So, you’re an alien approaching a new world. You want to gauge the friendliness (or otherwise) of the dominant species on that world. You take out your powerful telescope and zoom in on the planet to suss out, as a first indicator, how this dominant species treats the other life forms with which it shares its world.
By the way, it’s Earth you’re hovering above (you knew that already). How do you react, given the evidence in front of you? If you enjoy life, probably very hastily – backwards.
The evidence itself – of the way that humans treat other living things – doesn’t need a detailed description; but a quick run-through is useful for reminding us of the basis from which an alien visitor will gain insights into the collective psychological state of most of our species.
After a bit of background research, such an alien explorer would note that our questionable treatment of other life forms extends more deeply into the (majority) human culture than those of us within it admit. It goes beyond the infrequent incidences of animal cruelty that are publically castigated, through to state-sanctioned animal experiments in the name of science and commerce, taking in recreational activities such as zoo-keeping and animal ‘sports’ and continuing further to practices that are so commonplace and widely accepted as to barely register within the culture as questionable at all. Such practices include ‘development’ (which often entails the cutting down of vast tracts of forest and the suffocation of entire ecosystems under layers of concrete) and industrial farming (with its assumption of the right to breed, confine, slaughter and sell animals for mass-consumption of their various body parts, and to strip the living structure from thousands of cubic metres of soil).
To see how this alien might build an understanding of the moral code of this dominant culture, let’s dip briefly into the one activity which, although generally accepted, comes under intermittent scrutiny as a result of occasional protests from concerned groups. Such scrutiny forces our society’s justifying arguments into the open and exposes its logic to the light.
The activity concerned is the industrial testing on animals of substances that are designed and manufactured to try to make humans more healthy, or simply more attractive: cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. To our inquisitive visitor, the questions that beg to be answered are: what are these humans doing? Why are they doing it? Why do they think they are doing it? And what does this say about them?
We know that the alien will quickly discover what we are doing; and, assuming a sensitive disposition, will likely reel in dismay at the kinds of things that go on to assess how much of these various substances must be injected, smothered, rubbed or otherwise forced into the flesh, eyes and organs of animals to make them blind, paralysed, crippled or dead, and thereby to enable us to rate the substances as toxic or safe.
She will also spot that we are barely able to hold the reality in our minds long enough to register any emotion about this, let alone to keep abreast of the bigger picture.
Who noticed, for example, that in the UK in 2008, there was a 14% increase in the number of experiments on animals (largely in the name of drug testing) compared with the previous year? The increase alone amounts to an additional 454,000 experiments, bringing the total to nearly 3.7 million. Who spotted that this still doesn’t appear to be enough for European legislators, who seem to see a need to sidestep the obligation to avoid animal tests where possible? They have even found justification for ramping up the suffering: The Times reports that a “draft EU directive ‘on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes’ would allow monkeys, dogs, cats and foals to be used for experiments leading to severe and lasting pain.” This report goes on to say that, under the directive, “animals’ bones could be broken, they could undergo paralysing electric shocks [and] they could suffer trauma leading to multiple organ failure.”
If we engage properly with these facts we are (briefly) as appalled as is our alien visitor. But overall, she observes that the plight of the animals fails to move us en masse to any measurable degree. She notes that this is in part because, for most of us, it’s happening at a distance, but that, more importantly, it is because we are encouraged to believe that the process is necessary to the creation of a ‘civilised’ society for humans.
To see how this logic works, the alien delves into the thorny area of how we justify the suffering of animals in the search for safe medicines for us humans, since it appears to present a genuine moral conundrum.
The way we currently address this conundrum is using the justification that we are more deserving than (other) animals – in other words, that animals have a lower moral status than humans. There are some, though, who put forward strong intellectual challenges to this argument.
Dr Gill Langley, in the publication ‘Career choice: ethics and animal experimentation,’ written some years ago for Scientists for Global Responsibility, describes two of the most rigorous of these challenges. The first comes from Peter Singer, a bioethicist (often referred to as a ‘moral iconoclast’) at Princeton University. Singer, explains Langley, “takes a utilitarian approach, applying a cost/benefit analysis to animal research but on the basis that because many other animals are sentient like us, there must be equality of consideration”. This means that an experiment may be justifiable if the benefit (i.e. the suffering that’s spared, also considering the sentience level of those being treated) outweighs the cost (i.e. the suffering caused to the lab animals, also considering their sentience level). Singer’s approach does differentiate between species but does not see any grounds for granting all humans a higher moral status than all other sentient animals; we only do this, he argues, because of an irrational prejudice in favour of our own species.
So while there are cases where Singer would favour the well-being or survival of a human over another animal, based on the human’s higher degree of sentience and awareness of self, there are other cases where a human would not gain automatic favour. By Singer’s moral code, it may sometimes be ethically more acceptable to experiment on a brain-damaged human infant, judged to have no quality of life, than on a healthy chimpanzee. Other, equally taboo-breaking outcomes of the analysis, which are valuable in that they force us to consider deeply our own assumptions whether or not we agree with Singer’s, can be found on his web site.
The other main challenge to the idea that humans have higher moral value, explains Langley, is the animal rights position, expounded by philosopher Tom Regan, among others. Regan starts from the premise that some animals other than humans not only feel pain, but also have thoughts, beliefs, memories and intentions: that is, they are “subjects of a life”, with a biography as well as a biology. Regan, says Langley, is effectively suggesting that some other animals share with us the status of personhood. Rather than focusing on some sliding scale of ‘worth’, Regan and other animal rights proponents instead defend large numbers of other species, including most mammals and birds, on the basis that they have a level of inherent moral value comparable to that which we assign our own species.
The intellectual challenges, however, are drowned out by the mainstream, which claims a moral code similar to the utilitarian model but markedly different by way of its strong bias towards the human. Evangelists of this prevailing view are not hard to come by. In anticipation of protests against the increase in animal testing in Britain, Jeremy Clarkson mindlessly spelled out the standard pro-vivisection line in the July 25 2009 issue of The Sun newspaper, using precisely the above logic (‘I’d rather a mouse die than your child’).
Let’s come back to the off-planet view of our alien, who observes that:
* the philosophers among our species say that we are using a utilitarian approach with a human bias to justify inflicting suffering on animals for human gain (and some offer challenges to that approach)
* the protesters among us think the human bias is unfair (since all (or maybe some) animals are as valuable as all (or maybe some) humans (depending on whether they’re Singerites or Reganites))
* the mainstream line wins out every time by saying well, actually, humans are more important, and we know you can’t and won’t disagree with that if it’s you, your friend or your child, so that’s the end of it.
By now our alien has answered two of her questions: what humans are doing and why we think they are doing it.
That leaves the trickier questions of why are we doing it really? And what does this say about us?
A spurious debate
She is a very perceptive alien: she notes that we are in deep denial of why we do it really, and that the above philosophical debate and all its nuanced terms and angles are largely spurious.
If we were really acting on the basis that humans (by dint of some superior sentience or moral value) have inviolable rights, why would we invest so many billions of pounds in killing and maiming so many of us in other countries? How would we condone experiments on our armed forces to test the effects of radiation or vaccination? What about atrocities like the holocaust? Why would we neglect and oppress some of our own species so appallingly in our own country – or even county? The alien suspects that the issue is not about animals versus humans, nor about some spectrum of moral value that we apply to beings according to their degree of complexity. Instead it looks to have far more to do with the perennial ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy (where the ‘them’ is arbitrary, being anyone or anything that isn’t ‘us’).
It’s also tied up with the supremacy of the dominant ideology – profit – and the subordination of everything else to the furtherance of that ideology.
Our alien finds herself musing on the question of what value we humans assign to life, and what to death. Since we have forgotten how to assess value other than in monetary terms, death comes out on top; it is generally more profitable (in our destructive economic system) than life. And because we are culturally brainwashed to worship profit, we have learned, as a culture, to care little for life. If it were not so, she observes, we might take more care of living beings; we might make some effort to avert the sixth great mass extinction currently underway and accelerating. We might try to support communities and countries in attempts to resolve their conflicts rather than sell them weapons and bombs. Our media might consider reporting efforts to bring peace instead of supporting the arguments for war.
We might also bother to notice that our apparent attempts to extend or enhance the lives of other humans in our own society with drugs are, overall, less useful than we pretend.
Take, for starters, the large (false) assumption in the phrase ‘safe medicines’. It’s time to debunk the idea that this safety (a) comes as a result of animal experiments and (b) exists to the extent we are led to believe.
The Safer Medicines Trust – which has no particular interest in animals other than humans – tells us that 92% of new drugs that are successful in animal studies go on to fail in clinical trials, sometimes injuring or killing volunteers and patients. These figures are based on US FDA data. This means that what is found to be safe in animals is often not safe for humans at all. Of course many medicines do make it to the pharmacy counter, from where several demonstrate their lack of safety very well: according to the ‘Steady Health’ web site, a statistical study of hospital deaths in the US conducted at the University of Toronto revealed that prescription drugs kill more people every year than are killed in traffic accidents.
In fact the Safer Medicines Trust believes that we are barking largely up the wrong tree when it comes to establishing drug safety. There are other, more effective ways of assessing the risks of a new drug than animal experiments, as expounded (and funded) by the Dr Hadwen Trust, for example. These alternatives include using human tissue cultures instead of living beings, using computer models, and undertaking population research, volunteer studies and advanced molecular/DNA analysis methods.
Information about such activities and statistics is not hard to come by, which makes Clarkson’s articulation of the opinion of the mainstream not only mindless but shoddy. (He writes: “The work is being done entirely for our benefit. To make sure that drugs designed to make us better won’t make us turn inside out and explode [sic].”
So, not only is the line that humans are more deserving a specious one (given our record of cruelty to humans), it’s not even as if most of the tests on animals are for humans’ benefit anyway (their value in proving drug safety being dubious). The economic system that values death over life doesn’t appear to fully explain our abberrant behaviour either: we persist with undertaking and defending these experiments (as well as the other questionable ways in which we treat life) for deeper, more oblique reasons.
Why do we do it, really?
There are no doubt other rationales I am missing, but that doesn’t take away from the sense that the reasons we hold on to these practices are more deeply embedded than we think. This line from the BBC’s Animal Ethics web site might suggest why:
Rational argument about the right and wrong way to treat animals is made more difficult by the deep love that many of us feel for animals.
What depths of warped logic are revealed by this?
For a start, what if the ‘right’ way to treat animals were kindly: would love make that way hard to rationalise? (Spot the foregone conclusion.)
But even without the presuppositions: let’s take the underlying basis of the statement. Rational argument about right and wrong, it says, is made more difficult by love. Suppress love and you can be more rational. Suppress love, and where rational agument requires it, all sorts of inhuman acts become supportable.
As we know, our culture equates being rational with success. Requiring love to be removed from rational behaviour means, inevitably, that our culture demands that to be successful, employable and effective, we must prove how unaffected by loving or compassionate feelings we are when it comes to decision-making — certainly in the worlds of business, government and society — whether or not living things are affected by those decisions.
In the public space, this makes acts of love more taboo than acts of murder.
And even when (despite our destructive economy) death is not more profitable than life, as in animal experimentation, the bonds between death and progress are so inseparably conflated in our deep unconscious that we cannot undo them. Committing the acts of domination becomes more important than achieving their ends. Reminding ourselves that we can dominate reinforces our structures of self-validation: like the narcissist, we must demand that others sacrifice themselves to our cause in order to affirm how valuable we are.
What our alien surmises is that the programmes of systemic violence that are characteristic of our society, and their supporting rationales (including the argument that torturing and killing animals is an important part of progress), are crucial to our identity; that we can no more relinquish the prerogative of control and domination, or admit that more caring ways might be more effective, than we can admit that our entire cultural framework is born out of a form of insanity. And who dares to take the lid off that particular can of (oppressed) worms?
Answering the fourth question – what our behaviour says about us – is now a short sprint along the home-run for our alien observer. The picture she is getting is deeply unsettling. Note that the tendency to numb our feelings, to persist with a hard heart because it is easier, to dissociate from the reality of abuse, to refuse to empathise with the suffering of others, and to avoid confronting emotional pain, are classic symptoms of the psychologically damaged.
Culture of psychopaths
She concludes, therefore, that the human species has been overwhelmed by a major mental disorder. As a result, the members of our dominant culture, especially those occupying the higher echelons of its power structures, consist predominantly of psychopaths. The symptoms of the disorder – deep insecurity, propensity to violence (or to excusing it) and self-deception – are driving this culture to infect and eradicate other cultures and species with impunity – and will ultimately cause it to implode and destroy most of its members.
The alien also sees the sadness of our situation, the longing that comes from our deep disconnection from something we can barely identify, the pain that comes from the suppression of our sweeter instincts, our loss of self-respect, our disorientation within the world, and the damage to our souls that we are suffering as a result. She feels sympathy for us; she also tries to feel empathy (for she does not have our disease) but can’t imagine the dark heart within us.
The road to recovery may be long and painful, but there are good reasons to set out. Our treatment of animals, plants and all living things reflects no more or less than our treatment of ourselves. For every cruel act we commit or condone, for every blind eye we turn, we oppress something within us and lose something of our humanity. I can’t say what those somethings are, for like everyone I know well, I am in this culture and blinkered by it.
I propose, though, that we can no more cut ourselves off from the web of life of which we are a part than the north pole of a magnet can cut off its south pole. It is in our interest on every level, from personal to planetary, to explore what our treatment of living beings — in fact of life itself — reveals about who we are and how we might change.
Even if we don’t live to see a wholesale shift in the cultural perspective, small efforts bring big dividends. Try the radical act of feeling love, or a sense of connection, next time you’re not expected to, and see what happens.
Dismiss those who say it’s not human nature; remember instead the reverence and deep respect held for all living things by the most sustainable cultures on the planet. Many Native American tribes encompass this in the prayer or acknowledgement to “all my relations” that they give at important events and ceremonies. Aboriginal elder Bob Randall talks with heart-lifting joy in a short YouTube clip about how he can never be lonely in his isolated outback residence because of the family that surrounds him – gesturing to the wild animals and plants with whom he shares his world.
We can also try being disarmingly truthful about the underlying drivers of our company’s or community’s or our own activities and decisions. The sense of freedom that comes from practising rebellious straight-talk from the heart is truly liberating. Try reading some, too; the honesty of the few who risk ridicule to write it is like a deep breath of fresh air. Curtis White’s article ‘The Barbaric Heart’ almost certainly influenced the inception of this one; Derrick Jensen’s reliably challenging offering ‘Playing for Keeps’ at the same publication is also well worth a read.