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Cruel to be kind

Making animals suffer is generally a bad thing - unless it's done for the good of humanity.

Jan Bowman

Topics Politics

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On 24 November 2004, a new memorial will be opened in London’s Hyde Park to the animals that have died in warfare. But should recognition of animal suffering be placed on a pedestal in this way?

Many of us who support the use of animals for research feel bad about the pain they experience. When we walk past animal rights stalls, decorated with gory photos of electrode-festooned cats, we feel uncomfortable. But this human response is in fact evidence of the vast moral gulf between us and them. If anything, it should remind us why such scientific research is important.

Some past societies got a kick out of watching people being eaten alive by wild animals. Modern man does not. We feel sick reading reports from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) about people who do such things as nailing their dog to a board and sawing its legs off. Likewise, we no longer view bear baiting and cockfighting as entertainment.

Humanity’s inventions, from printing to the internet, have made us more humane. Technology increases our understanding of ourselves and other species and helps us to empathise – a uniquely human trait – with those different from us.

Nowadays, though, it is common to condemn the human species as irredeemably violent, and also to fetishise the innocence of beasts. Thus, animal rights activists argue that out of all the worthy causes they could adopt, animals are the most deserving, because only animals are so defenceless and have no one else to stand up for them. Campaigners link their crusade to the struggle of oppressed people for equal rights, and insist that granting rights to animals is part of the same struggle. To them, human intelligence is irrelevant. Instead, they consider the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s maxim – ‘Ask not “Can they reason?” but “Can they suffer?”’ – a justification for granting rights to animals.

But although animals may suffer physical pain, they will never know the torment experienced by, say, a hostage’s family. Even the higher apes can only manage a very limited form of thought, less than that of a two-year-old child. Humans, by contrast, will sometimes undergo terrible suffering simply for an idea. Because we have imagination we can be tortured mentally. If degrees of suffering are to be our moral guide, people are infinitely more deserving. In any case, you can’t exercise rights unless you have the wit to understand them – which animals do not.

But does this mean we have the moral right to torture animals?

We often fall back on the notion that our power over nature brings with it a ‘duty of care’ – to at least treat animals with respect and avoid hurting them unnecessarily. But who says what is necessary and what isn’t? After all, humanity only got this far by exploiting animals. Until we had plastics, almost everything we wore and most of what we used every day was made from bits of animal. And while some of us would balk at testing peppermint foot lotion on rabbits, we’re glad our shampoos were.

Morality is dependent on social circumstances, so it changes as society develops. In primitive societies, where survival is a daily struggle, humans have to cope with conditions we wouldn’t subject our dogs to. Women and animals are both treated worse accordingly. In most of the developed world however, denying people equal treatment because of their gender, sexuality or colour is no longer socially acceptable.

As society becomes more civilised, our treatment of animals also tends to improve. In the developed world we can afford to provide medicine, heated shelter and an endless supply of food for the animals we use. And it is socially unacceptable nowadays to fry your gerbil, but this has nothing to do with the gerbil having rights. It’s purely to do with what it means to be human.

We have no duties or responsibilities to animals. We have a responsibility to ourselves, as humans, to behave humanely, by not causing suffering for fun. We should object to tearing the wings off butterflies, not because the butterfly has a right to hang on to its wings, but because it degrades us to amuse ourselves by inflicting pain on something. Domestic cats will mindlessly torture half-dead birds. We scold children for wrecking rose bushes because such wanton destruction offends our sense of civilised behaviour. Nowaday, that moral sense includes not microwaving your cat. But this doesn’t preclude the use of animals in scientific research, nor should it.

To breed cows and chickens for food and keep them in crowded cages all their lives may be distasteful to some humans, but it doesn’t mean much to the animal. And we still live in a world where some humans can be treated like dogs, and pets get treated like people; and the government faces as much pressure over foxhunting as it does over the war in Iraq.

Our moral judgement should be based on whether something takes humanity forward, or holds us back. Setting your dog on fire for fun doesn’t take us forward. Wiring that dog up with electrodes to find a cure for Parkinson’s does.

Jan Bowman was a vegan for 10 years, before it became fashionable. Now she works as an illustrator, and will eat anything.

Read on:

spiked-issue: On animals

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Topics Politics

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