On Animals

Volume II, Theological Ethics

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David L. Clough
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is the second in a two-volume set by David L. Clough. While both are titled On Animals, the first volume focused on traditional issues of systematic theology and this one focuses on issues in his academic wheelhouse of Christian ethics. This finished work now makes Clough the undisputed leader of the red-hot field of Christian animal ethics.

The completion of this project comes at a key time—not just when it comes to academic trends—but in light of trendlines in the use of animals worldwide. As Clough notes in the preface to the book, the 20th century saw the biomass of all domesticated animals grow from 3.5 times the biomass of wild animals to 24 times that amount. These trendlines have only increased over the last two decades. Especially given the relationship between our use of animals and global climate change, it is long past time for Christians to make an honest, full, and serious moral accounting of how we treat animals. Thankfully, this is precisely what Clough has done in this book. Many will assume that the central issue of animal ethics focuses on eating their flesh, but as important as that issue is (not least, again, for how intensive animal farming contributes to global climate change), the book has chapters on a wide-range of issues: use of animals for clothing and textiles, labor, medical research and education, sports and entertainment, pets and companions. There is even a very interesting chapter on human impacts on wild animals.

One need not necessarily read the first volume in order to benefit from this second one—especially because Clough gives us a summary of his key moves of systematic theology in the introduction. His focus is on a theology of creation, particularly one in which God’s grace is poured out on all creatures—who are both good “for their own sake” and “glorify God in their participation in the triune life of God” (xiii). Both volumes, like the author himself, are deeply and unapologetically theological. If there is anything like a one-sentence summary of the work, one may find it here: “The flourishing of animals matters to God, and Christians are called to conform their love to God’s love, and to care for those God cares for” (2). Knowing this is his general approach may be enough to deeply profit from the book (and also have some idea of whether one will find the book is to one’s academic tastes), but especially given the often artificial separation of Christian ethics from moral theology, many readers would do well to dive into Clough’s first volume in order to engage fully with the theological approach in this volume.

Despite Clough’s deep theological commitments and methodology, he effortlessly weaves his arguments into significant conversations with philosophical sources on the issues. From Tom Regan to Carol Adams and Martha Nussbaum to Peter Singer, this volume demonstrates something quite uncertain in the field of Christian ethics at the moment: that one can be authentically theological on an issue of significant public import while authentically engaging significant thinkers with very different first principles. Indeed, through these engagements Clough brilliantly shows that Christian animal ethics can and should be methodologically pluralistic—at once borrowing and critiquing Singer’s utilitarianism, Adams’ ethic of care, Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, and Regan’s view of animal rights.

But at the end of the day, Clough’s goal in this book is not (just) to wade into these academic arguments. Identifying with the stated goals of Emilie Townes’ Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, the conclusion of the book draws our attention to the everydayness of moral acts and getting up and trying one more time to get our living right. Clough asks Christians to “live our Christian faith more deeply and witness to God’s love and justice for all creatures” (237) in the practical decisions that constitute how we live our lives.

Clough’s challenge has been absorbed and acted upon by the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics in the United Kingdom, especially during and after his recent presidency of that organization. One hopes it will also be heard by the Society for Christian Ethics in the United States, an organization which has not yet embraced his arguments, despite being led by Christian ethicists quite sympathetic with his point of view. Again, especially (but not only) in light of the impact our treatment of animals has on global climate change, academics in our field not practicing what we argue is deeply problematic.

If there is one criticism I have of the book, it is a failure to underscore the significance of our treatment of animals for catastrophic climate change. By most comprehensive accounts of the issue, there is no way to reverse humanity’s suicidal ecological practices without abandoning the intensive farming of animals. But Clough deals with this fact only sparingly. Indeed, when he does focus on climate change in something other than an offhanded way, it is on the affect it has and will have on wild animals. It is true that is now a wide range of views about just how much intensive animal farming contributes to climate change, but Clough himself notes that it is at least a “significant part” of the story. Unfortunately, it is not a significant part of this book.

None of this takes anything substantially away from what Clough has achieved here—both with this volume and with the project as a whole. It is an absolute triumph. Now the undisputed seminal text in the field, it will likely stay that way for years (and maybe decades) to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
March 4, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David L. Clough is Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chester.


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