Sentient Animals, Relational Animals: The political significance of November’s animal sentience vote
Last November’s vote on animal sentience made headlines up and down the country. Opposition MPs sought to transfer an EU clause on sentience into post-Brexit law, but the amendment was voted down in the House of Commons. To say the least, passions were raised.
The Independent branded the vote ‘the beginning of the anti-science Brexit’, whilst animal advocacy groups like the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) condemned the move as ‘extremely disappointing’. Gudrun Ravetz, Senior Vice President of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), claimed the vote threw Britain’s strong reputation on animal welfare into jeopardy, undermining years of hard work and campaigning. Conservative MPs, however, criticized the media’s reporting of the vote, claiming the 2006 Animal Welfare Act already contains a recognition of animal sentience (the ability to experience feelings such as pain and happiness). They also pointed to a series of recent laws concerning the ivory trade, CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses, and animal cruelty sentencing as evidence of the party’s commitment to animal wellbeing.
This was not enough, however, to prevent an online backlash. Numerous public figures jumped to slam the decision, while mass petitions appeared overnight. The British public believed the government had just voted that animals don’t feel pain, and we were incensed.
Animal Sentience in European Law
So what exactly was going on? The amendment, proposed by Caroline Lucas MP, referred to a 2009 Lisbon Treaty protocol which officially recognizes the ability of animals to experience feelings such as joy, pain, comfort and sadness, providing a strong legal framework for the humane and compassionate treatment of non-human life. Many animal advocacy groups consider the protocol a key victory, and a hard-won victory at that. Parliament was deciding whether to keep this particular clause in a post-Brexit Britain.
Interestingly, as Lucas pointed out in her speech, the Lisbon Treaty’s sentience protocol actually originated with the UK’s presidency of the EU Council in 1997, reflecting what is generally perceived to be the UK’s strong record on animal welfare. Indeed, MPs Zac Goldsmith and Hugo Swire defended the vote on these terms, claiming UK animal welfare legislation remains the strongest in the world regardless of the particular wording of the law. A letter from Michael Gove argued the 2006 Act ‘already protects animals when there is clear scientific evidence that they are ‘demonstrably sentient’’, while Goldsmith pointed out the failure of EU law to prevent cruelties like the French foie gras industry.
Others weren’t so sure. Campaigners asked why so many Conservative MPs voted against the clause if they truly care about animal sentience. Nick Palmer, head of policy at CIWF, argued the removal of a sentience clause weakens the protection of animals against exploitation by big agribusinesses:
“If Britain wanted to sign a trade agreement with the US allowing meat from especially low-welfare factory farms, under Article 13 the government would need to show that it had given full consideration to the animal welfare implications. Without this, they don’t need to bother”.
If he’s right, this is yet another issue to add to the already substantial list of concerns about the vulnerability of British laws to trade deals like TTIP, ranging from environmental regulation to labour rights and from financial transparency to food hygiene. While British animal welfare law is amongst the best in the world, US legislation is notoriously bad. As we reassess our global trade relationships post-Brexit, we need a stronger guard than ever on our own ethical and legal standards.
The Government’s Response
In the end, Michael Gove issued a statement pledging ‘any necessary changes’ to specifically acknowledge animal sentience in British law. He followed this up with a draft bill in early December, which enshrined the sentience terminology and also explicitly rejected ‘cultural exemptions’ from animal welfare legislation. EU law permits exemptions from certain animal welfare rules for ‘cultural’ practices like bullfighting and foie gras production, but British law will not. This is by no means an end result – Caroline Lucas reminded MPs that the draft bill still needs to be passed. We’ll also need to see what it looks like in practice. However, it’s a big step forward, and groups like the RSPCA are hailing it as significant progress.
After initial uncertainty, it seems we’ll get animal sentience legislation at least as strong and possibly even stronger than is currently provided in EU law. At the very least, the controversy has pushed us to consider these questions more deeply. What can we make of it as Christians?
Animal Sentience and the Church
The language of sentience gained its importance primarily through the work of Peter Singer, and is undeniably the most pressing (and most fundamental) question we must ask ourselves about animal ethics. As countless slaughterhouse investigations and factory farm documentaries have made plain, modern society tends to treat animals as unfeeling commodities rather than as living, feeling beings. Sentience requires that we take this more seriously.
Christianity has begun to take this debate on board, but has a long way to go. It’s made more painful by our unfortunate heritage. A series of Christian theologians and philosophers have made extremely unhelpful pronouncements about animals, notably Descartes’ assertion that animals were effectively ‘clockwork machines’ absent of feeling (a belief he carried through into his grisly vivisection experiments). More positively, however, there is
also a long and powerful heritage of Christian concern for animal life, stretching back to the church mothers and fathers and brought to particularly powerful expression in evangelical social reform circles of the 18th and 19th centuries, notably through Wesley, Spurgeon and Wilberforce. Andrew Linzey, Philip Samson and Ruth Valerio are amongst those to have spoken and written on this more positive but less well- known history.
Sentient Animals, Relational Animals
In addition to considerations of sentience, the Bible presses us to ask another question: are animals relational? The resounding answer is ‘yes’. In the scriptures, animals are due weighty moral consideration not only because they can think and feel, but because of their capacity for relationship, the foundation of all Biblical thinking. In fact, it is in these relationships that animals’ emotions and feelings find their deepest significance, just as is true of human emotion.
Anyone who has lived or worked with animals will find it an obvious point that animals are ‘relational’ - just as they will find it obvious that animals have feelings! Pets are important to us precisely because of the relational joy and beauty they bring into our lives, not to mention the literally life-saving role played by companion animals for some people in difficult circumstances. So many have been ‘brought back from the brink’ by the relational power of animals, as in the much loved story A Street Cat Named Bob. On a broader scale, Jeffrey Masson’s When Elephants Weep is a beautiful, hilarious and moving account of the profound emotional relationships observed among animals living in the wild.
The Bible provides a powerful theological framework in which to locate these experiences and observations. From Genesis to Revelation, animals are consistently portrayed as sentient, relational beings. They sing for joy (eg. Rev 5:13; Ps 148-150), mourn for sadness (eg. Rom 8:19-20), feel satisfaction, excitement and fear (eg. Job 39:13, 24; Ps 104:27-29; Gen 9:1-2), and both give and receive love, care and affection (eg. Lk 16:19-22; Mt 23:27; Mt 10:29). They exist in relationship with God, whose throne is practically always surrounded by ‘living creatures’ (zoon) (eg. Ez 1; Dan 7; Rev 4). Even the tiniest sparrows find an intimate place of safety near the altar of the Almighty (Ps 84:3), and the whole animal creation responds in joyful worship to the loving care and provision of a faithful God (eg. Ps 36:6; 104; 145:21; 150).
Interestingly, the creation story sees animals and humans created on the same day. Many theologians, including Ruth Valerio and Richard Bauckham, interpret this as denoting our togetherness, our shared ‘creatureliness’. For Bauckham, animals are not the most important ‘other’ of the human race. Instead, Creator God is the cosmic ‘Other’ to the entire creaturely creation! As St Francis put it, we are in some sense ‘brothers and sisters’, sharing both a common origin and a common earthly frailty. The intimate naming ceremony of Genesis 2 is the first Biblical expression of this ‘community of creation’, and reaches its culmination in the redeemed, worshiping cosmos of Revelation 5:13.
Animal suffering, meanwhile, is understood in relational terms. It is narratively depicted as a result of the relational breakdown of the fall (Gen 9), while the prophets envisage a day of restored human-animal relationships in a restored Eden - what some have called a ‘peaceable kingdom’ (Isa 9, 11).
Perhaps most importantly, animals are clearly understood as having a soul. Amongst other things, a soul is a means of being in relationship, a means of profound relationship with God and with others. People are often surprised to discover that the Hebrew words for ‘soul’ (nephesh), and for the ‘lifeblood’ seen to carry the soul (cf Gen 9), are applied to both animals and humans. So much for Descartes’ clockwork machines.
Out of this worldview comes the famous Proverb, ‘the righteous know the souls of their animals’ (Prov 12:10). On one level, the saying exhorts us to acts of kindness to animals, but also goes beyond this. We are to ‘know their souls’.
Lisbon Treaty, OT Law
How was this worldview expressed in OT Law? For many of us, our only engagement with animals in OT Law is the sacrificial system, but this is only one part of the story.
Perhaps the best way to summarise OT Law on animals is to compare its ethos with the prevailing ethos of modern capitalism. The key insight is that OT Law treats animals as individual beings with rights directly comparable to (though not the same as) those given to human beings. Indeed, the needs and rights of animals are frequently considered in the same breath as those of humans, notably in the thrice-repeated injunction that animals too are entitled to a Sabbath day of rest (Deut 5:14; Ex 20:10; Ex 23:12). Another important law in Deuteronomy 25:4 instructs, “do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out grain”, so that the Ox can eat the grain while working. According to Jonathan Burnside, it’s a direct reference to a comparable law ensuring the needs of human labourers are provided for during their work. The needs of the Ox are recognised, even though this will slow down the production process.
In both cases, the same logic that opposes the exploitation of human labour, providing human beings with a consistent and fiercely defended Sabbath rest, also guarantees this rest and protection for animals. Animal wellbeing trumps the drive for productivity and speed. It’s a far cry from many modern farming practices, where every inch of space and ounce of fat matters in the pursuit of maximized profit from meat and dairy.
What this means today
The OT’s ethos of care is brought into sharp relief when we consider that, a nomadic pastoralist society at the time the Law was given, Israel was completely dependent on animal products and labour for its survival. The implication is simple – caring for animals is not some luxury to be enjoyed once a society is ‘developed’, a quaint concern for the prosperous, carefree or overly sentimental, but matters even when your daily survival depends on those animals. How much more should we be pursuing animal welfare in our modern society, when it is perfectly possible for most of us to lead a healthy life without consuming any animal products at all? What does it look like to live out the relational ethic of the Bible in our lives and economy today – an ethic which sees animals as souls to know, rather than commodities to maximize?
At first glance, things could not be more different between the pastoralist society of ancient Israel and the modern technotopia of 21st Century Britain. But perhaps things are more similar than they seem. We’re still confronted by the same issues. Are animals sentient? Can they feel? What does that mean for our everyday lives, ethical principles and economic practices? If we take a moment to look past the legal technicalities and the social media anger, the animal sentience vote provides us with an opportunity for reflection. As the relational people of a relational God, let’s take that moment for reflection and see where it leads us.
Tim Lornie recently graduated in Geography and is now living in France working as an English Language Assistant. He's exploring overseas missions, studying on the Jubilee Centre's Online Course and soaking up the wonderful French culture. You can read more from Tim on his blog, Free Radicals.
This is a post by a guest contributor. The views expressed by guest writers are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jubilee Centre.
 Oxford-based theologian Andrew Linzey summarises this history well in a short video lecture, ‘Can Christianity become good news for animals?’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3uIWDiPIto (23:07, 23/11/17)
 Linzey, A. (2004) Animal Gospel, Westminster John Knox Press; Linzey, A. and Regan, T. (1989) Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings, Crossroad Publishing Company; Sampson, P. (2015) http://www.klice.co.uk/uploads/Ethics%20in%20Brief/EiB_Sampson_20_3_WEB.pdf (16:11, 28/07/16); Valerio, R. (2016), http://sarx.org.uk/multimedia/filmed-interviews/the-righteous-knows-the-souls-of-the-animals-dr-ruth-valerio/ (19:12, 14/11/17)
 Masson, J. (1996) When Elephants Weep, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Vintage
 Bauckham, R. (2010) Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering The Community of Creation, Longman and Todd; Valerio, R. (2016), http://sarx.org.uk/multimedia/filmed-interviews/the-righteous-knows-the-souls-of-the-animals-dr-ruth-valerio/ (19:12, 14/11/17)
 This is, according to Ruth Valerio, the best translation of this verse: Valerio, R. (2016), http://sarx.org.uk/multimedia/filmed-interviews/the-righteous-knows-the-souls-of-the-animals-dr-ruth-valerio/ (19:12, 14/11/17)
 Exodus 23:4 is also significant: “if you come across an enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its loads, do not leave it there; be sure to help them with it”. See Burnside’s chapter on environmental laws in God, Justice and Society (OUP, 2010) for a detailed discussion of these laws and their wider implications.
 I recognise that this is much harder for some people with particular health needs or who have experienced personal struggles around food.