Is there a moral distinction between human and animal life?

In my previous post, a summary of Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man, I observed that pantheism (either in its Eastern “spiritual” form or in its Western “materialist” form) ends up lowering man to mere beast.

Recently a colleague lent me the book Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkin’s Case Against God, a book written by a couple of Catholic writers (Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker) in response to The God Delusion. I haven’t read The God Delusion so I’m not entirely sure how good of a response book that it is but the authors definitely make some great points. They were particular strong, I felt, when discussing the moral implications of atheism.

One section in Answering the new Atheism reminded me of Schaeffer’s claim that pantheism lowers man. Wiker and Hahn observe that Dawkin’s praises Peter Singer “as the most eloquent advocate against the speciesist notion that human beings are somehow morally superior.” In other words, according to Dawkins and Singer we should give no preference to human life over animal life. Like their Utilitarian ancestor John Stuart Mill what matters is maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering but, whereas Mill may have been thinking of human happiness and suffering, Singer makes no distinction. This leads Singer to embrace things like abortion, euthanasia, bestiality (so long as it doesn’t cause suffering to the animal) and even infanticide. According to Wiker and Hahn, “Singer would allow the retarded, the feeble-minded, the handicapped, in short, all the unfit, to be exterminated without a twinge of conscience. That is how we treat animals with disabilities and deformities” (emphasis mine).

There are two major problems with eliminating the distinction between human and animal life that Hahn and Wiker emphasize. The first is an indefinite extension of the principle. “Don’t kill human beings and chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, or antelopes, aardvarks, ants… and zebras.” Any attempt to draw a moral line would be arbitrary. Dawkins attempts to draw a line at those animals that have “brain power” or can “appreciate suffering” but that begs the question of what constitutes sufficient “brain power” to be protected.

The second and perhaps more significant is the problem of an indefinite retraction of the principle. Wiker and Hahn state the problem this way:

“When ‘Don’t Kill’ applied to only human beings, the inference was that killing (and eating) non-human sentient creatures was perfectly moral, But as soon as the moral status of human beings is removed, there is no reason to continue the prohibition. Nor should we irrationally prohibit any use of the human animal that we had previously allowed for other animals. Any use, from medicinal to culinary” (141).

I much prefer the ethics of Schaeffer, Hahn, Wiker, and Scripture. There really is a moral distinction between human life and animal life. People are made in the image of God. The value of our life is more than just our “brain power” or ability to “appreciate suffering.” This doesn’t mean we devalue animal life. We value it because God made it. We value the chimpanzee as a chimpanzee, the zebra as a zebra, and the fish as a fish. In this ethic, not only is human life lifted to its appropriate standing, but animal life is lifted as well. We acknowledge not only a moral preference for human life, but also a moral obligation toward nature.