In a later post I speak about how the act of reducing pain and suffering allows us to deepen and broaden our compassion and empathy. It is a primary means by which we reveal and progress our love. But pain and suffering is not restricted to the human race. In terms of sheer numbers of individuals impacted, humankind inflicts far more anguish upon animals in a given year than we ever have on each other in all of human history combined. And I believe this is perhaps the greatest moral hazard facing us today. That belief is based on how much progress in the hearts and minds of our civilization is still required to address it.
I believe humankind’s attitudes toward animal welfare will progress along a very long moral arc which we are only just starting to traverse. It is an arc that extends far beyond our current progression of sacred love and may never end as new discoveries challenge our pre-conceived notions of what lifeforms require our moral consideration. Traversing this arc will involve much more than the expansion of our scientific knowledge, and philosophical reasoning. Hearts must be moved as well. And it is our hearts that will be the limiting factor for how quickly we can traverse this moral arc. Our love must deepen to allow a robust implementation of animal welfare laws on a global scale. And it must broaden to consider all members of the animal kingdom that are owed our moral consideration.
More than two hundred years ago the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham upon considering the welfare of animals reasoned: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?“. Elaborating on this conclusion moral philosopher Peter Singer, in his seminal 1975 book Animal Liberation, stated: “The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is … not only necessary, but also sufficient for us to say that a being has interests“. But as uncompromising utilitarians both men failed to look beyond just the elimination of pain and suffering and recognize the compassion that humanity must learn to extend to animals as well. It is why, for example, Singer did not argue against the painless killing of animals. A stance in keeping with his utilitarian ethos but which ultimately failed to acknowledge the full consideration animals are due.
The question is no longer whether animals deserve protection from human harms. Of this I believe there remains little doubt. Rather the questions are: what animals, at what cost, and ultimately when will the slaughter end?
On the first question, even among members and philosophers of the animal welfare community, there is still much debate on what capacities and interests are morally relevant. Some, such as Singer, would have the line drawn at whatever animals can experience pain and suffering. But consider that today’s science is pointing to the bar of pain and suffering to be a very low threshold indeed. As such the limits of philosophical reasoning to promote such a threshold will often be set aside in favor of emotional considerations. For example a farmer dealing with an insect infestation of their crops will likely not value a swarm of locusts over the love of their own family, their livelihoods, and the net benefit to society of harvesting their fields. Pesticides will be applied. Such an action is not simply an example of speciesism: favoring one species over another. Something far more fundamental is involved: the favoring of one’s closest kin over distant relatives separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This is much more than some naïve prejudice. It reflects the nature of our love. And to deny it is to deny our humanity.
And at what cost? Singer would ask that individuals allow for an equal consideration of interests. The expectation is that the farmer would somehow compare the net amount of physical pain inflicted by the deaths of millions of locusts against the financial and emotional hardship that would be wrought to their family. But this highlights a common criticism of utilitarianism in general: it places too great of a burden on the backs of its adherents. It demands that we not give any preference to the emotional ties that bind us. A demand that may make moral reasoning less onerous but it comes at the expense of being emotionally stunted. The Greatest Love would never ask us to forsake our love. Our rational selves must live alongside our emotional selves. And if, after considering both sides, the farmer determines that the most critical factor is the love for their family, which is greater than the love for a localized population of insects, then who are we to judge their moral decision?
We cannot ask the farmer to provide equal consideration between their family and a swarm of locusts. Consideration certainly. But equal consideration? Instead society must change the calculation the farmer will make. It does this through laws and regulations preventing pesticide use, the availability of crop insurance, and scientific advancements in the use of insect-resistant strains of fruits and vegetables. That is, the impartial levers of society can step in to change the calculus for individuals instead of hoping their behavior will be altered based on some personal and dogmatic utilitarian ethic. Because to expect the farmer to set aside their emotions when making a decision that affects their family is not only unreasonable: it is also, I believe, inhuman.
Despite the lack of agreement on the scope and acceptable cost of protections within the animal welfare community there is still broad consensus that certain present-day practices inflict vast amounts of needless pain and suffering upon the animal kingdom. Such examples include factory farms, animal experimentation in the cosmetics industry, and killing game for sport. We must not allow philosophical disagreements over what the final picture of the animal welfare movement should be, prevent us from making incremental progress on these fronts today.
Will we ever be able to eliminate all pain and suffering in the World? No. Our World is not some utopian paradise and we will never be able to eliminate all the pain and suffering in nature. Lions must continue to prey on gazelles. Wolves must continue to hunt caribou. If humankind intervened to prevent such suffering the cascading impacts to the wider ecosystem could do more harm than good. Still humanity’s respect, compassion, and yes love, must significantly broaden to consider the well-being of all other creatures, great and small, that can experience pain and suffering. It is in considering another species well-being that our own love progresses further.
Will the practice of harvesting animals for sustenance eventually end? A further progression of our love may be required for that. But even without that further progress, The Greatest Love has bestowed on us a higher love and with it comes the responsibility to treat any sentient beings with compassion and respect. Certain practices such as harvesting animals to the point of endangerment or extinction, are, I believe, an aberration of love. Mistreating animals while they are being raised or eventually harvested is also, I believe, an aberration of love. But in general harvesting animals for sustenance, when done with compassion and respect, and when the environmental impacts are determined to be sustainable, I do not believe is an aberration of love today. And although I do acknowledge that we have much work to do to satisfy that standard, it is my belief that it will happen.
Humanity must first take a stand against mistreatment with legislation enshrining robust animal protections into law and thereby enforce painless, compassionate, and environmentally sustainable practices of harvesting animals for sustenance. This step, once taken, will eventually put us on a clearer path toward a new moral frontier.
That frontier will see the practice of harvesting animals for sustenance eventually ended. In so doing we will have progressed our own love as we transition away from being exploiters of animal resources to being stewards of life. For it is not just a matter of protecting the most intelligent life forms, or the most self-aware or even all life forms. Instead I believe, it is a matter of providing consideration for all forms of life capable of experiencing pain or suffering. It may take the development of artificial alternatives to harvested animals that have the same taste, texture, and nutritional profile or better, of the real thing before attitudes in this regard change on a global scale. But I do believe it will happen with time.
Much, much, time and, I think, a further progression of our love.
And what about the the reincarnation of animals? I believe that rebirth is available to many loving beings. For once a species’ love achieves a certain threshold it is granted a soul and, I believe, rebirth is available to all souls. And what informs my belief in this? A loving dog named Tasha who in my moment of crisis helped walk me back from terror.
I believe eternal life is hers.