Chocolate and Gold Coins

Friday, August 12, 2005

Ethical Treatment of Animals

Uma of Indianwriting, who is a superstar of Indian blogging, also helps write a blog about animal welfare: Animal Rights India. I often read this blog because it bothers me very much when humans mistreat animals. To me, mistreating an animal is like mistreating a child, because neither has the power to fight back. But, of course, humans are special, and it is hard to weigh the magnitude of a crime against a human against a similar act against an animal.

I think many Americans struggle with the question: “what exactly is our obligation to animals?” Do animals have rights? We eat animals (I don’t, but other Americans do), but we would feel very badly if an animal, especially a pet, were to suffer unnecessarily. Americans really love their pets, and to pet owners, their pets are like family.

I think the paradox of our treatment of animals was best illustrated by a T.V. show I saw maybe 6 or 7 years ago. I think it was the pet equivalent of the popular TV show Rescue 911. These were real life stories of emergency crews saving pets. In this episode, the rescuers risked their lives to enter a burning building to save…a pet pig. There’s some irony there. These rescuers might have gone home and ate sausage or pork chops. But the rescuers didn’t see any paradox here: “It wasn’t just a pig, it was somebody’s pet.”

Tyler Cowen, that great blogger of Marginal Revolution, struggles to put down his conflicting views on animal welfare:

Surely it seems reasonable to count the welfare of animals -- or at least selected high-cognition animals -- for something rather than nothing. But this throws moral calculations into a funk. Even if you count individual animals for very little, there are many billions of them.

Was it a good idea for humans to have settled the New World? I'll answer yes without hesitation. But what if billions of other mammals died -- in net terms -- as a result? I don't want my answer to depend on my relative weighting scheme for animal vs. human welfare. Nor would I kill a good friend to save the lives of a million cats. Or a billion cats for that matter. Yet I still wish to count cats for something positive.
It is disquieting that so many fascist thinkers have held animal welfare in high regard. Once we start counting animals in our moral theory, we too easily get used to the idea that violent conflict is an inevitable part of nature. Human vs. rat, and of course tiger vs. deer as well. How can we segregate this apparent endorsement of violence away from human-to-human affairs? Life as a secular moral thinker is difficult.

Read Tyler's article.
Tyler’s co-blogger, Alex Tabarrok objected to Tyler’s line: “Nor would I kill a good friend to save the lives of a million cats.” Alex wrote:

Tyler asks (I paraphrase) 'Would you kill your good friend for the lives of a million cats? What about a billion cats?' He answers, No, but says "Yet I still wish to count cats for something positive."

My answer is not only Yes it is that we do this routinely today. The introduction of "your good friend" …engages our primitive intuitions and feelings and that is why Tyler's answer goes awry. But consider, last year Americans spent more than 34 billion dollars on their pets. That money could have saved human lives had it gone to starving Africans.

Alex’s point is that our intuition is sometimes flawed. We are not comfortable with the idea of trading a human life for many animal lives, but implicitly we are doing exactly that when we feed our pet animals instead of using that money to help save human lives.

I think that Tyler was intuitively sensing what many people have determined: humans have an ethical responsibility towards animals. This ethic is more or less:

  1. For wild animals, we should keep our footprint as small as possible. We must not allow animal to become extinct. We should not interfere in nature’s balance.

  2. For livestock, we should treat them humanely until the time that they are slaughtered, and then we should make the slaughter as quick and painless as possible.

  3. For pets, we should treat them like family. We should feed them; and make sure they are safe and warm. We should never, ever harm them.

There are two questions here. First, is it ethical to eat animals? Wild animals eat each other, but they have to. Human don’t have to eat animals, so maybe we shouldn’t. But admittedly, that is my own personal opinion which I practice, but I cannot force that on others.

Second, why do we need to follow this ethic? Shouldn’t humans be free to do as they wish? Does animal welfare count beyond what we humans as individuals chose animal welfare to be? I think the treatment of animals affects others as well. We would be sickened to hear of someone mistreating an animal, so we cannot allow people to do what they like with animals they own.

Ethical rules are binary in nature: either you obey the ethic or you are unethical. You cannot pay a little to buy a little unethical behavior. You must obey the ethic in its entirety. The ethic above could be modified, but only by popular consent. These are binding rules on all people, so we must compel people to stay within these ethical rules. This is why people who mistreat their pets face criminal charges.

I believe it is this ethical motive that convinced us to create wildlife reserves so that animals would be protected. I believe it is very necessary for humans to venture into these areas to observe the wildlife, without disturbing them, so that we can create that love of wildlife within us that will allow us to perpetuate the ethic. But I think it is fundamentally unethical to destroy a wildlife reserve and make it into a commercial site. But I cannot deny that if most people want to change the ethic, maybe it needs changing.

Our ethically responsibilities towards animals is a controversial issue, and I cannot say that I am sure what is right or wrong here. I grew up eating meat and never thought anything of it, but, at some point, I decided it was wrong. I might still be wrong about the ethical treatment of animals.

Your opinions?


  • Hi Michael,

    This is a very insightful post. I eat some meat (mostly chicken) but I have never found myself thinking about the ethical ramifications of my meat eating. If I knew that a company was torturing chicken to provide me with food, I would not eat this company's meat. However, I also haven't bothered to completely inform myself about the way in which companies like Tyson treat their animals. I think I should probably do this.

    I think the klling of livestock and poultry for food is ok, but I don't think hunting wild animals is very ethical. I don't see why people get a kick out of killing large, defenseless animals.

    By the way, I really respect animal rights activists like Uma who go about doing their business in a very respectable, thought provoking manner. PETA, on the other hand, angers me greatly. Thery guerilla style activism is ridiculous, and is not at all appealing to me. It's ironic that some of their own people are being charged with animal cruelty.


    By Blogger Vikram A., at 11:35 PM  

  • Hi Vikram
    I ate meat for most of my life, so I cannot pass judgement on anyone. It's just a choice each person makes. But we should hope that the animals are treated well until their demise. Making cows cannibals, that is definitely unethical.

    I am not surprised that PETA is dominated by zealots. Causes tend to attract radicals.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 11:43 PM  

  • Excellent post Michael. I always found this topic very confusing. I mean where to draw the line. I don't have a clear stand on vegetarianism etc even now.

    I grew up as a vegetarian because my parents are vegetarians. I started eating meat -- not frequently though -- when I started college. Unlike many 'vegetarian parents', my parents didn't mind my meat eating. This occasional meat eating continued till I got married. (My wife doesn't eat meat and she doesn't use leather products.) After two years or so I started eating non-veg again occasionally.

    It's easy for me to be a vegetarian again as I never really liked the taste of meat. I used to eat meat just for the sake of company. But then I wouldn't advocate vegetarianism.

    Overall I sort of agree with Vikram's comment.

    Aside: I see that you are blogging away on a friday evening. I checked your site this morning (saturday IST), and this post wasn't there.

    By Anonymous Anand, at 1:13 AM  

  • I have a rule which i think people can follow ..... killing animals (painless and quick) as long as it is for food or worst case scenario defense is fine--- but never for fun.

    No other species kills animals for FUN.

    I think they have equal right on earth

    By Blogger @mit, at 1:43 AM  

  • Michael, angers me most when people abuse animals just for "fun" - becuase they are helpless and cannot defend themselves - and the abusers use them as vents for their own frustration...
    @mit, it is a fine line don't you think? hunting for food and for pleasure / fun - if Mr.Pataudi says he hunted for meat, that does not make it more acceptable!
    Vikram, PETA is mostly about shock value - true that they turn of more people than they reach out to....

    By Anonymous Charu, at 2:37 AM  

  • Hi Michael, I have often wondered about this too.

    I have a friend who loves animals. He knows a lot about dogs and takes care of even stray dogs on the road. Once he fought with the driver of a cattle-carrying truck, to tie the cows a little looser. But he is a non-vegetarian and relishes beef, pork, etc.

    Btw, though I am a vegetarian (both by tradition as well as choice), I respect my non-veg. friends' choice, and do not try to convert them. At the same time, I would do my utmost to ensure that my brother or my children (I am peeping into Volume Two here) be vegetarians.

    And Vikram, a doubt:
    killing large, defenseless animals
    Why the partiality towards large animals? And aren't chicken defenceless too?

    By Anonymous Srikanth, at 4:09 AM  

  • Michael,

    I enjoyed reading your article. You're right that pets are almost members of the family for many Americans.

    One thing I've noticed in India is that some animals are treated far better than others. For example, cows are generally treated with a lot of respect and are allowed to freely roam Bombay. Dogs and cats, on the other hand, are often beaten or violently shooed away.

    Obviously Hinduism plays a big role in the respect for cows, but it's still interesting to see the different levels of respect for different animals.

    By Blogger Vikrum, at 7:31 AM  

  • Michael,

    Once again, a very good post. It surely is difficult to draw a line between what is ethical and what is unethical. Intruding upon the natural habitat of wild animals and hunting them down is definitely wrong in my opinion. Ethics apart, it is outright against the balance in the ecosystem. However, when animals are killed for food (I am not talking about the exotic species, but the regular live stock like Chicken, Lamb, Cows), it does not cause any harm, does it? I believe such animals are bred for this purpose. Apart from that, if stray animals roam the road, causing inconvinience to the masses (which is common in India), removing them from the roads is not wrong. Logistically, it might not be possible to shelter all the stray animals, so most of them have to be killed.In this case, people are not intruding upon the animals - rather the animals are the intruders.


    By Blogger Deba, at 11:17 AM  

  • Michael, I have been a non-vegetarian all my life and love meat too much to give it up. But I still respect and even support animal rights. Is that a paradox? I think not. Some people abuse animals for sport and fun or even just to experience a 'high'. That I cannot tolerate.

    By Blogger Patrix, at 1:36 PM  

  • Hi Anand @mit and Charu:
    Anand: Your story is much like my wife's. She ate meat for some years, but she didn't like most meat (she never ate beef). She decided that the only animal she enjoyed eating was fish and we ate fish only for a year. Then she gave that up when she had a mysterious bout of hives. We never went back.

    We had some "discussions" about whether our son should eat meat or not. My wife was concerned that he was not getting protein (because he has never eaten a proper diet and that is not my decision). She always gets her way. But my son never really liked it too much and now he never eats it. He is eating a little better diet now and he's healthy.

    @mit: I don't agree with killing for fun. In Minnesota these crazy people (you should know @mit) will go on the ice a fish in the bitter cold and then just toss the fish back in the lake. It doesn't kill them but I wonder what the point is. On the other hand, nobody gets too worked up over fish. Intelligent animals get more respect.

    Charu: Are there any laws preventing animal abuse in India? I'm a little vague on the laws in the U.S. but I know that cruelty to a dog or a cat is unlawful. I doubt cruelty to fish is illegal, but no one gets their jollies that way anyway.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 1:54 PM  

  • Hi Srikanth, Vikrum, Deba, and Patrix
    Srikanth: It is interesting about what you say about your preference for you children and brother to be vegetarians. I wrote about that above. When my parents visit, they only eat vegetarian. Even in restaurants, they only eat vegetarian with us. Sometimes I'll say, "You don't have to order vegetarian for our sake," but they will always say, "No, that's okay." But they eat meat once they go home.

    Vikrum: That is interesting because I would say that dogs are by far the most loved animals in the U.S. If cows were smaller, though, then people might like them as pets also. I believe Amit still has some cows as pets.

    Deba: You can make a case that most animals raised for meat have a life of comparable quality to wild animals (I'm not making that case, but others might). One issue is that hunting has been so prevalent in the U.S. for so many years that stopping it would cause a great imbalance in the species. There are essentially no preditors in most areas to keep the population of deer in check. So that is a complex issue.

    Patrix: You're really not much different than most Americans. Most Americans eat meat but don't like the idea of allowing animal cruelty. And nearly all Americans believe pets are special simply because they are pets.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:15 PM  

  • Maybe this new biotech development could solve lot of problems

    By Blogger Patrix, at 2:29 PM  

  • Hi Michael,

    Thanks for linking, and for your kind words. Excellent post. Yes, I believe we do have an ethical responsibility to animals. And I agree that since humans don't have to eat meat, we shouldn't. But I also think that people work out a comfort matrix for themselves about where they stand on particular positions. So it's possible for someone to be a meat-eater and still work for animal welfare, and I have many friends who do so. I believe that all efforts matter, and everyone works out their own comfort matrix, so I respect that.

    As for the "meat is murder" position, I was just reading a Guardian report about some lab research that suggests that in the future, fresh meat could be produced by growing cells instead of by killing animals. It's all still at the lab stage of course, but it raises some interesting possibilities.

    Thanks again for discussing this issue.

    By Blogger uma, at 8:55 PM  

  • Hi Patrix and Uma
    Patrix: I've read about the invitro meat before (in Marginal Revolution in fact) but I'm not interested. Some people might like it though.

    Uma: Thank you for the kind words. I really admire the work you do on behalf of animal welfare. That is a noble cause. After all, animals cannot advocate their own cause.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 10:08 PM  

  • Michael very thought-provoking post. I have mulled over the same dilemma many a times, but I still haven't arrived at an answer. I think the basic question is whether nature meant us to be above the rest of the animal kingdom or not. Whether nature meant humans to be more ethical and more discriminate in killing other organisms than the rest of the animal kingdom.

    By Blogger gawker, at 11:40 AM  

  • Michael
    I'm all for compassion towards animal and all, but we already have a pre-determined hierarchy of established superiority amongst living creatures. So if it iner-species or intra-species, the weak will be dominated by the stronger ones and ultimately vanquished.

    Be it us feasting ourselves on dumb, mute hapless animals or countries getting bombed into anhilation, the pecking order is pretty much set.All the talk around desisting from eating other creatures is merely food for thought.

    Enjoy your vacation.

    By Blogger chappan, at 9:27 PM  

  • Hi Gawker and Sourin:
    Gawker: I'm not sure exactly what "what Nature meant for us" means. But I will say that our superior position in the Animal kingdom does bring resposibilities.

    Sourin: Although, I agree that humans will probably never desist, collectively, from feasting on other annimals, a large number of people, including myself, have made that choice. I think it is basically an individual choice. I believe more people will make that choice in the future.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:27 AM  

  • First, is it ethical to eat animals?

    Don't we need to then also ask the question, is it ethical to eat plants? Is it ethical to consume a potential life in the form of seeds? Is it a lesser crime to kill plants because they are lower forms of life?
    BTW, I am an eggitarian (I eat egg but not meat)
    Then again if it is okay to eat the flesh of animals then why is cannibalism so revolting?

    I am not sure there are any easy answers to be found.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:47 PM  

  • Hi Swami:
    Of course it is ethical to eat plants, for else we would starve. It is always extremely unethical to advocate the death of humans.

    I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian. I don't eat eggs often but they wind up in a lot of cake-style foods. I suppose I should give those up, if only because I really don't need to eat more cake.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:30 AM  

  • A really interesting post... i've been a vegetarian forever... but wear leather shoes and belts. I realised I was being a hypocrite and so started searching for more animal friendly acessories. I was really surprised and heartened by the choice I had. It's wonderful that it's easier being a vegetarian in today's world than it was for say 15-20 years before.

    By Blogger The ramblings of a shoe fiend, at 9:25 AM  

  • Michael,
    Interesting post. I think organisations such as PETA have allot of bark but very little Bite and their almost ultra radical mindset back fires at them. On the other hand organisation like the ASPCA do allot more with out being as provoking.

    By Blogger Akshay, at 11:46 AM  

  • Somehow I feel extremely happy to know you are a vegetarian ( though we don't know each other ). Certainly it is much more respectable than someone like me whose vegetarianism is aided by upbringing. Hence I am impelled to make a rather long comment, and ( insincere ) apologies in advance if it bores you.

    I am not quite comfortable with "respecting others' choice for meat eating". On what basis should we consider others' choice as more fundamental/sacred than animals' right to live?

    As for plants, I find the central nervous system argument convincing. There is no reason to assume that plants feel pain - they have only hormones, not nerves. Moreover, pain is a mechanism to alert an animal to run, fight etc. - which would be redundant in plants ( response-to-stimuli being effected with hormones ).

    I don't see any difference between showing more respect to a cow and showing more respect to one's own pets. The notion of "my" should not, ideally, affect morality/ethics. The cow-respect might have something to do with this : milk is the only animal product hindus consume, as it doesn't involve pain. Traditionally we are supposed to drink only what is in excess of a calf's requirement, so the cow-is-a-mother-as-it-gives-milk rule might have been invented to see to it that people did not deprive a calf of its genuine share of milk. Atleast it helps a little for that.

    Indian tradition atleast talks of sages who used to eat only dry grass, some who used to eat only fallen fruits etc. I have heard without authentic reference from a friend that some
    religious pontiffs as late as early twentieth century used to mostly eat twigs etc. - in case the name makes sense to you, he said "kAn~ci periyavar" was one such person.

    But it seems near-impossible to lead a perfectly cruelty-free life. While I have started using cruelty-free toothpaste, detergent etc. I often have to use public restrooms with random detergents. Also, one should try to use as many organic vegetables as one can since pesticides also involve cruelty to insects. Even organic farming might involve some cruelty that way...

    Of course, this business of saving good friend instead of a million cats seem sheer selfishness. But I would prefer my friend too, and let me not hesitate in admitting that I am selfish.

    By Blogger froginthewell, at 4:07 PM  

  • Hi Michael,
    Since I was born into a vegetarian family, it was easy for me to be vegetarian. When I was older, I could make a choice, and I felt I wouldn't be able to eat meat, but perhaps it was because I hadn't eaten meat during my childhood.

    So, the way I see it is that eating meat is fine, that's a personal choice, but cruelty to animals is definitely not. Every thing, from beating cattle, to stoning a stray dog is equally cruel (leave alone hunting for sport). And children pick up the traits to be cruel from their parents or elders. I've noticed a lot of parents, when they are walking with their kids, picking up a stone to throw at a stray dog. The child sees his/her parents do this, and figures there's nothing wrong in this. Kids learn to be kind or cruel to animals very early....and what's learnt early is hard to change.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 10:12 AM  

  • Hi Froginthewell and Sunil:
    Froginthewell: Thanks for the long comment. I have to disagree with one point: your own pets are special to you. They are adopted members of the family, and family comes first.

    Sunil: I agree that kids learn from their parents how to treat animals. If their parents are crueld to animals, they will likely learn that there's nothing wrong with animal cruelty.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:10 AM  

  • we were the destroyers now we should be the saviors,conservers protectors of these animals.

    By Blogger nainadagr8, at 8:44 AM  

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