Thursday, 1 August 2013

Some Personal Thoughts on Animal Welfare

You don't need to know much about biology to understand that humans are animals too; exceptional animals, in that we can think, and reason, and imagine esoteric concepts in a way that very few, if any, other species can. Debates have raged for centuries over to what degree animals can even form thoughts rather than act on instinct; the answer, most likely is that some can, and some can't. Humans are at the extreme end of a wide spectrum - but it's still a spectrum. How much are other animals able to reason?

Again, however, it's not a helpful debate. 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham realised the problem with this line of thought, cutting to the chaste with the famous quote that has shaped my life ever since I heard it, many, many years ago:

"The question is not 'Can they reason?', nor 'Can they talk?', but 'Can they suffer?'"

As Bentham saw it, the only relevance that higher cognitive powers have on the question of suffering is in the way that they make suffering worse. It is (I believe) self-evident that a human diagnosed with terminal cancer is going to suffer far more than, say, a cat, thanks to their imagination and understanding of the situation they are in, but both parties can suffer from the physical effects of the tumour itself. 

My position here is much the same as Bentham's - I, personally, can see only one distinction between humans and other animals with regards to how much they can suffer - the distinction I mentioned above. In all other respects, how much pain is experienced depends pretty much on how well-developed your nervous system is; which is why I suspect a sprout is less able to suffer pain than a newt, which in turn is probably less able to suffer pain than a primate.

Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy that judges action's moral rightness based on the greatest good for the greatest number; utilitarians are the accountants of the moral philosophers, totting up pain versus pleasure for everything we do - the most moral action being the one that rates highest on the pleasure chart, or at least lowest on the pain chart (there isn't actually a chart, it's a metaphor). The only distinction this makes between the species is the difference in their ability to feel pain or pleasure.

It's as good a philosophy as I've heard of, personally. There are problems with it - some of which we'll encounter below - but for myself, I find it helpful to at least consider my actions from a utilitarian point of view. It helps me think about how much emotion I'm allowing to cloud a particular issue; ultimately, for me, all I care about is relieving as much suffering as possible.

For the last part of my post, I'd like to look at the different positions that animals exploited by the human race find themselves in, and I'd like to discuss my thoughts on the matter. I don't expect you to agree with all, possibly not even some, of what I say, but what I'd like you to do is at least consider your own reaction to these situations, and how it compares with mine. All I can ask, really, is that you think about this stuff, and come to your own conclusions.

The Single Pot of Compassion

Before I do that, though, I'd like to tackle a criticism that anyone who mentions that they're interested in the welfare of animals is likely to come across one time or another - I suppose I'd call it the 'there's children starving in Africa' approach. I have been told, many times, that caring about the fact that animals are suffering, suffering badly, in the world, displays some kind of moral bankruptcy when there are, as I say, children starving in Africa.

Indeed there are. There are children starving in the UK. There are innocent people dying in Syria, and Afghanistan, and in a hundred battle zones across the globe. There are millions of people dying of AIDs, and malaria, and even preventable diarrhoea. It horrifies me. But I fail to see why being concerned about animal welfare takes away from any of this. It's as if there's a single pot of compassion, which humanity can only direct in one direction at a time, and that any attempt to push it in another direction will mean that children die.

There's enough compassion - enough money - in the world to deal with, and at least think of all these problems. One child suffering, terrible though it is, does not reduce the suffering of anyone or anything else. To suggest that we're not allowed to worry about anything until the (in your eyes) most worrying problem has been thoroughly sorted out is, to be frank, bollocks. If you make this argument to me, then I've got to assume that before you've ever complained or worried about anything at all in your own life, you've checked to make sure there isn't someone, somewhere in the world that has more to complain about than you have, thus eliminating your right to worry. 

It's a similar argument to the 'single pot of money' argument about space exploration, as if every single dollar spent upon looking to the stars would have otherwise been spent upon curing malaria. It's a pathetic, pointless point, and I don't intend to spend another second of my life rebutting it (this is where the link to this blog will come in handy again!).

Well, I think that's enough preamble. What do I actually think about animal welfare? As ever, in my blog, I'm going to be totally honest about the next points. I don't mind if you disagree (I suspect many of you will, strongly) but I will show my working so that at least you can understand how I'm coming to my conclusions. If you disagree, feel free to do so to me, but please show your working too, so that maybe we can understand each other.

My Feelings on Animal Welfare

So, as I've mentioned, my general approach to thorny ethical problems is to attempt to apply utilitarian principles to them. When I come up with an answer that I really don't like using this tactic, I then (like everyone else, I suspect) desperately flail about for reasons and excuses to justify the position I have already taken. On rare occasions, if I really can't justify my position in anyway that lets me sleep at night, I change my position; hence my vegetarianism. More on that in a sec.

The utilitarian approach is useful to at least frame questions in a way that you can attempt to answer them. For instance, my question from earlier - what does emancipation even mean to an animal? - is rather woolly, philosophical, and ultimately unhelpful. Framed in a utilitarian way, it becomes - would emancipation of the animals cause less suffering and more pleasure than not doing so? 

Still a strange, emotive and argument-ridden question, but at least one that is, in theory, answerable. So, with that in mind, I'm going to look at some ways in which humanity interacts with/exploits/enslaves (depending on your point of view) the rest of the animal kingdom.

1. Pet Ownership

Yep. Pet ownership. I like to start with the tricky ones. The slavery viewpoint seems controversial here, but with a moment's thought and using a strict definition of slavery, it's hard to argue. Pets are owned, legally, by their masters. They are often neutered without their consent, and are not able to act freely according to their desires. The master has complete control over them, to the extent of even deciding when it is time for them to die.

I, personally, am complicit in the deaths of many hundreds, if not thousands, of such creatures. I endeavour, in my job, to relive suffering, but still I have inflicted many hours of pain and suffering upon pets in the form of neutering operations. Pain relief and good care dramatically reduce this suffering, but I would be lying to myself as well as all of you if I said that being speyed is an entirely painless and stress-free procedure.

It could be argued that castration and speying carries health benefits far in excess of the suffering they cause... but I could argue to same for you, reading this, too, and I'd have to be particularly charismatic to convince any of you reading this to part with their gonads. The point is, given the choice, the pet would rather not go through the operation.

There are other compromises to pet's freedom's too - dogs are walked, but they generally don't roam the streets freely. Cats have more leeway in this regard - except the many of the species that are never let outside at all. Pets eat what they are given, and must accept any punishment given to them; if they retaliate against violence with violence, then they are likely to be killed; in fact, if they attack a human in any situation at all, then they will probably be put to death.

It may seem extreme, but all the above is true, expressed from the point of view of animal slavery. You may argue with how I've written it, but it's hard to disagree with the fundamental truth of it. So, should pet ownership be banned? Should pets be emancipated? There are many people - some vets, in fact - that feel that they should be.

Here's my opinion - living in the wild, is, as I have previously suggested, not fun. Really, really, not fun. It is, quite literally, kill or be killed out there. If you're not on top of your game, you're probably going to suffer a slow, lingering death or, if you're very lucky, get killed and eaten. If you're being eaten by a Komodo dragon, you get to do both.

My point is, from a utilitarian point of view, I have no doubt whatsoever in my own mind, that the vast majority of pet animals suffer far less than their wild counterparts (although not all; there are some very, very bad owners out there). I accept that neutering is a compromise to a pet's welfare. It's a compromise that I feel comfortable (though not too comfortable) about making in order to reduce the suffering of all the other animals that would otherwise exist and likely starve to death (that's nature for you). I see it as part of the pet's social contract - it is neutered, and in return it receives food, board and medical care for the rest of its life. The quality of all three varies from pet to pet, of course. It does make me uncomfortable that the animal is given no choice as to whether to embark upon this contract or not, but I have to be pragmatic. Such understanding is, as far as our best neurologists can tell, beyond the mental capacities of a dog, or a cat (though I wince as I type because in my head, I can hear that sentence being repeated in a Tennessee drawl, only talking about other humans and not animals).

Pets - in the form of dogs and cats - have been with our species for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Tradition is no excuse for terrible morals, of course, but I make the point because it's possibly to argue that being a pet is now the natural environment for many dogs and cats. From a utilitarian point of view, pets give a great deal of pleasure to their human owners, and (I suspect, although it is always hard to know for sure) receive at least some of that pleasure in return. I struggle to see how releasing them all into the wild would lead to a net gain in pleasure, or a net loss in suffering. I am very aware that simply being a pet is a compromise to an animal's natural behaviour, and its freedom (and this is ignoring unfortunate pets that suffer terrible at the hands of their masters) but I genuinely feel that the difference in a pet animal's cognitive ability - the fact that, as far as we understand it, they are unable to imagine, and aspire, and dream of more than they are - compared to a human means that this form of slavery is a morally acceptable one, if not entirely as benign as our modern eyes may first assume.

My opinion on this would change if it was demonstrated that our companion animals were able to understand their servitude, and wish for it to end. My opinion does change when it comes to animals where the mere fact of keeping them as a pet means that their freedom is severely restricted. Birds, for instance, denied the freedom to fly, or even leave their cage. Rabbits that never leave a hutch. Fish and reptiles - call me picky, but my feeling is that any creature that requires its own life-support system to exist within your house is not suitable pet material. In these cases, the compromise becomes too much for me.

2. Food-producing Animals

If an immoral act can be defined as one that produces more suffering than other alternatives, then factory farming of broiler chickens must be seen, in my opinion, as one of the most immoral acts ever perpetuated by humanity. Before your gut reacts strongly against that proposal, let me put this to you - I personally believe you would be hard-pressed to find a sentient creature that suffers more during its short life that a factory farmed broiler chicken. Never seeing sunlight, never experiencing even a second of freedom, broilers grow fast enough that by the time they're a month old many of them struggle to walk at all due to their weight. By two months old, they're dead, and in your sandwich.

If you did find a creature that suffered as much, it would probably be a caged hen producing eggs. Unfortunately for them, they live a lot longer, spending all of those years in a box about the size of a sheet of paper. 

I don't want to rant. There are humans that suffer as much in their lives as these chickens, due to illness, war, or disease... but we're talking about millions of creatures. Millions upon millions. You can google the precise details. I have done. I don't want to again. That, my friend, is a whole lot of suffering. From a utilitarian perspective, it's going to take an awful lot of pleasure to counteract that. Quite how much pleasure you get from your chicken sandwich... well, that's up to you. And really, I mean that. I'm not trying to convert you. Those two paragraphs above aren't news to you, are they?

I don't object to the principle of eating meat. It's hard to, really, faced with the evidence of evolution. We're designed for it... well, okay, we're actually omnivores, but many, many animals are designed to eat other animals.

I don't object to the taste of meat. Far from it. I bloody love it. The smell of bacon is still likely to make me dribble, even though I've been a vegetarian for over twenty years now. It would hardly be much of a sacrifice it I hated meat, now, would it? If that was the only problem, I'd call myself a... whatever someone who never allows celery to pass their lips is called. Bleh. Celery.

Here's my point: if you eat meat, you are complicit in the death of animals. Many hundreds of animals. More, even, I suspect, than I am with all the euthanasias throughout my veterinary career. Now, I'm not judging you for that - but I would like you to at least judge yourself. If you eat meat, I would argue that you have a moral responsibility to investigate exactly how the animal that has fed you lived, and how it died. If you do look into it, and you're okay with it, then, and I mean this honestly, you're fine by me. I looked into it, and I didn't like what I saw, so I stopped. 

I try not be judgmental in life; I spend so much of my time being unsure of my own actions that I'd find it exhausting to have to find fault with other people's too. However, there's one area in which I'll brook no compromise. If, in the course of a conversation with me, you mention that you 'don't want to know where your food comes', that 'it'll upset you too much', then you might notice a slight flicker in my eye. I'm British, so I probably won't say anything to your face, but from that moment on you are dead to me. I will, from that point onwards think of you as the worst kind of moral coward. You're quite happy to profit from death, not even wanting to know the nature of the lives that supported you? Then, quite frankly, fuck you. I hope your gonads shrivel up and fall out of your arse.

Even worse than this, however, are the people that tell me 'Oh, I couldn't eat anything that had a name! That would be horrible!' So, you're telling me that because you find it uncomfortable, any creature that is lays down its life to fill your gut isn't allowed to have a name, or a personality, but must remain a numbered egg-machine in a box for its whole life? And this must be so that you aren't in any way reminded that the thing you're exploiting could possibly have a better existence than the one you're forcing upon it so you can eat a fried egg with your toast? Then I hope your next thirty-thousand reincarnations are as a battery hen... except that I don't. Because I wouldn't wish such an existence on anything.

Here's why I'm a vegetarian: I believe that if you're going to kill a creature simply to give you pleasure, then that creature deserves your utmost respect for laying down its life for you, even involuntarily. I believe you should make it your mission that such a creature experiences the best life it could possibly have, given the massive compromise it is going to make, just for you.

I've been in a chicken abattoir. You can't even count them as they whiz over your head, let alone imagine each of them as an individual creature - not reasoning, not talking, but suffering.

The more astute amongst you, however, may have noticed that I keep saying vegetarian. Not vegan. The title of this section is food-producing animals. That includes milk. And cheese. And eggs. All of which I eat. 

Here's my excuses - I only buy organic milk and cheese at home. Organic milk, by itself, is not good enough, but if you make sure it's stamped by the soil association, then you can rest assured this is an association that actively tries to cut down the suffering in the dairy industry. As one example - they try to use milk from beef herds. This means that male calves are worth something, unlike a largely worthless male dairy calf, and so they aren't immediately killed. The calves run with their mothers, rather than being taken from them at three days old, to the great distress of mother and calf.

That sort of thing. You can look into it yourself, and if you take nothing else from this blog, please take that.

I only ever buy free range eggs - not just free range, but freedom food eggs. Never, never never from caged bids, and I check the packs of egg-containing food to make sure it's from free-range sources. I'm not perfect. I'm a hypocrite, like most of us are. But... I've followed by own rules; I've looked into it, and I made my decision. Please do the same.

3. Animal Experimentation

Well, I totally managed to keep my emotions out of the last section, and produce a thoroughly impartial piece of work, didn't I? Go me.

This section probably isn't going to make me many friends. Remember: opinions - model's own. 

I'm a scientist - well, I like to think that I am. It's hard, sometimes, being a vet. Scientific people like evidence behind their decisions. There's precious little evidence in veterinary medicine. A lot of studies are underfunded, or use too small sample sizes, or sponsored by a drug company interested in hawking their new flea treatment or painkiller. The point is, I believe in the scientific method. I believe in experimentation.

Not when it comes to animals, though. And here we go. I know. I know that huge leaps have been made in medicine using animal models. I know that some of my friends, diabetic or with severe inflammatory diseases, would almost certainly be dead by now if it wasn't for animal experiments. It's entirely possible that you're boiling with rage reading these words because your mother, or your son, or you yourself would be dead right now without them. I may be too; so many of our drugs used have come down from animal work. I would also save fewer lives than I do at the moment - almost all my drugs come from animal testing. I know how many bodies would be left in its wake if it had never happened. I know.

The utilitarian approach is hard to apply here; it's hard to know exactly how much suffering would have been caused if animal experiments hadn't provided the many breakthroughs that they had, although it is, I think you might even agree, indisputable that animal experiments themselves have caused immense amounts of suffering to the subjects of the experiments themselves. Utilitarianism helps with some aspects of animal experiments, however. Any animal test which causes suffering to the animal, but that is unlikely to reduce suffering in itself (including all cosmetic testing, animal experiments where the benefits to knowledge are dubious or already known) is, according to our rulebook, morally wrong. Let's not do that.

My gut, however, tells me it's wrong. I know I said I shouldn't think with that thing (even though it is, sadly, much bigger than my brain) but... well, if it were morally clear-cut, an obvious choice, or even a slightly more grey area than it is already, I would accept it. It isn't. Not to me, at least. However much I may nod in sympathy when you tell me your child today is alive because of medical tests performed on animals, however much I need my pharmacy at work or be rendered largely incapable of fixing any animal at all, my heart would leap for joy if I woke up tomorrow to find that all animal experiments were banned forever.

I know you probably don't feel the same. Maybe I have a different perspective. It's a hard thing, morally, to explain why the drugs I'm using to get dogs better were developed using experiments on dogs. Was one dog worth more than the other? Was it because one dog had a name? One dog was lucky enough to be deemed a pet, another a lab animal. You can substitute rats, rabbits, cats, guinea pigs or mice in there. They're all experimented on. They're all kept as pets. I find that a very hard position to defend, morally. Being pragmatic about it - okay, we have had our breakthroughs. Now, let's stop. There are other ways. They're slower. They're more expensive. Some breakthroughs will never be made if we stop. But they cause suffering. Real, tangible, terrible suffering. Knowledge for knowledge's sake, absolutely, but if that knowledge came at the expense of pain and death of an unwilling creature... I'm afraid that I, for one, don't wish to know.

4. Animals for Entertainment

This can be where utilitarianism falls down. How about if one person, or one creature, was tortured to death in front of a baying crowd of people? An incredible amount of suffering is caused to that one creature, but... what if the crowd enjoyed it? I mean, really, really enjoyed it? Is one hundred people's pleasure enough to cancel out the suffering? No? Okay. How about five hundred? Screw it, let's televise it. How about five million?

How many people have to enjoy it before the pleasure outweighs the suffering? You could fudge the numbers a bit, so that suffering is worth, far, far more than pleasure, but still, that implies that if enough people enjoy a spectacle, then any amount of suffering is fine. You could use utilitarianism to suggest that the Roman gladiatorial games were morally right... but I suspect you still wouldn't think it so.

Whenever you get a strange result like this, it's worth taking a hard look at the facts, and seeing how much emotion is playing into it; and there is some. The natural disgust that I (and I hope you) feel at thinking about the scenario above is to do with the pleasure. There's something obscene about people taking pleasure at suffering being caused to another; at least, there is to our modern eyes. 

This is where the emotion comes in; the pleasure or lack of it makes no difference to the individual being tortured (well, not quite; it's quite conceivable that a baying crowd may add to the suffering experienced) so, as ever in life, it depends upon your perspective. Let's break from the 'greatest good for the greatest number' for a moment, and look at things from the point of view of the crowd, and of the victim.

Firstly, the crowd - their pleasure comes from the suffering of the victim. If there's no suffering, there's no pleasure. However, if the crowd can be fooled into believing that the victim is suffering, we can imagine a situation where a great deal of pleasure is created with no suffering.

Secondly - the victim. Their suffering is dependent solely upon being tortured. Whether the crowd experiences pleasure or not makes no difference. If the torture isn't carried out, the suffering does not happen.

So (and bear with me here) we have now imagined a situation where the crowd experiences the same pleasure, but no suffering is caused. This is an alternative to the suffering situation, which is, according to our utilitarian rules, a more moral position than the first. Therefore, the first situation is, at least from this perspective, immoral.

Phew. Took a bit of rules-bending though, didn't it? There's two important points to take from it, though, that inform my views upon this.

First point - the disgust at the pleasure of the crowd. It's the same reason that people who hate fox hunting (and I must be honest and include myself as one of those people) generally hate it more than they hate the suffering caused by factory farming. The suffering of the fox, though extreme during a hunt, is small compared to that experienced throughout its life of your average broiler chicken, yet I suspect that not all those opposed to fox hunting are vegetarians. The point I'm trying to make is that the passions inflamed at the thought of animals hurting each other for entertainment are somewhat exaggerated by the disgust of other people's pleasure. I still hate such events, deeply and profoundly, but I try to keep in mind that objectively the suffering is less, perhaps, than other forms of animal exploitation.

Second point - any way of simulating such an event must be more moral than the event itself. We all have TVs and smartphones now. Let's not cause suffering in real life.

Third point - (and a bit more personal) if you take pleasure from watching pain caused to another living being, whether I try to think like a utilitarian or not, I'm going to think that you're a sick fucker, and not want anything to do with you.

My thoughts. Please add your own if you made it this far. And show your working if you want a response!


  1. Nick,

    You are a good man and I hope you never change. While I would disagree with some of your points, I fully respect your reasons why and hope one day the world will eventually change and live up to these reasons.


  2. Way to go Nick, my thoughts exactly, but I'm still striving to live up to them .... Josephine