In September 2007, two animal welfare organizations, the League Against Cruel Sports and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, will hold an “International Conference on the Relationship between Animal Abuse and Human Violence.” Although the conference will be held at Oxford University, the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics is, according to the Assistant to the Director of Public Affairs at Oxford University, “not an official or affiliated centre” of the University.
The conference information that is provided states:
The conference will highlight the importance of animal ethics by exploring the following questions:
- Is there empirical evidence of a link between animal abuse and violence to humans or anti-social behaviour?
- How should we interpret the evidence?
- If there is a link, what are the ethical implications?
- What are the implications for social and legal policy?
The purpose of the conference is to enable people to better understand the nature of animal abuse, the motivation that leads to cruel acts and the implications for human as well as animal welfare.” A “key research” area of the Centre “is the link between animal abuse and human violence.
There are two problems—serious and related—with approaching animal ethics in this way.
First, linking animal ethics to violence against humans represents a return to how we thought about the moral status of animals before the advent of animal welfare in the 19th century.
Before the 19th century, the prevailing view, at least in the West, was that nonhumans were completely outside the moral community and that neither our use nor our treatment of them raised a moral or legal concern. That is, we could use them for whatever purpose we wanted and we could inflict pain and suffering on them pursuant to those uses without raising any moral or legal issue. Nonhumans were regarded as things that were indistinguishable from inanimate objects and toward which we could have no moral or legal obligations. Although we might have an obligation that concerned animals—such as an obligation not to injure our neighbor’s cow—that was an obligation that we owed to our neighbor not to damage her property and had nothing to do with any obligation we owed to the cow.
To the limited extent that the cruel treatment of animals was thought to raise a moral issue, it was only because of a concern that humans who abused animals were more likely to ill-treat other humans. People like St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and others argued that it was wrong to inflict gratuitous cruelty on animals because that would make it more likely that we would be cruel to each other. But this had nothing to do with recognizing that animals had moral significance. It had to do with a concern about humans, and the link between the cruel treatment of animals and the resulting abuse of other humans.
This conference is examining whether the abuse of animals is connected to the abuse of humans. What if it is connected? That may provide a good argument to make modest changes to anticruelty laws or to provide counseling for teenagers who have been convicted of torturing dogs or cats because we are concerned about possible antisocial behavior in the future.
But what has this to do with the animals? What does this say about the moral status of animals?
The answer is, of course, that it says nothing beyond what was said before the 19th century—that the primary reason for concern about cruelty to animals is that those who treated animals in an unkind manner would be likely to treat other humans in an unkind manner. This might support a moral or legal obligation not to treat animals in a “cruel” fashion but that obligation would not be one owed to animals as members of the moral community—it would be owed to other humans.
This is not a step forward in thinking about animal ethics; it is a significant step backward. This approach moves further away from the notion of the inherent value of animals and closer to the notion that animals have only extrinsic value that is dependent primarily on how their use and treatment affects humans.
Second, and more important, linking animal abuse with human violence involves a very narrow definition of what constitutes “abuse.” We tend to focus on the extreme acts of a small number of individuals and not recognize that our use of animals in accepted institutionalized contexts also represents “abuse.”
In other words, we confine animal “abuse” to the disturbed human who tortures a dog for “fun” and we ignore the fact that anyone who consumes any animal products is also engaging in animal “abuse” that is really no different from what is done by the person who tortures the dog.
In order to understand this point, let me introduce you to Simon the Sadist, who made his first appearance in my book, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?
Let’s imagine that we encounter Simon, who is torturing a dog by burning the dog with a blowtorch. Simon’s only reason for torturing the dog is that he derives pleasure from this sort of activity.
Simon is the exact sort of person who is of interest to those concerned about the link between animal “abuse” and human violence.
Why? What is Simon doing that is so troubling?
Simon is violating a moral and legal rule that just about everyone agrees with—that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering or death on animals. And what do we mean by “unnecessary”? We mean that it is wrong to inflict suffering or death on animals merely because it gives us pleasure or we find it amusing. Simon is inflicting unnecessary suffering and death on the dog; he is torturing an animal for no reason other than his pleasure and amusement.
The problem is how is Simon any different from everyone who eats meat, dairy, or eggs?
We kill more than 50 billion animals every year (worldwide) for food. There can be no doubt that animal foods involve an enormous amount of pain, suffering, and death. Animal foods produced under the most “humane” circumstances involve treating animals in ways which, if applied to humans, would constitute torture.
No one maintains that we have to eat animal foods to have optimal health. Indeed, mainstream health care professionals are increasingly of the view that animal foods are harmful for human health. And animal agriculture is a disaster for the environment.
What is the best justification that we have to inflict pain, suffering, and death on 50 billion sentient nonhumans?
The answer: we enjoy the taste of animal products. We derive pleasure from using animals even though there is no necessity involved.
So how are we different from Simon the Sadist?
Answer: we are not.
We pay someone else to kill and prepare the animal flesh, dairy, and eggs that we enjoy. But so what? We are still every bit as morally responsible as Simon the Sadist. There are just more of us and our actions are regarded as acceptable.
Two weeks ago, I saw an interview on television with the late Jeffrey Dahmer, which focused on the development of his compulsion for violence that ended in murder and cannibalism. Dahmer described killing and dismembering animals in his youth. He remarked, somewhat wistfully, that things would have been so different if only he had been able to channel that impulse into an acceptable occupation, such as taxidermy. If Dahmer’s violent impulses could have been satisfied by killing nonhumans, what would the ethicists have to say? Social scientists have noted that the incidence of rape decreases during hunting season.
The problem with the conference sponsored by the League and the “Oxford” Centre is that it suggests that there is a difference between Simon the Sadist, who “abuses” animals, and those who are not vegans who engage in the “normal” activity of eating animal products. I suspect that many people at the conference will not be vegans. These non-vegans, who engage in socially accepted animal exploitation, will sit around talking about people like Simon the Sadist, who engage in animal “abuse,” and will not appreciate the considerable irony of the situation.
This conference merely reinforces a dangerous myth but one that is central to the delusion of animal welfare—that animal “abuse” is something other people do.
It is extremely difficult—perhaps impossible—not to be at least indirectly complicit in animal exploitation as consumers in a society underpinned by animal exploitation, but we can nevertheless be clear that if we are not vegans, we certainly are animal exploiters. There is no logical or moral distinction between the person who blowtorches a dog for fun and the person who eats the hamburger or the cheese pizza or the ice cream or the egg. The only difference is that blowtorching the dog is called “abuse” and eating animal products is called “normal.”
Think about it.
Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione