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Animal rights & wrongs

June 3, 2011

The recent report by Four Corners about the live cattle trade to Indonesia has got people talking. The report showed that some Indonesian abattoirs are acting “inhumanely” towards the cattle, where some cows take over three minutes to die (instead of the industry standard 30 seconds) and other cows are beaten and abused. Many scenes from the report were gruesome to watch, and it has stirred a popular backlash against the live animal trade. In response, GetUp started a campaign against live animal exports, and the government has responded.

This debate is framed as being about “animal rights”. But it isn’t. If anybody was honestly determining the rights of animals, surely the first right would be the right not to be killed just so that people could eat their flesh. No honest person would say that “the right to not be punched in the face” comes before “the right to live”. If I told you that there was a guy called Brian… and that one person wanted to beat him up, and another person wanted to kill him and eat him, are you honestly going to say that you think the first guy is doing the greater crime?

What if I told you there was a cow called Brian? This is from the GetUp campaign:

Brian (a cow) did nothing to deserve being hit in the face, whipped, or kicked. Each time this occurred he called out in a way which was heart-wrenching. I swear I could hear him call out ‘why’

There is a bit of false morality at play in this debate. Vegetarians can rightly claim that they are being consistent, and I admire them for that. But for the meat-eating population to say that they believe in the inalienable right of cows not to be punched is absurd. What did you have for lunch?

There are only two intellectually honest and consistent positions to take on animal rights. Either animals have rights, and so you can’t kill them to satisfy a craving. Or animals do not have rights, including the right to life or the right to not be punched. Given that few people are calling for the banning of “animal murder”, it’s safe to say that our society denies meaningful rights to animals.

This isn’t a debate about animal rights. It is a debate about human squeamishness.

Us modern middle-class city types don’t like to see death or suffering. I certainly don’t. Most of us don’t want to see animals get slaughtered, which is why we out-source that responsibility to slaughter-men so that we can eat our cow-flesh without seeing blood. We like to anthropomorphise animals and treat them (relatively) well, until they disappear into a magical building and come out as bacon, burgers & bratwurst. Our culture now generally condemns people who let animals suffer, and we condemn them twice as much if we have to see the suffering (or if the animal is cute). But instead of dressing up our squeamishness in the moralistic jargon of “animal rights”, let’s be honest and admit that this is about our personal preferences.

Of course, it didn’t always used to be this way. Through much of history, people felt comfortable doing their own “dirty work” and killing their own food. Around the world today there remain many people who are comfortable with the site of animal suffering and death. In your next life, I recommend not coming back as a dog in the wrong part of Asia. Or a rooster in Haiti (where cockfighting is legal). Some Muslims believe that stunning cattle before the kill (to minimise suffering) is not “halal” and so they remain committed to the idea of a messy kill. Whether you think those Muslims are being barbaric savages or religiously enlightened is not the point — their approach to animal welfare is nothing new or unique.

I am not a cultural relativist, and so I feel comfortable saying that I prefer our approach to animal welfare. But I’m also not a cultural imperialist. While my squeamishness will lead me to argue for stunning (and other simple steps to minimise suffering) I do not think it is appropriate for me to use the government to impose my culture and my personal preferences on others, by banning the live animal trade. We should engage with the Indonesians, and encourage them to see things our way. Committed people can go to Indonesia and set up better abattoirs, or pay Indonesians to improve their standards, or directly buy the cattle themselves and refuse to export them to Indonesia. Those are all reasonable avenues for voluntary community action to promote our personal preferences. But as much as we want to force change, the one thing we should not use is force.

Further, even if you believe in forcing your preferences on others, there is another reason why a live animal export ban makes no sense. If Australia decides to impose live cattle sanctions on Indonesia, that will undoubtedly cause problems for Indonesian businesses and consumers in the short-term… but after a while they will adjust and start buying their cattle from elsewhere. When that happens, what will the benefit have been? Instead of Australian-born cows suffering a slow death, there will be foreign-born cows suffering a slow death.

The idea that “Australian” cows are more important than foreign cows is nationalism gone mad.

As David Leyonhjelm explained in his refreshingly logical article: “The objective ought to be the adoption by all of Indonesia’s abattoirs of humane slaughtering practices, whether the cattle are Australian or not”. Imposing trade restrictions, insulting millions of Indonesians, and destroying an Australian industry will do nothing to achieve that end.

  1. June 11, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Like 4corners decide who they will attack next. 60minutes were the best for wrecking lives with their heartless attacks on individuals. Now we have the industial vandals who use the media to wreck not only the lively hoods of Australian Beef Producers but Indonesians who are powerless to sue such a ignorant bunch of Australian bureaucrats. The arguement that Indonesians can buy chilled or frozen beef from Australia HalAl Meat Works is little comfort if you have no Refrigerator.

  2. Cliff Kerr
    June 12, 2011 at 5:36 am

    You make an interesting argument, but I’m not sure I can accept your premise that the right to life is more fundamental than the right to avoid suffering. After all, consider the Geneva Conventions: they prohibit specific acts of cruelty during wartime, while recognizing the obvious fact that people get killed. Thus, although I’m a vegetarian myself, I don’t think there’s anything dishonest or inconsistent about people who think meat should come from humanely raised and slaughtered animals.

  3. June 14, 2011 at 7:37 am

    I agree with you Cliff… there are worse things in the world than death. But I don’t think that honestly explains the position that people hold about animals. Extreme torture might be worse than death, but being punched in the face, or kicked, or whipped, or even having your legs broken… are probably all preferable to being killed.

    I think honest introspection reveals that most people didn’t start with a consideration of animal rights, and then use that to justify certain behaviour. Instead, they start with which behaviours they like (eating meat, not seeing suffering) and use that to backward reason some convenient “rights”.

    I personally agree with the preference to not see suffering, which justifies people’s preference for humanely raised and slaughtered animals. But I recognise it is *my* preference, and does not come from an honest consideration of the rights of animals. I agree with people promoting their preferences, but I do not agree with people enforcing their preferences.

    • Cliff Kerr
      June 14, 2011 at 9:19 am

      I agree that few people begin with a conception of animal rights and then use that to deduce what’s moral or immoral. But Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, and others have done a series of clever experiments showing that such thinking is the rule, not the exception: people decide first what they think is moral and only later try to come up with a rational justification for it. This applies not just to animal ethics but social and political situations as well. Here’s an article discussing Haidt’s work:

      Thus, I don’t think it really matters whether or not “animal rights” is the actual reason for people’s outrage, or whether it’s just a convenient (if inaccurate) shorthand. If you really want a rational justification, you can easily get one from utilitarianism or from a rule prohibiting “unnecessary” violence and suffering. In either case, I can’t see how one could definitively categorize this moral issue as a “preference”, while categorizing others as “necessities”. Instead, it seems to me that different people choose to draw the preference vs. necessity line in different places, usually depending on how strongly they feel about an issue. The extreme example of this is the cultural relativist who says that we shouldn’t impose our “preferences” on the Taliban: their morality says that a woman who’s been raped should be stoned to death, and who are we to tell them they’re wrong? Everyone has a different opinion on which moral principles are important enough to impose on others, and while I think this instance of animal cruelty is one of them, I respect your view that it isn’t. But I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that some moral stances can be objectively classified as “preferences”.

      Finally, I should mention Hal Herzog’s excellent book “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat”, which discusses many of these issues.

  4. June 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    I think you’re right that it is common to backward reason morality, but I don’t think that is a good thing. And I think it does matter. Having an internally inconsistent morality leads to inconsistent and irrational philosophy and politics.

    I don’t think you can justify inconsistent animal rights with utilitarianism. If animals were able to make the choice, I doubt they would pick “right to not be punched” in front of “right to life”… and more fundamentally, before we consider animal utility we need to accept that they are part of the population which we are utility maximising. The idea that we should include animal utility in the national utility function is an internally consistent position, but it is held by only a very small vegan minority. I don’t share those views.

    Some people would also argue against using national utility as a justification for public policy, but that’s a different debate.

    When you use the word “unnecessary” in a moral rule regarding animals, that begs the question of what is necessary. Is leather necessary? Are cheeseburgers necessary? Indeed, is “necessity” even a relevant criteria?

    When you say that people draw different lines depending on “how strongly they feel about an issue” you are implicitly accepting my argument that animal cruelty is an issue of preferences. I prefer not to see suffering. I imagine you agree with me. Some people disagree. On what basis should we impose our views on other people?

    Finally, you are very, very wrong to equate a cultural relativist with a non-interventionist. It is simply not true that tolerance implies acceptance. There are many behaviours, cultures and beliefs that I dislike… but I don’t want to use coercion/violence to impose my preferences. Just because you like or dislike something, that doesn’t mean you need the government to ban, enforce, tax or subsidise it.

    Predicting that somebody may mention the idea of “tolerating rape, murder, theft, etc” I will pre-emptively point out that these are not issues of personal preference, but issues of violence/coercion.

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