefore merit enslavement and exploitation:-
Dumb animals and plants are devoid of the life of reason whereby to set themselves in motion; they are moved, as it were by another, by a kind of natural impulse, a sign of which is that they are naturally enslaved and accommodated to the uses of others. (Aquinas 1920: Article 1, Question 64)
Here, Aquinas directly quotes St. Augustine:-
Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i, 20): "When we hear it said, 'Thou shalt not kill,' we do not take it as referring to trees, for they have no sense, nor to irrational animals, because they have no fellowship with us. Hence it follows that the words, 'Thou shalt not kill' refer to the killing of a man." (Aquinas 1920: Article 1, Question 64)
Modern scientists, however, have come to a different conclusion.
3. What Modern Scientists Find about Animal Intelligence
Today, animal cognition scientists avoid viewing humans as the apex of intellect and look at animals not as dumb furry humans, but as intelligent species that view the world in fundamentally different ways (note 1).
Squirrels fake hiding seeds when they know others are watching (note 2). Crows can construct (note 3) hooks out of wire to use as tools. Chimpanzees have better short-term memories than humans (note 4).
Bumblebees can solve some problems faster than computers (note 5). Rats feel empathy for their species companions (note 6). Honey bees can recognise faces (note 7). Magpies are self-aware (note 8).
And Caenorhabditis elegans, a worm with only 302 brain cells, can learn and remember (note 9).
A study by Donald M. Broom and colleagues titled "Cognitive Ability and Awareness in Domestic Animals and Decisions about Obligations to Animals", published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2009, concludes that pigs can perform better than some children on some tasks involving memory, learning, and problem-solving (note 10).
4. God Loves the World
Equally importantly, even if animals really lag behind humans in terms of reason, it does not follow that humans have the right to enslave, rape, torture, abuse and murder these innocent beloved creatures of God. For God is love (1 John 4:7 NIV); God loves the world (John 3:16), including ALL His creation (Psalm 145:9); and Christ is compassion (Matthew 12:6-7). God made His covenant not only with humans but also with animals (Genesis 9:9-10).
5. The Imperfect are for the Perfect?
Secondly, Aquinas invokes Aristotle the philosopher and asserts that in the natural order, the imperfect are for the perfect to use, and all animals are for humanity, supporting his claim with Genesis 9:3.
There is no sin in using a thing for the purpose for which it is. Now the order of things is such that the imperfect are for the perfect, even as in the process of generation nature proceeds from imperfection to perfection. Hence it is that just as in the generation of a man there is first a living thing, then an animal, and lastly a man, so too things, like the plants, which merely have life, are all alike for animals, and all animals are for man. Wherefore it is not unlawful if man use plants for the good of animals, and animals for the good of man, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] states (Polit. i, 3).
In modern terms, the first paragraph of the passage above is equivalent to saying that being the most evolved species at the top of the food chain, humans have the right to eat all those living creatures underneath. But there are four problems here.
6. There's Nothing Natural about Factory Farming!
Number one, there's nothing natural about factual farming, like cramming pigs into tiny cages filled with feces, crushing millions of newborn male chicks (because they cannot lay eggs), and sucking milk out of thousands of cows with machines 24/7.
7. Humans are NOT at the Top of the Food Chain
Number two, are humans really at the top of the food chain?
Sylvain Bonhommeau, Laurent Dubroca, Olivier Le Pape, and Anne-Elise Nieblas's (2013) scientific study combines ecological theory, demography, and socio-economics to calculate the human trophic level (HTL) and position humans in the context of the food web. Trophic levels are a measure of diet composition and are a basic metric in ecology, but have never been calculated for humans. In the global food web, the authors discover that humans are similar to anchovy or pigs and cannot be considered apex predators.
8. Being Higher in the Food Chain than other Animals is not Merited
Number three, as put by Jakub Marian (n.d.), "Being higher in the food chain than other animals is not merited. A common addendum to the argument above is that 'we are technologically advanced, have weapons, and can hunt or rear animals, which places us at the top'. Yes, we are, but that is also kind of a strange argument, since we have access to advanced technology only thanks to a small group of highly gifted individuals who invented all the tools we use. Most people [don't even know] how to hunt, rear animals, or make the necessary tools!"
9. We are No Longer Barbarians!
Number four, we live in a civilized society where there should be no logical connection between the ability of conquering someone and justifiability of eating them, unless we are dictator-followers who believe in The Law of the Jungle, that is that might is right.
10. God did not Permit Noah and his Offspring to Kill & Eat Animals
As regards Genesis 9:3, we have to look at the context.
Soon after Noah emerged from the Ark, God said to him, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things" (Genesis 9:3 KJV). Many flesh-eaters seize upon this verse to claim that God thereby gave humans permission to kill and eat any animals they fancy. However, judging from its context, this verse is much more likely to be a descriptive preview of what atrocities humans were going to do to the animals on earth (cf. Wescoe 2017), a visualization of what horror Noah and his offspring were going to inflict on the inhabitants of the world, than an authorization to abuse animals (Chen 2023).
Now, the clause immediately following the ostensible "permission" to murder animals and eat their flesh, "even as the green herb have I given you all things" (Genesis 9:3 KJV), is a reiteration, a reminder of the vegan diet prescribed humans by God in Genesis 1 (cf. Denny 2022:107):-
"And God said, Behold, I have given you very herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. " (Genesis 1:29-30)
The first limb and the second limb of Genesis 9:3 are not easily reconcilable unless the former is seen as a warning instead of a permission.
Even more importantly, immediately following Genesis 9:3, God commanded,
"But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat." (Genesis 9:4 KJV)
The laws of kashrut actually interpret this line as God commanding humans to drain all the blood out of an animal before they can eat it. But this is "mission impossible"; it is to say the least physically infeasible. For blood is a symbol as well as a fact of life. That's how the word "lifeblood" comes about. For all sentient beings, life is blood, blood is life. Genesis 9:4 is therefore an unequivocal prohibition on eating animals with life and blood.
Based on this condition, given the scarcity of food due to the Deluge which had destroyed most plants on Earth, as an expedient measure, it might make sense for God to allow Noah and his clan to consume the lifeless corpses of those animals drowned by the Deluge, before the plants began to grow again for Noah and his people to eat, according to Wescoe (2017). But nowhere here does God grant us permission to slaughter any of His innocent creatures.
11. Animals are only Human Property?
Thirdly, concerning the Divine Law that one who killed another person's ox or sheep (Exodus 22:1) has to be punished, Aquinas, to borrow the words of Prof. Andrew Linzey (1995:14), opines that animals "have no moral status in themselves save in so far as some human interest is involved, for example, as human property":-
He that kills another's ox, sins, not through killing the ox, but through injuring another man in his property. Wherefore this is not a species of the sin of murder but of the sin of theft or robbery. (Aquinas 1920: Article 1, Question 64)
12. A Humanocentric Misinterpretation of "Dominion"
The view of animals as human property probably comes straight from a humanocentric (mis)interpretation of the word "dominion" in Genesis 1:28 (KJV): "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." According to Prof. Andrew Linzey (1995:22, 34), "dominion" in this context means stewardship or caretakership rather than domination or despotism, for it is immediately followed by a vegan diet prescribed by God to humanity (Gen. 1:29), which is also mentioned above. We are supposed by God to be caretakers of the earth rather than a brutal dictator ruling over the planet! (cf. Chen 2021b).
13. Compassionless Churches
Unfortunately, Aristotle's, Augustine's and Aquinas' unChristian, unloving, anthropocentric attitude towards animals is adopted by most mainstream churches of even today. No wonder, Pastor Timo, Founder/Manager at Church for Christian Vegans International, on his Facebook wall, questions,
What kind of church teaches you to love your own kind but to kill and eat any other kind? Love, empathy, kindness, compassion and mercy are absent. Do you attend and support that kind? The preaching is a black hole of nothingness.
Aquinas, St Thomas (1920). The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas. Second and Revised Edition. Trans. Fathers of the EnglishDominican Province. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne. https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3064.htm#article1
Bonhommeau, Sylvain et. al. (2013). "Eating up the World's Food Web and the Human Trophic Level." PNAS, Dec. 2, 110 (51) 20617-20620. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1305827110
Broadie, Alexander (1999). "Aquinas, St Thomas", The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
Chen, Chapman (2023). "God Never Permit Noah's Clan to Kill and Eat Animals." HKBNews, Sept. 24 https://www.hkbnews.net/post/god-never-permitted-noah-s-clan-to-kill-and-eat-animals-go-vegan%EF%BC%81by-dr-chapman-chen
Denny, Andrew Michael (2022). Shifting the Torah Paradigm: Exploring the Animal Sacrifice in the Context of Creation. Bloomington: LifeRich Publishing.
Linzey, Andrew (1995). Animal Theology. London: SCM Press/Illinois.
Marian, Jakub (n.d.). "But Humans are at the Top of the Food Chain!" Jakubmarian.com. https://jakubmarian.com/but-humans-are-at-the-top-of-the-food-chain-argument-against-vegetarianism/
Wescoe (2017). "Permission and Going the Extra Mile." Swords to Plow Shares, 28 March. https://swords2plowshares.com/2017/03/28/permission-and-going-the-extra-mile/?fbclid=IwAR3vOmY1wIerXKrFOy7iwwNYZOU-CduKHHNW05MhckgnUIF0WbV1RXgM0Nk
Wippel, John F. (1995) 2nd ed., "Aquinas, Saint Thomas", The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press.