Practical Issues > Things to do > Religion and Animals

Perspectives on animal rights in Utah Valley
Applying local ethics to a national debate
by Michael Palmer
July 31, 2005

Within a culture known for deer hunting, barbecues, and a generally intense disposition against anything perceived to be left-wing ideology, animal rights issues are often dismissed immediately. However, as the issue of animal rights moves into focus on a national basis, increasingly becoming both a major social movement and a topic of academic discourse, some local people and organizations are hoping to re-adjust that perspective.

Among these organizations is Mormons for Animals, headed by Doctor Chris Foster, Professor of Philosophy at BYU, and Adjunct Faculty member at UVSC.

Mormons for Animals is concerned with animal welfare; however, it advocates from a position that Foster feels is consistent with-not contrary to-LDS doctrine, the dominant theology of this area.

"In LDS theology, there is a huge doctrinal foundation for animal rights, more than any other Christian religion that I am aware of. Culturally, though, it is just the opposite."

Foster has given multiple presentations on the subject, including one at UVSC's Mormon Studies Conference last spring. He is also the faculty advisor for the vegetarian club on BYU campus.

Some of the reception to these presentations and organizations has been oppositional. When Foster wrote an anti-hunting piece from a religious perspective for BYU's newspaper last year, the responding controversy was enormous on both sides, more vociferously in opposition, however.

Both proponents and opponents of animal rights cited LDS scripture they felt vindicated their beliefs. Foster recognizes that there is great opposition to what he says, but is also somewhat surprised by it.

"I feel that that logic and doctrine agree on this issue; that church doctrine and common sense are both on our side, but opinions of course clash."

There are other local organizations concerned with animal welfare from secular perspectives, including the Utah Animal Rights Coalition and the Student Organization for Animal Rights organized at the University of Utah, which puts on VegFest annually in April, last year featuring guest speakers Dennis Kucinich and Howard Lyman. UVSC does not presently have a club related to animal rights.

As the issue becomes a major social movement for many, it is also becoming a topic of increased academic conversation and controversy. Philosophers like Peter Singer and Tom Regan have attempted to move animal rights into the foreground of applied ethics debates.

UVSC has offered a philosophy course focused on animal rights for the previous two summer semesters, which presented philosophical arguments relating to the issue. Universities nationwide are increasingly offering courses of this nature.

Doctor Karen Mizell, Professor of Philosophy at UVSC, has taught the class here the previous two summers.

"The class actually should be called animal ethics, not animal rights," Mizell said. "We looked at a lot of philosophical ideas from both sides of the issue. It is valuable not only as academic discussion, but also as an awareness class. A lot of people really struggle when they are confronted with this issue that remains such a hidden process in our society."

Doctor Mizell became interested in animal rights after a career in social work during which she worked with many victims.

"Beyond the animal welfare itself, we have the hard data to connect human violence with animal abuse," Mizell said. "Sometimes animals are held hostage, sometimes that woman's animal is abused; many terrible things happen. As a result, many states are opening animal violence centers and monitoring animal abuse."

More than being exclusively an abstract philosophical class, however, Mizell sees the course as a critical branch of applied ethics.

"I believe that in academia you have a responsibility not only to research knowledge, but also to extend into the community. That is applied ethics," Mizell said.

Animal rights is a frequently visited topic in ethics classes; however, Foster says there is some inconsistency between what is being conversed about and debated, and what lifestyle is being chosen.

"I think there is definitely a disconnect between lifestyle and reasoning in a lot of the academic community. The arguments put forth by people like Peter Singer and Tom Regan seem to me to be the most logical arguments. The opposing side, in every case I'm aware of, is so full of holes that if this were any other topic, they'd be laughed out of court."

Regardless of positioning, the issue of animal rights promises to become increasingly heated with time, and there is a lot of conversation taking place regarding the issue.

"We are normal, intelligent, sensible people concerned about this issue," Foster said. "And we are seeking change."