Ethics for animals?

Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, a 29 year-old doctor of philosophy and political science, with a Master of Laws from McGill University (Canada), formerly taught animal ethics to veterinary students in Montreal and is now a visiting researcher at Yale University (USA). His musings have culminated in a book on animal ethics (1), the first part of which is philosophical while the second part describes the suffering that certain practices can inflict on sentient beings. This is in spite of all the talk about animal welfare and rights.

Does the poorly understood concept of animal ethics both encompass and go beyond the much more common notions of animal ‘rights' and ‘welfare'?

The notions of ‘rights' and ‘welfare' are too vague yet at the same time too restrictive People speak of animal ‘rights' without specifying whether this means legal rights or only moral rights - and often assume that all animal advocates inevitably see the issue in these terms, which is not true. Some defend a theory of animal ‘rights', while others prefer to avoid such loaded and ambiguous terminology. In itself, the term ‘welfare' conveys nothing of why we should ensure that we respect it in animals.

Welfare is only a state, the definition of which is not only ambiguous but, most importantly, highly subjective. As I write in my book, "the science of animal welfare is an independent and technical discipline that examines not whether humans should seek to improve animal welfare and why, but only how."

Talk ethics, think ‘philosophy'...

In fact, animal ethics is a branch of applied ethics, which in turn is a branch of ethics - in other words, moral philosophy. Defined as the study of the moral responsibility of humans towards animals (taken individually), it is the discipline that brings together all of these queries on the moral status of animals, that is to say on what is ‘good' or ‘bad' to do to animals, and why.

Animal ethics therefore encompasses the notions of both rights and welfare, which divide animal ethicists into two camps. Animal rights theory advocates (deontologists), who also tend to be abolitionists - that is to say, they seek to abolish all animal use - stand in fierce opposition to ethicists, who wish to improve animal welfare and no more (welfarists).

Animal welfare supporters therefore do not call into question the actual fact of using animals, although they may wish to abolish certain practices, examined on a case-by-case basis and not simply by virtue of the fact that they use animals.

The primary motivation of both animal welfare supporters and deontologists seems to be the notion of suffering. But if we examine the suffering of species, comparing humans with non-humans, the differences are striking...

That's true. Contrary to popular belief, the aim is not to treat animals as humans or vice versa. As Peter Singer would say, it is a question of equal consideration for different interests, different capabilities, which therefore calls for different treatment.

Some animals at least (leaving aside borderline cases), share with humans the capacity to suffer. This shared capacity does not imply a similarity between the suffering of animals and humans, or even between individuals in the respective animal and human groups.

There are two essential differences. On the one hand, human awareness, which allows us to imagine suffering, can itself be a source of suffering, which makes it doubly onerous: a person sentenced to death suffers in the knowledge that he or she will die in six months, whereas the ox has no idea. On the other hand, the ignorance of animals can also be a source of suffering. Unlike a human, a wild animal is unable to make a distinction between an attempt to capture and restrain it and an attempt to kill it. Beyond these differences, what animal ethics is interested in is what humans and animals share and, most importantly, what this common capacity to suffer implies for humans in their dealings with animals.

Do you feel that Europe (particularly via Community directives) is leading the way, or is on the right path, in terms of respect for and protection of animal life?

I believe we need to draw a distinction between ‘respect' for and ‘protection' of animal life. Regarding protection, Europe is clearly a pioneer: numerous widespread practices that raise absolutely no concern in North America have been banned in Europe for many years and the European Commission seems to be ambitious in this domain, especially in reference to cage-rearing systems. But is it truly out of ‘respect' for animals? Or, indirectly, is it solely for the benefit of humans, for the image that humans wish to portray of themselves, for public health and for the quality of the human environment? Paradoxically, I feel that greater respect for animals can be found among some of the peoples that, legally speaking, ‘protect' them the least. I refer to peoples that live with and among nature without seeking to dominate it and to others, especially Eastern peoples who have a system of beliefs not founded on the exaltation of humans.

In your view, what are the specific areas where abuses call for rapid changes in legislation?

There is not a single situation that could not be improved. The highest priority is factory farming. Europe is still far from meeting its declared objectives, especially concerning battery cages for laying hens, veal crates for calves and stalls for sows. There is also much to say about bullfighting, foie gras, zoos, circuses and the development of animal testing alternatives.

The link between animal protection and foreign policy should not be underestimated either. When policy speaks with a single voice (and therein lies the rub), Europe can bring a lot of pressure to bear on international issues like seal or whale hunting and, in general, on international trade in animal products that endanger certain species or perpetuate reprehensible practices.

Europeans should also realise that if Europe fails to act there is little chance of other countries doing so. Also, the eyes of the world, particularly North American animal ethicists, are on Europe.

You have written a book where part one is devoted to theory and part two to a summary of the facts, but without really linking the two together. Was this a deliberate pedagogical choice?

Yes, for three reasons. First, I felt it to be the clearest and most systematic means of presenting the discipline as a whole. Second, linking the two parts together without repeating the full gamut of possible positions every time would mean imposing a certain theory on the reader, my own) - which I wanted to be implicit rather than obtrusive. By refraining from making an explicit link, I left readers free to choose their own theory for interpreting practices. Third, the Socratic Method advocates the self-questioning approach. My book does not give ready-made solutions, but rather tools to enable individuals to find their way around the animal ethics field based on their own preferences.

In part two, you present a number of highly diverse ‘practices' - including bullfighting, force-feeding of geese and factory farming -which are equally cruel. Is there anything in common between these different ways of using animals? Should they be seen as ways of reifying animals, of demonstrating the power of humans... or should we avoid lumping issues together?

What all these uses have in common is indeed a certain reification of animals which is still the rule in public opinion, although it is currently evolving in law (in certain countries).

We might get the impression, due to overzealous pet fanatics confusing pets with family members, that we have moved beyond the concept of animal-as-object to one of animalas- subject. But in fact, I consider the opposite to be true. To me, such fanatic behaviour is the clearest proof of the reification of animals, which humans still use as substitutes, ornaments, or to enhance status.

In fact, a common thread that runs through all these issues, apart from the reification of animals, is the need for humans to prove to themselves their power and superiority, since humans are the only creatures who can look at themselves. Another common thread is their profound selfishness, as humans find it extremely difficult to value the interests of species other than their own - or even the interests of others in their own species (people who are not of the same social, ethnic, religious or geographical background).

Propos recueillis par Christine Rugemer

  1. Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, Ethique animale, Paris, PUF, 2008.