moralobjectivity.net: home page moralobjectivity.net discussion forum 'A New Buddhist Ethics' contents pageA New Buddhist Ethics
copyright Robert Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.
copyright Robert Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.
For many centuries in the Western tradition, animals have been placed in a similar position to “nature”, as either the object of endless human exploitation or idealised sentimentality. The idea that animals (apart from a few favoured individuals) were worthy of moral consideration, was, for most people before the twentieth century, about as likely as that coal in the ground would run out. Such attitudes were supported by the theory of thinkers such as Descartes, who thought animals were mechanical, without the minds possessed by human beings and thus no more worthy of moral status than inanimate objects. At the same time a few favoured animals have been given the status of human beings on which we project the needs and status of human beings. From pampered pets this kind of view of animals has more recently been extended to all animals by some extremists, who consider that all animals should have “rights” equivalent to those of human beings. The Western attitude to animals, then, is a confused bundle of contradictions and conflicts. On the one hand, we have chicken batteries, and on the other, dog grooming parlours. Children watch cartoon films about anthropomorphised chickens escaping from captivity whilst munching on their takeaway Kentucky Fried Chicken, asking “Daddy, it’s not really a chicken, is it?”
Contact with Buddhist thinking, however, has not really done much to clarify this confused bundle so far. In the Eastern culture in which Buddhism originated the focus of moral concern is traditionally not on the beings affected by actions, but on the purity of the person doing the actions. The great emphasis on non-violence (towards animals as well as humans) in the Buddhist tradition therefore seems superficially to be a corrective to Western exploitativeness, but when Westerners travel to Buddhist countries and find that, in practice, traditional Buddhists exploit animals just as much as Westerners, they are confused. They are struck by the hypocrisy of Buddhist monks who will eat meat providing it hasn’t been “specifically killed for them”, and find no solutions for the systematic cruelty to animals which is found in the Western heritage.
The Middle Way, however, requires us to face up to the conditions that are around us and to identify with the experience of other creatures. To cease to identify with the experience of other creatures simply because they are of another species is, as the philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out, irrational. It may well be that most animals have lower levels of sentience and thus less capacity for suffering than human beings, but this does not give us any general justification for not taking into account the suffering they may experience, to the degree that they experience it. We need to respond flexibly to the level of experience which (as far as we can tell) is occurring, without falling into either the extreme of regarding animals as insentient, or the other extreme of anthropomorphising them. The challenge to our awareness is to look at our favourite pet dog which has hurt its paw and recall that it is not having a completely human experience of pain (though none the less real for that), and also looking at a creature we might regard as disposable, such as a spider, and reminding ourselves that it, too, at some level, has experience.
This does not mean that we need to adopt an “animal rights” agenda. Rights are primarily a legal construction, a set of constraints on others, infringement of which should be punished. Used in moral thinking, however, they are inflexible, and require us to treat all beings of a certain class in a similar way regardless of other important respects in which they differ. The idea of human rights can in some circumstances offer a useful Kantian test as to whether we are really trying to extend our identification to another; but applied, say, to a brain-dead person whose body is being kept going by a life-support machine (as I shall argue further in chapter 8), it can prevent us recognising conditions rather than leading us to face up to them. The idea of animal rights is even more clumsy, since different animals differ so enormously in their sensitivity to experience, that they can neither all be equated to humans, nor all easily allocated to any other kind of inferior status. Except for legal purposes, when it is necessary to think less flexibly, it is better that we think not in terms of rights but in terms of an identification with animals which takes into account what they are really like as far as possible, rather than some false construction of what they are like.
As always, our moral decisions should be based not just on this, but also on what we are like and what other conditions we live in. Our own desires figure largely in relation to animals, and where we cannot live, or perhaps even cannot prosper, without exploiting them, there is often still a case for doing so. We could not justifiably insist on massive psychological adjustments (such as insisting that the whole population immediately give up meat) if this would prove unsustainable, creating a backlash, and would not practically lead to long term progress. We need to work outwards from whatever position we first find ourselves in as regards animals.
On this basis, I shall examine below some of the more specific moral decisions that we come across in relation to animals. I shall not be advocating any crude interpretation of the traditional Buddhist precept of non-violence, but nor shall I be supporting any kind of rationalisation for merely following accepted social customs in relation to animals where these lack moral justification. Non-violence needs to be based on the primary value of objectivity in the broadest sense.
Should a Buddhist ever eat meat? Generally, I would argue that the Middle Way suggests the answer “no”. This is not because meat is impure or that there is anything wrong with letting a morsel of it pass your lips, but rather because of the systematic relationship between the consumption of meat and the unnecessary and unjustifiable exploitation of animals. The traditional justifications for eating meat turn out on the whole to be rationalisations for conventional practice which impede us from identifying with the animals affected.
It is probably unnecessary to give much detail of the suffering caused by the meat industry. Though some animals reared for meat spend their lives in fields, many others (especially pigs, veal calves and chickens) live unbearably frustrated lives in narrow stalls, where biologically profound impulses of movement are constantly thwarted, and the resulting ill-health counteracted by ever-higher levels of chemical interference in their bodies. Even for those lucky enough to escape such lives, transportation in cramped lorries or cattle trucks and then the panic of the slaughterhouse awaits.
Even if all animals lived happy lives and were humanely slaughtered (as may be the case with a least some of the organic meat reared today), there would still be very strong arguments against meat. Breeding animals for meat has unnecessarily destroyed huge areas of the world’s forest, from the British uplands to the Amazonian rainforest, in order to clear the land required. It is hugely inefficient as a source of food, using many times more land, water, and energy to produce the same food value as equivalent plant-based foods. In the case of grain-fed beef this is as much as ten times more land. Huge areas of land are unnecessarily kept under cultivation in order to feed animals, in some cases while humans go hungry. If everyone gave up meat, farm animals would no longer be bred and reared for meat, and huge areas of land could quickly be liberated for forest, to the immense benefit of wildlife and to the world’s climate and long-term sustainability. In the UK, for example, it is estimated that only half the current amount of farmland would be required if everyone went vegetarian. Meat production also uses massive amounts of water: the production of beef requires 100 times as much water as that of an equivalent weight of wheat.
The environmental arguments for vegetarianism are immensely strong even if we discount those about the effects on the animals themselves. However, to these we can add still further arguments based on human health. Whilst the medical evidence is complex, there seems to be a very strong link between consumption of the kind of high-fat, high-protein diet associated with meat eating and high levels of obesity, heart disease, cancer and other fatal ailments. Meat is also associated with a much higher risk of infection than plant foods, from e coli through to the fatal Creutzfeld-Jacob’s Disease. To this must be added the particular risks to those engaged in producing meat, particularly the brutalisation of slaughterhouse workers, who are subject to high rates of mental illness. Any extension of sympathy to animals amongst those involved in the production of meat must be immediately crushed and alienated to enable them to continue to do their job.
Against this are set a number of traditional arguments in favour of eating meat, all very weak. Foremost amongst them is the idea that it is “natural” for humans to eat meat. This often relies on dogmatic beliefs such as the idea that God has designed us in this way. Perhaps this argument could be interpreted charitably as meaning that we are well-adapted for eating meat. This is not entirely true, for although we possess some (rather limited) canine teeth, our digestive systems are certainly not well-adapted to a diet high in meat. Even if it were, this would not amount to a moral argument: a man may be well-adapted to be an efficient assassin, but that does not make his murders justified. In Buddhist terms, it is our responsibility not to accept a fixed idea of what we are, but to work from that to become something better. As self-conscious creatures we are not in the position of carnivores like cats or dogs, who cannot reflect on the alternatives to their dietary habits. We have a responsibility to use our awareness and consider the consequences of our actions in eating meat, of a kind we could not attribute to cats and dogs.
Another weak argument for meat-eating is the claim that meat is essential to a healthy human diet. This is now a thoroughly disproved argument in dietary terms. There is not a single essential nutrient available from meat that is not readily available from non-meat sources. This claim is often then weakened to an argument that meat-eaters enjoy eating meat, and that it is very much imbued in Western culinary culture. This is by no means a trivial argument, for meat-eaters’ enjoyment of meat and their attachment to it is a brute psychological fact of large proportions. This enjoyment, however, is purely a matter of conditioning, and gradual adaptation to a non-meat diet followed by years of abstention can lead just as easily to finding meat repulsive. The ready availability of vegetarian cuisines from around the world and of “fake” meat products which closely resemble the style (if not quite the flavour) of meat can help ease the transition.
A final argument in favour of meat-eating is that animals have an intimate place in a traditional cycle of food production, where their manure helps to fertilise the land which then grows crops. It is claimed that although modern animal farming methods may be inhumane, a smaller amount of humane animal farming is both justifiable and necessary to maintain crop-growing. Whilst this argument is more balanced and comes from a broader engagement with conditions than the previous ones, it is still flawed. We produce huge amounts of manure ourselves, which when sufficiently decayed is perfectly safe to use in fertilising crops. Other animals which are not usually reared for meat, such as horses, also produce manure. It would be rather surprising if the manure available from these sources was not adequate to fertilise the much reduced area of crops which would be required to feed the human population alone, without vast populations of animals reared for meat. If it turned out that it was not, some limited credit might then be given to this argument, but at present it seems to be largely a rationalisation for those who wish to continue eating meat in a world where it is far more important to set a strong example by not doing so, than to worry about sources of manure in an idealised future scenario.
More pressing for many Buddhists who agree with the general principles of vegetarianism are the principles of its application. How flexible or inflexible should one be in abstaining from meat? How far should one be willing to go in offending very traditional and hospitable people who do not understand vegetarianism or its motives? Is it justifiable to eat meat in extreme situations? Here the practical importance of maintaining a clear principle needs to be balanced against the fact that the principle itself is of no final moral importance. It is not important that we should be kept pure by abstaining from meat, nor is it important that we should never eat meat, but it is important we should eat much less meat. Nevertheless, our capacity for rationalisation and the power of social pressure is great and must not be underestimated. It is usually much easier to follow a general principle that others can easily understand, such as never eating meat, than to argue through every situation either internally or externally. Setting oneself such a principle is also a good guard against rationalising exceptions. Following a principle also sets a strong example to others, which may be effective at all sorts of levels in the short-term and the long-term. So, there is a strong case for simply declaring oneself a vegetarian.
Such a declaration will suffice in most situations. It is then one’s duty to insist and to make a nuisance of oneself where necessary. It is this kind of social insistence which, however uncomfortable, makes the biggest impression on the overall social situation and helps to shift the balance of social expectation. Every restaurant you make a nuisance of yourself in is that much better prepared for other vegetarians. Nevertheless, there are still situations where it may be necessary to eat meat. In a few very limited situations (such as in the Arctic or Antarctic) nothing else may be available at all. In some others, the people around us may be, not just a bit conventional, but absolutely unable to comprehend vegetarianism, or so hostile as to make compromise the only feasible course of action. Nobody could be morally blamed for eating meat in such situations, but they are actually rather few in most people’s lives.
Some related, but slightly different arguments are involved in the question of fish consumption as in meat consumption. Once again we are consuming the flesh of an animal, which is not wrong in itself, but economically stimulates the exploitation of that animal. Once again, we are concerned with matters of animal suffering and environmental sustainability. However, with fish we are largely talking about a wild resource which, within limits far below the level of exploitation generally practised today, is renewable. But it is only relatively recently that human beings have been forced into the realisation that “nature” does not provide infinite quantities of fish from a boundless ocean.
The arguments against eating fish on the grounds of suffering are weaker than in the case of meat. The sentience of fish and other edible marine animals must not be underestimated, and in cases such as squid, for example, is quite high. Certainly when fish are hauled out of the sea to suffocate in the air they experience a stressful and painful death. However, the level of experience and the capacity for suffering of fish, on average, is certainly substantially lower than that of the mammals and birds we usually rear for meat. Until they are caught, wild fish are also not constrained by us in the way they live their lives (though they may be affected by marine pollution). So, the suffering of fish might be enough by itself to dissuade us from eating them, but perhaps would not be enough to outweigh other strong reasons for doing so.
The environmental arguments for abstaining from fish at this time are also powerful, but they might not apply in some different situation centuries into the future. At present many fish stocks are greatly depleted, and the ecological systems of the ocean are under great threat from human interference. We have over-exploited fish stocks, and the present development of the fishing industry is geared to a completely unsustainable level of exploitation using ever more efficient (though often completely unselective) means of getting fish out of the sea and onto a boat. If we continue to exploit this resource at present, it will simply disappear and cease to renew itself in future, with further catastrophic effects on life in the oceans as food chains are disrupted.
The alternative of fish farming carries many of the disadvantages of other types of animal farming. At present sea-cages are often overstocked with great stress to the fish, chemical interference to maintain the health of the fish in these conditions creates marine pollution, and farmed fish are in any case fed with large quantities of wild-caught fish. By eating farmed fish one is thus adding to the over-exploitation of the oceans rather than reducing it, and guilty of supporting cruelty not just at the time of the death of the fish, but also during their lives.
The arguments about human health are weaker than those against meat. The consumption of fish is generally healthier than that of meat, but carries the danger of absorbing toxins from marine pollution. Oily fish are also promoted as a source of essential fatty acids which are found insufficiently in many Western diets. According to most scientific opinion, there are good plant sources of essential fatty acids, such as flax oil. However, other scientists recently have claimed that the human body’s uptake of the most essential chemical for brain development, DHA, from any source other than fish, is minimal, and may be as low as 0.01%. There remains some doubt on this question, which for some might justify consuming limited quantities of oily fish until it is resolved. On the whole, though, it seems unlikely that this scientific claim takes into account all the conditions, given the number of people who have lived healthily on diets without fish for many years.
So, it is necessary to differentiate the consumption of fish morally from that of meat. Certainly it is best avoided. However, it is probably better to eat fish (particularly of those species which are not yet under threat, for the moment) than to eat meat. Those who are still adapting from an omnivorous diet might do well to first phase out meat, but carry on with fish while they adjust to a new diet. Smaller fish eaten in the traditional style, with the whole fish on the plate including the head, also carry an advantage of immediacy: it looks as though you are eating an animal. One can do this, not with irrational guilt, but with an awareness that an animal has suffered to some extent to provide this dish. Whilst this may be painful in some ways, it is far preferable to maintaining the hypocritical non-awareness of the sources of our food which is much more common. If we eat fish with this kind of awareness, we are likely to either give it up soon or need to keep providing a strong reason for continuing to do it.
Any careful consideration of the ethics of meat eating will very shortly lead on to the question of dairy products, and the realisation that lacto-vegetarianism (abstention from meat whilst continuing to eat dairy products) is not a consistent final position. At best it has transitional practical value. Most of the arguments one can use for abstaining from meat naturally lead on to abstaining from dairy products. Once again, if one is attempting to face up to conditions, extend one’s identifications, and avoid attachment to either dogmatic or merely conventional positions in defence of common practice, one must face up to the suffering of cows and of calves in the production of milk.
One crucial point to clarify here is that the support for killing and inflicting unnecessary suffering in which one is involved in consuming animal products scarcely differs between meat and dairy products. When consuming beef or veal, most of us have not killed the animal ourselves, but rather are participating in an economic chain of buying and selling which enables others to do so. Similarly, when we consume cow’s milk, cheese, cow’s milk yoghurt or other dairy products, one is participating in another economic chain which enables others not just to exploit but to kill animals. The dairy and beef industries are so closely linked practically and economically that it is very difficult to support one without supporting the other. As I have argued above, eating flesh in itself is not wrong, as vegetarianism is not a matter of purity, so those who consume dairy products unnecessarily are acting just as wrongly as those who consume meat. The fact that they are far less likely to recognise that they are doing so, as dairy exploitation is much less visible in the eventual product, in some ways makes eating dairy products worse than eating beef. At least when eating beef one might have some consciousness of the animal from which it came because one is confronted by its flesh.
The dairy and meat industries are linked closely by the fact that, to produce milk, cows need to be kept constantly pregnant and lactating. This means that they regularly produce calves, some of which are male and thus surplus to requirements for milk production. These male calves are then either killed immediately, put in veal crates, or reared for beef. Calves of either sex are also often separated from their mother almost immediately so that they do not consume her milk, causing great distress to both cow and calf. Furthermore, in modern milk production some cows have been bred to produce such huge quantities of milk that they often suffer from the sheer weight and stress of it, plus infections from udders dragging on the ground which then have to be treated using antibiotics.
The life of grass-fed bullocks, largely left to their own devices in the fields, is probably much preferable to that of these biological milk-and-baby machines. So on animal welfare grounds there are, again, probably even stronger reasons to abstain from dairy products than to abstain from meat. On environmental grounds we also find that, like the production of meat, the production of milk requires huge quantities of land, water and power which would be much more efficiently used growing plant foods. This is, of course, in addition to the close way in which it supports the beef industry which is doing the same.
Where human health is concerned, the consumption of dairy products is largely just a matter of custom and habit and certainly not essential to a healthy diet. Since calves, descended from prairie animals, need to grow up so quickly, their milk is far too high in fat and protein to be suited to humans. All the vitamins and minerals it contains can be gained from non-animal sources. Nearly every traditional dairy product can be satisfactory made from soya beans, with only a slight change in taste which can be quickly adapted to. So we really have no excuse for consuming dairy products. All that is really required of us instead, at least in developed countries where soya products are readily available, is to buy a soya product instead: this is hardly a sacrifice of any kind and only slightly more expensive, despite the huge subsidies still often given to dairy products.
It is true that in theory the beef industry could be separated from the dairy industry, and the dairy industry could be conducted more humanely. Surplus male calves could be given space to graze for the rest of their lives undisturbed. Calves could be left with their mothers until they ceased taking milk, and cows left to recover fully before they were made pregnant again. The results of this would be an extremely uneconomic farm with either much more expensive or extremely heavily subsidised milk. Similar patterns are to be found in India, where for Hindus the cow is sacred and can never be killed or eaten. Even this kind of set-up, however, would not overcome the environmental or health-based objections to dairy products. Why fill fields with ageing bullocks and contented cows that could be returned to forest or used to grow crops? It would be much better not to breed them in the first place.
The milk of other animals, such as sheep and goats, can also be consumed, and (particularly in the case of goats) can be generally seen as less exploitative. However, both sheep and goats do huge amounts of damage to the environment and prevent forests growing back where they once existed. The environmental and health arguments still remain against human consumption of their milk, even if they are a little less pressing.
However, as always, we need to take the conditions of ourselves and our society into account as well as the animals. Dairy products are found in an incredible range of prepared foods and are often very difficult to avoid in restaurants. Giving them up in a modern Western context often takes both determination and care. All the same factors discussed above in relation to meat also apply here. Whilst having a principle of non-consumption of dairy products is probably practically the best way of addressing the conditions, it is not a question of purity or the consumption of dairy products itself being wrong. Having once taken up such a precept, it is better to stick to the general principle, with a clear-sighted view of the reasons for it, than to worry excessively about occasional breaches of it in awkward situations. It is also possible to argue about whether, given the necessity of choosing, it is better to give up fish or dairy products first. My own view is that it is more important to give up dairy products than it is to give up fish. We should not let the unhelpful emphasis on personal purity in the Buddhist tradition lead us away from the more central importance of facing up to conditions: in this case to the suffering of highly developed, sensitive mammals in the dairy industry and its highly negative environmental impact.
Finally in our survey of dietary issues concerning animals, the question of eggs arises. In theory the consumption of the eggs of hens or of other farmed birds might be seen as amongst the most blameless of animal products. Most eggs sold are infertile, so one is not consuming a young chick in any sense. Even if the egg has been fertilised, if the egg is fresh it will contain no more than a tiny embryo. Removing their eggs may cause a small amount of distress to hens, but nothing in any way comparable to, say, the distress of a cow losing a calf. Surely this is a case of an animal by-product which we could consume without guilt?
However, a slightly wider perspective as to the real conditions will reveal other problems. The vast majority of eggs still sold, and also used in other food preparations, in the developed world, are battery eggs. The hens kept in batteries are kept in unspeakable conditions in tiny cages, unable to move around or even stretch, huge numbers of biological impulses frustrated. The resulting ill-health in the hens can only be restored by the abuse of antibiotics, and the decline in egg quality by further chemical intervention. Whilst the egg industry makes every effort not to bring this unbelievable system to the notice of consumers, it persists through the half-awareness and passive acceptance of many. Even if consumers do not directly buy battery eggs, they still often do so indirectly by buying products such as manufactured cakes or quorn, both heavily dependent upon them.
The alternative to this is to buy free range eggs. Whilst there are minimum legal definitions of “free range”, it is still worth noting that what it means can vary hugely. The hens will be able to move around to some extent, but may still live in cramped and frustrating conditions.
Whether or not hens are free range, further moral problems with egg production remain. When hens are allowed to reproduce, they will produce an excess of males which are then either killed immediately or reared for meat. Unproductive hens are also killed as soon as they cease to create profit. This creates a similar interdependency between egg production and the rearing of chickens for meat as that between dairy production and beef production. Again, whilst it is theoretically possible to separate the two, in practice this would be very uneconomical, and the eggs we are likely to be able to buy are unlikely to be produced without excess cocks being killed. Also, as with dairy production, environmental objections remain. As a means of producing food, feeding plant foods to hens that then produce eggs is very inefficient compared to simply eating plant foods ourselves. Though the inefficiency is less than in the case of cattle, we are still wasting land, water and power by breeding and keeping huge numbers of chickens for egg production.
So, considering the issues with eggs cumulatively with the preceding sections, a thorough engagement with conditions seems very likely to lead us in the direction of veganism, abstaining from all four classes of animal foods – meat, fish, dairy products and eggs. This is by far the simplest response to any attempt to extend our identifications to animals, even taking into account their varying levels of sentience and the varying degrees to which the production of animal foods causes unnecessary suffering to animals. In the final analysis all exploitation of animals in this way is likely to be unnecessary, because a vegan diet is probably completely healthy and sustainable for human beings. Relying on plant-based foods still leaves us with an enormous range of potential foods, rich potentialities in cookery and ready access to all the nutrients human beings require for health.
From wherever we begin, it may take us some time to reach the goal of full veganism, but it is continuing to work in this area and to make progress which is most important. In working in this area, and in knowing how to make reflective compromises where necessary, it is important to have a sense of gradation and of some kinds of animal products being better than others. In general I would suggest that it is most important to start with to give up meat, battery eggs, farmed fish, and dairy products. To then move on to also give up wild-caught fish and free range eggs is desirable, but if compromises are required this may be the best area to make them in. Whether you agree with this ranking or not, the more important general principle is to make one’s choices on the basis of a clear compassionate knowledge of the conditions in which our food is produced, and the avoidance of absolute assumptions either for or against the rights of animals.
As an animal issue, the first point to make about hunting is that of how completely insignificant it is compared to the treatment of farm animals. The number of animals hunted is minute compared to the number of animals kept in horrific conditions on factory farms, and those concerned with the welfare of animals would do well to direct their campaigns with a sense of proportion. In the UK there has been much debate in recent years about fox-hunting with hounds, as the government introduced a law banning this traditional rural sport. One of the most striking elements of this debate for me has been the agricultural elephant in the room: the hypocrisy and sentimentality of the many people who object to the cruelty of fox-hunting but eat battery chickens.
Nevertheless, whether to participate in hunting, or what attitude to take to it, may still be an issue, particularly for people living in rural areas. With a few exceptions, most hunting of a kind which involves a drawn-out and painful death for a wild animal has now been banned in the UK. Where it exists, there seems no justification for preferring to give an animal a drawn-out death rather than a quick one (or none at all) purely to maintain traditional practices.
The banning of fox-hunting with hounds in England and Wales has caused big protests from aggrieved country dwellers, but the issue has nothing to do with the status of the countryside, or the need to control foxes (which, if really necessary, could be done by shooting – see below), only with attachment to a particular sort of tradition. That the tradition of fox-hunting is the subject of so much sentimental attachment, and yet sets an example of ignoring or even glorifying the protracted pain of an animal, probably provides enough of a reason for Buddhists to avoid participating in it, even if the legal ban may have been imprudent for practical reasons.
However, whatever the status of hunting with dogs, shooting of such animals as deer, rabbits, pheasants and grouse is widespread. Sometimes this is justified by the need to control populations in the absence of natural predators, and is even performed by conservationists. In other cases, it is seen as “sport”, and game birds are reared, fed and protected by game keepers to provide a ready target.
A wild animal that is shot by a skilled marksman has a swift death, and perhaps we should be less concerned about the animals themselves than about the possible effects on those who perform the task. The traditional Buddhist opposition to violence or killing of any kind is perhaps based on a recognition of the brutalisation which it can promote. In any act of violence we have to alienate our sympathy for its object and harden the edges of the ego, even if we do so with clear reasoning. This does not necessarily mean, however, that violence cannot be performed with a compassionate motive. It is quite possible to believe that a conservationist may cull deer with compassion, in the genuine belief that it is better for the deer herd that some of their number be killed, just as a surgeon may cut open a patient’s body with a compassionate healing motive. Anyone taking this line, though, even with an animal, needs to have a very sure grasp of the conditions and to be sure that they are not making a mistake. The consensus of experts might provide the best guide available as to the real necessity of the cull.
This example reveals the conflict which can arise at times between the interests of individual animals and those of the group. For herd animals, there is not necessarily a distinction, and the animals themselves, if they could articulate their preferences, might subjugate their own interests to those of the herd, since animals can often be observed acting in the interests of their genetic inheritance rather than their individual lives. In a situation where the interests of the group clearly requires the killing of some, as in a herd of deer that are overpopulating and degrading their habitat, and where individuals do not have clearly opposed interests, it may be a justified and compassionate act to cull them. To become attached to the idea of non-violence towards individuals here is to become dogmatically attached to a narrower picture of conditions to the exclusion of a broader one. It is not just a utilitarian calculation as to the welfare of a herd which would justify such actions, but an identification with that herd which goes beyond sentimental attachment to, say, an individual deer. For a Buddhist involved in such a distasteful task (and it is important that it remain distasteful), constant reflection on the compassionate motive and the wider picture may be necessary.
With the shooting of animals purely for pleasure, however, a quite different situation exists. Here the brutalisation involved in shooting is not allayed by a compassionate motive. Instead, an attitude of exploitation towards the animal is to the fore, and its welfare is not considered except as instrumental to the “sport” of the shooting. This attitude of exploitation becomes even worse in those cases where the animals has been fed and protected specifically to be shot, as in the case of English pheasants. Since such activities can only reinforce a narrow egoistic view of animals, create unnecessary suffering in animals that would either not have been bred or could have lived out their lives in the wild, and set an example that makes violence more ordinary and acceptable, it can hardly be seen as justifiable for any Buddhist.
Angling also certainly involves an act of violence against an animal. Jerking a fish out of a river with a hook may not seem as violent as shooting it, but actually causes more suffering to the fish, which is then either slowly suffocated or thrown back to be hooked again and again. However, angling also has a contemplative element and provides an excuse for huge numbers of men to sit quietly on river-banks. It may well be that it provides a contemplative channel for many men who would not otherwise find one, and prevents irritation and conflict which would otherwise exist due to its effect on human mental states. Whilst it might be better for such men to learn to meditate, or to simply sit on a river bank without needing to do violence to fish, if they are not psychologically or culturally ready to do so perhaps we should adopt a tolerant attitude towards angling.
The Middle Way in relation to hunting, shooting and angling, then, involves avoiding the eternalist response of simply condemning all these activities as equally wrong because of their violence, but on the other hand not simply accepting such violence as purely a matter for the preference of the hunters, shooters or anglers. Not only do degrees of violence vary, but also motives for such activities. Those who engage in them for compassionate or perhaps for contemplative reasons should perhaps be tolerated if not supported, but the infliction of violence on animals for trivial and avoidable reasons is likely to deserve moral condemnation.
By “animal experimentation” here, I mean the use of animals to test scientific and medical claims, or to establish the safety of a drug or another product, on the grounds that the suffering caused to the animal is preferable to the suffering caused to a human being if they were used for the test instead, or the possible suffering if untested drugs or other products were used on people.
One basic assumption behind all such testing is that animal suffering matters less than human suffering. In general, this assumption cannot reasonably be contested. Given an unavoidable choice between harming an animal and harming a human being, most of us would choose the animal. This does not mean that our identification does not extend to the animal, only that we choose to protect the human being, because the human being will generally have a much greater sensitivity to suffering. Whilst the sensitivity of animals to suffering varies, the evidence seems to be so far that even the most intelligent and sensitive animals (chimpanzees or dolphins, say) do not reach the same degree of sentience as a human being, however close they may come.
If this basic assumption is accepted, the main issue with animal experimentation becomes that of how much it is justified by an unavoidable choice between human and animal, or whether the choice is in fact avoidable. It is not possible to judge this about animal experimentation in general (it is not just a question of asserting “animal rights”), but it needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, avoiding either the eternalist judgement that animal experimentation is always wrong or the nihilist judgement that it doesn’t matter. All we can do here is consider some of the likely types of cases.
Before we start this survey, some general cautions need to be given. Much research on animals does not harm the animals, and this kind of research raises no more issues than those of keeping a pet (considered in the next section). Even much research that does harm animals (involving “vivisection” – cutting of living flesh) does not actually cause them pain or distress, as they are first rendered unconscious or insensible: here the moral concerns, though not entirely absent, are very much reduced. We will also take it for granted here that animal experimentation takes place within a strict framework of legal controls, as it does in the UK. These legal controls include a requirement to use other forms of testing where feasible (e.g. computer models or cell cultures). So we are really only dealing with a small proportion of cases of animal experimentation, which actually inflict suffering on conscious animals, though within the framework of what is legally allowed.
In judging this small proportion of cases, it is not simply a matter of making a utilitarian calculation of whether animal pain is outweighed by human pain. As I noted in the first chapter, one major drawback with utilitarianism is our tendency to believe that we have a strong objective grasp of the facts, when in fact there are many conditions we are leaving out of account. This is a particular trap for scientists, whose business it is to have a strong objective grasp of facts, but who may be rather narrowly focused on particular means of getting them and subject to professional pride which prevents them recognising their limitations.
We could start with “pure” scientific research. Here a biologist or psychologist may justify the use of animals to test a theory which helps to advance human understanding. To consider this it is necessary to anticipate some of the findings of my discussion in the next chapter on the value of scientific knowledge. There it is argued that the mere advancement of human understanding is not necessarily a good, nor is it unavoidable that human knowledge must always advance. The appeal to pure knowledge, then, is not enough by itself: we must consider the likely applications of that knowledge as far as practicable. If it seems likely to reduce human (and animal) suffering in the future, as far as can be judged at present, and the only way of pursuing it involves inflicting suffering on conscious animals, then perhaps such research can be morally justified. However, the dangers here involve the lack of objectivity of scientists, who will be attached to the success of their theories. They are not likely to be in the best position to judge either the useful applications of the research or the real necessity of inflicting suffering on animals. So, for a Buddhist scientist in this position perhaps the most important advice is to consult moral authorities with differing perspectives outside the laboratory.
Similar considerations apply to medical research, where the testing is intended to help establish the cause of a human disease, or to establish the efficacy or the safety of a particular drug or type of treatment. However, in this case the immediate application to removing human suffering is clearer than in the case of pure research. Whilst researchers are in a position to look ahead with clearer foresight as to the effects of their actions than in the case of pure scientific testing, at the same time they will need to look not just at the chances of the test relieving human suffering, but whether it will do so sustainably (see Chapter 8 on medical priorities). If after clear reflection it seems that it will do so, then perhaps the infliction of pain on animals can be justified. However, the same need for consultation and gathering of other perspectives applies as in the case of pure research, to compensate for the narrowing of judgement which is encouraged in a scientist concentrating strongly on one research project.
Here we could also consider a widespread objection made by anti-vivisectionists to medical experimentation on animals: the claim that such testing does not work. They point to the differences between humans and other animals, and some cases of drugs tested on animals which then proved to be dangerous (a well-known example is that of thalidomide). This argument betrays an eternalist absolutism, and a lack of appreciation for the relative judgements which need to be made when trying to reach greater objectivity. The fact that humans are not precisely like other animals does not prevent there being important similarities, nor does it prevent useful information about probable effects on humans being gathered from animal experimentation. Such information is not certain, but nor is anything else in science, and the existence of mistakes like the thalidomide case should not prevent us giving credit to the wide range of successful medical treatments which have been developed using animal experimentation, such as antibiotics, vaccines, anaesthetics, and treatments for diabetes, asthma and heart disease. These results have been reached through the careful comparison of animal models with human ones which attempted to take the differences into account. Organisations such as BUAV (British Union of Anti-Vivisectionists) continually write of the lack of “certainty” that the animal model works, betraying a need for certainty which is very much in conflict with the Middle Way, whilst scientists commenting on the issue seem to be merely trying to inch fallibly towards objectivity in the way we all should be.
A third type of case involves animal testing which is not really experimentation for research purposes at all, but testing of a product, often to meet legal requirements, to avoid the danger of unexpected bad effects of that product on human health. For example, cosmetics and toiletries are often tested in this fashion. Here, though the motive is still one of human health and safety, those protesting against animal experimentation seem to be on rather stronger ground. The reason for this is that the chances of human health being strongly aided by the testing are much lower, and such tests are sometimes carried out formalistically by cosmetics or toiletry manufacturers to avoid the possibility of later lawsuits. The necessity of the new product with its new formulation in the first place is also rather questionable from an ethical standpoint: if a new shampoo needs to be dropped into a rabbit’s eyes in order to be shown to be safe, perhaps it is better to stick with the old one, which did the job of washing hair just as well. Where new products are really necessary, not testing them on animals may slightly raise the risk of unexpected side-effects on humans: but as these are in most cases unlikely to be serious, it is probably a risk worth running.
So, for ordinary Buddhists, there is probably a moral responsibility to choose toiletries, cosmetics etc. which are not tested on animals in preference to those which are. However, where medical or pure scientific research is concerned, there is no justification for joining the ranks of militant animal rights campaigners in attempting to prevent such testing: indeed it may be more justifiable to show clear support for scientists who are working to reduce suffering in this way.
Certainly in medical and scientific research, there is a case for ensuring that legal guidelines are tight and that they are observed, but this should be done on the basis of careful investigation of what scientists actually do and their motives for doing it, not on the basis of the distortions and over-simplifications often found in the literature of animal rights campaigners. In most cases we do not need to worry whether scientists are minimising suffering, using a less sentient species in preference to a more sentient one, and only using animal testing when no other approach will support their research: to a large extent, this is already established good practice in scientific laboratories. The main responsibility for ensuring that such good practice is maintained and extended falls to the scientists themselves, with maximum consultation in the wider community.
Aside from the issues involved in killing, eating, or harming animals, are the lesser ones of simply keeping them in captivity. Here we are no longer discussing the kind of captivity suffered, say, by hens in batteries, where strong biological conditionings to move around are constantly frustrated. We are considering the type of captivity where animals are at least moderately well looked after and are the objects of human concern for their welfare. This may take place in individual private homes (keeping pets) or in specially designed areas for public display (zoos, wildlife parks etc.). Are we justified in keeping animals in captivity at all, particularly when we often do so merely for amusement?
The main objection to doing so rests only on a dogmatic assumption, that of “naturalness”. An animal living in a human home or in a zoo, it is said, is not living a “natural” life. The use of this term blurs a distinction between two points, one of which is important and the other not. The first is whether the animal’s biologically conditioned impulses are reasonably fulfilled: can it eat, drink, exercise, and engage in a normal range of its behaviour? If we are preventing it from doing this when we are responsible for the animal and able to change this situation, then we are failing to identify with the animal sufficiently and take into account its nature and its needs: this would certainly involve a moral shortcoming, but it can be explained without recourse to the idea of “naturalness”.
The second point is whether the animal is living the same kind of life in the same kind of environment as it was before it was captured or domesticated. A pet in a house, or an animal in a zoo, is obviously not doing this. However, it is only the dogma of “naturalness” which might lead us to believe that this is necessarily a moral problem. In its new environment the animal is, in fact, usually likely to be far safer and have its needs met far more readily than in its original environment. Whilst we might not be satisfied with this if we were in a similar position, for many animals (who typically spend nearly all their efforts in avoiding danger and getting their basic needs met) this is probably enough.
In the case of most pets, the presence of animals in relationship to humans is simply an arrangement which is helpful to both parties. Animals get food, protection, and even healthcare. In return humans get at least some amusement, but often also companionship and sometimes other services (such as dogs guiding blind people or sniffing out people trapped in earthquakes). In undertaking such a relationship with an animal we gain a responsibility similar to that with a human dependent. There are similar, if slightly less pressing, reasons why we should look after a pet dog as to those why we should look after a child: as I argued above in chapter 2, this is a matter of an unwritten social contract.
The neglect or abuse of pets is wrong for the same reasons. The animal is neither a piece of property to be disposed of at a whim, nor is it another human being, but a living creature engaged in a relationship to us, that we need to identify with because we are also living creatures. The environment we have placed it in usually means that it is completely dependent on us and could probably not survive (and certainly not flourish) without us. If we are not moved by identification, at least we should be moved by duty to an animal we have placed in this position.
Zoos originally took animals from the wild but are now increasingly stocked with the descendants of other zoo animals. Similarly, whilst the earliest zoos provided highly restrictive and inappropriate cages, both knowledge of the needs of captive animals and good practice in meeting them have developed much in recent decades. So, the objections one might level against zoos at an earlier stage in their development no longer apply to most of today’s zoos, at least in the developed world. Far from depleting the wild of animals, the mission of modern zoos is often to preserve rare species and then even to release them back into the wild. Zoos also see themselves as sources of education about animals and the wider environment.
Nevertheless, the element of spectacle in zoos, of pointing in short-lived wonder at one seldom-seen beast and then moving on to another, has a superficiality about it, merely reinforcing our tendency to just tick an animal off a list rather than learn to understand it or identify with it. One can learn much more about animals from wildlife programmes on television than from a zoo, although of course zoos are not responsible for the way we use them, and in theory we could spend hours just watching one animal. There are also some animals whose behaviour in the wild can never be replicated in a zoo. Big cats, for example, that never get to chase real challenging prey, and whose normally huge range is restricted in even quite a large cage or enclosure, are still subject to boredom and frustration.
So, zoos have their limitations, the chief of which is that of not being able to provide truly suitable conditions for some types of animal. However, on the whole they do seem to play a positive role both in providing us with the opportunity of opening our minds to animals, and providing suitable conditions for the animals themselves. They are certainly not to be blamed for being “unnatural”, and they would be a bizarre target for protest for those who walk past pastoral farms on the way. There seems to be no particular harm in visiting a zoo, or even in working for one, especially if this can provide a way of encouraging those zoos at the cutting edge of good zoo practice.
Finally, before leaving the topic of animals, we need to consider the moral issues involved in our relationships to wild animals. Do we have responsibilities to animals with which we have not entered into the relationship of pet and pet-keeper? If so, how far do they extend, and how should we exercise this responsibility?
First, it is important to note that the distinction between “domestic” and “wild” animals is a conventional one, and far from clear-cut. Most animals living in or near towns, at least, have some kind of relationship to human beings, whether they are birds feeding at a bird-table, foxes raiding dustbins, or woodworm munching through the timbers of our houses. Even those animals that live in the countryside have had their habitat formed by humans. Larks, for example, would not have open fields to nest and sing in if humans had not come and chopped down the forests which preceded them. Very few animals remain completely unaffected by human activity, whether this makes life easier or harder for them. The labelling of an animal as “wild” thus doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t interfere with it, if only to rectify the effects of our earlier actions.
In this situation, it is easy for humans to feel a sense of power or proprietorship over all wild animals. However (pace the book of Genesis) we do not own the planet and are not in a position to manage everything on it. Animals have adjusted to a world on which humans have a huge impact, but that is not the same as humans controlling this process. On the contrary, the rise and fall of animal populations in response to our activities is often very difficult to predict. In some sense, we also need wild animals to be wild. The wildness in them corresponds to the elements of our own psyche beyond our immediate identifications, and our tolerance for the wildness of wild animals to some extent reflects our acceptance of those aspects of ourselves beyond the ego.
So, we need to avoid both extremes of response here: either of leaving wild animals completely alone because they belong to “nature” and have nothing to do with us on the one hand, or of treating all animals almost as domesticated animals, and taking complete responsibility for them, on the other. Our efforts need to be focussed in a way which enables wild animals to remain wild as far as possible. One obvious way in which this is done is by preserving areas of their habitat from human interference.
Much wildlife conservation, however, focuses particularly on the preservation of species as opposed to individuals. Sometimes this creates seeming contradictions, as when, for example, conservationists kill one species in order to preserve another rarer one that is in competition with it (as, for example, they have killed grey squirrels in some areas of the UK, to protect red squirrels). The idea that the preservation of a species is good in itself appears suspiciously dogmatic, and we could also consider the need to accept the constant changes which go on in the animal world without becoming attached to a particular state of balance between different species that we might consider “natural”. Giving high priority to the preservation of species might be seen as in conflict with the Buddhist understanding of impermanence.
However, part of the reason we protect existing rare species and mourn the passing of extinct ones is more reflective upon human rapacity. The dodo and the great auk, two potent symbols of extinction brought on by human action, occurred because of human greed in immediately and thoughtlessly exploiting a new resource which became available to them. In doing so we lost what might have been a resource for us in the future in ways that the people of that time might not have been able to even imagine. This might have been anything from the source of a new medicine, a way of controlling a crop pest, or just the delight of observing the animal. The animal might also play a role in the ecosystem which would save other species from painful and massive adjustments with perhaps further extinctions. It is impossible to know what role a species might be able to play in the future, but once it is extinct its genes are lost and it can never be brought back. In some ways, then, it is wise to preserve species for future generations just as it is wise to conserve mineral resources.
However, this cannot be the only reason why we feel the need to devote large areas of land and considerable sums of money to preserving, say, tigers. The symbolism of such animals is potent, and in exterminating them, we would be exterminating part of the richness and openness of our own existence. It is not that we necessarily need tigers in the future, but that we need to be able to look beyond even longer-term calculations of self-interest to provide the endlessly open challenge to our identifications which such wild animals provide. They are no longer the enemy, but, in providing a final fierceness that cannot be settled into a rational human order, they are in the same sense our friends as the fierce deities of Tibetan Buddhist tradition (which, incidentally, often wear tiger skins).
In terms of virtue, this suggests that appreciation of the non-human world is part of the set of virtues which a human being needs to develop, a part of the Buddhist Path. If we can wonder at it and identify with it without at the same time sentimentalising and anthropomorphising it, our actions are likely to involve support for the preservation of its wildness. This general support for wildness will naturally have to be balanced with human needs where there is immediate conflict, but in the longer-term the existence of wild animals is a part of human needs. The Middle Way might suggest that we should certainly make efforts to protect endangered species, though perhaps without excessive focus on this goal alone as an end in itself.
Within this overall framework of appreciation there are also times when it is necessary to let go of our attachment to particular arrangements and systems between animals. For example, the EU-sponsored shooting of thousands of ruddy ducks in Europe a few years ago, because of the danger that it would hybridise with the Spanish white-headed duck, seems to have been justified only by the rather narrow thinking that one species should be prevented from being swamped by another (very similar, but more successful) one at all costs. Part of the underlying thinking here, again, was that the ruddy duck (originally from North America) was “unnatural” in Europe, whilst the white-headed duck was “natural”, a distinction which is absurd when we consider all the ways in which the balance of species in Europe has changed under our influence in the past few thousand years. Such wildlife managerialism leads to substantial resources being devoted to the needless destruction of thousands of individual animals, whilst preventing us from acknowledging the ways in which populations of wild animals are (or should be left to be) beyond our control. The recognition that we do not own the world in this way is an important adjunct to the overcoming of the limitations of ego through the realisation that we do not ultimately own either ourselves or the other things we identify with.
 See “Mass medication with Omega 3 would wipe out global fish stocks” by George Monbiot, and ensuing discussion, online at http://environment.guardian.co.uk/food/story/0,,1848570,00.html
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