Friday, December 24, 2010

Review of Paul Waldau's The Specter of Speciesism

The Specter of Speciesism is a revision of Waldau's dissertation submitted for his PhD at Oxford in 1997. As the title suggests, the book delves into the way Buddhism and Christianity view animals as revealed in the language of their religious documents. In particular, Waldau evaluates whether and to what extent these two religions participate in the alleged moral error know as speciesism. Speciesism, is the belief that human interests automatically trump the interests of "other" animals. Like racism, which is the belief that one race is automatically superior to another, speciesism is seen as improper because the grounds for the moral claim are not grounded in morally relevant concerns. Just as you wouldn't say that a red colored crowbar was "better" than a "green" colored crowbar if both performed their leveraging tasks equally, so it is said that humans do not have the moral right to proffer their interests as being more morally significant than those of animals without support from morally significant grounds.

Waldau goes to great length detailing how the arguments used to support human exceptionalism and speciesist attitudes towards animals fail in the quality and accuracy of their generalizations. For instance, when humans claim their intelligence and rationality give them the right to treat animals differently, Waldau explains that animals such as dolphins and whales also exhibit incredible intelligence. Other arguments such as social organization, language, and others are all show to be problematic.

Waldau is very careful with his language. He does not say that humans and animals (what he calls other animals) do not have significant differences. What he questions is whether and to what extent those differences justify different moral treatment simply because of a creature's membership in a particular species. I would highly recommend his discussion of the various nuances of speciesism to those interested in this concept.

The remainder of the book focuses on the views that Buddhism and Christianity have towards animals. Given the various factions contained in these religions, Waldau has a difficult task. He resolves the problem by analyzing their respective religious texts, arguing the Heideggarian view that language reflects worldview. Each religion is carefully analyzed with abundant references to primary texts. In the end, Waldau shows that both religions exhibit speciesist views, although the Buddhism's is seen as more animal friendly.


Waldau has performed a useful service for those interested in the subject of human-animal relations, particularly for those involved in Buddhist and Christian studies. As one who tired of hearing how caring Buddhism was toward other creatures, I was intrigued to learn that Buddhism is speciesist too.
I am grateful that Waldau demonstrated that Christianity was speciesist. I have long argued that the Christianity of Jesus teaches that humans are more significant than animals. I would go further and suggest that humans are not "animals" because only humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1). Waldau proves that when people read the Bible as written, they will come to conclusions similar to Evangelical Christians. To be clear, Waldau disagrees with the Biblical view. That is a different question. But on the issue of what Scripture teaches, I concur with Waldau's view as shown in my own book, Dominion over Wildlife? A Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock, 2009). What is regrettable is that Waldau demonstrated his own bias in his uncritical acceptance of scientism's view that humans are just one of the animals. Scripture clearly makes a different claim. Perhaps science will never be able to provide a "thing" which humans have and animals don't capable of justifying human use of animals. But that failure doesn't prove there isn't such a thing. It could simply be that the theory tells you what you can see. Since science doesn't accept the existence of spiritual entities, should one be surprised that scientist never find them? My point is that science is just as much a matter of "faith" as belief in religion.

In sum, Waldau's work is a worthy read. While I certainly disagree with his views regarding human-animal relations, he is careful with his claims and provides a mountain of material with which to interact. He academic tone encourages dialogue and reflection and all honest and open readers will benefit from engaging his thought.

Stephen M. Vantassel is a tutor at King's Evangelical Divinity School in Broadstairs, England. He specializes in environmental-ethics. Dominion over Wildlife?: An Environmental Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations

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