Look beyond class warfare and rights culture

December 10, 2004

Why do we think of animal welfare only in extreme terms? asks Alison Hills

We owe nothing to animals, wrote Aristotle, for they have nothing in common with us. The Christian thinkers Aquinas and Augustine concurred, arguing that humans are higher beings made in the image of God, and that we have dominion over animals and may use them in any way we choose. Post-Darwin, we have a much better understanding of just how closely we are related to other creatures. But we are very confused about how we should treat them.

All animals evolved by the same natural process from the same ancestors. There is evidence that, like us, many animals feel pain, fear and distress and that many can think.

Is it legitimate for us to kill such creatures for entertainment, for scientific and medical purposes or for food? It would be grotesque to hunt humans with hounds or to farm and eat them. Is our willingness to do these things to animals a sign of "speciesism", a contemptuous prejudice on a par with racism or sexism? Philosopher Peter Singer thinks so. He argues that we should treat animals in the same way that we would care for an unfortunate human child with similar mental capacities.

On the other hand, there are differences between humans and other animals.

We are self-conscious and self-aware, capable of more sophisticated relationships and of appreciating a wider range of goods than other animals, and we are morally responsible for what we do. Perhaps these differences matter.

Many of us think that it is wrong to treat animals cruelly, but not wrong to treat them differently from humans. In contemporary debates about animal welfare, this moderate view is often forgotten as each side lurches into extremism, assuming either that only humans matter, or that animals have exactly the same rights as us.

Banning foxhunting is ostensibly an animal welfare issue. But much of the recent parliamentary debate turned on purely human interests. Those in favour of a ban used the rhetoric of concern, condemning foxhunting as barbaric. But many of them showed no inclination to extend the ban to similar activities such as angling, nor did they wish to legislate against factory farming. Whereas each year some 25,000 foxes are hunted, more than 800 million chickens are kept permanently cooped up in tiny cages, fattened so quickly that their bones break under their own weight, suffering from diseases brought on by their close confinement until they are slaughtered.

It is not hard for someone genuinely concerned about animal welfare to work out which practice they should target.

As was widely suspected, and as Labour MP Peter Bradley admitted, many of those who voted to outlaw hunting saw themselves as primarily engaged in class warfare. As far as they were concerned, the issue might as well have been a ban on the wearing of tweed. They ignored the Government's inquiry into hunting, which recommended a licensing system rather than a ban. On the other side, hunt supporters did not focus their campaign on the reasons why it might be a good idea to cull foxes, and why hunting might be a legitimate method of culling. Instead, they portrayed themselves as a downtrodden minority whose rights and jobs were under threat from the tyranny of the majority. The issue of animal welfare vanished from view.

Shortly after the foxhunting ban was passed, the Government announced a crackdown on extremists who threaten scientists involved in animal experimentation. Both Oxford and Cambridge universities have had plans for research laboratories disrupted by protesters; staff and suppliers of Huntingdon Life Sciences have had their cars wrecked and bricks thrown through the windows of their homes. The majority of animal activists protest peacefully, but a few argue that violence against scientists is legitimate. Some deny that there are any benefits from research on animals, mistakenly believing, in the face of a great deal of evidence, that these experiments rarely contribute to scientific or medical progress. Many of them are convinced that animals have the right to life, a right that is violated by vivisectionists. They in turn violate human rights in the hope of preventing what they see as the unjustified abuse of animals.

The language of rights is so familiar to us that it is inevitable that we end up discussing the treatment of animals in those terms. But this is unfortunate. Consider whether scientists should kill a lab rat in the course of an experiment to test a new anti-cancer drug. If we frame the question in terms of rights, there are only two possible replies: either the experiment is absolutely wrong, because the rat has a right to life, or it is completely acceptable, because it does not. This gives the impression that one extremist view or the other must be correct. But there are intermediate positions. For example, it may be worse to kill primates than rats, because primates are highly developed creatures with the capacity to appreciate a wider range of experiences. If so, it would be acceptable to carry out certain procedures on rats when it would be wrong to do the same to primates. The differences between animals are important. But we must ignore them if we insist on talking about rights.

The extreme positions are easy to understand. This simplicity is attractive and it is natural for participants in the debate to be drawn to one or the other. But it is hardly surprising that before long meaningful dialogue between the two sides becomes impossible.

In current debates, extremism has triumphed. We need to make a fresh start and work out the details of a reasonable moderate view. Many animals suffer from pain and fear but in other ways are not as highly developed as humans; our treatment of them should reflect this. Few people now would follow Aristotle and Aquinas in saying that we may use animals in any way we choose. It is widely accepted that cruelty to animals is wrong, that we should try to find alternatives to animal experimentation and we should improve the quality of life of farm animals. Finding the right balance between human and animal interests is difficult. But now we know how much we have in common with other animals, we have no choice but to reconsider what we owe them.

Alison Hills is lecturer in philosophy, Bristol University. Her book, Do Animals Have Rights? is published by Icon, March 2005.

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