Context Makes All the Difference

Dear Colleagues:

Professor Gary Steiner alerted me to an interesting video from the Onion News Network. It involves a “news” story about a young gymnast who is “euthanized” by her parents after she suffers a minor, but career-affecting, injury.

By applying the language that we hear when injured race horses are “put down” in a context involving a human, we get an interesting insight into how even those who claim to “love” animals often commodify them and regard them exclusively as means to our ends.

We also hear expressed the idea that the problem is suffering and that as long as the actual infliction of death is without pain, no separate moral question is raised. That is, the act of killing does not, in itself, result in harm. We easily see the problem in applying this in the human context. Even if you killed a human painlessly and did so while she slept and was unaware that her death was imminent, you would still have harmed that person. Sure, you would have harmed her more if you tortured her first and then killed her. But you do harm her just by killing her without any pain or suffering.

When it comes to animals, most of us fail to see this point. We think that the problem is suffering—not death. We think that it is acceptable for us to use animals as long as we treat them “humanely.” That is the whole premise of the animal welfare approach: it is morally acceptable for humans to use animals as long as we minimize the suffering involved. This idea is promoted by many animal advocates and I have written about it before on this blog (see this essay for example) and in my other writings (it is a central theme of Animals as Persons). It is precisely this notion that leads animal advocates to support campaigns to promote “cage-free” eggs rather than spending their time and resources on educating people about why they should not eat eggs at all. Campaigns for welfare reform make sense only if the use of animals is morally acceptable and the issue is only how we treat the animal we use. Many welfarists are explicit in claiming that killing animals—if done painlessly—does not raise a moral issue. As the Onion video demonstrates, we would regard that as absurd in the human context.

It is only because we are speciesist that we are unable to see that it is equally absurd to deny that the killing of a nonhuman animal—even if the animal does not suffer—involves imposing a harm on the animal.

Go vegan and use creative, nonviolent means to teach others about veganism.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione