Acton Institute Powerblog

The Dignity of Chickens and the Character of God

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After a farmer in Australia had a change of heart about keeping his chickens in battery cages, he freed all 752 hens. The video below (via Rod Dreher) shows the chickens taking their first steps on soil, and feeling sunshine for the first time.

What is your initial reaction on seeing the video? Did you roll your eyes at the liberal-leaning, anti-business, vegetarian-loving motive that surely inspired the clip? Did you automatically assume the “animal rights” nuts (the video was created by Animals Australia, a group founded by the evil-promoting bioethicist Peter Singer) are off on one of their Quixotic crusades again? Or did it make you sad — like it did me — that an atheistically inspired movement appears to be more concerned about God’s creatures than are many of our fellow Christians?

If a poll were taken on the question of which group has the most care and concern for the welfare of animals, Christians—whether Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, etc.—would invariably be near the bottom of the list. How did we lose our status as stewards of creation? After all, animal welfare was once considered the province of Christians. In fact, one of the first organized movements for animal welfare dates back to 1824, when William Wilberforce‚ the British politician who worked to abolish the slave trade‚ and other evangelicals helped establish the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Catholics too have a long and rich history of concern for God’s creatures that dates back at least as far as St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. Theoretically, the Church’s position hasn’t changed. In an interview given before he became pontiff, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said that animals must be respected as our “companions in creation.” He acknowledged that while it is acceptable to use them for food,

[W]e cannot just do whatever we want with them. . . . Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.

caged3Evangelical leader Richard Mouw came to a similar conclusion after discussing the care of animals with a group of Dutch Reformed farmers. As one chicken farmer told Mouw:

”Colonel Sanders wants us to think of chickens only in terms of dollars and cents,” he announced. “They are nothing but little pieces of meat to be bought and sold for food. And so we’re supposed to crowd them together in small spaces and get them fat enough to be killed—But that’s wrong! The Bible says that God created every animal ‘after its own kind.’ Chickens aren’t people, but neither are they nothing but hunks of meat. Chickens are chickens, and they deserve to be treated like chickens! This means that we have to give each chicken the space to strut its stuff in front of other chickens.”

Mouw says that the farmer “sensed an obligation to treat his chickens with dignity—not human dignity, mind you, but chicken dignity.”

This is where Christians differ from animal rights groups like PETA. While we believe in protecting animal welfare, we also believe that dignity is inherent to the creature. In contrast, atheistic animal rights advocates believe dignity is merely qualitative and that we are all—animals and humans—mere creatures.

But in leveling our creatureliness, such groups deny the dignity of both humans and chickens. Dignity is defined as the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect. In the Christian view, human and animal life has an inherent dignity derived from God. A generous and loving Creator not only provides our biological existence but also retains this same gift for his own enjoyment. Human life, therefore, belongs not to us but to God.

Animal life, also belongs to him, but humans are called to exercise “dominion” over the rest of creation (Gen. 1: 28). All life is intrinsically valuable because our Creator values it. Whether of humans or chickens‚ dignity is not a quality that is earned, but rather a status that is recognized.

freerangeOne of the primary duties for Christians is, therefore, to recognize the dignity of all of God’s creatures and to exercise our dominion over them in ways that are humane, responsible, and God-honoring. Using a hot blade to slice the tip of the beak off a chick is not humane. Storing them in cages so crowded that the hens can’t even extend a wing is not responsible. And making the profane claim that starving chickens is “like a fast”, as one Trappist monk and chicken farmer said, is certainly not God-honoring. These actions are nothing short of sinful.

As theologian R.C Sproul says, in our sin we become false witnesses to God:

When we sin as the image bearers of God, we are saying to the whole creation, to all of nature under our dominion, to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field: “This is how God is. This is how your Creator behaves. Look in the mirror; look at us, and you will see the character of God Almighty.”

What does our exercise over dominion say about God? Does how we treat chickens and cows, dogs and ducks, and other “companions in creation” speak truthfully about our Creator? If not, what will we as Christians do to stop misrepresenting the nature of God?

Giving each chicken the “space to strut its stuff in front of other chickens” may seem like a minor concern. But when we fail to recognize the dignity of chickens, we fail to adequately reflect the character of God. And that is a matter of eternal consequence.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • adam

    good Job Joe

  • Oh my goodness, Joe. The video *and* your writing moved me to tears. We have five chickens that we keep in a side yard area. Beyond the wonderful, enormous brown eggs they give us each day, they have been such wonderful educational tools for our kids, and me! They have genuine, and surprisingly individual personalities. Nothing exposes American idolatries more greatly than our demand for cheap food.

  • Rodney

    This is a very good post! Many people aren’t aware of how important this is. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the issue.

  • RocksCryOut

    It’s probably evil to eat the chickens’ pre-born babies, too. Don’t think that isn’t the next step in the great Gaia-cult propaganda front to rid the world of as many humans as possible. Maximized output of eggs isn’t the only process these kooks would like to end. Sometimes in feeding the human population a few eggs get broken. Pun intended. Here’s a different take: Perhaps God put enough resources on the planet (like chickens in cages which never know any different either way), and enough brains in human beings to figure out ways to feed the vast numbers of humans that are here now and will ultimately inhabit the earth. When the time comes and the resources aren’t meant to stretch any further, the end will come. Famines and starvation will mark the end times to a greater degree than ever before, perhaps brought about by myopic human stupidity such as portrayed in this sappy video.

    • Jump

      It’s even better. Adherence to the price system (in a free market protected by rule of law, etc.) means we will likely never be in that position of scarcity to begin with.

    • Quo Vadis?

      “We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

      ― Henry Beston

      • Jump

        I do not know what that means.

  • RocksCryOut

    No thought necessary. Dissenting opinions need not post.

  • S. Keegan

    I see zero justification for asserting that human beings have any moral duties to animals. Our moral duty to God to be a good steward of creation would certainly extend to not using up creation such that our ancestors will suffer for it, so the case can be made for not allowing chickens as a species to go extinct, but I think it pretty much stops there. If keeping chickens cooped up in cages is more efficient, I see no reason to refrain from doing so, especially by way of referencing how the chickens experience such a lifestyle. I simply don’t see any justification for taking what a chicken experiences into account in moral calculus.

    • Jump

      Here’s a possible reply: “That view implies that, for any part of creation that isn’t a person, that part has (at most) instrumental value.” I am sympathetic with the notion that the culture has gone way off the deep end on this issue (Joe’s article I think is well done though, and not deep end-ish). I think people too readily assume that non-human animals are capable of suffering (rather than just pain). That said, I think your last statement is false, at least so worded: surely we ought to, in certain cases, take the experiences of animals into account in a moral calculus. After all, we scold the child who inflicts pain on animals merely for the fun of it. We scold both for the child’s good, but also because the animal, all things being equal, shouldn’t be made to experience such treatment.

      • S. Keegan

        Yes, indeed we do scold a child who inflicts pain merely for the fun of it. However, I disagree that the moral status of that action has any bearing on the experiences of the animal. We scold such children, I think it is clear, because we do not want them to become the type of person who inflicts pain for their own pleasure. It is a character flaw to be that type of person, and that is why we teach children not to do so. The source of the immorality lies with the harm being done to the perpetrator himself, not to any animals he victimizes. Granted, our natural human empathy causes us to sympathize with the animal as a creature in pain, but morality cannot stand on a foundation of emotion; when examined rationally, I still don’t see any justification for saying that any pain the animal experiences has any bearing on the moral status of the child causing it pain; rather, it is the child’s indulging of enjoyment in the causing of pain that is morally relevant.

        • Quo Vadis?

          “We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.”

          William Ralph Inge

          • S. Keegan

            Full of emotion and imagery, but somewhat lacking in real substance. The attempt to generate sympathy for animals by imagining them forming a religion falls rather flat due to the fact that religion-forming is itself entirely a human endeavor. In any event, the biological quirks of emotion, misplaced or no, have no bearing on the rational process of examining moral claims, and I still see no justification whatsoever to assert that human beings have any moral duties whatsoever to animals.

          • Jeremiah Johnson

            Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast,
            but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.

        • Jump

          I agree, as I pointed out above, that we scold the child for the sake of its own character in such situations. However, this fails to imply that that person (or act) is blame or praiseworthy *solely* due to considerations of character. All that it shows is that considerations of the character of the person are sufficient to render him (or his act) blame or praiseworthy. It does not imply that considerations of animal pain are never themselves relevant in the assessment, nor that we fail to have duties to animals.

          Here’s an example that makes the point more clearly because it clears away the kid, and thus the character formation issue. Consider the case of God. There are arguably certain states of affairs that even he is unable to bring about under any circumstances. One such example made (modestly) famous in the past few years would be one in which the whole of reality, other than God himself, consists of nothing but a spatial region occupied wholly by a single rabbit existing for all eternity in unremitting agony. It’s pretty reasonable to think that God could not bring about such a state of affairs (and many others), because it violates his nature. Why would actualizing it violate his nature? Arguably, because ceteris paribus, a rabbit shouldn’t experience such pain, and this, in turn, because the state of affairs is intrinsically bad. I suppose that what goes for rabbits goes for other critters capable of experiencing pain.

          Of course, it isn’t always the case that all other things are equal, and this allows for occasions–no doubt many–where one has no such obligation against causing animal pain. But in the above case, by design, all other things are equal.

  • Seems to me that the ultimate indignity to chickens is to kill and eat them. That pales in comparison to keeping them in cages. If we took a poll of chickens, don’t you think they would prefer to live in cages
    than die and be eaten after a short walk in the sun? But who knows what makes chickens happy. Seems to me that most folks project their own ideas into the heads of chickens.

  • Quo Vadis?

    May God bless you, Mr. Carter. You are very courageous to express your opinion on this very important subject (as you can see from some of the comments). I know this is not easy to do, even with Christians who pretend to be “pro-life” (of course, implicitly they mean “pro-human-life”, as if only humans are deserving of “life” and its protection). These are the same “Christians” who on their way home from a “pro-life” rally will stop at McDonald’s for some chicken nuggets and won’t realize the hypocrisy of it all. May the good Lord have mercy on us.

    • S. Keegan

      By and large, “pro-life” is indeed used to mean support for the rights of only human lives; this is a perfectly acceptable definition for that term. The fact that you might use it differently does not entail some sort of moral failing on the part of others.

      Further, your toss-off “…as if only humans are deserving of life and its protection” merely assumes your position to the very matter in question. You offer no reasons to justify a claim that other animals besides humans are deserving of life and its protection, you merely offer an unexamined condemnation of those who claim that no animals besides humans are so deserving.

      Christianity does not require vegetarianism; it is merely compatible with vegetarianism (that is, one may be both a Christian and a vegetarian, but one need not necessarily be both). You have presented no arguments whatsoever to the contrary. It is perfectly acceptable to be a Christian and a meat-eater, and so the anecdote of the Christian stopping off at McDonald’s for chicken nuggets is unproblematic. What you call hypocracy is, in final analysis, merely a difference of opinion; and it is hardly an enlightened mentality to ascribe wickedness to the motives of one’s opponents merely because one disagrees with their conclusions.

      • Jump

        Well put.

    • Jump

      There is no hypocrisy. This is because it is not inconsistent to be both pro-life and pro-Chicken McNugget. Chickens and human persons are different kinds of things, and so, naturally, differ in the value they possess, and in what may be permissibly done to them. You might also note that the pro-life position in no way implies the claim that “only humans are deserving of ‘life’ and its protection.”

  • Joe,

    This post is very good, and I appreciate your thoughts on this. I am not certain that your criticism of animal rights activists is warranted. Many say silly things, certainly, but many would say something very similar to what you have articulated, though perhaps without the overtly religious language. The fundamental question seems to be whether it is ethical to harm animals for trivial reasons. If, as some discussants here seem to think, animals have no intrinsic value, then perhaps it is acceptable to make chickens miserable for slightly cheaper meat. If, however, chickens have regard in God’s eyes independent of our use of them, then we ought to be circumspect about our treatment of animals, at the least.

    The place where Christians will decisively differ is when animal advocates equate human and animal life. There is little support in the Christian tradition for such a weighting. Most animal advocates, however, would place the value of humans above animals. The debate is how to navigate any potential trade-offs between human well-being and animal welfare. Clearly we have gone too far in privileging the former.

    They key is this: we can think animals more important without diminishing our view of humanity. In fact, a humanity that is able to relate to the animal world only as a means to an end is not communicating God’s character as well as a humanity that holds up God’s other creatures. In this way, we elevate humans, as moral creatures, when we expect them to respect chickens.