on peace and on animals (reposted and revised from June 2, 2009)
There is an axiom that underlies most human uses of animals: humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure.* This axiom justifies most uses of animals that society sees as reasonable and moral, but it is this same axiom that also underlies human uses of animals that society deems as abusive and immoral. There are degrees, of course. Some treatments of animals are deemed acceptable and some treatments of animals are deemed unacceptable, but these treatments are usually based on the same underlying axiom: humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure. What society deems as cruelty to animals, then, isn't a matter of crossing a line, but of following the existing line too far. When a society accept and acts on the axiom, there will be extremes and abuses.
Several times while the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal was prominent in the news, a public figure would compare dog fighting to deer hunting, suggesting the two activities aren't that different. This comparison usually elicited mainstream outrage, as hunters (and others) talked about how different the two activities are. But the same axiom underlies both activities: humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure. Deer hunters can point out the differences between the acts (often focusing on the differing levels of suffering, pain, cruelty, and motive), but I'm stuck on the axiom. Once you accept the axiom that humans may use and kill animals for our own pleasure, if you separate deer hunting from dog fighting, you are arguing about degrees. And once you start acting on that axiom, you are also going to have excesses of degree following the same axiom.
The same problem is true for many types of violence. Once you accept the axiom that war is sometimes justified and necessary, what it takes for those in power to wage the war they want is to convince people that the particular war is justified and necessary. John Howard Yoder has pointed out that when other theologians speak generally negatively about warfare, there is a palpable sense of relief from the audience when the theologian acknowledges that sometimes, in very rare situations, because of exceptional circumstances, war is sometimes justified and necessary. Once you accept that premise, even if you try limit that justification/necessity with extremely specific rules, with a very narrow, specific, and limited application of Just War Theory, you're going to have people justifying war, and feeling they can do so within your own standards.
It's the underlying axioms themselves which must be exposed, examined, and critiqued.
*another axiom might be humans may use and kill animals for our own need. That is a different axiom that requires a different discussion/argument. It should be noted that it is the "pleasure" axiom at work for almost all uses of animals in the developed world (though some substitute the "need" axiom when actually arguing the "pleasure" axiom"), but I think it is worth recognizing two different axioms exist.