My friend Michael Brendan Dougherty has a piece arguing against an excessively heartless rationalism that would say that if it’s fine to eat a cow then there is, in principle, no reason why you should not eat a dog.
Here’s the money quote:
the reason we shouldn’t eat dogs is related to the same reason it is more heinous and hateful to burn a synagogue than a community center, or that it is more of a violation to burn down a man’s home than the two rental properties he owns of an equivalent dollar value. The spaces, objects, and even animals we sanctify with our respect, friendship, and time really do enter into different moral categories. It is not inherently evil to smash a picture, but it is a gesture of hatred to tear a beloved family photo.
It is obviously hard, nay, impossible, to disagree with this.
But with that being said, perhaps a few more points. What has distinguished Christian ethics historically is its belief in the transcendent dignity of human beings as image-bearers of God. The Christian picture of the cosmos as rationally ordered by an utterly transcendent of God, emptied out the world of spirits, gods and other intentionalities, and left it up for humanity to “rule over.” This idea of the transcendental dignity of human beings was carried over into the Enlightenment notion of human rights, now properly reincorporated and contextualized into Catholic ethics since Vatican II. It is fair to say that this idea is the foundation of our civilization. It is also fair to say that this idea is in trouble nowadays. So there is a strong voice in me that wants to stand up for the purely instrumental value of animals.
One of the memes that is quite popular in our society is the absolutely cretinous pseudo-utilitarian idea that the moral worth of a thing is proportional to the subjective feelie-feels that thing experiences. To believe this is to radically relativize, even deny, the intrinsic dignity of every human being and is therefore, fundamentally, to overturn the foundations of our civilization. This is why I am terrified of the animal rights movement, as a sign and bellwether of how low our civilization sinks. When future generations want a shorthand to describe the barbarity of our present-day culture, they will say that you could go to jail for beating a dog, but you could get a subsidy for murdering a child in the womb.
With all that being said, for the Christian, animals and other beings are not valueless. While humans bear God’s image in a special and transcendent way, all of God’s good Creation bears his image, and is therefore worthy of respect. And this is particularly true of the higher animals who, by virtue of man-fellowship, have acquired man-like qualities. This is not an incidental point, by the way. Lots of people point out as a defense for them that dogs and cats exhibit very human-like qualities of deep affection and fidelity, and intelligence, and this is true, but historically the case is that this is true because dogs and cats have evolved “unnaturally” into “cultured” animals thanks to their proximity with humanity over many millennia. There’s a stronger case, I think, for respect for dogs and cats as cultural artifacts, much in the way that Michelangelo’s Pieta is owed greater respect than a featureless block of stone, than for dogs and cats as animals per se.
But I think ultimately the best argument for respect for animals is precisely that it’s supererogatory. No, you are not under an obligation to have a particular respect for animals; but precisely because there’s no such obligation, it glorifies God that you do it anyway, as long as such respect is not disordered (e.g. you spend more on your pet than you give to the poor…). Dogs are not moral subjects, and this must be kept in mind, but respect for them is part of the rejoicing in God’s good Creation that all Christians are called to.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that while MBD is right to stand athwart literal hot dogs, yelling stop, but if I’m in a country where dog is traditionally eaten and I’m offered to partake, I think I’ll let my curiosity take over, and I won’t feel bad about it.