Animal Ethics, Rights and Welfare

Most of you know me well enough probably to be aware of my prejudices and commitments regarding today’s topic. But as I have been asked to lead the discussion I will make my vested interests clear: I have been a vegan for about 32 years and I am a member of Animal Liberation Victoria.

Now I don’t claim to be an academic authority on ethics and rights as applied to non-human animals. My interest in these subjects stems from my being distressed at the way some people regarded and treated animals when I was a child; and also from the relationships I have had over the years with animals such as cats and rabbits.

I regard rights as man-made concepts and I understand rights to mean privileges, concessions or entitlements that a group of people agree should be given or made by virtue of precedent, such as long-established custom, or by agreement after discussion and negotiation. Such negotiated rights may be established by the ruling of a committee or court, or by local or national laws.

Rights were originally thought of as being granted to free-born human males, as distinct from slaves, women, children and animals. Sometimes they applied to people within a society, but might also apply to non-hostile strangers and foreigners. They were sometimes straightforward privileges and concessions, but they might also be conditional, with duties attached. A feudal lord had the right to levy rents on his lands, so long as he provided military service to the crown.

I believe the Romans had no concept of children’s rights, as children below the age of majority were simply the property of their fathers. Slaves had very limited rights, mainly protecting them from being killed by their owners for no good reason.

Ideas about rights have changed markedly over the centuries. Almost no one any more supports the notion of a right to keep human slaves or the right of vendetta.

Rights were granted for many reasons, and I will not attempt to list them all. But the commonest were for reasons of public necessity, such as collecting firewood for cooking and warmth, or levying taxes or raising an army. The right to bear firearms was granted when the infant United States had no permanent army and relied upon citizen militias for defence. Another reason was equity: the notion of fair, if not necessarily equal, treatment; and another reason was compassion or mercy, such as laws against cruel or unusual punishments, or against imprisonment without trial.

The notion of rights for freeborn males within a group has gradually been extended to rights for women, children and strangers, and even to enemies, as the Geneva Convention grants various sorts of protection to prisoners of war and to non-combatants in a theatre of war.

I therefore see rights for animals as another feature of the gradual extension of rights in general. George Eliot once wrote: “Women should be protected from anyone’s exercise of unrighteous power . . . but then, so should every other living creature.”

People who think non-human animals are worthy of ethical considerations have various reasons for doing so. The Jains of India have religious reasons. They regard animals as having souls and as perhaps being reincarnations of people. The Jain concept of ahimsa, meaning harmlessness, has often been taken up in the animal rights movement, particularly by some vegans.

Some Christians have couched concern for the welfare of non-human animals in terms of their being God’s creatures, even if of a lesser order than human beings. The Seventh Day Adventists promote lactovegetarianism among their members, and this church owns the Sanitarium food company in Australia. Jewish regard for animals appears in the prohibition of cooking a goat in its mother’s milk. Ritual slaughter is sometimes justified on grounds of avoiding unnecessary pain.

Secular reasons for empathising or sympathising with animals stem mainly from the notion that they have feelings and emotions, based on observations that they resemble human beings in varying degrees. In other words, it is ethical to avoid causing animals unnecessary pain or distress.

Very few people nowadays take seriously the Cartesian notion, which always sounded rather dubious and self-serving, that, as non-human animals did not have souls, they were just automata and their emotions were mere appearances: not the real thing. Lev Lafayette gave me the following quotation from Fr Nicholas Malebranche (1638 – 1715), nicknamed by David Hume, I think, as “the occasional philosopher”. Malebranche wrote: “[Animals] eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” All I can say is that I do not think he got out very much!

In the early nineteenth century Jeremy Bentham disposed of this sort of thinking by pointing out that: “The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.” Bentham was not impressed with the notion that animals did not need consideration because they lacked speech or reason. “But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

However, a more resilient and lasting concept is the Judaeo-Christian or Abrahamic claim that animals do not have souls and that God put them on the Earth for human use, either for food, other body products or for labour. This notion is still widely followed, with varying degrees of qualification about cruelty. For example, what amounts to cruelty in the treatment of domestic cats and dogs is acceptable if applied to farming of cattle, sheep and pigs, or, for that matter, to experiments and tests on laboratory animals.

The best-known non-religious argument against being kind to non-human animals, and particularly against vegetarianism, is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, namely: they eat each other, so why shouldn’t I eat them?

This argument has not, to my knowledge, been satisfactorily refuted, but it is easy to lampoon. In my youth, in the early 1970s, I illustrated one of Barbara Smoker’s Heretic Cards which depicted a stereotypical missionary in a stereotypical cooking pot. The punch-line was the cannibal chief saying, “Well, if your god didn’t want you to be eaten, why did he make you out of meat?”

There are two contradictory arguments on this question which are easy to refute, and for the same reasons: the arguments from anatomy. One is that human beings have canine teeth, no diastema (a toothless section of the jaw) as in herbivores, and a relatively short intestinal tract, so we are “meant” to eat meat.

The other one runs: human beings have small, undifferentiated canine teeth, no sharp molars or premolars, no claws, and a much less acidic and longer gut than carnivores, so we are meant to be just plant eaters.

Both arguments are baloney! A reasonable anatomist looking at and comparing mammals in general, and primates in particular, would conclude that human beings have the dentition and gut of an omnivore. In any case, anatomy is not necessarily destiny. Horses, which are herbivorous, have canine teeth and a diastema; and bamboo-munching great pandas are very likely descended from carnivorous ancestors akin to bears. Furthermore, human beings show adaptations to unusual features such as cooking (small jaws, for instance) and most Europeans have acquired a gene within the last ten thousand years that enables them to digest, as adults, cow’s milk.

This brings me to one of my favourite bugbears, the notion that certain foods and human habits are “natural” and some are not. Some raw food purists argue that cooked food is unnatural, despite the fact that human beings have been cooking food for tens and more likely hundreds of thousands of years. In the days before cooking, our ancestors almost certainly had larger jaws, massive jaw muscles and thicker skulls to anchor such muscles. And some foods, notably tubers and roots, provide far better nutrition for weight cooked than raw. If cooking is “unnatural” so are wearing clothes and shoes; living outside the tropics; dentistry, surgery; splinting broken limbs; wearing spectacles; making electronic devices; using metals such as iron, tin, copper, bronze and aluminium; and travelling by means other than walking, running and swimming. So are using cows’, goats’ and mares’ milk on the one hand, and avoiding dairy products and being a vegan on the other. In reality, a range of complex cultures, cultural habits and cultural artefacts are normal for human beings and have included, by the way, head hunting and funereal cannibalism.

As a boy I was keen on fairly peaceful hobbies like stamp collecting, but I also enjoyed a pursuit that had more aggressive overtones, archery. I remember being taken to the excellent Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford and discovering that in one part of the world there was a very warlike version of philately, namely collecting and making shrunken human heads. This museum was also where I saw live locusts for the first time.

But I have digressed. It is not for me to tell you whether you should be nice to numbats, kind to koalas or hug trees. I will conclude by explaining my own reasons for being tolerant to or kind towards most, but not all, animals.

I am a vegan for ethical, not health, reasons, on the grounds that not buying or consuming animal products helps reduce the suffering of farm animals and, if the statisticians have done their sums right, helps reduce my environmental “footprint”. It takes more land, water and energy to produce a given weight of, say, beef or mutton compared with almonds, peanuts or soya beans.

On the other hand, I have to put my hand up and plead guilty to the foul sin of speciesism. For example, if a beetle, moth, cockroach or bee gets trapped inside my home I will go to considerable pains to track it, catch it, and release it outside. Flies and mosquitoes, on the other hand, are swiftly hunted down and exterminated. If I am out in the bush, I will do what I can to kill March flies, on the grounds that they will bite me and drink my blood if they can, and they will also torment native mammals. I take the view that I am entitled to defend myself from biting and blood-sucking insects, though I just remove, rather than kill, leeches.

I help my elder daughter look after her domestic rabbit. So another reason I kill mosquitoes, especially if they get into my daughter’s house, is that that mosquitoes can carry the myxoma virus, and myxomatosis is a slow and very nasty way for a rabbit to die.

In other words, I am a vegan because, even if it is “unnatural”, it is possible for me to live without animal products and because it reduces or helps minimise the suffering of animals I believe are capable of suffering. But it is, of course, almost impossible to go through life without harming, injuring or killing any animal, either directly or indirectly. I just do what I can.

You have heard a brief summary of my views, and now I would like to hear yours, not just on whether we should or should not hunt, eat and farm animals, but whether we should use them for testing drugs and domestic products. Bear in mind also that some animals are endangered not by hunting, as in Africa, but by habitat destruction for the growing of plant crops such as palm oil and, in some places soya beans.

Over to you.

by Nigel Sinnott., Presentation to the Melbourne Unitarian Philosophy Forum, Sunday September 2, 2012