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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Gildea

Why the New Animal Welfare Bill Fails Animals

“We are a proud nation of animal lovers”, claimed the UK environment minister George Eustice last night. He was kicking off a debate in parliament on the new animal welfare bill.

For almost 50 years, the UK’s animal welfare policy has been set in part by the EU. The UK government promised a ‘revolutionised’ approach to animals after our departure, and last night’s debate was a key milestone in this post-Brexit vision.

But the bill’s only big move is to prevent the export of certain animals for slaughter outside the UK. Other than that, it is mainly minor tweaks, such as making it harder to own a chimpanzee as a household pet.

The bill is consistent with this government’s broader approach to animals, which seems to be to introduce some rules to protect some animals some of the time, but to defend the almost unrestricted use of animals as resources for more or less any human purpose.

This approach rests on a fundamental inconsistency. It is an inconsistency that shapes much of humanity’s dealings with animals. It is an inconsistency concerning our deepest convictions about who matters, and why.

Society relies on the idea that to kill a human is generally evil, but to kill an animal is normally fine. The UK government killed 38,642 badgers in 2020, as their preferred means of controlling tuberculosis. If 38,642 children contracted a deadly virus, however, they would not be ‘removed’, to use the official terminology. We know the drill by now; we might isolate, treat, and vaccinate contagious humans, but would never opt for their ‘removal’.

Society relies on the idea that to kill a human is generally evil, but to kill an animal is normally fine.

But what would justify the idea that killing animals is usually acceptable, when killing humans is usually deeply wrong? The most popular justification is this: humans are uniquely able to reason. Humans design vaccines. We erect skyscrapers. We shape our lives around values. Animals either lack entirely the capacity to think rationally, or else fail to scale the heights of human reason, and so have no right not to be killed. Human reason equals human rights – that’s the idea.

But is this actually compatible with our ethical convictions? Suppose it’s 1941. You are a weapons expert. The Nazis are on the brink of finalising a nuclear weapon to use on allied countries. Inside the war room, you learn that millions will die unless you destroy one of two nuclear research labs.

Explode the first lab, and 1 innocent civilian living nearby will die. Explode the second lab, and 3 innocents will die. Explode neither and no one will ultimately be saved; nuclear war will begin. Obligated to act, you plan to explode the first lab to minimise deaths.

But you want to be sure of this decision, so you ask for more information about the individuals you would be killing. What do you ask about their identities, to confirm it isn’t better to kill the group of 3 civilians?

Maybe you ask whether the people in the group of 3 are already on their death beds. But – I take it – you wouldn’t ask about the rational abilities or cognitive sophistication of the victims – about whether they can reason and make their own decisions in life. Of course, some children are too young to think rationally, and some cognitively impaired adults do not have these capacities either. But if the larger group of 3 were made up of small children or severely cognitively impaired adults, would you take this to mean it’s fine to kill them instead of minimising the number of deaths?

If not, then this indicates that rationality, intelligence, and cognitive complexity are not, in fact, needed in order to have a right not to be killed.

[R]eceived ideas about why we humans matter and have basic rights are not, on reflection, compatible with key values we hold.

But if rationality and the like isn’t what gives us basic moral rights, what does? As I understand it, the other popular justification of the idea humans – and only humans – have rights is the simple fact that we are human.

The trouble is that to be human is just to be a member of the species homo sapiens, which is either a matter of having a certain genetic code, or the ability to produce fertile human offspring, or some related biological feature.

And it is dangerous, and strains credulity, to think that biological properties such as genetics can mark the difference between having rights and having no such entitlements. After all, having human genes is just a matter of one’s body harbouring bits of acid that have a specific molecular structure.

So, received ideas about why we humans matter and have basic rights are not, on reflection, compatible with key values we hold. Worryingly, this means today’s bill, and society’s stance towards animals more generally, rests on an inconsistency.

How might we replace these received ideas? What is it really about human beings that makes it immoral to kill them just because it’d be convenient, or they’d be a good source of organs, or it would help a government efficiency drive?

Around 500 million years ago, ours was a world mainly of bacteria, viruses, plants and fungi. If you pluck a fungus from the earth, and there’s no knock-on effect outside the fungus world, then nothing of ultimate value seems lost. The same holds if you kill thousands of bacteria by introducing them to the alcoholic stench of hand sanitiser. Fungi and bacteria are not bearers of ultimate value; at best they can be useful for some other end.

Then time rolled on. Entities began to evolve something amazing, something unique, something game-changing: consciousness.

Consciousness is the bedrock of our minds as we know them. We humans can sense, and feel, and experience enjoyment and suffering. And this is what seems central to why we have rights in the first place, and to why killing humans is not justified, barring certain extreme situations.

Of course, consciousness is not the end of the story of rights. Suppose you are in hospital, being offered surgery. You are not just a conscious being there to be helped in any which way doctors please. You have values and decision-making capacities. And in virtue of these, you have a right to make certain decisions about the surgery and have them honoured. But the basics, such as the right not to be killed, are not conditional on the ability to have complex thoughts of any kind.

[I]t is up to us citizens to abandon the doctrine of “human reason equals human rights”, which as well as animals excludes many human beings from the community of rights holders.

This has widespread implications. Because with various possible exceptions, non-human animals have conscious minds that are receptive to enjoyment and suffering, and that represent individual windows onto the world.

And so it would seem these animals also have a right not to be killed. This right may not be identical to ours: but it makes killing these animals an act of serious gravity. Having key rights is not a closed club of homo sapiens. It is more democratic than we might ever have acknowledged.

In the distant past, people may have recognised that they owed respect to animals. But they were propelled by their pain and by their plight to use animals as resources. It seems likely a mindset was formed back then. It is hard not to close oneself off to animals when one must use them as a tool.

But today, an opportunity has arisen: to rid ourselves of that old, inherited tension between our apparent respect for animals and our society’s dispatching of them. Today’s society can stop killing animals here, there, and everywhere. We no longer need to use animals as resources as we did. Cars have replaced horses in transport. Latex has replaced feathers in pillows. Cotton has replaced fur in clothing. Human ingenuity has unlocked a reset button for our relationship with animals.

The debate in parliament today ignored that button, and leaned instead upon a deep ethical inconsistency in continuing to see animals as dispensable. So it is up to us citizens to abandon the doctrine of “human reason equals human rights”, which as well as animals excludes many human beings from the community of rights holders. It is up to us to urge that animal rights are already implicit in human rights, properly understood.

To affirm this would be to beckon a new era of respect for individuals which is not conditional on our intelligence, rationality, or biological status. It would be to crush a false distinction between the worthy and the worthless. It would be to reach for a happier and more secure world for all.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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