Animals are not meat production machines. The human interest in their use limits the consideration of their needs from the start. It is time to see animals as individuals in their own right.
Bernd Ladwig, 54, is Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy at the Otto Suhr Institute at the Free University of Berlin. His work focuses on questions of human dignity and human rights. Most recently published: “Political Philosophy of Animal Rights”, Suhrkamp 2020, 22 euros.
Tönnies, Westfleisch, Wiesenhof – in the past few weeks workers in slaughterhouses have repeatedly contracted Covid-19. The fear of another wave of infections has now at least promoted one insight and carried it all the way to the ministries: the working conditions are inhumane, the industry pays starvation wages, the contracts for work invite exploitation.
But not only the people who kill and cut animals suffer from the circumstances of meat production. Disregarding their human rights also makes additional animal suffering likely.
The work in slaughterhouses is done in piece. Of the more than 58 million pigs that are slaughtered in Germany every year, around 500,000 wake up in the 60 degrees hot scalding water because they were not properly “stabbed”. This is just one example of the consequences of the excessive demands the workers suffer from: the work pressure, the conveyor belt that never stops, the danger from poorly anesthetized animals, the noise, the stench, the numbness caused by the constant killing.
With the scandalous conditions in the slaughterhouses, the so-called “cheap meat” got into the talk: If the consumers were to let the animal welfare cost something, the untenable conditions in the meat industry would eventually disappear. This is a common belief. It falls short in two ways.
First, he overestimates the power of consumers in large, complex, cross-border markets. Better legal framework conditions, for which we would have to fight politically, would be far more effective than individual purchase decisions.
Second, a little less cheap meat would still be the product of an animal that would have to be kept captive and killed for it. Furthermore, many animals would be little more than resources for our purposes. But living, sensitive and experiencing animals are not production machines for meat, milk or eggs. They are first and foremost individual living beings in their own right. It matters to them how we treat them and what conditions we subject them to.
Certainly, we already have animal protection laws that require certain considerations for the sake of animals. These have to be anesthetized before slaughter, for example. What is more, any killing requires a “reasonable cause”. One such reason is the demand for cheap meat and the desire to produce it at a price that covers the price.
The human interest in profitable animal use limits the consideration of even the most basic needs of animals from the start. The so-called farm animals are almost never allowed to live to their biological end. Almost all animal children are separated from their mothers at an early age. Very few animals can form groups that are appropriate to their species, move around freely and follow natural tendencies such as play or nest building.
If we really saw animals as individuals in their own right, we would not make consideration for their well-being dependent on whether we can extort products from them in an economical way. Conversely, we would only hold and use them as far as we can do this while taking all their needs into account. That wouldn’t be nice of us, it would be a commandment of justice. It would be the overdue end of an arbitrary distinction.
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Animals are individuals worthy of protection
Animals capable of feeling and experiencing have needs and abilities that we find morally worthy of protection among humans. In our own case, this protection takes the form of subjective rights. Whoever offends them is doing wrong by doing wrong to a certain other person.
It’s not just about interests that we pursue because we are particularly smart and responsible animals. We would like to find attention as bodily existing, sensual, capable of suffering, finite and in need of attachment. Torture, for example, is horrible and utterly reprehensible not only because it aims to break the will of a rational being. It is also because the victim feels at their mercy, feels fear and horror, and suffers physical agony.
But if we ask for protection and protection, it would be arbitrary to deny this to other animals that can suffer similarly. We should therefore see them as individuals who confront us with morally valid claims.
These don’t have to be absolute claims. The use and killing of animals would be justified if we could not otherwise survive or live in human dignity. But meat, cow’s milk and eggs are not among the things that people absolutely need in our part of the world.
We residents of wealthy western states and cities are in a completely different situation than poor African fishermen or the Greenland Inuit, whose way of life may be based on seal hunting. We have enough vegetarian and increasingly vegan alternatives. We have a wide range of affordable, digestible and tasty foods available. We can eat plant-based food – without endangering our health, practicing ascetic renunciation of pleasure or suffering a breakdown in our way of life. If we do eat meat, for example, it is out of habit, social convention or reasons of taste.
For the animals, however, everything is at stake. They cannot live well, and even continue to live to their biological end, when people keep them as meat animals or squeeze milk or eggs from them regardless of their needs. Those who renounced animal products would have many and not even irritating other options.
Those who do not do without it contribute to the fact that animals literally lose everything. Compared with the elementary importance of living (going on) and the satisfaction of basic needs, mere enjoyment to which we have acceptable alternatives is morally null and void.
The guardianship of the state
Our dealings with animals are not just a question of individual morality. Millions upon millions of animals contribute with their services, their products and ultimately their lives to the basic order of our society, which we regulate by law and therefore we are jointly responsible as citizens. They are subject to this order without any rights of their own and, above all, belong to it as the exploited.
It does not follow from this that we can no longer live and cooperate with animals in a more just society. Domesticated animals such as dogs and domestic pigs could live well with and among people. Anyone who thoroughly and comprehensively controls the living conditions of animals, however, owes them, in addition to non-harm, regular help and care.
The animals are also entitled to active consideration of their welfare through housing, supervision and care. And if the legislation for which we are jointly responsible allows such control, the interests of the animals should also appear in the political process. Human representatives would then have to fight for them at all levels of the political process. The state would have to exercise a guardianship and ensure that the animal keepers adequately observe all the needs of their wards.
The idea of compulsory health insurance for domestic pigs or a state-guaranteed pension insurance for guide dogs may be spontaneously laughable. But the only normatively acceptable alternative would be not to use and keep such animals as companions or cooperation partners in the first place.
But once such animals are there, we can’t talk ourselves out of it, they should just see for themselves how they get along in the event of illness or in old age. After all, we forced them into circumstances in which they could hardly take care of themselves.
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