Save Cows, Not People

Published by timdean on

Animal welfare is a pickle. It’s one of those issues that continues to vex me, largely because consideration for the well-being of animals doesn’t slot trivially into the normative moral framework that I’m developing as a part of my thesis.

A social contract-based moral system that sees everyone buy in to an agreement to limit their freedoms to impinge on others’ interests if others agree to limit their freedom to impinge on mine as well, with the intention that we’ll all be better able to pursue our interests (whatever they are), is straight forward enough. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls blah blah blah.

Be nice to me!

But it’s a contract between humans and other humans, not humans and animals. I am averse to inflicting suffering on other humans because I wouldn’t want such suffering to be inflicted on me. But why be averse to the suffering of animals? It’s not like cows can enter into a contract that says they’ll agree not to gore me if I’ll not kill and eat them.

Add to this that I don’t believe in intrinsic value or natural rights (although I do believe in a kind of overriding moral rights, but that’s another matter). So I can’t appeal to the suffering of animals as being intrinsically bad, and something that should be avoided for its own sake. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that animals have intrinsic rights and interests that are equivalent to our own; after all, I believe our interests are contingent on us being human and our rights stem from the social contract. Hmm. Pickle.

However, I think part of the the answer as to why we should care about the welfare and suffering of animals comes down to the moral psychology of the matter. It comes down to character, empathy, an aversion to violence and inflicting suffering etc. When a society develops to the level of cooperation and affluence that developed nations have, then fostering a strong sense of empathy is a useful character trait to encouraging more cooperation. And that empathy extends to many animals – although, interestingly, not all, and particularly not to non-anthropomorphic animals. Cuttlefish (which rock) don’t get afforded the same levels of empathy as pandas.

This position is still not unproblematic. If the society collectively disregarded the welfare of some animals, and their suffering didn’t trigger an empathy response, then it would be difficult for me to justify reversing that attitude.

It’s a pickle, and one I’m not finished un-pickling quite yet. I’d be interested to hear other perspectives on how animal welfare can factor into a social contract-based moral system.

In lieu of all this jumbling, the ABC’s Drum website asked me to pen something on the specific issue of why Australia rose up to ban live export of cattle in the wake of shocking images of mistreatment in Indonesian abattoirs broadcast on current affairs programme, Four Corners, yet remains ambivalent towards manifold cases of human suffering domestically and worldwide.

My response to the question essentially consists of two elements: emotionally salient imagery elicits a stronger moral response than diluted reports or rational arguments about human suffering around the world; and this case of mistreatment of cattle was a ‘perfect moral storm’ in that it hit all at once, engaged a nation with morally salient imagery and the problem itself was relatively easily solved, unlike most problems of human suffering around the world.

It’s one theory to explain the apparent hypocrisy of Australia’s response – although I don’t think it’s strictly ‘hypocrisy’ because the cases of the mistreatment of cattle and the cases of human rights abuses are not identical, so it’s not surprising they’re not morally equivalent. Doesn’t mean there isn’t some double standard going on, but it’s not a black-and-white-and-black case of hypocrisy.

Interestingly – or perhaps sadly – the comments to the piece have already fired up. Most miss the point of my piece – I’m not actually arguing that this is how Australia should have responded, only that this is how it did (seems many commenters fail to distinguish between a descriptive and a prescriptive thesis). I’m also not suggesting banning live exports is without cost, nor that not intervening in human rights abuses worldwide is justified. But then, one shouldn’t read the comments. That, at least, is clearly a prescriptive statement…


Mark Sloan · 13th June 2011 at 5:17 pm

Perhaps it would be useful to describe my own attempts to morally justify penalties to humans to avoid animal suffering at our hands.

To set the stage, rather than a “social contract” moral premise, my preferred moral premise, my justification of ‘oughts’, can be described as “increasing well being by unselfish acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”. Of course, these two are not necessarily contradictory. A social contract moral premise can be understood as a highly useful heuristic for defining a specific kind of morally justified “unselfish act” (“limit their freedoms to impinge on others’ interests”). Such social contract definitions of morally justified unselfishness have historically been found to be very effective long term strategies for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups.

I have considered two justifications under my above preferred moral premise to justify human penalties to reduce animal suffering.

1. Human penalties to reduce animal suffering are justified to the extent that they increase human over all well being. This is similar to what I understand you have suggested and seems to me a robust justification.

2. Human penalties to reduce animal suffering are justified to the extent that they increase the benefits of cooperation to the entire ecosystem.

The second is much more problematic. It is straightforward if it is accepted that “our cooperative group” extends not just to humans, who can consciously choose to reciprocate, but also to all other life in our ecosystem who, in a sense, form one interdependent super organism. I don’t yet find the second justification motivating.

jon · 13th June 2011 at 6:01 pm

‘Interestingly – or perhaps sadly – the comments to the piece have already fired up. ‘ – What an odd thing to say, why is this sad?
Most of the comments seem to be pointing out the rather silly comparisons you make. Clearly the difference is what we can and can’t control and not the power of images to influence our emotions. If a boy next door is torturing a cat and I stop him doesn’t mean I care more about the cat than a boy being tortured by the Syrian govenment – which I did nothing to prevent.
If you wanted a comparison about which to contruct your argument, the obvious one (which everyone else is making) should be between asylum seekers and cattle.

Tim Dean · 13th June 2011 at 6:07 pm

Hi Jon. Not sure why you think I didn’t acknowledge that point about what we can and can’t control in my piece, or why you understate the importance of the imagery. The comparison between asylum seekers is interesting, but I chose to focus on human rights abuses, although a lot of my points could cut across both issues.

James Gray · 13th June 2011 at 6:36 pm

I think this is a serious problem for anti-realism. Moral realists can answer this question quite easily and anti-realism seems to require us to jump through hoops to explain why animals are important beyond a culturally created empathy towards them. You can personally prefer to care for animals, but that could be irrational because it seems to do the opposite of benefit you. Exploiting animals is good for us and bad for them.

Kate King · 13th June 2011 at 10:55 pm

I think you nailed it when you said that being the exporters of the cattle we had a way we COULD act which would be immediately effective and we did so as we felt partly responsible for their horrible fate. In other words we were connected to the cows through the part we played. I thought your piece displayed a great understanding of the helplessness we feel when we percieve we aren’t directly connected to a issue, we don’t know what to do to or where to start! Of course we are connected to all human suffering, that is why it is so brutal to face.

Tom of the Sweetwater Sea · 14th June 2011 at 12:10 am

It seems to me that there are two parts to the puzzle: Why are cows, which are not members of the social contract, included in the benefits of the contract?, and why are suffering humans not included?

I think that cows are included because, since they are farm animals, they are included under our protection. We may wince watching a lion bring down a zebra on the Serengeti on TV, but that is just “nature.” A cow is under our care and protection, somewhat like a pet. We have a greater responsibility for the cow than the zebra. The TV coverage (I am in the US, so I haven’t seen the coverage) will grab us emotionally and inspire us to action.

As to why we ignore the plight of other suffering humans, I have no great confidence in my responses. There may be some latent racism if the sufferers are sufficiently different from us. The problem may seem too distant or too large and we may feel that we can not affect the outcome. We may have become inured to their plight by previous coverage.

I am sure that no one would say that a cow is “worth” more than a human, but we are driven to action by our emotions, not by logic.

simbel · 14th June 2011 at 4:56 am

I generally agree with the post and the emphasis on empathy as a key factor in deciding whether to hurt something or not. That said, don’t know much about moral issues regarding animal welfare in general.
As an additional point, I think the answer to why empathy is extended mainly to animals we are most likely to anthropomorphize is inherent to the supposed mechanisms of empathy—that is, their reliance on the neural “mirror” system in the brain. Thus being empathetic is not an entirely conscious or socially constructed decision (on this point I disagree with the previous commenter, James), although context does play part in eliciting an empathetic response.

Roger Lamb · 14th June 2011 at 9:47 am

“Add to this that I don’t believe in intrinsic value….”

And that is because…?

Tim Dean · 14th June 2011 at 11:28 am

@James. Yep, a pickle. But such a pickle still doesn’t incline me towards realism to solve it. Imbuing animals with intrinsic values or rights is even more of a pickle IMO.

@Roger. I’ve written before about intrinsic value, but in short, such values are metaphysically problematic. If they were to exist, they would be a strange kind of property for things to have. I favour a projectivist approach to value, such as that of Hume, Mackie or Blackburn, where we imbue things with value (although not arbitrarily).

As such, I’m a moral anti-realist: I reject the notion that there are strange, objective, binding moral facts that aren’t anything like natural facts yet intersect with them.

That’s why I build up morality from a social contract, which is founded on agreement between individuals rather than on discovery of objective moral facts.

@simbel. I agree with your point on anthropomorphism and the psychological mechanisms underlying empathy. Although there’s an extra step from saying that this is why we do empathise with some animals but not others, and saying that we should empathise with only some animals and not others. My worry is in answering the latter question through the lens of the social contract, it’s not obvious how I justify that we should care for any animals. And yet I do.

jon · 14th June 2011 at 10:26 pm

You don’t need to care about cows to disapprove of them being slaughtered in a cruel manner. You could just care about the affect it has on the slaughterers.
Besides, if you slaughter them in a friendly way the meat tastes better.

Tom of the Sweetwater Sea · 14th June 2011 at 10:44 pm

People born into a society don’t get to negotiate the agreement directly, they just follow it or not. They do apply the principles that they generalize from their observations to their lives, including animals with which they empathize.

Rich Boulton · 15th June 2011 at 6:28 am

I’ve spent time grappling the same problem, and particularly from the viewpoint of a social contract. My main focus is usually environmental issues rather than animal welfare, but this is arguably an even harder case to make. I wrote an essay on the social contract and nature here …

… but I can give the gist of it now. Firstly I’d argue that the social contract itself cannot include nature/animals – you won’t get the same one covering these areas as well as human interaction. However that doesn’t necessarily rule out a contract which is based on the same principles.

My view comes from a specific interpretation of Hobbes’ social contract argument. A major criticism of social contract theory is that these contracts never really exist – Hobbes argues that we act as though we did sign contracts by receiving the benefits the state provides, and so we are bound by those contracts to hold up our end of the bargain.

We can say the same thing regarding nature – we receive the benefits of nature and so are duty bound to act in its interests, even if they may sometimes contradict our own. For me the argument from nature here would cover animals too, especially so, since they are one of the resources from which we benefit (I don’t think we have a moral obligation to become vegetarians).

Nice article though, I’m glad I’m not the only one who is troubled by this issue. And I’m not completely convinced my solution is the right one. My major issue is that I think problems of the environment (and related ones) require an ontological solution more than a moral or ethical one.

James Gray · 24th June 2011 at 2:38 pm

Would you rather reject the importance of protecting animals or anti-realism? I think there is a tension here, and to totally dismiss such issues is a good way to get a confirmation bias and sacrifice good sense for an irrational form of consistency.

Tim Dean · 24th June 2011 at 3:05 pm

James, while I think the issue of animal welfare is a pickle for an anti-realist like myself, I consider the alternative – realism – to be too deeply problematic in its commitment to shaky metaphysics. If backed into a corner, I’d rather give up animal welfare if it required a commitment to realism.

However, I’m inclined to believe the very issue of animal welfare stems from the fact most discussions about it often rest on realist assumptions – with animal ‘rights’ talk etc – and that we’re yet to develop an alternate language that coincides with an anti-realist perspective.

Such an alternative language is, as some here have suggested, probably based on empathy, which is an incredibly important psychological tool in advancing even a social contract-based anti-realist ethics.

Once a society develops enough to enjoy massive cooperation, then empathy should be encouraged to flourish, and can do so relatively safely. It should also be encouraged to apply as broadly as possible – not just to in-group members but to out-groups too. In the process we become more sensitive to suffering of anything close enough to us, and this becomes the basis of animal welfare. Not to mention the phenomena of biophilia, which probably isn’t a bad thing to foster, as it encourages us to be sympathetic to nature rather than in opposition to it. Although I can appreciate that less advanced societies might place animal welfare as a lower priority.

There are probably other good reasons to consider the welfare of animals as well, such as it being in our interests to raise animals that are healthy and happy, even if it’s just to eat them. The commodification of animals, such as battery farming, might end up being quite harmful to us as well as the animals.

I’m still not 100% satisfied with all these arguments, but I think there’s a plausible story for considering animal welfare – at least to some degree – in here somewhere, and it doesn’t require me to commit to a problematic metaphysics.

James Gray · 24th June 2011 at 3:50 pm

I don’t see a plausible answer for animal welfare. This isn’t just about factory farming (somewhat healthier food), it’s about destroying habitats, it’s about animal testing, etc. The idea that we will have a stake in the interests of animals will certainly overlap with our personal interests sometimes, but so what? We should be sensitive to distinctions and not overgeneralize just because the interests of two can overlap sometimes.

I don’t see “animal rights” as being a realist assumption. I see the idea that we should care about animal suffering as being based on the idea that suffering has intrinsic value. I also think the happiness and existence of animals counts for something. I don’t see that as being so problematic considering that I think my own happiness and existence count for something and it’s not too hard to speculate that intrinsic value could be involved.

Animal rights can certainly exist in an anti-realist framework based on a social contract. The question is: Is that the sort of contract we should have, and could we demand others also adopt that sort of a contract?

James Gray · 24th June 2011 at 3:54 pm

We think we know some things about morality prior to meta-ethical speculation. We think animals count for something. We think it might be a good idea to stop other people from harming animals. If we decide to abandon our prior knowledge just to be consistent with meta-ethical speculation, then I think we would be doing something wrong. The certainty and confidence of various prior knowledge is greater than that of meta-ethical speculation. We can’t even know if our meta-ethical speculation approximates the truth without prior moral knowledge. If this wasn’t so, then it wouldn’t be clear how meta-ethical speculation could be confirmed or disconfirmed by “evidence.”

What I call “prior moral knowledge” here could include newer discoveries, but such discoveries are not entirely dependent on a meta-ethical framework.

Tim Dean · 24th June 2011 at 4:08 pm

I agree, there are problems I’m still unsure how to solve, but I wish to strongly resist the kind of intuitionism you propose when you talk about “prior moral knowledge”.

We also think we have “prior knowledge” of the nature of space and time, or of substance, or of psychology, but rigorous empirical investigation has shown these intuitions to be unreliable: spacetime isn’t uniform; physical objects are 99.9% empty space; and there’s no homunculus inside my head steering the ship.

Likewise, we may have “prior knowledge” about morality or animals prior to metaethical speculation, but I treat those intuitions with suspicion.

James Gray · 24th June 2011 at 4:22 pm

I’m not advocating “intuitionism.” You seemed to miss my point and dismiss what I said way too easily here. The idea that we have no prior moral knowledge would mean that no one knows anything about morality. In that case meta-ethics could be whatever you want. We need ways to confirm and disconfirm a meta-ethical theory. If a meta-ethical theory says that killing people indiscriminately is morally irrelevant, then I have a problem with that theory. I would treat that meta-ethical theory with suspicion.

What makes one meta-ethical theory better than another? If it has nothing to do with “intuition” or “prior knowledge,” then your meta-ethical theory can be whatever you want and it will be totally immune to criticism. You will have no reason to consider the “strengths” of the alternatives because there’s no such thing as “strengths” of that sort.

If you then insist that parsimony (Occam’s razor) is if primary importance to a meta-ethical theory, you might as well say that morality isn’t about anything at all and endorse “mad dog nihilism” (as you called it before).

What I call “prior knowledge” here is a loose use of the term “knowledge” and it is not necessarily “realist” knowledge. It can involve the actual moral language we speak. A person who says “indiscriminate killing is wrong” is saying something that aligns itself with an appropriate use of the language to the very least. Someone who says “indiscriminate killing isn’t wrong” isn’t using the language properly and we would have a good reason to question that person’s competence in moral language.

Tim Dean · 24th June 2011 at 4:46 pm

I don’t mean to dismiss your point too frivolously. But I worry that moral intuitions and “prior moral knowledge”, in particular, are highly problematic.

And if metaethics is purely descriptive, and it only seeks to systematise our moral intuitions and/or our lay usage of moral terms, then I question its value in ethical enquiry. But I’ve ranted enough on my disdain for metaethics in general.

But broadly, yes there’ll be a reflective equilibrium process that seeks to balance our intuitions with our theory about moral language. I just think our best theories cast doubt on a lot of our “prior moral knowledge”. These best theories are based on other knowledge, such as an understanding of what function morality plays in social life, and can, in turn, highlight why we have certain moral intuitions, and why some of them are dodgy.

And I’m not convinced I’ve fully understood the nature of the intuitions we have about animal welfare – so I’m still suspicious of them until I can see where they fit in to the broader moral theory.

James Gray · 24th June 2011 at 5:03 pm

Some moral intuitions are more problematic than others (using the term “intuition” loosely rather than associated with something like self-evidence). I’m surprised that you are suspicious about your assumptions or intuitions or moral knowledge involving animal welfare, but I agree that some of our moral beliefs are supported by greater confidence than others. There are some assumptions that can’t be rejected without leading to total absurdity (at least because of our moral language if nothing else).

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *