Editor's Note: Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Ethics of What We Eat, and The Life You Can Save. For more from Singer, visit Project Syndicate's website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.
By Peter Singer
Mahatma Gandhi acutely observed that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” To seek to reduce the suffering of those who are completely under one’s domination, and unable to fight back, is truly a mark of a civilized society.
Charting the progress of animal-welfare legislation around the world is therefore an indication of moral progress more generally. Last month, parallel developments on opposite sides of the world gave us grounds for thinking that the world may, slowly and haltingly, be becoming a little more civilized.
First, the British House of Commons passed a motion directing the government to impose a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. The motion followed the release of undercover footage, obtained by Animal Defenders International, of a circus worker repeatedly beating Anne, an elephant. The measure was, at least initially, opposed by the Conservative government, but supported by members of all political parties. In a triumph for parliamentary democracy, the motion passed without dissent.
More controversially, the lower house of the Dutch parliament passed a law giving the Jewish and Islamic communities a year to provide evidence that animals slaughtered by traditional methods do not experience greater pain than those that are stunned before they are killed. If the evidence cannot be provided, stunning before slaughter will be required in the Netherlands.
At times, it has seemed that gains for animals in Western countries have been outweighed by increasing animal abuse in China, as growing prosperity there boosts demand for animal products. I found it difficult to watch the videotape of the beating of Anne, but that recording did not compare to videos I have seen of animal cruelty in China.
The sickening footage available online shows bears kept in cages so small that they cannot stand up, or in some cases move at all, so that bile can be taken from them. Worse still (if one can compare such atrocities) is a video showing fur-bearing animals being skinned alive and thrown onto a pile of other animals, where they are left to die slowly.
In light – perhaps one should say darkness – of such images, it is sometimes suggested that animal welfare is exclusively a Western concern. But that is implausible, given that Buddhist tradition places more emphasis on concern for animals than Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Long before Western philosophers included animals in their ethics, Chinese philosophers like Zhuangzi said that love should permeate relations not only between humans, but between all sentient beings. Nowadays, China has its own animal-rights campaigners, and there are signs that their message is beginning to be heard.
One recent sign again concerns circuses. Chinese zoos have drawn crowds by staging animal spectacles, and by allowing members of the public to buy live chickens, goats, and horses in order to watch them being pulled apart by lions, tigers, and other big cats. Now the Chinese government has forbidden state-owned zoos from taking part in such cruelty.
Welcome as these initiatives are, the number of animals in circuses and zoos is tiny compared to the tens of billions of animals suffering in factory farms. In this area, Western countries have set a deplorable example.
Recently, however, the European Union has recognized that the intensive confinement of farm animals has gone too far. It has already outlawed keeping veal calves in individual stalls,and, in six months, it will be illegal in all 27 EU countries, from Portugal to Poland and from Britain to Greece, to keep laying hens in the bare-wire cages that today dominate the egg industry around the world. In January 2013, keeping breeding sows in individual stalls will also be prohibited.
The United States lags behind Europe in getting rid of the worst forms of abuse of farm animals. The problem does not lie with voters, who, in states like Florida, Arizona, and California, have shown that they want farm animals to have better protection than the animal industries typically provide. The biggest problems are in those states that lack a mechanism for citizens to initiate a referendum on how farm animals should be treated. Unfortunately, this group includes the Midwestern and southern states, where the majority of America’s farmed animals are produced.
China’s centralized government can, if it so chooses, ensure that animal-welfare laws apply throughout the country. The animal-welfare movement in China should not be satisfied with its small but conspicuous success regarding animal abuse in zoos. It must move on to the far more significant target of better living conditions and more humane deaths for bears and fur-bearing animals, as well as for cows, pigs, laying hens, and chickens.
There remain many other countries with deplorable animal-welfare standards. In Indonesia, for example, Animals Australia recorded undercover videos showing such brutal treatment of Australian-raised cattle that Australia’s government suspended cattle exports to the country. Now some MPs are calling for a permanent ban. The best hope for further progress, it seems, lies in animal welfare becoming, like human rights, an international issue that affects countries’ reputations.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011. www.project-syndicate.org. For a podcast of this commentary in English, click here.
There is no such thing as humane slaughter.
Agreed. But there will always be a 'humane-er' slaughter. And we should definitely keep looking for the humanest one.
I agree with you 150%!!!!!! Not sure what would be considered 'humane-er' slaughter? Slaughter of defenseless animals is just that. Slaughter and inhumane. The REAL question is not whether than can feel or reason, but whether they can suffer, and suffer they do. At the hands of man - the most dangerous creature on this planet - with very few thinking about the implications our actions have on those that are defenseless and alone. Sickening. Humane-er Slaughter? What is that anyway?
This reads like chinese brain wash. There is no country more cruel to animals and people than china.
Well it depends more on how their lives are lived. If they got to be free in pastures and happy then got a quick death it is humane, but when they are in stall eating indegestable food it isn't their death that should be seen as inhumane, but their actual lives.
And this is the reason we cannot allow legislation that prohibits photographers and filmmakers from creating images on farms in the United States and elsewhere. Without the graphic images, people would ignore the problem. Those states attempting to prohibit access should vote down legislation that inhibits freedom of the press.
Ann, so true. I have heard so many times, "i don't want to see that, it is too disturbing". well, that is exactly what people do need to do. Sit down and watch those videos of helpless animals getting beaten or crammed into cages were they live for years. and more people we go towards vegetarianism and veganism. Both of which are always a more compassionate people.
Why in many post is it one group or another??? To Vikingwoman "but I also don't want kids to be sold into s. e. x. slavery, or my 74 year old mom to have to continue to work because her social security barely covers rent." we do not dispute all those things are very important and so many people advocate for all different kinds of reasons, but animals are defenseless and need to be helped and protected. If someone can treat an animal horrifically, a human may be next. We all know there is a correlation between people who abuse animals and serial killers/murderers.
Totally agree Ann, if they've nothing to hide it shouldn't be a problem for the world to see what goes on. It is the farmers who are exercising abusive, cruel and shameful behavior towards animals who are against cameras and there are many atrocities in these places that you really don't want to think about. The more the public know about these places the better chance there is to improve them and they certainly need to improve, improve and improve some more.
We should judge the morality of a country by how it treats animals.Good riddance from Prof. Singer.I guess we should ignore the inequality and desolation in our societies and consider where dog's sleep.
Can you send me a mat because water just rushed into my bedroom?
Do you really think it's not possible to be concerned about more than one thing at a time? Why do people who are anti-animal welfare always make it an either/or situation? We can and do spend billions on human welfare as well.
First moron, there is no apostrophe after dog. Secondly, only concerned about humans? Well think of your sorry ass in this world where entire species are being wiped out in alarming rates, and where the environment is sick and dying. Humans (except for children and the mentally challenged) can make choices and (hopefully) defend themselves, animals cannot. WE have become the scourge, the locusts who will kill until there is nothing left. Good riddance to us!
The worst of all animal cruelty is the exploitation for economic purposes. Bears, tigers and other animals are slaughtered and their organs extracted and sold to Chinese medicine men.
What's happening to the Rhino in South Africa is inhumane and deplorable. We are on the verge of losing this magnificent animal because of the Chinese's obsession with animal medicine. May God safe this great animal for future generations!
"God" has nothing to do with it. "He" at best, seems to be disinterested.
I think there are much better ways to judge the progress of a civilization. While I do not condone abuse I tire of the vegan groups and their offshoots that seek to elevate animals to or above that of a person. I am tired of these holier than thou know it all's calling for extreme and costly regulation with little thought to the consequences. It amazes me how actual people are given little to no consideration when discussing medical research, food production, and other lofty ideals espoused by these enlightened individuals.
When a society provides economic growth and prosperity for it's people, fair minded laws, and tangible equality for all people that is a true gauge of how civilized they have become. Perhaps Mr. Singer can afford his lofty ideals working for an Ivy league college but reality is very different from intellectual debates on a college campus.
You don't have to be vegan to care about the way animals are treated. Lets face it, if we didn't eat meat, drink milk or wear wool clothing these animals would not exist. There would be no use for the cow, pig, sheep or any other animal that is produced for man's benefit. The world is never going to become vegan so the process needs to be as humane as it is possible to make it for these poor animals. Another problem seems to be a lot of the farm/abattoir/animal auctions & transporters seem to absolutely hate the animals they deal with because they are just so abusive towards them, kicking, beating, punching, prodding, it never ends and this needs to be addressed urgently. They must be really sick head cases to do these evil acts on animals who have already come from an abusive environment and on their way to their death. WE JUST NEED TO TREAT ANIMALS WITH COMPASSION, THEY ARE ALL SENTIENT ANIMALS.
Amen, Publius. Right on the money.
Amen, Publius. Right on the money. Plus I say that anyone who advocates animals over people, should be required to pay the salaries of those who lose their jobs due to conservation measures.
Publius and Qwuasi.gh, the idea that you can judge a nation's moral progress by how it treats animals does not put animals above humans. It is simply recognizing the fact that animals can be abused and violated without consequence. Human rights will generally come long before animals welfare so its just recognizing that it is how we treat the most vulnerable that shows our moral character.
Theory and philosphy are great in theory BUT...
Reality is different. In VA we have a woman prosecuted and convicted for animal neglect because her dogs teeth had tartar. At the same time in Florida adults living below the poverty line can't get dental care.
I support reasonable laws regarding the responsible ownership of animals and reasonable humane care for farm and research animals. However when the people spinning the conversation want a hands off approach to animals and are lobbying for this I draw a line. Low cost, safe food is a necessity as is medical research. Making these things impossible or to costly to legally accomplish helps no one.
Is it in the animals best interest to allow their numbers to become too large for the land to support them? Or should we allow control hunting to keep the nature balance. Which by the way is how it is supposed to be. I am sorry animals would not know what to do with their rights even if they were granted. Meanwhile millions of dollars are wasted lobbying for laws that don't work, lawsuits, and propaganda not for the animals themselves but because a group of intellectuals would like to force their agenda and lifestyles on others.
I wonder how many times Mr. Singer volunteers to clean up and care for the animals he thinks he represents?
Publius, I would imagine Mr. Singer volunteered to clean up and care for the animals he thinks he represents at least one more time than you. He is out there trying, making progress and point. He has people talking and some of those take action and make things happen.
In your mention of population control of animals, do not forget to take into consideration that our massive production of livestock for human consumption is what causes any idea of that being an issue. Besides, at least animals can be legally used to contribute back to society for nutrition where there is no means to control the amount of over producing welfare reciepients sucking up all the government money used to fund these benefits you are mentioning not having. Hmmm...thin line to me. We create these problems for ourselves, largest disease known to the planet is the human race. I would agree that treating something fair and respectfully that is are helpless as animals is a fine judge of character and morality.
Hear, hear Publius! I don't want to see animals suffer, but I also don't want kids to be sold into s. e. x. slavery, or my 74 year old mom to have to continue to work because her social security barely covers rent. I wish there was enough food to keep babies alive past their 1'st birthday in 3rd world countries, I wish for world peace & equality for all! In the meantime I'm glad there are people who take animal wellfare seriously. However, until we can treat eachother humanely, can we truly hope for better towards animals?!?
Those that do treat animals more kindly are those who are already more kind and compassionate towards humans. people who do not see the reason innocent, defenseless animals need a voice, lack compassion
"When the death of the disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed."
The above is a quote from your enlightened, sentinent, and oh so compassionate Mr. Singer. He has also stated something to the effect that a Down's baby has less right to life than an adult pig or some such nonsense.
I do not look to individuals like this for my moral compass.
Publius and hangers-on,
what is so very wrong in your eyes with granting animals the status they've had since the dawn of time, indeed long before man came along and took it from them to elevate himself above them? I think, the one things this shows is a very marked inferiority complex of mankind in general, with people forever trying to compensate for by always seeking some they can call less than themselves – first blacks, then women, and animals .. well, that is a long story indeed. And one that needs to come to an end, finally. Putting Animals on one level with Humans is as it always should have been, indeed, as it IS – like it or not. We are ALL kin. We all come from the same place, and we all go to the same place. We are made of the same components, we breathe the same air, we drink the same water. Our lack to accept this kinship is what has made all this mass murder and abuse of these sentient possible in the first place. Not something we should be proud of.
love your comments, Albion. all so true. wish more people in the world had you mind.
"like it or not. We are ALL kin. We all come from the same place, and we all go to the same place. We are made of the same components, we breathe the same air, we drink the same water. Our lack to accept this kinship is what has made all this mass murder and abuse of these sentient possible in the first place. Not something we should be proud of."
"Putting Animals on one level with Humans is as it always should have been, indeed, as it IS – like it or not."
I just can't agree with this sentiment at all. Sure, humans are primates, as Christopher Hitchens likes to point out, but no other animal has ever created a society. Treating animals humanely is one thing, but to put them, in societal terms, on the level with us is raising them to level they don't belong as of yet. After all, as far as I am aware there is no such thing as cruelty to humans as committed by animals, which you necessarily have to accept for your view to work (ex. a wolf or a shark tearing a live human apart). You claim to want equality for animals, but in the process of your argument you seem to have glossed over the realities of nature and the moralizing ends up actually putting humans above animals anyway.
Personally I think Singer is a bit of an idiot with reference to some of his other comments that have related to withholding medical treatment from disabled kids or preferences for them to have never been born in the first place. With regards to the humane treatment of animals as an Australian resident I as well as many others were appalled at the footage that was displayed on the 4 Corners program recently. We here in Australia stun cattle before they are killed, something that did not appear to be happening in Indonesia and as such I support the ban until such time that the animal welfare standards there can be brought up to an acceptable level to minimise the discomfort to the animals.
just disgusting anymore who would hurt animals should deserve to have the same treatment done to then. Human that do this to animals should not be allow to work with animals and she be thrown in jail forever. They are not human beings if you touch animals they are inhuman. Disgusting people.
Why don't animal welfare agents such as Peter Singer never include pets in their crusade against animal crualty? Their exploitation can be considered as cruel if not more, by its apparent innocence, than other forms of animal cruelty.
The problem is in the very concept of pet. Sometimes, indeed, it’s cruel to be kind. Every species has an essence, an innate core that includes a compulsion to engage in a series of intrinsic activities and to meet specific needs that were formed over millions of years of evolution. No animal in captivity can incarnate its essence. Although they have lived by man’s side for thousands of years, today’s pets carry with them all the instincts of their wild predecessors; however, in the interest of survival under domestication, these must be kept in check. The dog will always be a denatured wolf deprived of satisfying its pack instincts; the domestic cat will always be a carnivorous predator in a permanent state of inhibition; the bird in a cage, like the others, will remain a creature deprived of its most fundamental prerogatives: to come and go freely, to explore its territory, to socialize with others of its kind, to reproduce, to eat the right foods.
An animal constrained to life in an environment that is not its own is subjected to an almost constant disequilibrium. Impoverished by captivity, bored by inactivity, it necessarily develops a host of neurotic behaviors due to the emotional ties of total dependence and to the lack of factors that it needs to incarnate its true nature. Says psychiatrist Hubert Montagner in a speech given in 1998 at the French Information Center on Pets:
“Man does not hesitate to control every aspect of his animals’ existence. He tampers with his appearance. He confines it to spaces under his control, imposing exclusive or near-exclusive proximity. He limits his communication with others like it. He selects for behaviors that meet his expectations and conditions his animal to follow rituals. He imposes his whims and self-serving decisions. He encloses it within his own emotions and projections.”
Such violation of any being’s essence is the negation of true love and empathy. And various shows of affection, like hiring a professional dog-walker, putting boots and a coat on your pet, dressing up the relation with feel good words such as love, child, and guardian, will never make things right. Professor Yi-Fu Tuan of Yale University shows in his book Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets how affection, a latent form of violence, is used as an instrument of power:
“Love is not what makes the world go around. […] There remains affection. However, affection is not the opposite of dominance: rather it is dominance’s anodyne – it is dominance with a human face. Dominance may be cruel and exploitative, with no hint of affection in it. What it produces is the victim. On the other hand, dominance may be combined with affection, and what it produces is the pet. […] Affection mitigates domination, making it softer and more acceptable, but affection itself is possible only in relationships of inequality. It is the warm and superior feeling one has towards things that one can care for and patronize. The word care so exudes humaneness that we tend to forget its almost inevitable tainting by patronage and condescension.”
What children are most likely to learn through are self-centeredness and a deep disrespect for animals. These traits of character will become the ground rules for all of their future relationships. More or less, we interact the same way with other animals as we do with human animals – and not always in accordance with safeguards like laws, rules, and principles. According to several ethnologists and sociologists, the animal condition is essentially a reflection of the human condition, “the duplicate in positive and negative of our relationships with our own kind, ” says French sociologist Jean Pierre Diggard. Thus, we treat our own children, spouses, employees, friends, citizens, and on a larger scale, nations, and the environment, like animals, and that is precisely the problem. The damaging nature of our relationship with animals stays out of focus simply because there is no other behavioral point of reference with which to compare it.
Yah, well, whatever.
My dogs and cats are quite happy. Thank you for your concern. The dogs get lots of attention and exercise, and enjoy each other's company. The cats lay in the sun, play with each other (and the dogs), and get affection when they want. If that's neurosis-inducing captivity, I hope my next life is as cruel.
During the antebellum period, in southern USA, there were also what you would define as well-treated slaves according to thir master's criterias. They were called Uncle Tom's. But which ever way you cut it, they were still slaves that could be disposed of by their masters in what ever way they chose. There are different kinds of cruelty. There is the more obvious an blatant one you could could call hard cruelty.Every one is pretty good at spoting it, it is so obvious. But there are also softer kinds of cruelty which operate under the cover of good intentions and sentiments. Precisely for that reason, you could argue that these forms of cruelty are much more perverse by their subtlety and hypocrisy.
Fairly off-topic, but I wanted to post a warning to all my fellow animal lovers out there:
We had a very wet spring, so a lot of houses around here are experiencing insect problems. For us, it means an invasion of carpenter ants. I sprayed outside, and then got some of those little ant bait traps to put under my sinks inside. The label said to keep them away from pets, so of course I only put them in cabinets where they were out of reach.
Well, I have a Lab. A "counter-cruising" Lab. If I leave bread on the counter, he'll get it. We have to be careful.
Unfortunately, it NEVER occurred to me that he might be interested in those ant bait traps! I had taken one out of the box, and the other 3 were still in the box, on the table. I guess they must have a sweet smell or something, because our Lab ate them all! Thank goodness, I noticed in time, and we got him to the vet. He's okay. If I hadn't noticed, it could have caused a very painful death from internal bleeding.
SO - if you do use those products, don't leave them out!
If it causes a "very painful death from internal bleeding," do you think it is in any way humane to use this product on any living creature?
The silliest thing about all the hype concerning animal abuse is that people seem to make some arbitrary distinction between "wild" and "tame" animals. The latter is often tortured from birth in order to produce maximal muscle in the shortest time, so that people can eat these muscles.. hos can that be acceptable whilst hunting a wild animal that at least had an opportunity to experience its natural habitat? A good hunter's prey suffers MUCH less than an animal born destined for the abbatoir.
Animal wellfare signals moral progress only because it signals a shift from religiously-based morality to empathy-based morality.
However, "Whatever feels right" is not exactly a rigorous definition for what is right and wrong, so a shift towards empathy-based morality may not be that much of an advancement towards any absolute moral high ground.
While the comparison between animal lives and human lives is essential in understanding animal welfare, it apparently is very easy to bring this issue out of context by deflection.
Animals and humans both feel pain in a way that can be helped little by the ability to reason. Gandhi said what he said because his morality was grounded in a search for truth.
Comparing the effects of physical torture to the countless other issues humans face is a pretty obvious attempt to derail the truth and use animal welfare as a prop to push a different agenda.
To me this article is a great summary of the success and exponential growth that's going on in the movement for compassion. Congratulations to everyone who's helping the world see this truth.
Frankly, those morons beating on that poor elephant or any other animal should be strapped to a post and bull whipped!
They are sick vermin who should not even exist!
Man is not an animal. Animals are food – certain ones anyway. If animals do something wrong to man or woman they should be torchered – not killed?? that is the reverse of what some are saying. Nooooo
They are food like cattle, sheep, deer, etc. I think we should regard our beasts, og course – yet we should love thy neighbor even if he has a problem. Animal rights are a different thing, Man or woman should not be in jail for animal 'anything'. Community service or something like that – but no death penalty or jail at all.
Man is not an animal? huh?
99% of animals with interaction with humans are farm animals (factory farms – not the old fashioned outdoor farm your grandpa had). Most of the millions of abused animals are chickens in cages. Stop eating eggs at restaurants and from grocery stores, and that would solve a lot of the abuse problems.
Two scrabbled this very morning? I mean the eggs, not your brains, john.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Mahatma Gandhi
As a former licensed foster parent, I would add, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its human beings are treated."
I am thankful, and continue to work for any diminishing sign of abuse, even self-abuse.
Peter, you are a wonderful inspiration to many people like me who wish they could do more than be vegan and pass out pamphlets once in awhile. Your heart is clearly in the right place, and you have the integrity, brains, and motivation to spread your important message out into the world.
You definitely outdid yourself this article. I'm impressed
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