By Michael Dorf
Last week Prof. Colb and I were fairly busy promoting our book Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights. We wrote an essay mostly drawn from the book's Introduction that gives a capsule summary of our thesis and argument. That essay was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. We were also interviewed about the book by Prof. Gary Francione and Anna Charlton, who were filling in for Bob Linden by hosting Go Vegan Radio. The show aired live (where available) on the Genesis Communications Network on March 13, and is now available here as a podcast. (Our segment begins at the 32:45 mark and runs through 57:12).
Our discussion with Francione and Charlton ranged over a number of issues, including the question whether there is common ground between people like us--whose views about the morality of late-term abortion are colored by our views about sentient creatures, whether cows, pigs, or substantially developed human fetuses--and people who oppose abortion on religious grounds. Prof. Francione expressed the view that the orthodox grounds for the pro-life position make sentience irrelevant. Rather, religious opposition to abortion is rooted in the idea of "ensoulment." We do not disagree, and indeed, the book uses this difference as part of the explanation for why there is not much overlap between the animal-rights and the pro-life movements, even though both movements aim to protect innocent vulnerable life.
But "not much" does not mean zero. As Prof. Colb pointed out in the interview, we have encountered people who connect pro-animal and pro-life activism. Some well-known examples are Prof. Charles Camosy at Fordham and former Bush II speechwriter Matthew Scully, author of Dominion. Moreover, as I noted during our discussion with Francione and Charlton, and as we explore in the book, much pro-life activism seems aimed at protecting the interests of human fetuses as sentient beings, rather than at protecting zygotes and embryos as ensouled entities. Laws restricting abortions of pain-capable fetuses are a prime example.
During our conversation, I explained that our book doesn't take a position about ensoulment as a theological matter, and I was about to tell a related story about a pamphlet I was once given, when Prof. Francione announced that we were out of time. I thought I would take this opportunity to recount what I would have said if we had a few more minutes.
About a dozen years ago, when we lived in NYC, I was walking my dogs in Riverside Park when a couple of clean-cut twenty-somethings approached me and asked whether I was interested in attending a party for dog-lovers. After a few seconds of conversation, it became clear that "party" was a euphemism for "church service." I politely declined the invitation but thanked them, whereupon they handed me a pamphlet in case I changed my mind. The pamphlet featured smiling attractive people frolicking with each other and their dogs. It included a stamp on it giving the time and location of the "party." The back of the pamphlet had a short essay titled "Do Dogs Go To Heaven?".
I didn't save the pamphlet, but as I recall, it was similar to a webpage I found when I googled "do dogs go to heaven?". The webpage says that there are animals in heaven but that they are not there as their reward for leading good lives because only humans are moral agents. The pamphlet said more or less the same thing. The webpage fudges on the question of whether the pets we find in heaven will be our pets or new pets that God creates just for heaven, whereas the pamphlet I received was pretty clear that they would not be our pets. Indeed, the pamphlet said that because animals lack eternal souls, there can't be real animals in heaven--although the animals will seem real to those of us who end up in heaven.
I found this answer disturbing. Because I'm not religious, I hadn't previously thought about the question whether pets go to heaven, but I imagine that anyone who was concerned enough to ask the question did so because she worried about two things: First, that she would be lonely in heaven without her beloved dog Rex; and second, that Rex himself would face eternal oblivion following his death, in the way that we nonbelievers assume all flesh-and-blood creatures will.
I'll say a few words about the existential dread on behalf of Rex in a moment, but I want to dwell a bit on the first concern. So far as the pamphlet was concerned, heaven is like The Matrix. You think the dogs and cats are real; they feel real; but they're not. And unlike the robots in The Matrix who appear to have achieved sentience (albeit evil sentience), the simulated dogs and cats in heaven are just simulations. They are not silicon-based rather than carbon-based dogs and cats. They're not dogs and cats at all. Perhaps some people who love their cats and dogs would be okay with that if they never found out that the heavenly cats and dogs are fake, but the fresh-faced pamphleteers were ruining the illusion by spreading the bad word. And anyway, I took one of the points of The Matrix to be the same as one of the points of Plato's allegory of the cave on which it is (loosely) based: That it is harmful to be fooled by an illusion, even a pleasant one.
In any event, quite apart from the inadequacy of fake dogs and cats as companions for people in heaven, what about the dogs and cats themselves? The sort of person who worries about whether cats and dogs (and other animals) go to heaven is likely to be worried on behalf of the animals. To my mind, the very fact that the pamphlet and website address the question whether pets go to heaven shows that a great many religious people--like a great many non-religious people--think that ensoulment is irrelevant to the interests animals have in continued existence. They think that the animals' sentience grounds the animals' interests even though, per their theology, the animals lack immortal souls. The answers the religious authorities provide are bad, but the fact that religious people even ask whether pets go to heaven shows me that there is a lot of potential common ground.