Neil Messer on the Proper Ends of Human and Nonhuman Animals

Professor Neil Messer

According to Neil Messer, an appropriately theological approach to the ethics of human-animal relations must be “teleological in character.” That is to say, “[i]t must be shaped and guided by an understanding of our, and their, proper ends: what we, and they, are for.” (Messer, 213). Theological assessment of practical ethical matters concerning our relations with other animals, then, rests upon a particular vision of the telos, the “proper ends”, of both human and nonhuman creatures.

This immediately raises the question of how we might know what those ends are. One strategy that has seemed obvious to many theologians, has been to draw on Aquinas’s natural law theory and its embedded account of the proper ends of creatures. Messer, has reservations about this however. While other critics have focused on the problematic ethical consequences of Aquinas’s insistence that “less noble creatures exist for the sake of the more noble creatures” (ST I 65.2), Messer’s concern is epistemological: Aquinas’s dependence on Aristotelian science renders “his account vulnerable to the extent that it depends on empirical or theoretical Aristotelian claims discredited by more recent biology.” (214). Messer’s criticism here is significant in that it isn’t primarily motivated by prior ethical commitments that might open him up to charges of begging the question. He observes how, in light of such concerns, some theologians have sought to develop a modified natural law theory in which modern science plays the role that Aristotelian science did for Aquinas. Such attempts, however, run aground on two fronts: first, the resolutely non-teleogical character of modern science (going back to, at least, Francis Bacon), and second, the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ (most famously expressed by David Hume), which entails that ethical theories are always radically underdetermined by scientific evidence. Even if philosophers like Michael Ruse are correct, and “neo-Darwinian evolution can be said to give us an account of final causes” (215), the kinds of “final causes” that evolution seems to involve are those of survival and reproductive success. It’s difficult to see what such ends might have to do with ethics. Certainly, biology, as biology, gives us no reason for interpreting these as moral ends. Furthermore, behavior which no plausible ethic  would call “good”—including rape and infanticide—could prove conducive in some cases to the ends of survival and reproductive success. What appear to be the most likely ends of natural selection, then, seem to be among the least plausible candidates for moral ends.

Messer notes that underlying such attempts to incorporate modern science into a theory of natural law is an adherence to something like Aquinas’s dictum that “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” (ST I 1.8). Messer does not disagree on this point, but takes it in a different (more Lubacian, less neoscholastic) direction, arguing instead that we cannot truly understand what “nature” is through empirical investigation into the world alone. Properly understood, Aquinas’ dictum means that “nature” must be defined in terms of grace precisely because it is only through theological reflection on the ends of nature, “graciously given by God and made known in Jesus Christ” (216), that “nature” can truly be understood. Here Messer finds interesting common ground between Aquinas’s understanding of the relation between grace and nature, and Karl Barth’s account of creation as the external basis of covenant and covenant as the internal basis of creation. On both accounts, creation/nature is understood as, in some sense, constitutively oriented towards completion and fulfillment by grace. There is a deep continuity, in other words, between God’s acts of creation, reconciliation and redemption, such that creation cannot be understood in itself apart from it’s ends in reconciliation and redemption. Drawing partly on Aquinas then, and partly on Karl Barth, Messer is able to provide an initial answer to the question raised above as to how we might learn about the proper ends of creatures: “[A] theological account of the proper ends of human and non-human animals, and the proper relations between them, must get its bearings from God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling, and redeeming the world, as those purposes are disclosed in Christ.” (217).

Despite his insistence on the importance of an understanding of the proper ends of nonhuman animals, however, Messer does not elaborate in any detail on what those ends are. The repeated references throughout the essay to “God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling and redeeming the world” give some indication that he thinks that other animals, like humans, have their proper ends in communion with God. But this remains an implicit and, therefore, somewhat ambiguous point throughout the essay. This omission becomes all the more problematic if we consider the bulk of theological opinion that regards nonhuman animals—and indeed, the entirety of creation—as existing to serve human beings. Without at least offering some argument in favor of an alternative account, this completely anthropocentric interpretation of the proper ends of other creatures seems to go unchallenged.

Messer does, however, go on to offer a set of “diagnostic questions” aimed at guiding deliberation in practical ethical matters in a way that is consonant with the teleological orientation of Christian ethics. Given that “humans are called to live and act in ways that go with the grain” of God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling, and redeeming the world, Messer argues that all human activity can be understood as falling into three possible categories: human action either conforms and witnesses to God’s purposes, is opposed to God’s purposes, “serving instead the ends of chaos and destruction”, or else is an attempt to substitute for God’s work in Christ (218). From this tripartite account of human activity, Messer develops the following set of diagnostic questions for the theological assessment of practical issues:

  1. What attitude does the action we have in view manifest towards the material world?
  2. Is this course of action an attempt to be like God (sicut Deus), or does it conform to the image of God (imago Dei)?
  3. What attitude does the action we have in view manifest towards past human failures?
  4. Is the action we have in view good news for the poor? Who stands to gain from it, and at whose expense?

In applying these questions to the assessment of our use of other animals for food, Messer suggests, with respect to the first question, that in some cases vegetarianism may very well express a negative attitude toward the material world, and even a “general disposition to reject the good gifts that God gives us to sustain our creaturely life in the world.” (222). Such vegetarianism would constitute what he calls a “pseudo-ascetic flight” from the material world, which suggests that there could be bad, as well as good, reasons for being vegetarian. With respect to the second question, however, he states:

“It has to be said that much present human use of non-human animals has the appearance of humanity sicut Deus: an exercise of raw power that hardly seems to reflect the imago Dei. It also has to be acknowledged that much of what the Christian tradition has in the past taken to be proper dominion reflecting the imago Dei looks, with hindsight, much more like the kind of domination characteristic of humanity sicut Deus. We might say that the tradition has often failed to appreciate the difference made by the agnus Dei [lamb of God] in this sphere.” (223-4)

The contrast between the imago Dei and the sicut Deus also tells against attempts to establish the kingdom, insofar as such attempts are motivated by what Barth identifies as “the kind of human pride that wants to be it’s own helper” (220). As Messer argues, “we are not called to inaugurate or establish that kingdom; the attempt to do so risks lapsing into a dangerous and potentially inhumane utopianism or fanaticism” (224). Consideration of the third diagnostic question here, should lead us to the recognition that we cannot avoid the “complex entanglement of human sin and the fallenness of the world” (225). The proper attitude towards the brokenness of the world and human complicity in it is one of repentance and confession. Indeed, as Jennifer McBride has argued, “Repentance is central to Christian political witness…not only because it manifests a proper humility—it acknowledges before the world that (unlike the sinless Jesus) Christians are complicit in the structural sins of our society especially those of us who effortlessly benefit from and uphold an unjust status quo—but also because it participates in the transformative work of Christ in the world.” (McBride, 189-90). Repentance just is how we participate in and witness to the future peaceable kingdom. Given the complex entanglement of human sin and the brokenness of the world, an essential part of what repentance entails in the context of our relations with other animals, is an effort to “avoid the violent exploitation of non-human animals whenever we can.” (Messer, 225).

With these diagnostic questions, Messer presents Christians with a powerful tool for assessing a wide range of human action in light of the teleological orientation of Chrtistian theology. For those of us personally involved in activism, I think they are an equally powerful tool for assessing how that activism should be carried out in light of our faith. Nevertheless, given the lack of any attempt to elaborate on what the proper ends of nonhuman animals are, it’s not entirely clear how this particular set of questions is supposed to be related to a theological vision of the telos of other animals. Why these particular questions rather than others?

For a more detailed account of the telos of nonhuman animals, I will turn (in the coming weeks) to David Clough’s discussion of the topic in On Animals: I. Systematic Theology. I hope then to explore the implications of this renewed attention to the common ends of human and nonhuman animals for a critical theological assessment of the role that modern economics plays in much of the exploitation of other animals. Stay tuned.

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Messer, Neil. “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends” Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals. Eds Celia Deane-Drummond, and David Clough. London: SCM, 2009. 211-227.

McBride, Jennifer. “Repentance as Political Witness” Christian Political Witness. Eds George Kalantzis, and Gregory W. Lee. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014. 179-195.