Clare Palmer’s “Relational Approach” to Animal Theology

Clare Palmer takes up Andrew Linzey’s case for the “theos-rights” of God’s creatures in her essay “Animals in Christian Ethics: Developing a Relational Approach”. Palmer’s discussion begins with the general feminist critiques of other rights-based approaches to animal ethics. She focuses on the utilitarian philosophy of Peter Singer and on the deontological approach of Tom Regan. She draws out the relevant similarities between Linzey’s theological account and theirs, illustrating how the arguments raised by feminist ethicists against both Singer and Regan apply equally as well to Linzey. Linzey’s case, she argues, is problematic on two fronts. First, she takes issue with his theory of rights, and second with his analysis of power relations. Like all “rights-based” ethics, Linzey’s argument from the theos-rights of animals tends to overlook important differences (e.g., between individuals, species, contexts, etc.), as well as the particular relationships that individuals have to one another, as ethically insignificant. Moreover, his univocal characterization of “power”, considered as a singular, monolithic concept overlooks what Michel Foucault referred to as the “micro-physics” of power. Instead, Palmer suggests a “Christian relational ethic of care” for animals; one that makes these concerns central to the discussion of our moral relations to animals.

Palmer’s concerns succeed in bringing to light a number of important considerations that rights-based approaches often seem to overlook or downplay. Her emphasis on the particularities of specific relationships, a concern that she picks up from feminist critics as much as from Christian theology, also offers an important way to deal with some of the more troubling dilemmas that have been posed by critics of animal rights. Nevertheless, her rejection of rights-based theories is too strong, and her claim that rights-based theorists are incapable of taking important contextual differences into account is in particular premature. Perhaps a compelling case could be made for an integrative approach; one that draws on the strengths of rights-theory as well as a more “relational” ethic of care.