The Evolution of Animal Welfare

(First published for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science)

For centuries, religion played no small part in the needless suffering of animals. In the work of religious scholars and philosophers – most memorably, that of Descartes – human kind was taught to believe that animals were nothing more than soulless automaton; renewable resources with which we can do what we wish. Indeed we refer to this kind of opinion today as ‘Cartesian’, and thus we embed it with an air of intellectual vigour which science tells us it does not deserve. In truth the view is nothing more than religious nonsense which, like the creation story, science has now disproved. It was simply Descartes who was best known for arguing it, hence ‘Cartesian’.


This suffering which was subsequently caused to animals for many centuries falls under the umbrella term of ‘speciesism’: a concept invented by the British psychologist Richard Ryder, in order to identify prejudice which references the physical or mental attributes of other species when it is arbitrary to do so. In their defence, the theologians and philosophers who believed animals to be soulless machines did not believe themselves to be acting out of prejudice. Instead they believed forces had placed animals into the relevant attribute of being ‘unfeeling’, and thus non-sentient, so they believed it to be fair to attribute no interests to animals. But they were still arbitrarily ignoring evidence in favour of continuing with belief, which is the definition of prejudice.


Historically speaking, even the more rationally fond of philosophers, namely Immanuel Kant, have found ways to try and alleviate what we would now claim to be speciesism. He believed animals to be unable participants in morality due to their lacking rationality. He argued that we should treat animals well only because of the consequences for how we treat other humans. Such a view can implicitly accept the modern scientific consensus that animals suffer, and show signs of suffering, yet posit these facts as being useful only as a tool toward helping other members of our own species. Again, modern reasoning allows us to see the hole in his reasoning caused by arbitrary/evolutionarily learned boundary drawing around those that are similar to us.


The opposition to Kant at this time (the 18th Century) seemed to lack real rational integrity. Witty philosophers like Voltaire certainly had something to say on behalf of animals, but it wasn’t backed up by academic substance. Modern day thinkers have since plugged this gap. The likes of Peter Singer, Tom Regan and Gary Francione have not only popularised the term speciesism since the 1970’s (in Singer and Regan’s case), but also provided and spread a great deal of the foundational reasoning which the likes of Voltaire seemed unable or unwilling to do. Each champions this concept of ‘speciesism’ despite coming from very different philosophical backgrounds (Singer is a rationalist and utilitarian, Regan a Kantian rights-theorist and Francione a legal scholar).


Individually, these modern day ‘anti-speciesist’ philosophers each hold a theory with rational holes; for the purposes of this article it is enough to note these holes as being related to utilitarian dogma as far as Singer is concerned and unfounded philosophical ‘assuming’ as far as Regan and Francione are concerned (I wrote a slightly more elongated description of this here). But each has provided further theory to support the idea of speciesism being a valid concept, in doing so defeating the three main opposition theories: Kantian, Cartesian or otherwise religious.


Out with the philosophical battle taking place in various ivory towers, the concept of speciesism has begun to trickle down into public consciousness over the last 100 years or so. We have gradually freed ourselves from a strictly Cartesian or religious view of animals, in which we feel almost obliged to use other animals solely as renewable resources, and migrated to a more progressive version of Kantian philosophy. We now do attach some significance to animal interests; we believe they are primarily still our property to use, but we believe it reflects badly on us to mindlessly damage this moving-and-breathing-property, and thus we act accordingly with this belief by providing them a little legal and social protection in their role as our items of property.


Just as our social migration from a Cartesian view of animals to a Kantian one happened sometime after the academic migration had taken place, we are now also beginning to see the transition from Kantian to anti-speciesist – long since the likes of Singer and co. had backed the move with logic. Producers of animal products no longer necessarily focus marketing on taste, but now add in the caveat of welfare standards in order to appease concerned consumers, whilst animal charities like the RSPCA and the Humane Society have stepped right into the mainstream alongside human focused charities like Oxfam or Cancer Research. Perhaps even more relevantly for this site, academics in the limelight such as Richard Dawkins often write about the problems with ‘discontinuous’ views such as speciesism; it can be seen from Dawkins as early as in the introduction to the Selfish Gene. We are still very much in the twilight of this era and animal interests remain lip service rather than animal focused, but changes in opinion are afoot and the academic community is leading that charge for reason.


For those of us interested in where things will go next, the focus should be back on those ivory towers: the interesting academic debate on animal ethics rarely now seems to focus on ‘are animals unfeeling or entirely unimportant?’ and instead has begun planning the next logical migration prior to our completing the current one. Peter Singer seems to back that which we should believe to be the coming status quo; namely, that we can potentially farm animals humanely on some level. Francione disagrees on both economic and legal grounds, providing rationale and evidence to back the case against Singer’s seemingly ‘common sense’ position.


The debate will continue and intensify in order to plot our next move as a society, but the observant among you will note that speciesism is already a serious and cemented term in secular ethics. Currently anti-speciesist concern has been limited to just that, as companies create clever marketing in order to provide the façade of care for nothing more than cheap industrial changes; one could easily mistake the relatively small number of ‘free range’ or ‘organic’ farms with the factories they were meant to improve upon. At least we could if we were to compare them on a scale of genuine animal suffering, rather than how much cleaner or better lit they look to our human eyes. On the other hand, rather unfortunately, those who abstain from buying animal products altogether are marketed as over sensitive freaks and non-rationally capable. The fate of anti-speciesism lies in the hands of its natural allies: those of us who promote reason. It may not be an easy task, but we are intellectual ancestors of Darwin. Anti-speciesism is our evolution.