Thomas Ryan

In his novel Enemies: A Love Story, Isaac Bashevis Singer paints a bleak and damning portrait of the nature of human relationships with animals: 

As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: in their behaviour towards creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which men could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.

Much in Anna Krien’s thoughtful, meditative essay serves to corroborate Singer’s thesis, confirming our species’ tendency to view most animals as mere things, here to serve our ends and to do with as we wish. In the early 1970s the psychologist Richard D. Ryder coined the term speciesism to capture this ubiquitous mindset. 

Krien disabuses us of any illusions that our current treatment of animals can be construed as just – she writes that the “age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it.” I agree with her first claim, but wish I could her share her certainty that it is something we all agree upon. Indeed, it is not borne out by our attitudes and behaviour towards animals, notwithstanding a growing apprehension that we can no longer continue with business as usual. But even here our attention and memory are not what they should be – witness the initial outrage about the footage of horrendous conditions in Indonesian abattoirs, which led to a temporary ban on the live cattle trade before the issue dropped off the radar. Subsequent revelations about abuse in a Victorian abattoir caused barely a ripple. It was as though moral fatigue had supplanted outrage – further evidence, if any was needed, that our attitudes to animals, and their importance, are highly selective and inconsistent.

This is not to mention the plainly contradictory standards applied to different animals – those animal companions who share our lives may legally be seen as property, but nevertheless are afforded greater protection than animals used for food or experimentation. And in contradiction to their legal status, those animals with whom we share our lives are invariably considered as distinct individuals and members of our households. This is why we find it incomprehensible that dogs and cats are slaughtered for food in parts of Asia, and they in turn are perplexed given that we slaughter and consume with perfect equanimity so many other creatures. Little has changed since Ruth Harrison made her telling observation in her 1964 book Animal Machines

if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.

The diminishment of concern about the live cattle trade highlighted the limitations of purely welfare-based approaches to such issues, important as these are to redress gratuitous cruelty and neglect. No one in their right mind, or with a heart, would disagree that stunning before slaughter is a vast improvement on what was occurring, but this merely raises what is a very low bar. If, as its advocates affirm, stunning renders the animals insentient, suffering, or its absence, is thereby the sine qua non of our ethical and moral duties towards animals. However, this pointedly fails to acknowledge that death, especially slaughter, represents a genuine harm to the individual animals. And we are left with the ironic spectacle of animal welfare organisations and their campaigners, who were rightly motivated to redress the treatment of cattle, advocating humane methods of slaughter that result in those same creatures being transformed into the ultimate “thing”: meat. This sends the mixed message that unnecessary cruelty is an evil, but that animals can be treated as things for human wants.

Granted that Krien is right in believing that in our heart of hearts we acknowledge that our relations with animals are fundamentally unethical, it leaves unanswered one of the more interesting questions: how did we come to conceive of them as mere things?

In the Christian tradition, Aquinas’ interpretation of the Biblical concept of dominion as sanctioning absolute human design, and Augustine’s argument that animals’ lack of rationality relieves us from concerning ourselves with their suffering, have been key influences. That said, there has been an alternative, albeit minority, strand that advocates stewardship and emphasises our common origin as creatures of God. 

Descartes’ decree that we needn’t concern ourselves with the supposed suffering of animals because they are essentially non-sentient machines, although a godsend for vivisectors, is nowadays seen for the nonsense that it always was. Not so easy to discard is Kant’s highly influential distinction between people and things, to whom we have direct and indirect duties respectively. For Kant, animals fall into the latter category, and this remains part of the Western world’s intellectual and moral framework. It is prudent to extend kindness to animals, not for their own sake, but for what it says about our character, and because failure to do so predisposes us to treat our fellow humans badly. They are mere practice for the real game.

All these influences have been compounded by a number of further errors. First, that the interests of humans and animals are almost invariably held to be in conflict, never more so than when the topic of experimentation is discussed – Krien deftly dissects and scuttles the perennial furphy that medically we must somehow choose between our child and that animal. 

Secondly, that concern for animals in a world full of human suffering is a case of misplaced priorities: that, in Krien’s words, “to be pro-animal is to be anti-human.” Such accusations result in the strangest bedfellows. When some years ago I had a letter opposing the live sheep trade, after the death of many thousands in transit, published in a national weekend newspaper magazine, a columnist well known for his espousal of many progressive causes took me and my fellow animal campaigners to task for getting all het up about sheep but “not giving a stuff” about refugees incarcerated in detention centres. It was as though the causes were mutually exclusive. The philosopher Mary Midgley makes the point that this peculiar attitude is the consequence of conceiving compassion as though it were a scarce resource to be judiciously rationed, rather than a force for the good that expands with use. Such criticisms also ignore the fact that those at the forefront of campaigns in the nineteenth century to improve the lot of animals were simultaneously engaged in movements seeking to protect children, oppose slavery and ameliorate the worst aspects of industrialisation.

Thirdly, that any comparison of humans and animals is inherently demeaning to the former. This is understandable when animals are often depicted as the embodiment of the worst human vices, with none of our redeeming virtues. Animal behaviourists and ethologists have somewhat corrected our prejudices on this count, in much the same way that anthropologists alerted us that distant lands were not full of primitive, bloodthirsty savages.

Our desire to identify attributes that definitively distinguish us from animals is an age-old one, but all the more remarkable in an increasingly secular world that accepts the plausibility of evolutionary explanations of our origins. Midgley observes that in fulfilling this desire we ask ourselves the wrong question – it is not what distinguishes us from animals but among animals that is the issue. At one level we accept that we are but one species among many, but at another we hanker after human uniqueness – us and them. But, as Midgley reminds us in her book Beast and Man, “We are not rather like animals, we are animals.” The differences that exist are, as Darwin was always at pains to point out, differences of degree, not kind. The refusal to accept that we are fellow creatures is, I suspect, behind most of our rapaciousness, hatred and indifference towards other animals. 

Acceptance would not be without significant costs to us – we would leave off slaughtering and consuming them; we would cease considering animals to be experimental objects or organ providers, accepting that the only justification for medicating or performing surgery on them would be if it was in their best interests; we would eschew all products that were animal-tested or had animal ingredients; we would attend to the wellbeing of our animal companions as vigilantly as we do to that of our children; we would seek to protect habitats and ecosystems upon which the lives of all animals depend.

Sound crazy? Such calls for radical readjustment of our ethical and moral frameworks always do, but as John Stuart Mill observed, all major shifts in these sensibilities invariably involve three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption. We should all be grateful for Anna Krien’s perspicacious contribution to the discussion.


Thomas Ryan is a social worker, an associate fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, and the author of Animals and Social Work: A Moral Introduction (2011).


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 45, Us & Them. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 46, Great Expectations.


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