One time I had a disagreement with somebody on the matter of animal rights. This person said, to her dismay, that her daughter was dating a fellow who was an environmental studies major, and offered an anecdote about a professor who claimed that animals ought to have a similar legal and moral rights as humans. I mentioned to her that I am of that persuasion, to which she responded, “Well, that’s silly. For one, animals don’t have souls…”
This argument seems strange for a number of reasons, but before the theological and moral implications of such a view, the reasoning is terrible: my counterpart in discussion committed a logical fallacy by “Denying the Antecedent.” Her argument is such,
If P(a being has a soul), then Q(a being has rights)
Not-P(This being does not have a soul)
Thus, Not-Q(This being does not have rights)
This form of syllogism does not work. For example:
If P(One plays the Sousaphone), then Q(one is an attractive person)
Not-P(I do not play the sousaphone)
Thus, Not-Q(I am not an attractive person)
The conclusion does not follow from the premises, because it was never established that the only way for a being to have rights is to have a soul.
Legally speaking, this is false. Corporations do not have souls, and yet they are recognized as persons with rights.
Morally speaking, it is very difficult to link the concept of rights, which comes out of the Western Enlightenment tradition, to the liturgy and text of the Holy Bible, because there is no “Bill of Rights” in the Bible. Notice how what a nation deems to be a right is highly contingent on a number of cultural, environment, and economic factors. This isn’t to mean that the notion of rights is wholly a matter of taste and opinion, but rather that rights are, in my view, a legal method to address concerns about welfare and equality in a society. Rights themselves are subject to revision, but the moral directive is universal.
Theologically speaking, I’m not even sure what “animals don’t have souls” even means. Does this person think that all human beings have a “Casper-the-Ghost” phantasm inside of themselves that is responsible for their cognition, emotions, and self-identity? And that animals are mere biological machines without nuance? Besides being scientifically false (as it’s well-confirmed that animals do have subjective experiences, group dynamics, friendships, use tools, and even play games), I don’t even think this is Biblically true. The book of Ecclesiastes in the 3rd chapter states that man and beast go to the same place: the ground, and there’s no way of telling if the experience of the hereafter is any different.
Animals are sentient beings, and by the virtue of experiencing pain and pleasure, we are bound to respect their life. We do not need a law-giver, divine, paternal, legal or otherwise, to recognize this point.