Animal Ethics and the Nonconformist Conscience

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Philip J. Sampson
The Palgrave Macmillian Animal Ethic Series
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , September
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Animal Ethics and the Nonconformist Conscience is an illuminating text which examines the historical roots of the animal advocacy movement in the theology of the nonconformist tradition. In this work of interdisciplinary scope transcending the fields of theology, history, and philosophy, Phillip J. Sampson not only traces these roots, but also sets forth an active call to reevaluate the current paradigm of animal advocacy toward the inclusion of nonconformist principles. This is an innovative book that presents a largely unknown tradition of Christian thought that not only influences contemporary perspectives with regard to animals, but challenges conventional hang-ups stemming from enlightenment and neo-Darwinian reason. It will be of interest within both secular and religious circles, and to those working in animal ethics and more broadly within animal studies and environmental humanities.

The nonconformist tradition is rooted in Calvinist theology, and the major focus of this text is on the consciousness brought about through evangelical leaders in this tradition from the 17th through 19th centuries. Nonconformist theological teachings stressed a transformation of self and society—an engaged praxis which sought to bring to fruition God's kingdom on earth. As Sampson writes, “nonconformists were not animal advocates because they were what are now called ‘animal lovers,’ but because they sought the restoration of the world” (109). This theocentric reconciliatory justice-based approach to animal advocacy and other social justice issues runs counter to dominant interpretations of the place of Christian ethics within contemporary society.

One of Sampson's primary purposes is to respond to the dominant consensus within animal advocacy circles of the impact and place of Christianity. Central to this consensus is a monolithic “dominion thought” narrative, popularized by Lynn White's influential 1967 essay, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. In this narrative of human exceptionalism—a simplistic interpretation of the biblical creation epic—humans exercise divine supremacy over the nonhuman world. In essence, animals and the environment are desacralized, and a harsh dualism stratifies human from nonhuman. A rich diversity of Christian perspectives are pushed aside by this narrative, not limited to the nonconformist tradition. However, what is important for Sampson's thesis is that Christianity is presented in contrast to a widening ethic of inclusion toward animals. The dominant story regarding this widening ethic is a decline of religious thinking due to the emergence of secular enlightenment reasoning, as well as challenges brought about by a post-Darwinian world.

Sampson's work regarding the importance of language in how we think about animals is a valuable contribution to the field. In response to the prevailing dominion narrative, he shows that while the language of modern scientific rationality often challenges historic dualistic views associated with animals, it can also work to empower commodification and abuse. Much of the shift in language and the legal challenges that took place during the 17th through 19th centuries regarding animals actually ran contrary to enlightenment thought. Seemingly irrational calls against the use of animals in science in the 19th century, including early cases made for abolitionism, are prime examples. Nonconformist reasoning challenged the pragmatic enlightenment assumption that vivisection was justified. Rather than assuming that the weak should be sacrificed for the strong, the Christian image of Christ, the Good Shepherd, sacrificing himself for his flock flipped this power dynamic. Instead it is we, as those in the position of power, stewards of God's creation, who bear the responsibility to sacrifice our interests for animals. This was a revolutionary proclamation at this point in history. Even within contemporary science, it is often taken as a given that animals should be "sacrificed" for the greater good.

Typical narratives surrounding Christianity and animals emphasize a harsh dualism. However, the human/nonhuman binary is a consistent source of struggle even in a predominantly secular modern society. We emphasize the uniqueness of individual humans, yet often aggregate animals to mere categories and numbers. We commonly operate according to a hierarchical ethics of comparison, making judgments regarding the moral standing of animals with respect to those who are most like us mattering more, emphasizing features in common, not those dissimilar. Thus, one of the most profound observations that Sampson makes is that nonconformist reasoning actually pushes against this sort of dualistic thinking. He states, "for nonconformists rightful dealing arises, not from a right based in human-like capacity, but from God having made man and animal as the creatures that they are" (95). This emphasizes a contextualized approach respecting the unique needs and intrinsic value of each being, and responds to wider concerns within animal ethics of making overarching and abstract analytic approaches to broad categories of beings thereby neglecting many individuals.

The nonconformist approach to animals emphasizes a radical reevaluation of the place of Christian ethics within animal advocacy. As a result of the fall, humans are understood to have a unique responsibility toward animals who are innocent and whose lives are in our hands. What could be called veganism is even considered ideal by thinkers in this tradition from as early as the 17th century. "Human diet would return to its vegan beginnings," Sampson states, an emphasis on the human fall and redemption, a return to innocence and a world in which humans no longer have power over, kill, and consume animals (113). The nonconformist ethic emphasizes an active awareness, working to reconcile the disruption of harmony in creation caused by human sin. We are called toward redemption, and to be accountable as good stewards, not tyrants, over animals who are not ours—but beings God created with a purpose of their own.

Sampson makes a compelling case to take seriously the nonconformist tradition in contemporary Christian discussions regarding animals. Within secular circles, this text will certainly serve to break down monolithic interpretations and misunderstandings of the place of Christianity within animal advocacy. In his broad thesis, Sampson hopes that the discussion of these ideas will push us to critically engage with deeply set and inherited ways of thinking about animals. It is hopeful then that a nonconformist Christian ethic of care toward animals, which seeks to break down conventional forms of rationality that too often neglect their needs, will have a lasting impact on the reader.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Bjørn Kristensen is a doctoral student in the Environmental Studies Program and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oregon.

Date of Review: 
December 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip J. Sampson is Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. His previous publications include Faith and Modernity (1997); Six Modern Myths (2001); and contributions to several edited volumes on animal ethics and philosophy.


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