At a recent Agricultural Congress, Environment Minister Steffi Lemke and Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir (both from the Bündnis 90/Green Party) recently advocated taking a joint approach and making a new start. "After all, only by working together can we achieve more for the environment," the two ministers stressed. "The time is ripe to finally bring agriculture, nature, environment and climate protection together." Good intentions indeed - which, in times of factory farming, environmental disasters and species becoming extinct, are overdue. In this guest commentary, Arnulf von Scheliha, Professor of Protestant Theology, takes a look at the issue of animal welfare from a theological, ethical and philosophical perspective.
A growing sensitivity regarding questions of animal welfare, animal protection and animal ethics is reflected in current discussions within the major religious communities. The focus is on pets, livestock farming and questions of food. Animals are shown respect as "fellow creatures", and we know we have a duty to feel solidarity with them for their own sakes. For Christians, this is linked with a critical revision of the traditional understanding of what the Bible says. It was usual for man, seeing himself created in the image of God, to understand this as a licence to make use of animals’ lives for a variety of purposes and, in doing so, recklessly exploit natural resources.
This interpretation is part of the preceding history of the massive problems which humanity currently has in its relationship with animate and inanimate nature (climate catastrophes). However, it is too short of the mark to make religious traditions responsible for all this. The cause is more likely to be the combination of modern science, a technical world and a capitalist market economy - which Arnold Gehlen calls a "superstructure". On the other hand, Scripture contains critical passages which argue against man’s exceptional status. As we read in Ecclesiastes 3, 19: "For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts."
We do more justice to Biblical tradition if we see it as a critical confrontation with the paradoxical ways we deal with animals and nature. After all, humans are not only creations in the image of God, but also "sinners" - in other words: in what they want and they do, they bear a great deal of guilt towards their fellow humans, towards animals as their fellow creatures, and towards nature. Nowadays, many Christians conclude from this that they should show solidarity with their fellow creatures and assume responsibility for them. In its paper entitled "Farm animals and fellow creatures" (2019), the Protestant Church in Germany notes that "there is an indivisible connection between the welfare of animals, of humans and of nature", with the result that animal husbandry "must observe the scientifically recognised five freedoms [...] as parameters for animals’ welfare: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from harm occasioned by the way they are kept; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom from fer and stress; freedom to live in accordance with normal behavioural patterns".
It is significant when religious communities enter the debate being conducted in society on animal welfare because, with the animal-friendly interpretation provided by their sacred texts, they show in an exemplary fashion how awareness and sensitivity with regard to animal welfare and animal protection can be taught along with other dimensions involved in how to live one’s life. Complementing what animal activists do - who, in spectacular actions, draw attention to unethical conditions relating to animals - the task which religion has should be seen in making an important contribution to our taking the issue on board and dealing with animals in a sensitive way in our daily lives. The integral function of religious awareness can combine insights into the ethical treatment of animals with the overall life one leads. If this happens with a large number of people, animal ethics acquires a certain priority and is no longer an elitist project but can, rather, become a part of what the philosopher Hegel called an "ethical life" ("Sittlichkeit") as well as acquiring a legal basis. One example is §1 of the German Animal Welfare Act, in which the purpose of the Act is defined as "the protection of animals as fellow-creatures". Here, in a secular text, we find a modern transformation coming together with the creation of the world as related in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The new German government intends to improve the above-mentioned Animal Welfare Act. The main beneficiaries of this are to be the animals used in farming - for example, through appropriate animal accommodation, a reduction in curative interventions, the end of the use of tethers, and a reduction in animal transports and in the use of antibiotics. Just as important are the projects scheduled for protecting the environment and nature, for example improvements in the protection of insects, the fight against poaching and a differentiated management of the wolf population. The government’s intention to improve the way animals are kept is not only important but also highly charged - because it affects the economic interests not only of farmers but also of consumers. The newly established post of Animal Welfare Commissioner amounts to a re-evaluation upwards of animal life. We can therefore say: an awareness of the problem of animal ethics has at least entered government policy. Implementing it, however, will come up against not only the difficulties involved in legal processes, but also consideration of different interests and substantial deficits in putting the Animal Welfare Act into practice.
For these reasons, we will continue to need a critical public in which society comes to an agreement on ethical standards for animals. Academics, animal owners and animal consumers will have as important a role to play as the religious communities in whose symbolic memory the paradoxes of the relationship between humans and animals is firmly inscribed and which they will repeatedly bring up. Common sense ought to tell us that animals are our fellow creatures. It is a part of our dignity that we should give them room for their freedom.
Prof. Arnulf von Scheliha is Professor of Theological Ethics and Director of the Institute of Ethics and Associated Social Sciences.