Humans, like other species, seem to have an instinctive preference for their own kind and unless an animal is a much-loved pet, or of considerable economic value, most of us would not hesitate to give preference to a person over an animal, especially when it comes to matters of suffering, life and death.
By way of illustration, let us imagine that a person on safari in Africa is about to be attacked by the world’s only pink lion. Most of us, myself included, would prefer to see the lion shot dead rather than allow it to disembowel the person, even if that person was a truly unpleasant individual who we had already wished dead on several occasions. On one hand, our reaction seems quite illogical, because it forgoes an opportunity to rid the world of an awful person while preserving the life of a unique animal, but on the other, most of us, I believe, would find it hard to sleep at night if we lowered the rifle while our fellow human being was ripped to pieces in front of us. Our identification with our own kind in situations such as this is overwhelmingly strong, which makes evolutionary sense also among such a strongly-connected social species as Homo sapiens.
The famous animal welfare philosopher, Peter Singer, refers to the preference for own species, even in situations that defy logic and common sense, as ‘speciesism’.lv The innate, but illogical, nature of speciesism makes discussing animal welfare issues in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, pointless because when it comes down to a life and death choice we are almost always going to come down on the side of ‘us’. We will choose an encephalitic baby over the guide dog, to borrow an example from Professor Singer’s book, Animal Liberation. lvi That’s speciesism in a nutshell. It can be illogical but it’s real and it dictates much of our behaviour in relation to other species.
And when you think about it, there are no practical reasons for us to care about the pain and suffering of other life forms, unless it is to our advantage to do so. Most animal suffering is, after all, caused not by humans, but by other animals—usually predators—because killing to consume the bodies of one’s prey is the norm in every biological system. So why should we, the apex predator, concern ourselves with such a sentimental guilt-trip as animal welfare? It could even be argued that one of our rewards for getting to the top of the food chain is that we can imprison and kill other animals with impunity. After all, there are no bovine police coming around to arrest us for kidnap or murder.
However, instead of wielding our power over animals with cold indifference—as we could, without penalty—many countries have laws and institutions designed to protect animals from such human behaviour, albeit in a limited and selective way. This suggests that a substantial majority of people in those countries care sufficiently about the suffering of at least some other species for these laws to have become a reality.
The selectivity with which animal welfare is approached varies between countries, a good example being the different ways people in the West treat dogs and pigs. Both species are of roughly the same intelligence and both make good pets. But we don’t usually keep pigs as pets—we eat them. Dogs, on the other hand, are our companions and have been so for thousands of years. We generally treat them well despite there being many cruel exceptions chained up alone in backyards right across the dog-loving world. But we don’t eat them, despite South Australia being the only state in Australia outlawing the consumption of cats and dogs by people. Of course, many migrants to this country see it differently and have had to give up eating dogs and adapt to the norms surrounding them or face the wrath of a community that finds such behaviour unthinkably awful.
Why is it that pigs have never won our affection the way dogs have done? Is it because they can’t help us hunt other animals, or is it because they are stiff-legged and not pretty enough? Part of the answer must surely be that dogs have learned to give us a certain ‘look’ and to greet us with unbridled enthusiasm, no matter what. Pigs don’t do that, as far as I know. Clearly, our dealings with these two species are marked by inconsistency. On what moral basis do we treat dogs and pigs so differently? Why is it ‘wrong’ to kill and eat a dog in a Western country but not so in a Vietnam and China?
Wouldn’t it be much better if we treated them all well? And not just pigs and dogs.